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Local body-collection businessman says he's done

July 31, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN - It's a natural side effect of unnatural death: Someone needs to pick up corpses.

For 38 years in Washington County, it's been Kerfoot Livery Service.

But, at the end of today, Kerfoot is ending part of its body-collection service, said Thomas E. Wetzel Sr., who took over the 24-hour-a-day service in 1991.

The issue is fair pay.

The last 10 years, Wetzel said, the Maryland Chief Medical Examiner's Office has compensated body-collection services in the state $1.75 per "loaded" mile, from the point of death to Baltimore, where autopsies are performed. From Hagerstown, that's about 75 miles. The return trip is unpaid, except for homicide cases.

Under a long-standing verbal agreement, the county's medical examiners call Kerfoot to get the body when someone dies by homicide, suicide, accident or unusual circumstances - anything that might require an autopsy.

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Wetzel has argued for a higher rate because of rising fuel, labor and insurance costs.

The state's response was an emergency increase of 14 percent, to $2 an hour, on July 1.

Wetzel isn't satisfied. "My expenses have tripled," he said.

"I'm deeply saddened," Dr. David Fowler, Maryland's chief medical examiner, said about Wetzel's pledge to quit. "They have been exceptional. They have done the job very professionally."

Fowler said 14 percent "is a sizeable increase in anybody's compensation ... This is the most we can do this budget year."

The rate might go up to $2.25 or $2.50 per mile in the next budget, said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.

Employees in Baltimore will pick up bodies in Washington County for now. Fowler said companies in Frederick, Md., or Cumberland, Md., might be asked to help, but nothing is definite.

He acknowledged that response times will be higher.

In 2005, Kerfoot brought 98 bodies to Baltimore, according to Jerry Dziecichowicz, the chief medical examiner's office's administrator. Kerfoot transported 93 bodies in 2004 and 92 bodies in 2003.

But, as Wetzel puts it, "death calls are like bananas. They come in bunches." On July 21, Kerfoot responded to three death calls - including a body recovered from the Potomac River - within an hour or so.

A few Washington County funeral homes that contract with Kerfoot for body collection don't want his duties.

"They're expected to run to Baltimore for $140 at 3 in the morning ...," said Scott Osborne, the owner and vice president of Osborne Funeral Home P.A. in Williamsport. "He's doing something that nobody else wants to do. You could be tied up three hours on the interstate."

"It's not a business I would get into," said Bryan Kenworthy, who owns Gerald N. Minnich Funeral Home in Hagerstown.

Wetzel said Hagerstown and Washington County should supplement the state's compensation.

"We have not in the past gotten involved in it," Washington County Administrator Rodney Shoop said.

Kerfoot - a company started by a former Hagerstown police officer - still will deliver bodies from Western Maryland to the State Anatomy Board in Baltimore, which, unlike the medical examiner's office, has a contract.

The anatomy board receives bodies donated for medical research or not claimed by family members.

It paid Kerfoot $2 per loaded mile the last three years. The rate this year, an option year, is $2.25. The contract has one more option year.

No one else bids, said Ronn Wade, the anatomy board's director.

Considering the legal, criminal and health issues, Wade said, the chief medical examiner needs to get human remains quickly, before the body deteriorates.

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