CINCINNATI (AP) – A judge is considering whether to remove a southern Ohio coroner from office over allegations that she mishandled death scenes and abandoned evidence amid a political feud involving her, her husband and the county sheriff.
Judge John Webster Kessler heard testimony Thursday in a lawsuit against Judith Varnau, the coroner in Brown County, about 40 miles southeast of Cincinnati.
Varnau, 67, who testified on her behalf, denies mishandling investigations and has said she works cases professionally.
The judge is expected to make a ruling next week, said Tracy Hawkins, an attorney for the couple who brought the suit.
It was filed April 16 by Steve and Rebecca Adamson of Mt. Orab, who question Varnau’s decision to rule their son Zachary Adamson’s Jan. 9 death a suicide.
The Adamsons say that Varnau made a series of investigative mistakes that will prevent them from ever knowing the truth about how their son died, including failing to test his hands for gun residue, turning over the gun used in his death to his roommate and leaving his home unlocked when she left.
They say that his cellphone and the clothes he was wearing when he died were missing from the home.
“Nobody stopped and said, ‘Hey, let’s find out what happened here.’ They didn’t do that,” Steve Adamson told WCPO-TV. “They treated him like they were taking out the trash. They didn’t care enough about him to do an investigation to see what happened to our boy.”
The couple’s attorneys argue that Varnau must be removed from her position.
“Other families are at risk for the same kind of irreparable harm … as is the county as a whole,” they wrote in court documents.
Varnau’s attorney, Tom Eagle, did not immediately respond to a message for comment and was expected to be in court arguing his case most of Thursday, questioning sheriff’s officials about their dealings with Varnau.
The Adamsons’ lawsuit is separate from a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in February against Varnau.
In that action, the family of Hanson Jones Jr., 67, of Ripley, accuses Varnau of declaring his death a suicide without any meaningful investigation, failing to order an autopsy or tests to see whether there was gun residue on his hands, and leaving behind a shotgun and chunks of Jones’ skull in the home, only to be found later by his sister.
The lawsuit attributes the Varnaus’ actions to a conflict with longtime Sheriff Dwayne Wenninger and says that she and her husband, Dennis Varnau, have been using deaths as a political pawn.
Dennis Varnau, who accompanies his wife to death scenes and does office work, lost a bid for sheriff in 2008 to Wenninger and later lost a lawsuit seeking to have Wenninger thrown out of office and take his place.
Judith Varnau is an obstetrician and gynecologist without experience as a coroner before she was elected in 2012 with 176 write-in votes.
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