SAN BERNARDINO - The walls came crumbling down Monday at the coroner division of the Sheriff's Department as contractors began an eight-month renovation that will include an expanded body refrigeration unit and more office space to accommodate a larger staff.

The expansion project - 21 months and $3.4 million in the making - is expected to be completed by August, officials said.

For years, the coroner's office has been vexed with low staffing and crunched space that has contributed to delays in response times to death scenes and forced bodies to be crammed into a morgue refrigerator with a holding capacity for 85 bodies. The situation was so dire it had coroner officials fearing the overworked death investigators and doctors - whose caseloads far exceeded a normal caseload - would overlook possible homicides.

Since the problems first hit the public spotlight more than two years ago, the coroner's office has nearly doubled its staff. It has gone from eight deputy coroner investigators to 21, some of whom are still undergoing training, said Robert "Rocky" Shaw, lead supervising deputy coroner.

Sixteen investigators are fully trained and now working in the field. The remaining five deputy coroner

investigators will be working in the field by February, said Sandy Fatland, coroner spokeswoman.

In addition to the new death investigators, one new pathologist - Dr. Chanikarn Changsri - and four new autopsy assistants have joined the coroner's staff, bringing the number of autopsy assistants to eight, Fatland said.

The additional hirings necessitated the upgrade to the coroner's headquarters on Lena Road in San Bernardino, and the county has also budgeted for the leasing of a new High Desert office. A location is being scouted in Apple Valley, said sheriff's Capt. Bart Belknap, who oversees the coroner division.

Renovations in San Bernardino include about 4,000 square feet of additional office space. The new body refrigeration unit will serve as long-term storage for bodies, and combined with the existing refrigerator will have a holding capacity of about 130, officials said.

The existing refrigeration unit will be used as a receiving area for new bodies, said sheriff's Lt. Nils Bentsen, project manager.

Meanwhile, operations have relocated to the south wing of the building that formerly housed the office of the Public Guardian and Public Conservator, which moved out of the building in June. Deputy coroner investigators will be working there until renovations are complete, Bentsen said.

In the past two years, the Board of Supervisors has allocated $3.4 million to the coroner's office for expansion, officials said.

In February, former Coroner Brian McCormick and Supervising Deputy Coroner Randy Emon publicly voiced concern about the possibility of homicides being overlooked due to the staffing shortage. It coincided with the Board of Supervisors authorizing an increase in funding that month for the morgue expansion project - from $1.4 million to $2.8 million, records show.

The additional staffing and increased space, officials say, means pathologists will be able to perform autopsies and assessments more quickly, and families can expect the bodies of their loved ones to be released to the mortuary in a more timely manner.

Before, it was common for bodies to lie in the morgue for several days before an autopsy or head-to-toe assessment was performed, said Shaw, the lead supervising deputy coroner.

"It's almost unheard of that remains would have to be here two or three days for an autopsy ... so we've really turned things around," Shaw said.

The turnaround also means a more manageable caseload for deputy coroner investigators, who were handling between 600 and 700 cases a year compared with the recommended average of between 400 and 450.

"That 450 is exactly the number we are striving for," Belknap said. He said investigators should be at that caseload average by the end of 2007.

Staff writer Joe Nelson can be reached at, or by phone at (909) 386-3887.

BS Ranch Perspective:

The San Bernardino County Coroner's Office, has been taking hits for the past three to four years, well as long or almost as long as Sheriff-Coroner Penrod has been in Office, they have been taking hits for not enough space, and or not getting their Investigations done fast enough. The Forensics Lab works are all mixed up was another report, and well it was just one report after another that was not favorable out of the Coroners Office at San Bernardino. They started to ask Neighboring Counties and Forensic Labs to assist with their investigations that had to be done in a more timely manor, and that started and was doing well, that was kind of the last time that we heard from then until now.

It seems that they are working within their own office now, however there is still a struggle to get the examinations done on the expired bodies that had been laying there, and well It seems that is not the case now, but they are streamlining things more and it seems that the new expansion that they did, which should have been really done to begin with when they made the Brand new Coroner's Office. Which it seemed that they didn't do, however now that it has been done and the exams are swell, everything is just swell, just ask anyone that is a Supervisor at the Coroners Office, or the Sheriff, and his Assistant Coroner himself they will tell you how great things are!