Rafu Wire Service and Staff Reports

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has officially approved a name-change for the coroner’s office, which will now be known as the Department of Medical Examiner, officials said Wednesday.

“The removal of ‘coroner’ was needed to reinforce the department’s role as an unbiased and independent investigative agency, unattached to any law enforcement agency,” the newly renamed department said in a statement.

The name change has been in the works since Supervisor Hilda Solis first introduced a motion in 2019.

The department also updated its official seal to remove the word “coroner.”

Odey Ukpo

“Our commitment to the community and families we serve remains the same — to provide independent, quality death investigation using advanced forensic science,” said Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Odey Ukpo. “The name change offers clarity in our identity, solidifying our independence from any law enforcement agency and emphasizes our deputy medical examiners as physicians with appropriate training to determine the cause and manner of death for our decedents. I’d like to thank the board members for their efforts to make this important change in the department a reality.”

Ukpo was appointed last March, becoming the first African American to serve as chief medical examiner since the office was established in 1860.

Thomas Noguchi, who began working in the office in 1961, served as chief medical examiner from 1967 to 1982 and became known as “Coroner to the Stars” because he performed autopsies on celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Robert F. Kennedy, Sharon Tate, Inger Stevens, Janis Joplin, Gia Scala, David Janssen, Divine, William Holden and John Belushi.

Thomas Noguchi

Noguchi is the author of “Coroner” (1983), a memoir written with Joseph DiMona; “Coroner at Large” (1985), a book about famous historical deaths; “Unnatural Causes” (1988) and “Physical Evidence” (1990), detective novels written with Arthur Lyons.

He is said to have been the inspiration for the TV series “Quincy, M.E.,” which starred Jack Klugman and ran from 1976 to 1983.

During Noguchi’s tenure, the Coroner’s Office established positions for specialists in the investigation of forensic deaths (coroner’s investigators), and also established a forensic pathology fellowship for training pathologists in the subspecialty of forensic pathology.

In 1983, Noguchi left the Coroner’s Office for an academic position at the University of Southern California.  Dr. Ronald Kornblum, former chief medical examiner-coroner of Ventura County, became acting chief medical examiner-coroner and was appointed to the permanent post in 1987. Kornblum presided over an office with a dramatically increased workload, over 17,000 cases in 1990-91.

Upon Kornblum’s retirement in 1990, the Board of Supervisors appointed an acting chief medical examiner-coroner, Dr. J. Lawrence Cogan, and a director, Ilona Lewis, as heads of the department. Cogan was responsible for medical matters and the statutory functions of the coroner, while Lewis was responsible for all other department functions. 

In 1992, Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, who was the chief of forensic medicine at the Coroner’s Office, was appointed permanent chief medical examiner-coroner. Upon Lewis’ retirement in 1993, Anthony T. Hernandez was appointed director.

The ensuing years saw increasing computerization of the department, including a major computer upgrade in 2000, a website, participation in the state’s Electronic Death Registration System in 2008, and a multi-year program to digitize the coroner’s case files.

In 2012, Hernandez retired and Sathyavagiswaran was appointed chief medical examiner-coroner/interim director. Upon Sathyavagiswaran’s retirement in 2013, the Board of Supervisors established a single department head, the chief medical examiner-coroner.  Dr. Mark Fajardo, previously chief of medicine at Riverside County Coroner, was appointed to this position in 2013.

Fajardo left in 2016. The next year, the Board of Supervisors hired Dr. Jonathan R. Lucas to lead the department. He served as the chief medical examiner-coroner until November 2022. Lucas was succeed by Ukpo, who was appointed by the board to serve as interim chief medical examiner-coroner.

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