Deanne Fitzmaurice/For California Watch
Yolo County’s Sheriff-Coroner Office will review the autopsy work in five homicide cases handled by a doctor with a history of errors to ensure the forensic pathologist’s findings are accurate.
The office is coordinating with other law enforcement agencies involved in the murder investigations that relied on Dr. Thomas Gill's examinations and with the county’s district attorney to “find out if there are any concerns all the way around about the autopsies themselves,” Yolo County Chief Deputy Coroner Robert LaBrash said yesterday.
In December, Sheriff-Coroner E.G. Prieto barred Gill from performing autopsies for Yolo County after learning from reporters about the doctor’s history of mistakes in his examinations during the past two decades. Gill worked for Forensic Medical Group, a private autopsy firm based in Fairfield that contracts with Yolo County and more than a dozen other jurisdictions across Northern California.
Since 2007, Gill had performed more than 200 autopsies for Yolo County, serving as its primary forensic pathologist.
Forensic Medical Group cut its ties with Gill at the end of last year, explaining in a written statement that it no longer had enough cases to justify employing the doctor. The company did not immediately respond to calls for comment yesterday regarding the Yolo County review.
LaBrash said he did not yet have a list of the autopsies under review or the police agencies that investigated the homicides, and did not know how the coroner’s office would check Gill’s autopsy findings.
The chief deputy coroner said he also does not know if the cases resulted in convictions. LaBrash emphasized that Yolo County’s law enforcement agencies are “early in the process.”
A Yolo County District Attorney's Office spokesman said yesterday in an email response to questions that prosecutors plan to analyze each autopsy after the coroner's office completes its review.
Last week, California Watch published a profile of Gill’s forensic pathology career as part of a joint collaboration with ProPublica, Frontline, NPR and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.
The reporting found that Gill had repeatedly resurrected his career after autopsy errors in Indianapolis, Northern California and Kansas City, Mo.
In January, Gill provided to California Watch a list of 22 criminal cases that he has testified in since 2001, which included two from Yolo County.
One of the cases was the homicide prosecution of Christopher Buchanan in February 2008. A jury found Buchanan guilty of beating to death Ryan Pimentel and attempting to destroy the victim’s remains by setting them on fire, according to The Daily Democrat in Woodland.
The second case was the prosecution of Calixto Racimo, who was accused of participating in a 2002 murder.
It is currently unknown whether Gill performed autopsies in either of the cases. California Watch has filed a public records request with the Yolo County coroner for the autopsy reports under review.
A reporter called the doctor’s home on Wednesday afternoon, but the person who answered said Gill wasn't willing to comment. “I don’t think so, bye,” the person said before hanging up.
Since entering forensic pathology in 1993, Gill has faced little competition for autopsy jobs due to a chronic shortage of certified forensic pathologists. The absence of trained practitioners is so acute that many jurisdictions don't look closely at the doctors they employ.
Gill had no formal training in how to perform forensic autopsies when he landed his first job in death investigation with Indianapolis’ coroner office. He made a series of mistakes in his examinations and was accused of arriving drunk to a deposition, which prompted the coroner to terminate his contract.
In 2001, Sonoma County barred Gill from performing its autopsies after a murder charge was dismissed because the doctor had missed key evidence and had been coached by prosecutors to downplay his past. The California State Bar deemed him incompetent in a 2006 report on the Sonoma case.
Gill worked for the Forensic Medical Group for four years before he became the No. 2 forensic pathologist in Kansas City in 2002. He returned to the company in 2007.
The details of Gill’s past mistakes have not always been relayed to prosecutors and defense attorneys before the doctor has testified.
Jana McClung, a Sutter County prosecutor, said neither she nor the sheriff-coroner’s office were aware of Gill’s background before being contacted by a reporter last month. Gill is scheduled to testify in a death penalty case being prosecuted by the district attorney’s office.