Benton Co. coroner doesn't blame recession for increased suicides

KENNEWICK -- Suicides have steadily increased in Benton County over the past five years, but the county coroner doesn't believe the recession was to blame.

Twenty-four people killed themselves last year, 15 by gunshots, according to statistics released Wednesday by Coroner Rick Corson.

That was nearly triple the number of suicides in 2005, he said.

"These are the ones I worry about because we can do something about these," Corson said.

Half of the 24 suicides were among people 31 to 60 years old, a pattern that has been consistent over the past three years.

"It's not financial (reasons), it's relationships and despondence for some other reason," Corson said. "The economic downturn, it really didn't hit here."

Of last year's suicides, 19 were men and five were women.

The suicide numbers include four by overdose but don't include deaths that were ruled an accidental overdose but may have been intentional.

Last year, 14 deaths were ruled accidental overdoses, a 55 percent increase from the nine deaths in 2008.

"We give them the benefit of doubt" when determining if a drug overdose is accidental or intentional, Corson said.

The coroner's office handled 1,008 deaths last year. That was up slightly from 984 in 2008, but there has been a 20 percent increase since 2005, Corson said.

There were 1,328 deaths in Benton County in 2009, but not all deaths reported to the Health Department have to be reported to the coroner. About 93 percent of the deaths handled by the coroner's office last year were from natural causes.

This year is already starting out busy, with 129 cases handled by the coroner's office so far.

Traffic deaths went up by four to nine last year and there were two deaths considered "undetermined," but there were no deaths attributed to surgery or infectious diseases.

The coroner listed "homicide" as the cause of two deaths last year.

One was the September fatal shooting of Christopher Villarreal by Kennewick police Officer Lee Cooper during a traffic stop. That death is still being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and there has been no determination whether the shooting was justified.

The second homicide was Francisca Hernandez Ramirez, a 14-year-old Sunnyside girl whose body was found in the Columbia River near Prosser four months after she went missing.

The teen's death was investigated by Yakima County officials but is included in Corson's numbers because her body was found in Benton County.

The coroner's office has 2 1/2 staff positions to handle an ever-increasing caseload. Employees are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

One of the biggest challenges for the office is not having a computerized record-keeping system, Corson said. All the cases are handwritten in a file that has to be flipped through to pull out statistics and look for trends.

It would cost about $20,000 to get a computerized tracking system, but there's no money available in the budget, Corson said.

* Paula Horton: 509-582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com