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Worker botched seven autopsies

A MOTHER'S GRIEF: A ruling changed from suicide to murder leaves a Pinellas Park woman to wonder who killed her son.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


PINELLAS PARK -- Connie Ellis was convinced her son was murdered.

Ellis found her 17-year-old son's car engulfed in flames as it sat in her driveway early Dec. 26. Police soon found Brannon Lee Jones' body inside, burned too badly to be immediately identified.

But Pinellas Park police told Ellis her son took his own life or died in an accident, she said.

Then the assistant medical examiner who did Jones' autopsy, Dr. Richard Eicher, said he couldn't prove anything because Jones' body was too badly burned, Ellis said. Even his brain was so badly burned that it could not be examined, Ellis said she was told.

Now months after her son's death, Ellis finds herself an unwitting participant in a controversy surrounding Medical Examiner Joan Wood's office. Wood, already under fire for her reversal in the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, is answering questions about her hiring of Eicher, who she says was unqualified to work in her office.

After Eicher resigned March 13, Wood's office re-examined the cause of death in Jones' death and decided a mother's intuition was right.

This was murder. And Ellis was shocked to learn that her son's brain held the clue.

"I can't believe what I've gone through on all this," Ellis said. "It's suicide. Then it's murder. I don't know what to believe anymore. You have to wonder what they're getting right."

Jones' autopsy was one of seven performed by Eicher that were found after his departure to have the wrong cause and manner of death.

The death is a murder, the medical examiner now says, because of an examination of Jones' brain, which shows Jones died from a blow to the head. But Ellis said Eicher told her before he resigned that the brain was too badly burned to be examined.

* * *

That leaves a mother doubting the medical examiner examined the correct brain.

* * *

"There's a doubt in my mind," Ellis said. "How can I be sure? I don't trust them anymore. I want to make sure they didn't examine the wrong brain."

So Ellis has asked Wood to conduct a DNA test of the brain to be sure it belongs to her son. Wood refuses, saying the test would be a waste of money.

"The way our procedures are set up, there's no way for us to mix up one brain with another," Wood said. "It's hard to mix two brains up."

Wood said Ellis can pay for her own test, which would cost nearly $1,800. Ellis said she has the money and intends to do just that.

"With all the cases that Eicher messed up on, I think I've got to do it to be sure," Ellis said.

When Wood's office announced that Jones' death was murder not long after Eicher's resignation, it refused to release anything else to Ellis. She wasn't told why Wood thought her son's death a murder and was given no details from the autopsy.

Then she got a call from Debra Wooten. Eicher conducted an autopsy on Wooten's brother after his body was found floating in Tampa Bay, the victim of a suicide, police believed.

Dr. Laura Hair, another assistant at the Medical Examiner's Office, had told Wooten about Jones.

Hair "told me Brannon's brain had not been examined properly or hadn't been examined at all," Wooten said.

Later, Wood's office confirmed to Ellis that the brain had led the office to conclude murder was her son's cause of death.

"They told a stranger," Ellis said, "but they wouldn't tell me."

After inquiries by the St. Petersburg Times, Wood's office released Jones' autopsy report Friday. According to the report, Jones died from a blow to the head. No evidence of soot from the smoke was found in his lungs, indicating he was already dead when the fire consumed his body.

Pinellas Park police declined this week to discuss the case.

On Friday, Eicher defended his work on the autopsy and said his findings in the case were preliminary. He said a final autopsy report listing a cause of death could not be completed until brain tissue is examined.

And Eicher said he does not conduct such analyses. Another doctor in the office, Hair, does that testing, both he and Wood agree.

Eicher, who denied ever telling Ellis the brain was too burned to examine, said he originally believed suicide was a possible cause of death because police reports suggested that.

"I didn't have a lot to work with in this case," Eicher said. "You have a young man very badly burned in the seat of a car. It's not like you have a nice, clean undamaged person with signs that very obviously point to a cause of death."

In an interview Friday, Wood agreed that it was not Eicher's place to test brain tissue samples and said his autopsy findings were preliminary.

"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is a homicide," Wood said.

Ellis said her son was a troubled youth and had attempted suicide once by cutting his wrists. Another time, she said her son told her he pointed a gun at his head. He also suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

So police quickly concluded his death was a suicide, she said.

Police also found a gun in the car beside his body, some or all of its chambers empty, Ellis said.

"I asked them what they thought, that my son shot himself then set the car on fire?" Ellis said. "That was ridiculous."

She said Pinellas Park police told her he may have died with a cigarette in his mouth, which caused the fire.

Or set the fire to kill himself, not using the gun at all, Ellis said.

She said her son had received Christmas money to register his car and was looking forward to entering junior college. He was not suicidal at the time of his death, she said.

Now that she knows how her son died, Ellis said she has one more desire.

"My next goal," she said, "is to find out who did this."

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