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Originally published August 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 28, 2007 at 6:44 AM

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Death investigator sees beyond victims, helps grieving relatives

In 39 years, Joe Frisino may have "pretty much seen everything," but he hasn't lost the awareness that his job is about much more than just dead bodies.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Tired of his college classes at Seattle University, 21-year-old Joe Frisino walked into the King County Coroner's Office looking for a paycheck and something different.

Frisino had never handled human remains, analyzed a crime scene or made a late-night trip to a home to tell a grieving family that a relative was dead, but he figured that he'd join his roommate as a death investigator.

Over the past 39 years, Frisino has become an institution inside the dark and cramped basement office on Harborview Medical Center's First Hill campus where the county's autopsies are performed.

He mentors young co-workers and is quick with answers about city history. Whenever a doctor or investigator is struggling to find someone's relatives, he seems to know generations of families.

"If there's something I come across with cases or issues with families, I refer to Joe. If Joe hasn't seen it that's an oddity," said Al Noriega, chief investigator at what is now called the King County Medical Examiner's Office. "After you've been here 40 years you've pretty much seen everything."

The all-night shifts and the task of breaking sad news to families have become a rarity for Frisino; he now maintains crime-scene evidence and the property of the deceased. He also handles the county's indigent-burial program.

Standing before a small crowd gathered at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Renton last Wednesday, he quietly introduced the group of clergy and county officials who spoke at the service remembering the 201 homeless people who died in the past eight years.

He read the new grave marker aloud: "Gone but not forgotten these people of Seattle" and pointed out the bench dedicated to the indigent grave site.

Dr. Donald Reay, who spent 23 years as the chief medical examiner before retiring in 1999, said Frisino helped him adapt when he joined the office, and also was behind a youth-suicide-awareness campaign.

"He had good communication skills," Reay said. "He dealt with families effectively."

Frisino said that in his first 10 years with the office, he often found himself consoling emotional parents of young people who had taken their own lives. He grew frustrated with the lack of help available for victims' relatives.

In 1977, Frisino helped start a counseling program at Seattle's Crisis Clinic.

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Sue Eastgard, director of the Washington state Youth Suicide Program and former director of the crisis clinic, said she has never met another death investigator like Frisino.

"He clearly cares about the investigations he does into suicides. He's worried about the mother, the fathers, the sisters and brothers," Eastgard said.

Frisino said he's flexible and patient when it comes to talking with families of suicide victims. He tries hard to help families find out why their relative took his or her life.

"You want to make sure the family has as much accurate, complete information as possible," he said.

As a death investigator, Frisino said he's been shoved, punched and thrown into walls by next of kin upset about a death notification.

"You really see people who can be mean and nasty," Frisino said. "But you do see the good. You see how families come together; how helpful and caring they can be."

When Frisino joined the office run by an elected coroner, he said, it had a good-old-boys feel more than that of a medical facility. Within months of his hiring, the county ordered that the office be led by a doctor, not an elected coroner, and the team of investigators had to quickly learn anatomy, science and criminal procedure.

Reay, who said many of the death investigators were opposed to the change, relied on Frisino to encourage his co-workers to become more knowledgeable about medical conditions and to work closely with him and the other pathologists.

"He was a real asset," Reay said. "I think Joe has a tremendous capacity to adapt to stressful situations. He's a very talented guy in terms of working through difficult problems. Joe was a facilitator."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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