The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

May 13, 2013

Union County coroner: Job full of surprises

By Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item

LEWISBURG — There is no “CSI: Union County,” Coroner Wanda Walters said with a laugh. The fancy gadgets and high-tech devices on the TV show about forensics “aren’t for little counties like us.”

But even for Union County — just one of four Pennsylvania seventh-class counties with a population of 20,000 to 44,999 — “it surprises me what you get involved with,” said Walters, who will retire as coroner at the end of this year.

DUIs, abuse, accidents, an increase in drug use, an aging and unhealthy population plus a federal prison in her jurisdiction have kept Walters busy over her career.

When it comes to investigations, suspicious and not, “you never take anything for granted,” Walters said. A murder can look like a suicide, and vice versa; the best way to tell is through thorough investigation.

“I didn’t think I’d be in so long,” said Walters, who took office in January 1994. That November, her husband died, and doing the job, in a way, helped her to keep going.

A natural curiosity and a strong stomach are what kept Walters on this career path. She already had worked at Evangelical Community Hospital in radiology when, in her late 30s, she became a deputy coroner, then ran for the office.

Walters’ legal duties and responsibilities include determining the cause of any death under her legal jurisdiction, including suicides, homicides, accidents and deaths from natural causes.

The randomness of death has had Walters on call for the past 20 years, 26 if you count her time as a deputy coroner. She’s left family gatherings and parties abruptly, been called out in the middle of nights and holidays, in the hottest of summers and the most bitter winters.

“Last year was the worst year, just awful,” she said. From January through April 2012, there were two to three calls per week, she said.

The hardest cases to endure, she said, always involve children.

“For as small a county as Union is, I can’t believe the cases and what we’ve gotten. A lot of things go on here,” she said. “Ninety-eight percent of the time, I keep my composure on a scene, I know I have a job to do. When it’s a child, I usually cry. There is nothing worse.”

Walters’ retirement leaves behind a bigger hole than usual; of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, she is one of just seven female coroners.

Her replacement will take the total down to six as Dominick Adamo and Tod Steese, both of Mifflinburg, vie for the Republican nomination for her office.

Being a woman in the job was hardest in the beginning, she said. “Basically, I had to prove myself” to everyone, she said, whether or not it was because she was female. Eventually, her manner, direct but professional, won out over her gender.

“Parts of this job, I will miss. I’ll miss the people ... but not being called out in the middle of a subzero night,” she said.

Walters thanked everyone, especially the police departments she has worked with over the years. “The community support and the voters have been really good to me,” she said.

Once out of office, Walters hopes to travel and spend time with her adult children. And her advice for her successor: “Empathy for the family” of the deceased, she said. “Comfort them as you possibly can, take your time with them. And don’t take anything for granted.”