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Woman’s Death Ruled Accidental; County Coroner Won’t Reveal Toxicology Test
July 15, 2009 - The Henry County coroner has concluded that a 34-year-old former Knightstown woman’s death in late May was accidental, but won’t release results from the toxicology report.
Coroner Stacey Guffey, who is also a detective with the Henry County Sheriff’s Department, told The Banner last week that Angelina Wagner died from aspiration of gastric contents. In lay person’s terms, he said this meant she had choked on her own vomit.
Officers from the Knightstown Police Department were called to 524 S. Jefferson St. in the early morning hours of May 31. Responding officers discovered Wagner, a former Knightstown resident who lived in Barbourville, Ky., dead.
The KPD’s initial incident report, prepared by officer Anthony Lorton, indicated that Guffey had told him a preliminary test had shown Wagner had a blood alcohol content of 0.30, nearly four times the legal limit. Guffey told The Banner, however, that further testing showed her level was actually a bit lower than originally thought.
Lorton’s incident report had also noted that Guffey had told him preliminary urine and blood tests had come back negative for narcotics. Guffey would not say, however, whether those preliminary results were supported by the findings of the pathologist’s toxicology report, or whether drugs were found in Wagner’s system.
A toxicology report is an investigatory record. As such, the coroner, or any other law enforcement agency that has a copy of the record, has the discretion to release or withhold it from the public. Guffey has chosen to exercise his discretion in favor of nondisclosure.
“I’m not going to release it ... for family reasons,” Guffey said. “The family knows what’s going on and what has happened. … I’ve told the mother. The mother does know the cause of death, but I have not told anyone else.”
The Banner asked Guffey if any determination had been made as to what caused Wagner to vomit. “Anything could have led to the vomiting,” Guffey answered. “Right now, all I’m going to say is that the main cause of death is aspiration because of gastric contents.” He went on to say, however, that this usually involves drugs or alcohol.
Guffey suggested that The Banner obtain a copy of Wagner’s death certificate if more information was wanted. He said the certificate contained the “exact cause of death,” and hinted that there may be more information on the death certificate than he had shared.
Unfortunately, however, Indiana law only permits the county health department to release a copy of a death certificate to someone who has “a direct interest in the record.” Death certificates may also be released when “essential to resolve an issue of personal or property rights or to comply with state or federal law.”
There is certain information contained on death certificates that must be released to the public: the decedent’s name, sex, age, place of death, residence and residential addresses for the two years prior to death. Cause of death is not included in the information that must be released by the county health department.
Commenting again on his decision not to release the results of the toxicology report, Guffey said, “I don’t like for anything to come out of our office that could be detrimental to a family or traumatic, because that’s my main concern – to be with the families and take care of (them). … I’m real gun shy when it comes to telling anybody anything or releasing any information out to anybody other than family.”
The Henry County Sheriff’s Department has also recently completed a related investigation into whether or not a KPD officer and one of the department’s reserve officers failed to respond to an earlier call from a citizen concerned about Wagner’s condition. A Knightstown resident claimed that after seeing Wagner at a local bar, he phoned the reserve officer directly to report that Wagner may have been overdosing on something, but that the officers did not check on her.
Knightstown Chief of Police Danny Baker confirmed yesterday that he had received a copy of the HCSD’s investigation report looking into the conduct of his department’s officers, but said he had not yet reviewed it. Once he has looked over the report – which he said is “pretty thick” and would probably take him “a couple of days to read” – and discussed the HCSD’s findings with his officers and the town council, Baker said he planned to release it.
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