I-TEAM: Emails detail disturbing scene at Duval County morgue

'We have 1 body on the ground,' medical examiner tells Jacksonville City Council

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Internal emails obtained by the I-TEAM detail a disturbing scene at the Duval County morgue: A body on the floor, bodies on racks, no more trays and no more room to even perform simple autopsies.

"A dire lack of space," are the words written by the medical examiner to the Jacksonville City Council. 

At least 52 bodies in about a week -- that's how many new bodies needed to be autopsied, including murder victim Kristina French, a 53-year-old Neptune Beach grandmother. 

The picture of where French and other bodies are being stored is unsettling.

Drug overdoses, auto accidents, natural causes and, sadly, even homicides are all reasons bodies are piling up at Jacksonville's morgue.

In April, News4Jax's Jenese Harris reported the opioid crisis was maxing out space at the facility.

Fast forward to November, the internal emails obtained by the I-TEAM show the facility is over capacity, with 52 bodies in one week when the maximum is 50. 

On Monday, Medical Examiner Dr. Valerie Rao emailed the entire City Council, saying, "We have one body on the ground, which is not an ideal situation. Bodies cannot be autopsied because there are no trays and the bodies are on racks."

She goes on to write the facility turned away six more bodies this week "because we have no room ... I am just keeping you all in the loop as to the dire lack of space that we are facing."

City Councilman Garrett Dennis, who is also chair of the finance committee, told the I-TEAM that the email sparked him to ask Rao to speak to the committee next week.

The part of the email that Dennis said shocked him the most was "bodies on the floor."

"I've been over twice to tour the facility," Dennis said. "You see bodies stacked on top of bodies. You see employees who are overworked."

The current medical examiner's office was built in 1968.

A check of the U.S. Census shows, in 1970, Jacksonville's population was 530,000, compared to today when 1.6 million people call Duval County home. 

The medical examiner's officer in Jacksonville also autopsies bodies for surrounding rural counties. Add in the nation's opioid crisis that's devastating Northeast Florida, and it's easy to see where the problem adds up.

The I-TEAM asked Dennis if it's time to talk about building the medical examiner an all new facility.

"It is. It's been time," Dennis said. "On the most recent budget, we were able to get them one full-time employee. But, you know, you can give them 10 full-time employees, space -- they are out of space."

Dennis told the I-TEAM he's going to ask the auditor's office to look for more money, and consider short- and long-term solutions -- such as, in the short-term, a portable cooling truck to house the overflow, and, in the long-term, a new building.

The I-TEAM asked to speak with Rao on Thursday, but she has not yet returned the call. 

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