STOCKTON/FRENCH CAMP (CBS13) – A mother was heartbroken when her toddler son died suddenly, but it wasn’t until nine months after the funeral that she discovered the coroner kept some of his remains.
A mother’s worst nightmare: 16-month-old Justin went down for a nap but never woke up.
“I touched his leg and I knew,” said Nicole Smith. “I didn’t want to believe, so I shook him and screamed and he didn’t flinch.”
Only three years earlier, Smith’s son Jaden drowned in the family pool. Tragic as it was, his reason for dying was explained, but Justin’s cause of death was not immediately clear.
She couldn’t believe that she was losing another child.
“A child should not just die; I wanted answers,” Smith said.
Justin and Jaden are buried side-by-side; Smith visits their graves every day.
After waiting nine agonizing months, Smith learned the San Joaquin County Coroner finally was finished with the autopsy report. She said she raced to their office in French Camp before closing time and read the document in her car in the coroner’s parking lot.
The cause of death?
“Sudden unexplained death in childhood,” she said.
It gave no real answers. Smith read the report front to back. She was shocked to learn the coroner still had some of Justin’s remains.
“Brain harvested,” she recalls reading. “Spinal cord. Pituitary gland; all saved with the brain, kept for later testing. I thought, wait, no, they didn’t. They didn’t let me bury my son incomplete.”
In California, a coroner’s office does not need permission to harvest organs during the autopsy in a suspicious death. However, retired pathologist Mary Koompin-Williams says it’s a matter of ethics.
The International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners says before an autopsy, the coroner should explain what they are doing, what samples may be taken or harvested, and should discuss how the family would like to process the specimens after. Their statement can be read here.
Smith says none of that happened in Justin’s case.
“If you deemed it necessary to keep him, then you should have told me at the time,” she said.
The Call Kurtis team made repeated calls to the San Joaquin County Coroner’s office and submitted a formal public records request. Only then did the coroner confirm to us they had Justin’s remains under a “do not destroy instruction until all issues concerning them have been resolved.”
We requested an interview with the coroner’s office, but they declined our request and insisted they followed state law. Their response can be found here.
The agency says samples taken are properly disposed of. Liquid specimens are destroyed as medical waste, and solid remains go in a container which is brought to a cemetery and incinerated. Finally, after months of waiting, Smith got the call she was anticipating. The coroner said they were releasing the rest of Justin’s remains.
“As soon as you guys got involved, it was like I had a voice all of a sudden,” she said.
She learned the rest of Justin’s remains would be released to the funeral home and given to her. We were there the day she picked up his ashes.
“I’m physically holding my son for the first time in a year,” said Nicole. “Justin is whole again.”
Smith wants the coroner’s office to change its policies and procedures, and for the state to pass a law so families are informed about what is happening to their loved ones’ remains.