Lee Zurik and Dannah Sauer, FOX8
September 13, 2023
The Lafourche Parish District Attorney’s Office won’t file criminal charges against coroner Dr. John King, who is accused of performing unnecessary autopsies to pad his paycheck.
However, after reviewing a Louisiana State Police investigation into the allegations, D.A. Kristine Russell said her office found no evidence of public corruption or fraud but that the office’s inquiry into fees King collected isn’t over.
The State Police investigation into King centered around money he paid himself for performing autopsies, money the parish council didn’t approve.
Prior Fox 8 investigations showed King charged up to $500 an autopsy, which earned him an extra $54,000 on top of his parish salary in 2022.
Sources within King’s office claimed he essentially had a quota and wanted to perform at least 10 autopsies each month to increase his pay. A law enforcement source gave Fox 8 a death investigation report that showed King performed an autopsy on a 57-year-old man who had cirrhosis of the liver, Hepatitis C and hypertension. In that report, it is noted, “After speaking to Dr. King, he stated he wants to autopsy the decedent to meet his ten bodies a month.”
Metropolitan Crime Commission president Rafael Goyeneche said his office received allegations against King as well.
“According to some of the allegations that we received, some of the autopsies that were performed were unnecessary, allegedly unnecessary, because some of the autopsies were performed on people whose treating physicians called their method of death natural causes,” Goyeneche said.
Another doctor who performed autopsies in Lafourche told Fox 8 that King stopped calling him to perform autopsies shortly after Hurricane Ida.
State Police Lt. Craig Rhodes began investigating the allegations against King in December 2022. Fox 8 obtained incident reports that show Lafourche Parish president Archie Chaisson contacted State Police, because he was concerned that King might be performing unnecessary autopsies and charging the parish government extra money for personal gain.
Rhodes investigated the claim between December 2022 and April 2023, interviewing current and former employees.
Rhodes interviewed King on April 24, 2023, noting that King insisted on answering questions, despite saying his attorney told him not to do an interview. Rhodes’ notes from that interview show King denied having a quota but did admit to making a comment about having a quota.
King said the comment was in relation to the high number of autopsies he had been performing, which he called “ridiculous,” blaming an increase in deaths on Hurricane Ida, COVID-19 and fentanyl overdoses.
The State Police report says King told Rhodes he decided to perform autopsies himself in August 2021, because he was having trouble getting in touch with the two doctors who usually performed them.
King claimed he spoke to Dr. Jack Heidenreich about the decision. However, he claimed he was unable to get in touch with Dr. Patrick Walker, who he called “notorious for not answering his phone.”
Walker maintains he was fired by King, and said he believes King wanted to perform autopsies himself to earn extra money.
During King’s first 10 years in office, he collected only his salary. Records show he didn’t start charging for autopsies until late 2021. King’s attorney told Fox 8 that was around the same time that King resigned from his second job at an Ochsner facility.
King told Lt. Rhodes he believes the allegations against him stemmed from a “toxic employee” in his office, as well as a disagreement he had years ago with Chaisson. King told Rhodes he and Chaisson almost got into a physical fight during a meeting.
Rhodes wrote that as the interview ended, King asked rhetorically, “If I wasn’t able to do this, then why in the freaking hell did they pay me?”
Rhodes submitted his investigation to the Lafourche Parish District Attorney’s Office for review. Russell said in a statement released in August that there wasn’t enough evidence to support allegations that King performed unnecessary autopsies. However, Russell said the decision not to file criminal charges in connection with the case doesn’t end the office’s inquiry and that the office is exploring ways for the parish to be reimbursed for any autopsy fees that might have been paid in error.
Fox 8 reached out to King for comment on the findings but didn’t hear back.
King failed to qualify for another term in office. Sources tell Fox 8 he showed up after the deadline last month, only to find he was locked out of the building.
Kayla Breaux, the only candidate to qualify, is in line to become the next Lafourche Parish coroner.