Benton County coroner race pits longtime police sergeant against the incumbent’s pick

Pasco Sgt. Jamie Raebel is facing off against Deputy Coroner Bill Leach in a race to replace outgoing Benton County Coroner John Hansens.
Pasco Sgt. Jamie Raebel is facing off against Deputy Coroner Bill Leach in a race to replace outgoing Benton County Coroner John Hansens. Tri-City Herald

The two men vying to replace the outgoing Benton County coroner talk a lot about their experience.

It’s become one of the biggest issues dividing the supporters of Deputy Coroner Bill Leach and Pasco Detective Sgt. Jamie Raebel.

Several law enforcement officers, including a retired undersheriff, have lined up behind Raebel to replace retiring Coroner John Hansens. They’ve said he’s the only candidate with leadership experience.

But Hansens and former coroners have thrown their support behind Leach, a former West Richland police officer who has been with the coroner’s office for five years.

Along with being a registered death investigator, he has the temperament to work with families as well as police, they say.

Leach earned 55 percent of the August primary vote, or 3,100 more votes, than Raebel with 45 percent.

That was despite Raebel outspending his opponent.

And since the primary, Raebel has more than doubled his campaign spending, bringing his total to nearly $87,000, according to his reports to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Most of that came out of his own pocket.

Leach continues to trail in fundraising efforts. Nearly two-thirds of the $14,000 he’s raised has been his own money.

The two men want to lead a department with a budget of about $408,000 a year. The staff includes the coroner and his chief deputy and two part-time deputies. The job pays $107,000.

Last year the coroner’s office reviewed 1,174 deaths, the vast majority of them were deaths from natural causes. That’s up from 1,103 the year before.

Different backgrounds

A lot of people in Tri-Cities law enforcement know Jamie Raebel as a solid investigator, something he points out in his campaign statement.

In his 37-year career with Pasco police and the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, he’s worked as an undercover detective, a corporal, a patrol sergeant and a support services sergeant. He also has headed up the Special Investigations Unit that looks into officer-involved shootings in the Mid-Columbia area.

In the past year, he led the team that solved two Pasco homicides and the unit investigating two officer-involved shootings. He’s done this in addition to investigating suicides and other death investigations.

He points out the past three coroners spent their careers in law enforcement before running for the position, and he wants to continue that trend.

“All my adult life I’ve served the public,” he told the Herald. “I am duty bound to serve the public, and I’m nowhere near close to being done. ... I’m an investigator and this is an investigative position.”

He’s quick to point out that Leach works part-time for the coroner’s office, and spends a lot of time waiting for cases. He argues that most of the heavy lifting in the case of suspicious deaths is done by police and that most of the deaths the coroner handles don’t require a lot of investigation.

“I don’t take anything on where I’m not good at it,” he said. “I’m not going to do anything half way.”

Leach acknowledges his opponent’s exemplary career in law enforcement, but said it takes more to than just being a good officer to be a good coroner.

Leach, who was with the West Richland Police Department for 17 years, said the position requires people to talk with medical officials and families and to assess medical histories to figure out what caused a person’s death.

He received his certification from the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators. It requires 640 hours of experience in death investigations, working in a coroner or medical examiner’s office and demonstrating that they know how to do the job.

The most important part of being coroner is giving closure to families who have lost a loved one, he said.

“When I can sit with the family and whether it takes 10 minutes or 45 minutes, I do,” he told the Herald. “When people entrust you to tell them the truth and they have faith in you, it makes you want to do the best job you can do for them. “

Along with having that experience, he said he can step straight into the office.

“There is no learning curve required,” he said. “Obviously having 5 1/2 years of experience, and having the knowledge, the wheel does not have to be reinvented.”

His work in West Richland ranged from being a reserve officer to a patrol officer, detective and sergeant. He’s also worked as a fire investigator.

Looking to the future

Despite their differences, the candidates are united in wanting recognition from professional organizations handling death investigations.

Both want to pursue accreditation from the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners. The organization requires offices to show they’re following industry standards.

Raebel also is considering the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Leach also wants to update the technology in the office, including getting computer tablets for investigators to use in the field and a portable X-ray machine.

Something as simple as tablets would allow them to enter information into their computer system when they’re at a scene, making it quicker and easier to get information to families.

Raebel envisions a more proactive coroner’s office directly getting involved with issues such as opioid deaths and suicides. The current coroner’s office doesn’t have enough resources available on its website, he said.

“They have to be part of the education process,” he said. “They should be at every one of the forums on the opioid crisis giving their expertise. ... I want to run one of the best coroner’s office in the Pacific Northwest.”

Cameron Probert: 509-582-1402; Twitter: @cameroncprobert