GREENWOOD, S.C. (AP) — It’s 3 a.m. and Greenwood County Coroner Sonny Cox knocks on a door. He’s there to tell someone a relative has died in a car wreck.
Cox has to do this quite often.
“I’ve got to be somebody’s rock when I go knock on somebody’s door and say that their loved one won’t be coming home,” Cox said. “I know I can’t emotionally break because I’ve got to be strong for that family. For me to stand there in that door and just look at them and stammer around for words, that would be brutal for that family."
“All I can do is very strongly tell them what has happened and let them have their moment, because, from that point on, you can see that their world is just gone. You watch their feelings and you be strong for them. And you are there to answer any questions for them.”
Cox served for 35 years in law enforcement — 29 years with the Greenwood Police Department and six with the Greenwood County Sheriff’s Office — before he was elected coroner in 2013.
“I knew I wanted to make a change,” Cox said. “I didn’t want to leave the law enforcement arena totally.”
Then-Coroner Jim Coursey was retiring.
“I thought that was the perfect time to put my name in the hat,” Cox said. “I wanted to step outside the box, but I didn’t want to leave it. I wanted to stay close, and this was the closest thing I could think of that would keep me in an investigative-type mode.”
Cox said it might seem “morbid,” but he’s not squeamish when it comes to working with dead bodies. He saw plenty during his years in law enforcement.
“If I say it doesn’t bother me, I guess I’m not being 100% truthful,” he said. “Some things bother me more than others. A child death just eats me up. I do take that hard.”
He said every scene is different and has its own set of characteristics. More than 90% of his cases are deaths by natural causes. Still, if it happens at home or at a hospital within 24 hours of admission or after surgery, he must investigate.
In cases of fatal wrecks, homicides or suicides, he said he first talks to law enforcement officers and emergency medical technicians to compile notes. Once he rules a person is deceased, he said he attaches himself to the next of kin.
“I don’t get emotional as to what I see,” Cox said. “I don’t let myself get that close to the deceased mentally and emotionally because I know I have a job to do.”
It doesn’t matter what time of day or night it is, when death calls, Cox or one of his deputy coroners must answer. “It can be brutal,” he said, citing cases when there has been torrential rain or low temperatures.
“Once we get to a scene, we’ve got to preserve the integrity of it,” Cox said. “We’ve got to photograph it. Once we photograph it, the integrity of it will always be there. Law enforcement is helping me with that mindset. If something doesn’t look right, we have to question it. Once we leave that scene, those photographs are all we’ve got.”
Once Cox makes a death declaration, he might have to start an investigation. In the case of a car wreck, for instance, Cox will attend the autopsy. His office will contact a forensic pathologist who will provide a worksheet that includes cause and manner of death. This guides Cox in writing a death certificate.
Cox, who is married, said he doesn’t speak of his work with his wife, Louise, who is a retired nurse.
“I just kind of keep it in,” he said. “Every now and again I might speak of something, but it’s not often. My outlet is to go home. I have a man cave. I’ll go watch TV or I’ll go cook ribs on my outdoor kitchen.”
Cox often has to appear in court to testify about the cause and manner of death, and what he did at the scene. This includes testimony about the chain of custody of the body.
“It’s pretty much just accountability for the deceased,” he said. ‘Did anybody touch that body?’ No, they could not. It was secured in a cooler. We have to protect the integrity.”
Cox realizes many cases involving homicides, fatal wrecks or deaths involving foul play are of interest to the public. He’s dealt with the media for many years.
“I will never release a piece of anything until I have properly notified the next of kin to the deceased,” he said. “When I talk to the family, I tell them that the media is going to kick in, and your loved one is going to be in the paper. It’s going to be on TV. I also tell them you can’t beat social media. We have nothing to do with that. It (news about the death) is probably going to be out there before we’re out there.”
Any time a death is not from natural causes, Cox is “pretty much going to be on that. I’m a firm believer in that,” he said.
“I want to be there for the family, always,” Cox said.
Cox says he laughs and “has a heart like anybody else.”
“I have empathy for people who lose a loved one out here — and sincere compassion for them,” he said. “But I have to move on. I go from death to death to death.”
It wasn’t that way when Cox was a 20-year-old rookie cop in 1977. He used to check parking meters Uptown, but he sometimes was pulled into working a death scene.
“It startled me,” he said. “I wasn’t used to that. That was something I’ve been protected from. I never had a family member die at that point. It was new to me. I was a young fella and I didn’t want nothing to do with death. When I saw my first couple of deaths, I said, ‘I just don’t understand this.’ This really might not be for me.”
As he gained more experience, and progressively became more involved with death scenes, he said, “I began to understand the death scene and got confident around it. Now, 35 years later, I feel confident in what I’m doing. I doesn’t bother me. I feel bad for the families that lose a loved one. I’ve known people who’ve lost children, and, let me tell you something: That bothers me.”
He said he’s seen cases in which children have been shot to death or run over by a vehicle.
“That bothers me,” Cox said, “because it should have never happened.
During Cox’s first term, he was able to help the coroner’s office earn international accreditation. He’s been named Coroner of the Year twice. He is certified as a diplomate of the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators.
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