JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Dr. Valerie Rao, the chief medical examiner for Florida's 4th Circuit, is retiring, effective July 6, after more than six years leading the local office.
Rao, who notified Gov. Rick Scott of her plans in a letter dated May 2, told News4Jax she plans to devote more time to family and exercise when she retires.
"It is now 'family time' and I am looking forward to this period of my life," the letter stated. "I will definitely miss my work family but the office is in a very strong and healthy state and they will continue to serve the public as well as they have in the past."
Rao said the Medical Examiner's Office was struggling when she first began working there. Fifteen years later, she points to several achievements: accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners, a focus on much-needed resources and a smaller backlog of unclaimed remains.
Rao, 74, has autopsied more than 3,200 bodies in the last 13 years. Over the years, she has seen it all. In February, she testified during the high-profile murder trial of Cherish Perrywinkle's killer, Donald Smith.
She acknowledged that staring death in the face every day can take its toll. "Yes, very difficult sometimes with children. They are the most difficult cases to handle," she said.
In addition to handling some of the region's most stomach-churning cases, Rao has also championed the need for more resources to keep up with the deadly opioid overdose epidemic.
The mounting number of deaths filled the morgue to capacity on a monthly basis. At one point, Rao's staff was forced to place a body on the floor, a moment she shared with the Jacksonville City Council in a candid December email.
"We were completely filled to the brim. There was no space and we couldn't put a body on top of another body, because that would be disrespectful to the decedent, so there was no other choice," she said.
After an I-TEAM investigation exposed the issue, Rao helped secured support from city leaders to purchase a a cooler and portable workspace to ease overcrowding. She's also lobbied for a new building with adequate storage space.
But while Rao highlighted some of her achievements, she has also at times faced criticism. Some former employees claimed there was low morale and unethical practices in place. But she said those claims were bogus.
"We are public servants, I tell them all the time," said Rao. "We are public servants. We are here to do a job and make the public have the confidence that what comes out of here is the truth."
It's now up to the state Medical Examiners Commission to form a search committee to find Rao's permanent replacement. In the meantime, State Attorney Melissa Nelson will appoint a temporary successor.