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Sloppy handling of death has officials on hot seat

A California woman accused the public administrator’s office of acting too quickly recently to secure a valley property after the death of her mother.

Margie Rigby of Riverside, Calif., said she found out about the Oct. 24 death of her mother, Mary Dawson, at the Spring Mountain Apartments in Pahrump from the county public administrator’s office the next day, while driving her daughter to Los Angeles International Airport.

When Rigby arrived in Pahrump, her mother’s jewelry box and other belongings had already been moved. Representatives of the public administrator’s office and Assistant Sheriff Rick Marshall defended the process of notifying next-of-kin after a death in front of about 20 people gathered for a meeting Wednesday at the senior living complex.

Rigby held up sheets of paper where her mother listed instructions for contacting her next-of-kin.

“We’re more interested that our next-of-kin goes into that home first,” said neighbor Virginia Green. “Most of us made our wills, made our arrangements for what’s going to be done.”

“The only reason a public administrator is called is because it’s an unattended death. That means there are no immediate family members present. Usually it’s a neighbor, it’s a friend that’s checking on someone and more often than not they call the sheriff’s office,” Deputy Public Administrator Robin Durand-Rudolph said.

Usually her office gets information on the deceased from friends and neighbors. She said, ”We look in their wallet, we get their driver’s license, we look for any letters, we check their cell phone records, we check their telephone records and we give that information to the sheriff’s office. If it’s someone local, we knock on the door (of the relatives). Usually that’s done within 24 hours of when a death has occurred.”

“With all the senior complexes within the town we have requested each rental manager have the individual fill out a next-of-kin contact form,” she said.

Marshall said when sheriff’s deputies find an unattended death, they have to find out if it’s a suspicious death, then they’ll contact other agencies like the public administrator, they could also contact a doctor, or animal control if there are pets. They used to have “files for life,” with information people wanted to provide in case of death, but stopped doing it for budget reasons, he said.

“I’d like to know how it’s possible I can be dead for a couple of days before my children are notified,” Rose Creamer said.

“That is possible,” Marshall said. “We’re talking about someone who is unidentified.”

The public administrator is responsible for securing the property, not the body; that lies with the coroner’s office, he said.

“Our concern is finding the next of kin and conserving the property. We don’t come in with a trailer and haul everything away. We will look for a will, we look for a trust, we look for a note on the refrigerator who we’re supposed to contact. But if there’s a gun in the house, or things that people can easily steal from the property, we secure those items,” Durand-Rudolph said.

Rigby said there was a note on the refrigerator. If something happened to her mother, Rigby said she could be here in a few hours. The next day after the death, Rigby said she was instructed by an employee of the public administrator’s office to contact the deputy public administrator to get the keys to her mother’s apartment.

Rigby said she contacted the Riverside Police Department and sheriff’s department, but they said there wasn’t a message from the Nye County Sheriff’s Department. Marshall contradicted that statement. He said sheriff’s deputies went to the apartment to conduct a welfare check, found Rigby’s mother, found the note on the refrigerator, determined it was a natural death and sent a teletype to the Riverside Police Department requesting Rigby be contacted.

Rigby asked why they didn’t follow up to be sure the Riverside Police Department was contacted. Marshall said his department doesn’t have the resources any more to follow up on each call for service, a statement that angered some audience members.

“My mom didn’t have a will. She didn’t have a bank account. She had used furniture there and I can’t go in,” Rigby said tearfully. “I didn’t have a choice to where my mother went, I had no say, no say about anything.”

“When I finally was able to get the keys to go into my mom’s apartment, it looked like they just went through and put stuff wherever they wanted,” she said.

Green said public administrator’s office employees didn’t take pictures, didn’t use clipboards to write down things and didn’t identify themselves.

Deputy Public Administrator Charlene Riley admitted, “this was just a series of things that didn’t go the way they were supposed to.”

Marshall said deputies don’t like notifying next-of-kin over the phone because they don’t know the relatives’ medical condition. He said the public administrator by state law has the right to secure the property.

“We have a right to die in comfort and peace without somebody going through our belongings before our relatives get there,” Creamer said.

Nye County Public Administrator Falkon Finlinson said some estates are at a higher risk of being plundered for certain things. “We’ve had quite a few estates get broken into,” he said.

Marshall said if there are any controlled substances left in the home they will be disposed of by sheriff’s deputies.

Rigby wanted to know the procedure for when the public administrator’s office is called.

“The public administrator’s office was called even before the mortuary. Those people were in my mom’s apartment before my mom was taken out of there,” she said.

Green said someone from the public administrator’s office went to the deceased person’s bank before her daughter arrived. Riley said that’s a precaution her office takes. Riley recalled a woman who was a caretaker of an elderly woman in the community who died recently was running around telling people she had power of attorney, the public administrator’s office put a hold on the decedent’s bank account.

As soon as she found out there were two children and not a will, Riley said she e-mailed Rigby’s brother, who lives in Hawaii. “I didn’t hold anything for hostage,” she said.

Marshall said an apartment manager can work with the public administrator’s office to request they lock the doors after a person dies until relatives show up. Finlinson said he already met with the apartment complex managers and came up with a solution to resolve the problem; the managers are willing to assume liability for the contents.

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