Rita Tolley walked into the viewing room of a Raleigh funeral home, expecting to see the face of her 23-year-old son.
Edward Blake Tolley, an honor student at East Carolina University, had died in a car crash two days earlier. But the body on the gurney did not have her son’s sandy hair color.
“I looked at that man and I said to myself, ‘That doesn’t look like Blake.’ ”
It wasn’t. It was his friend, Logan Aronson, who was driving the speeding car when it flew off a Raleigh road Nov. 29.
Her son’s body, it turned out, was at a different funeral home, where arrangements were being made for a service the next day.
“If I had not discovered it, Blake would have been buried in a Jewish service,” said Rita Tolley, whose son was Presbyterian. “And Logan would have been cremated.”
A spokesman for the state medical examiner’s office blamed the mix-up on a mistake in identification by law enforcement agents on the scene.
But the state medical examiner’s office apparently did not make its own effort to confirm the identities before shipping the bodies to funeral homes, Tolley said.
The bodies weren’t autopsied. And state records indicate the medical examiner who investigated the two deaths viewed the bodies at the offices of the chief medical examiner but did not go to the accident scene. Visiting death scenes is vital to competent death investigations, national experts say.
An Observer investigation, published this week, found that North Carolina medical examiners often skip crucial steps when reviewing suspicious deaths. They don’t go to death scenes in 90 percent of cases they handle. In one of every nine cases, they violate a state requirement to examine the bodies. And North Carolina conducts significantly fewer autopsies than many leading states.
Ron Aronson, Logan’s father, said the mistake involving his son’s body is further evidence that “they need to make some changes in that department.”
“It’s enough for your son to be dead,” he said. “Then you have to go through this? It’s unacceptable.”
On Tuesday, Tolley met with Dr. Deborah Radisch, the state’s chief medical examiner, to learn what went wrong. The state medical examiner’s office in Raleigh, where Radisch works, handles suspicious deaths in Wake County.
“When the bodies arrived at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the medical examiner was not given any information that would have led her to question law enforcement’s identification,” said Kevin Howell, a spokesman for the office.
Sam Pennica, director of the Raleigh/Wake City-County Bureau of Identification, said one of his agents was on the accident scene and “did the job accurately and appropriately.”
“Once that body left the scene, what happened I don’t know,” he said.
‘This is Blake’s legacy’
It’s not the first time that North Carolina medical examiners have been involved in a case where bodies were sent to the wrong funeral homes.
Ronald Key, a Guilford County medical examiner, failed to order an autopsy on a corpse burned in a 2008 car crash.
The wreck killed three women, two of whom Key mistakenly swapped. The brother of Lorraine Young, one of the victims, went to a New Jersey funeral home to see her remains. It wasn’t his sister.
The state was recently ordered to pay nearly $400,000 to Young’s relatives. A deputy commissioner for the N.C. Industrial Commission, who ruled on the case, concluded that the medical examiner’s failure to properly identify the corpse constituted a “breach of duty.”
In the Raleigh case, the mistake still haunts Rita Tolley. After a recent hospital procedure, she said, she was emerging from sedation when a nurse heard her saying: “They’ve lost Blake. They can’t find him at the funeral home.”
“I think (state officials) need to be held more accountable for their identification procedures,” said Tolley, a Cary resident who works as a data specialist for a clothing manufacturing company. “It isn’t just looking at tags. … They failed me horribly.”
Logan Aronson, 23, was making good grades as a sophomore at Wake Technical Community College.
Blake Tolley, an ardent Pirates football fan, was planning a career as a construction manager. He loved getting people together for cookouts and was “wonderful at being a good friend,” his mother said.
Tolley plans to honor her son’s memory by pushing for legislation that would prevent such mistakes in the future.
“This is Blake’s legacy – to make a difference,” she said. “… I would never want somebody else to have to go through this.”
Staff writer Fred Clasen-Kelly contributed.