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    Medical examiner leaves office

    Pinellas-Pasco Chief Medical Examiner Joan Wood was forced to resign after 18 years on the job.

    By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 30, 2000


    LARGO -- It wasn't a happy day for employees of the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner's office on Friday. Their longtime chief was finally gone.

    Chief Medical Examiner Joan Wood, the embattled doctor who swore never to resign after 18 years at the helm, finally closed out her last autopsy, cleared out her office this week and headed for a new start.

    "We've all gone through a variety of stages of grief over this," said Larry Bedore, Wood's longtime chief of operations. "It's a very sad time for us. But we're awaiting the arrival of a new chief medical examiner to move onward and upward."

    Today marks the official "retirement" of Wood from a post she has held since 1982. A willing retirement it wasn't.

    Wood, 56, was forced out of office after prosecutors earlier this year dropped charges against the Church of Scientology, blaming Wood's reversal in the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson for hopelessly damaging their criminal case.

    Wood's credibility with prosecutors may have been irreparably damaged and, after insisting she would never willingly leave office, she quietly handed in her resignation in June, effective today. Wood has not returned repeated calls for comment over the last week, and few know her plans. Bedore refused to say.

    "I worked for her for 16 years and consider her a good friend," he said. "I'm not going to do or say anything that will be misconstrued."

    Polk County Medical Examiner Steve Nelson said he believes Wood's first plan is a vacation, then consulting work, perhaps for an area law firm.

    "You always hate to see something like this happen to somebody," Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said, referring to Wood's ouster. "But life goes on."

    Indeed, it does.

    Dr. Jon Thogmartin, 36, Palm Beach County's highly regarded medical examiner, has already accepted a local search committee's offer to replace Wood. The Florida Medical Examiner's Commission approved the search committee's pick and Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to appoint him to the three-year, $145,000-a-year job by December.

    Thogmartin, who could not be reached for comment, is tentatively scheduled to take over the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner's office on Dec. 1.

    In the meantime, State Attorney Bernie McCabe has appointed Dr. Laura Hair as interim chief of the office. Hair had served as an associate medical examiner under Wood.

    Thogmartin plans no major personnel changes in the office, Bedore said. Thogmartin hopes to bring one of his Palm Beach associates with him to Pinellas, in addition to a support staff person.

    McCabe, the man whose case against Scientology may have been the victim of Wood's reversal, had little to say about her departure.

    "She's had a distinguished career," McCabe said this week. "I think she can be proud of the body of her work. I think citizens have been well served by her tenure."

    In some ways, Wood may have come full circle. In 1982, then-State Attorney James T. Russell championed her appointment to replace Medical Examiner John Shinner. Shinner backed another doctor as his successor.

    Pinellas power brokers were divided about her appointment, with then-Public Defender Robert Jagger siding with Shinner, who supported a renowned pathologist from Indiana University.

    But Wood, who worked with the medical examiner's office for eight years before Shinner retired, eventually won out with the backing of the Pinellas County commission, Russell and then-Sheriff Gerry Coleman.

    Wood, a fan of mystery novels, has always said she loved her job, telling a reporter in 1977 that being a medical examiner allowed her "to act out what I've read. . . . If you're not part police detective, then you're going to miss things."

    Some critics, including Dillinger, have complained that Wood has shown all too much of a pro-police, pro-prosecution bias through the years.

    "There were many instances where we didn't think she was the neutral party that she is supposed to be," Dillinger said.

    He recalled one instance in which Wood appeared at a crime scene with a T-shirt that said, "First thing, let's kill all the lawyers."

    He thought that a clear dig on criminal defense attorneys and an example of her bias, though Wood denied being anything but impartial.

    Wood has faced other controversies.

    In 1994, she was criticized for making inaccurate statements to a grand jury relating to a murder case against a mother accused of poisoning one of her children.

    The inaccuracies led a judge to take the highly unusual step of releasing Wood's grand jury testimony to defense attorneys who wanted to quash a first-degree murder indictment.

    The mother later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder, so the effort to quash the indictment was dropped.

    To Nelson, the medical examiner in Polk County, criticism comes to any medical examiner who is on the job long enough.

    He said Wood has left a positive legacy.

    "You've got to develop a thick skin to do this kind of work," Nelson said. "And a good sense of humor."

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