Tucked in the shadow of U.S. Bank Stadium is the small, nondescript and nearly windowless building of the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office, where a close-knit staff of 50 will investigate a record 10,000 deaths this year.
The majority will be natural deaths, non-vehicular accidents, suicides and drug overdoses. Homicides make up 5% of the cases. Although the office is prepared to handle any additional burden caused by COVID-19, the state has been in charge of the majority of those cases.
More than seven years before the pandemic, county officials had already planned to construct a new building on pristine land near the County Home School in Minnetonka. When the $53 million facility opens in November, it will be a one-of-a-kind medical examiner's office in the United States.
The public rarely pays attention to the work done by the medical examiner's office, but the office experienced unprecedented scrutiny after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in 2020. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker took the unusual step of releasing Floyd's autopsy results a week after Floyd died, which further angered his relatives and community activists.
"We can't normally make an autopsy public, but we worked with the legal system to put out our work product because the world needed to know what we did and didn't find in that autopsy," Baker said last week, adding that he couldn't discuss details of the case because of pending trials against the officers involved in Floyd's death. "I don't think the public should have settled for anything less."
Baker has been Hennepin County's chief medical examiner since 2004 and has been reappointed to the position four times by the board of commissioners. The most recent reappointment was less than a month after Floyd died.
When he started, the county had spent $8 million to renovate the current office in 1999. Before it became the Medical Examiner's Office, Hennepin Healthcare used the space to prepare hospital food and the county's Meals on Wheels program. Electrical cords for body saws ran across the floor.
In 2013, it was determined the space was too small. By that time, Hennepin County was also doing work for Dakota and Scott counties. Two years of lobbying at the Legislature got Hennepin $17 million in bonding funds.
Baker scoffed at people who told him it would take nearly a decade to build its new facility in Minnetonka. He joked that it took less than a year to rebuild the bridge over I-35W when it collapsed in 2007.
Baker and his staff went on a whirlwind tour of nearly a dozen medical examiner offices in North America to learn about best practices before the 64,000-square-foot facility was designed. Only three construction firms in the country specialize in medical examiner offices and crime labs, he said.
The new facility is state-of-the-art, energy efficient and ergonomic in ways unknown to the public. Previously, bodies that came into the morgue had to be transferred from a gurney to a table by staff, which became the top work-related injury in the office. Tables can now be moved up and down so investigators and doctors don't have to stand on risers. The office will also have its own CT scanner that will allow for a more precise display of evidence for trials and cut down on autopsy times.
Unlike the old space, the facility will have skylights and color and art on the walls. The property also includes prairie and wetlands, and wild turkeys roam the parking lot. The building has an autopsy suite for observation by detectives and lawyers.
"We will be the envy of every medical examiner's office in the country," Baker said.
The majority of cases that come into the office are ruled natural and nonmotorized deaths. But what's not talked about is that 14% of the cases are suicides, Baker said. Like drug overdoses, it's a somewhat preventable cause of death, which is why he believes his office is a public health agency. The number of examining tables and body storage capacity will nearly triple in the new space.
When carfentanil hit the Twin Cities several years ago, the office was able to track where people were overdosing from the lethal drug and notified the local drug enforcement agency. Staff also sit on infant mortality and mental health boards.
The office is expected to handle 1,500 autopsies this year, a new record and another reason the county needs a new facility, Baker said. The rise is mostly driven by homicides and drug overdoses; not every death investigation warrants a full autopsy.
On a recent tour of the new facility, Nancy Larson, granddaughter of Gilbert Seashore, a past chief medical examiner for Hennepin County, said she was "blown away" by the new facility. She never met her grandfather but said he would be proud of the new building. Artifacts from him, including a diary he kept during the Depression, will be placed on special bookshelves.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465