FOX19 Investigates: Brown County death investigations

FOX19 Investigates: Brown County death investigations
Dr. Judith Varnau, Brown County Coroner
Dr. Judith Varnau, Brown County Coroner
Dwayne Wenninger, Brown County Sheriff.
Dwayne Wenninger, Brown County Sheriff.

BROWN COUNTY, OH (FOX19) - Has as a feud between two elected officials compromised death investigations?

It's an issue that's raising eyebrows and concern in Brown County. Our FOX19 Investigative team has been looking into issues there for months.

Brown County is just a 45 minute drive east of Cincinnati. Five-hundred square miles of farmland and small towns, it's a place with a slower pace where citizens are proud of its past.

The county was the boyhood home of Ulysses S. Grant.

A stroll down Main Street in Georgetown reveals a Rockwellian picture of Americana -- plenty of patriotism and pick-ups. But lately, talk in the county has turned very unpleasant.

"There's a standing joke, if you want to murder somebody, come to Brown County," said Susan Green.

On December 13, 2013, Green's husband and son found a man dead in a quaint house on Blue Sky Park Road.

"When I got out to the house, it was pretty much chaos," Green recalled.

The Greens had rented the home to Josh Carter, a longtime family friend.  The 31-year-old had apparently shot himself.

Green told FOX19 when they arrived at the house, Brown County Sheriff's deputies had already left the scene. She said deputies left the house unlocked and the gun unsecured as distraught family were on the way.

"I was devastated," she said. "I mean helpless, terrified."

911 caller: "We need a deputy here now. This kid's dad will come here and run in the scene. We don't want that, he'll go nuts."

Josh's father, Ken Carter, told FOX19 he's also upset that deputies left, but he is equally critical of the coroner's behavior that night.

"They shouldn't have left, they should have stayed," Carter said. "[The coroner] was talking about everything except what happened to my son, and my son's lying there dead."

911 caller: "This is ridiculous. Just because Judith and Dwayne don't get along, don't mean we can't have a sheriff here until the coroner gets here."

"Judith" in that 911 call is Dr. Judith Varnau, the Brown County Coroner. Dwayne Wenninger is the Brown County Sheriff.

Since Varnau was elected in December 2012, there's been growing concern about the working relationship between the two agencies and how death investigations are handled.

There is a personal and political back story as well.

Varnau's husband unsuccessfully ran for sheriff in 2008 and later lost a lawsuit to remove Wenninger from office.

"They're bickering," Carter said. "I'm very embarrassed about how public officials are treating these scenes."

In recent months, some families have accused Varnau of botching death scene investigations. One family filed a federal lawsuit, alleging the coroner declared their loved one's death a suicide without a meaningful investigation. The documents also allege the coroner mishandled the scene, along with her husband, Dennis Varnau, who works as his wife's office assistant.

The plaintiffs allege Dr. Varnau left behind a shotgun and chunks of the deceased' skull.

Last Friday, attorneys for Dr. Varnau and her husband filed a motion denying their allegations and asking the court to review the "limited nature of that (coroner) office's limited authority and by extension its limited responsibility under both state and federal law."

The motion also reads that the county coroner has no responsibility over crime scene clean-up.

In another case, when war veteran Zach Adamson was found dead at his home in January, the coroner initially ruled his death a suicide.

But Adamson's parents don't believe he shot himself. They believe that Varnau mishandled that crime scene.

They launched a petition drive to oust her from office.

After a three-hour hearing last week, a judge decided not to suspend Varnau pending another hearing in May.

According to Ohio law, coroners have control of death scenes. They must request law enforcement involvement.

While the coroner and the sheriff's chief deputy declined to be interviewed for this story, both spoke out during that hearing expressing their mutual mistrust.

"If had we had an agreement you'd stuck with, we wouldn't be here today," said Brown County Sheriff's Chief Deputy John Schadle. "We followed the letter of the law that you said you wanted."

"I'm concerned that people keep trying to make me do law enforcement's job and that's not the way the laws read," said Dr. Varnau.

An inmate death at the Brown County Jail also remains under investigation. In October of last year, 24-year-old Zach Goldson was found dead in a cell at the Brown County Jail. Sheriff's deputies said Goldson committed suicide by hanging. However, the coroner ruled the death a homicide.

The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations continues to investigate the Goldson death as well as others in Brown County.

FOX19 looked through BCI records and found in 2012, before Varnau was elected,  BCI was requested in one death investigation. In 2013, state investigators were called in on five deaths and so far in 2014, state investigators have been requested on four death investigations.

The attorney general's office released a statement to fOX19, which read:

"We've been working directly with representatives from the (Brown County) sheriff's office, coroner's office and the prosecutor's office to help achieve a better working relationship between those agencies. BCI is always available to assist in investigations upon request."

Earlier this month, the prosecutor, coroner and sheriff's offices signed a new agreement that clarifies their responsibilities at death scenes.

Those efforts may be cold comfort for families like the Carters, Brown County families who live every day with lingering doubts... Was it suicide or murder?

"I talk to my son every night," said Josh's dad as he choked back tears. "We have his remains on the mantle."