Boulder County Coroner Emma Hall: From Hawaii to a murky backroom storage

By Lars Gesing

Emma Hall is Boulder County’s coroner since 2011. Under the Flatirons’ Lars Gesing visited her in her office in Boulder’s justice center last week. She told him how badly the recent floods caught her flat-footed and explained why her office had to do a lot of overtime hours ever since. He also learned that the surge of water deeply affected Hall’s personal life, too. Here is his report.

Audio Transcript

(Narration 1) Emma Hall learned early in her life to search for answers to questions that others avoided.

(Emma Hall 1) When I was four years old, there was a woman who was murdered, very close to my home, just a few miles up the canyon.

(Narration 2) Hall’s whole family was troubled. Who was that woman? Where did she come from? And who had killed her?

(Emma Hall 2) As a child, I had all these questions and my biggest thing was I wanted to make sure that all her family’s questions were answered. It was just something that always stayed with me.

(Narration 3) Hall is now Boulder County’s coroner. Answering questions has become her job. In mid-September, Hall took a few days off to vacation in Hawaii. Meanwhile, 3-thousand miles east of her all hell broke loose along the Front Range. Hall became a key player in answering puzzling questions during the recent floods. In the middle of the night of September 12, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle called her cellphone.

(Emma Hall 3) I picked up the phone and he said: “You know, we are getting really worried.” And I’m going, all senses of time away, like what is he worried about? What’s wrong? And he said: “We need to get your team together. We already have one confirmed death.”

(Narration 4) That moment, Hall learned that her hometown of Lyons and pretty much all of Boulder County faced a devastating flood. While she tried to get on the next plane home, Deputy Coroner Dustin Bueno was her man on the ground.

(Dustin Bueno 1) Initially, there was a whole lot of reported missing people, which obviously made us very nervous. At the time, it was very unknown what those numbers meant. So we had to bring our staff up here and we had to get as much equipment as possible, mobile.

(Narration 5) Bueno led Hall’s team of 10 investigators in tracking down those persons who had been reported missing to the Sheriff’s office. Meanwhile, Hall waited for a flight back home and began her very own investigation.

(Emma Hall 4) One of the things I started noticing on Facebook was my fifth grade teacher was missing. I knew exactly where he lived. His family was all over Facebook, pleading for someone to go to their home and look for him. And I knew, with the position of his home in the canyon and how it sat by the river, I just knew it couldn’t be good.

(Narration 6) Hall started contacting her colleagues at the detectives unit and initiated a search and rescue mission. A couple of days later, they recovered the body. Her former teacher was one of five Boulder County flood victims, all of whom went through the coroner’s office. Every year, Hall’s team deals with 1-thousand 500 to 1-thousand 800 deaths. The masses of collected evidence go into a narrow, murky back-room storage that not everyone has access to.

(Natural Sound 1 Hall: “I need to grab my badge..” Steps.)

(Narration 7) In the storage room, Hall opens the door of a large cabinet and pulls out a bag filled with medications from a shelf.

(Emma Hall 5) When we go to a scene, we collect prescription medications. There is quite a bit of information we can get off of them.

(Natural sound 2 pulling a bag of prescriptions)

(Emma Hall 6) So there is the doctor, the date of the prescription, how much they were prescribed. And then we can count to make sure they weren’t overtaking or undertaking their meds. We have a lot of suicides by overdosing.

(Narration 8) While Hall talks about her investigation methods, all too familiar pictures come back. C.S.I., Hawaii Five-O, Law and Order, you name it.

(Emma Hall 7) I think TV makes it quite glamorous. They are running around in their high heels at the scene and their cases get solved in a half hour and they got all this big, beautiful technology and instruments.  

(Narration 9) Still, Boulder County Coroner Emma Hall loves her job.

(Emma Hall 8) No matter how long you have been in this position, no matter how long you have been in this field, there is always something you don’t know. It is just trying to answer the questions as much as we can because sometimes we just can’t answer every single question. But we do our best.

(Narration 10) Lars Gesing, Under the Flatirons.

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