A new Lawrence County morgue, a new office location, the purchase of a county removal vehicle and a new full-time deputy are all changes that Rich "R.J." Johnson has in motion as the county's newly elected coroner.
Johnson was sworn into office Monday and has his deputy coroners in place to answer calls when he is unavailable. He ran unopposed for the full-time seat in the primary and general elections last year.
This week, he named Anthony "Bo" DeCarbo, 67, of New Castle, to succeed him in the full-time deputy spot. DeCarbo brings more than 50 years of experience to the job as a retired state police dispatcher of 31 years, a former EMT and paramedic and a past assistant funeral home employee.
"I've worked in a funeral home since I was 13 years old," DeCarbo said. Even during his career with the state police he work at the Ed and Don DeCarbo Funeral Home, and he still works part-time at the Cunningham Funeral Home in Neshannock Township a few days a month.
"He's going to be an asset," Johnson said.
"The transition here is going to be terrific," DeCarbo said of the coroner's office.
DeCarbo as a deputy coroner will have a presence in the new coroner's office that Johnson has established on the second floor of the New Castle police station. The office for many years had been located on the second floor of the Noga Funeral Home.
Johnson's part-time deputy coroner will continue to be Alfred DeCarbo, who works full-time as a canine officer for the Neshannock Township Police Department. Other part-time deputies are Sam Teolis, a funeral director in Ellwood City; James Farris Jr. of Lawrence County Community Action Partnership, who has a medical background; and Greg Maggi, a paramedic for Noga Ambulance and an emergency room nurse at UPMC Jameson.
Johnson said he has submitted resolutions to the county salary board for potential approval of new base salary rates for the deputies, because their former base rates were last updated years ago. The board is expected to meet again later this month.
Johnson and DeCarbo will work full time in the coroner's office from 8 to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, he said.
Johnson had been the county's full-time deputy coroner to Russell S. Noga for 16 years, until he was elected to the coroner's position in November. He also is a full-time member of the New Castle Fire Department.
"There are a lot of changes we're making," he said.
Specifically, Johnson is working with Lawrence County Community Action Partnership to establish a morgue in a building on the former Youth Development Center property.
"It's about 90 percent complete, but we still have to build a ramp," he said. The morgue, which has not yet been used, will serve as a refrigeration unit as temporary storage for middle-of-the-night occurrences, or if someone's not sure which funeral home is being used, or for unclaimed deceased persons.
"We have to keep them in refrigeration," Johnson explained. Until now, the county always sent the deceased to Beaver County.
Other nearby counties, including Mercer and Mahoning in Ohio have to transport deceased to out-of-town morgues, he said, but in the future, he would like to have the ability to accept those, too, at Lawrence County's morgue.
The county will have to pay a nominal rental fee per day for the morgue, only when the coolers are in use, Johnson said.
"We'll also be getting our own vehicle to handle removals," he said, a move that he foresees will save the county money.
Currently, the deceased are removed from locations by an ambulance on scene, and the ambulance service charges the county a fee for removal, he said. With the county having a scarcity of ambulances available for medical calls, having a coroner's removal vehicle will not tie up those units, he said.
"It will save the county money if we do it," he said.
Having an office in a public place is new to the coroner's department. The county will pay the city rent under a lease agreement, but the cost of construction, office furniture, computers and programming will be paid through federal grant money that Johnson secured through a prescription drug violent death and overdose information sharing program. The coroner's office has received $10,000 a year for the past three years, and Johnson has obtained funding for three more years going forward, he said.
He pointed out that the equipment and office expenses will come out of that grant and will be of no cost to taxpayers of Lawrence County.
Johnson said he foresaw a need for a centralized office for his department because of all of its daily work.
The department receives many phone calls about cases and past deaths, and also has to send reports daily to the offices of the district attorney, state attorney general, and other agencies. Plus, the office works with local detectives, the state police, the FBI and U.S. Attorney's office in Pittsburgh on certain drug overdose cases, Johnson explained.
He shared these statistics of the workload of the coroner's department over the past three years:
Drug-related deaths totaled 30 last year, down from 38 in 2018 and 55 in 2017.
The coroner's office investigated seven homicides last year, seven in 2018 and three in 2017.
Additionally, the coroner or deputies were called out to 20 suicides last year, an increase from 14 in 2018 and eight in 2017.
In 2019, the local coroner's office investigated more than 130 jurisdictional deaths last year, issued more than 400 cremation authorizations and logged more than 532 case numbers. Johnson noted that the office is required to authorize all cremations.
The coroner's office also witnesses autopsies of deaths within the county, and it issues death certificate information on forms to funeral homes, Johnson said.
Correction: Anthony “Bo” DeCarbo spent his career as a dispatcher for the state police. A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that he was a state trooper.