St. Tammany coroner fires employees who report ‘toxic’ workplace
Coroner’s staff secretly watched footage of woman grieving over dead son
Dr. Charles Preston, coroner for St. Tammany Parish, fired two employees who reported a co-worker who they claimed had watched in secret and laughed at a woman’s dramatic reaction to viewing her dead son’s body. (Jon Turnipseed/WVUE-TV Fox 8)
Dr. Charles Preston, coroner for St. Tammany Parish, fired two employees who reported a co-worker who they claimed had watched in secret and laughed at a woman’s dramatic reaction to viewing her dead son’s body. (Jon Turnipseed/WVUE-TV Fox 8)
A supervisor with the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office secretly watched and laughed at a woman’s emotional screams and cries while identifying her dead son’s body two months ago, according to former employees with knowledge of the incident — including the new coroner-elect who will take over next year.
The supervisor was promoted to an executive position immediately thereafter, according to coroner’s office documents the Illuminator obtained through a records request, while those who reported the incident were fired and smeared in public statements from the coroner. Some of the events in question are detailed in those documents and in accounts from current and former employees who described what they consider inappropriate conduct at their workplace.
The allegations involving the promoted supervisor are the latest controversy to erupt from the coroner’s office following a recent string of political spats and employee terminations, details of which other news outlets have previously reported. As news of the latest incident has slowly leaked out, current coroner Dr. Chuck Preston has tried to contain the situation. His office issued a public statement immediately after he fired one employee, and the agency’s contracted lawyers sent letters threatening a gag order against those with knowledge of the incident.
Preston, who did not seek re-election and whose term ends in March, has fired two of the workers who spoke up about the supervisor. The workers he fired include coroner-elect Dr. Christopher Tape, the office’s only forensic pathologist, and autopsy technician Morgan Bossier. Tape’s dismissal temporarily left the office without anyone who can perform an autopsy, forcing St. Tammany to pay for outside services. Although they are physicians, neither Preston nor Deputy Coroner Dr. Robert Sigillito can perform autopsies because they are not certified in forensic pathology, according to the American Board of Pathology’s certification database.
Preston said the terminations were justified. After firing Tape on the afternoon of Oct. 5, Preston immediately issued statements to the news media claiming Tape had disclosed the confidential results of a medical test, adding that the disclosure could interfere with a law enforcement investigation. His office then had lawyers write letters to Tape and an official from another parish Tape consulted threatening legal action if they spoke about the matter with anyone, according to a copy of the letter shared with the Illuminator.
The Illuminator initially learned of the incident several days before Bossier and Tape were fired. Later, both separately confirmed details of the events that led to their dismissals. Several current employees with direct knowledge of the situation corroborated their accounts of the incident and its aftermath, aspects of which are backed up in documents from the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office.
‘Like it was entertaining to her’
The incident occurred Sept. 5 when two relatives of homicide victim Walter Lee arrived at the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office to identify Lee’s body. Bossier said she was in the front office with a group of other employees when one mentioned they could overhear Lee’s relatives loudly crying out in grief from the family services room. The comment drew laughter and smiles from some of the workers, she said.
Morgue supervisor Citlalic “Lali” Snell then went to the investigations room on the opposite end of the building to watch the family via the office’s video surveillance system, according to accounts from Bossier and other former employees. When Snell returned to the front office where the other employees were gathered, she told them she had accessed surveillance cameras to watch the family’s emotional reaction to the news that their loved one had died, Bossier said.
“It was her mannerisms and her tone,” Bossier said. “She was laughing and smiling about it like it was entertaining to her. It just seems like she thought of it as a spectacle.”
It wasn’t the first time Snell’s behavior made her uncomfortable, Bossier said. Snell would sometimes take an interest in certain deceased individuals who were brought to the morgue and would search for their names on Facebook and funeral home websites to critique their obituary photos, according to Bossier.
“She would say things like, ‘These people look rough,’” Bossier said. “You know, I get there might be a curiosity, but she seemed excessively involved.”
Reached by phone, Snell declined to comment and referred questions to her supervisor, executive director Amy Kudel, who pointed the Illuminator to the coroner’s public relations firm. The PR firm’s co-owner, Greg Beuerman, provided responses on Preston’s behalf.
According to her written statement that became a part of the internal investigation file, Snell admitted to telling a coworker she wanted to access the surveillance system and that she actually accessed and viewed it as the family was notified of Lee’s death. However, she wrote that she did it because “there was a lot of interest in this case,” and she decided to use it as a training opportunity when she discovered two trainees in the room who were curious about the notification process.
“I went to investigations to watch the notification, and two trainee-investigators were standing in front of the camera display to also watch the notification,” Snell wrote. “Due to the circumstances of the case that this decedent was involved in, it is my belief that there was a lot of interest in this case. The trainees that were watching the notification also expressed curiosity as they had not witnessed anything like this before. I watched the notification and discussed it with the trainees, and before it was over, I left investigations and walked back to the front office.”
Lee’s family declined to comment on the matter when reached by the Illuminator.
Reporting the incident
Bossier’s immediate boss, Tape, was away from the office at the time of the Sept. 5 incident. She said it weighed heavily on her mind for several days, so she reported it to him Sept. 8 and later filed a written complaint with the coroner’s office human resources director.
“I know that Morgan was very upset when she told me,” Tape said.
Bossier wasn’t the only one concerned. Another employee had already reported the incident to human resources, according to documents from the coroner’s internal investigation.
When Tape first heard about it, he said he initially looked for innocent explanations, such as perhaps Snell just happened to see the interaction over a live video feed as it was happening. But Tape later learned Snell had to go to a separate department and log into the surveillance system to view the family, he said.
“She did go out of her way, it seems, to find the video,” Tape said.
Tape reported the Sept. 5 incident to Deputy Coroner Robert Sigillito, who, like Snell, is a Navy veteran, according to his biography on the coroner’s website. The very next day, Sigillito and Preston promoted Snell to an executive position with a raise and a private office, Tape said. Records from the agency confirm Snell’s new executive role, senior executive coordinator. The Illuminator has not been able to determine if the promotion came with a salary increase.
Barely a year into the job, Snell is now one of the most senior executives at the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office out of its roughly 30-person staff. The senior executive coordinator position was not one that previously existed.
Before that, Bossier said she was training Snell as an autopsy technician. Snell has worked in several different positions within the coroner’s office since she started there last year, transferring between departments every few months, according to Dr. Tape and Snell’s own LinkedIn profile.
By promoting Snell to an executive position, the coroner removed her from Tape’s “chain of command” and claimed he was doing so at Tape’s demand, according to a memo Preston wrote summarizing the internal inquiry. Although Tape had authority over both Snell and Bossier at the time of the incident, none of the internal records support the claim that Tape demanded specific actions be taken against Snell or anyone else. Tape’s emails, which were attached to the internal investigation file, show he only urged the coroner to investigate the matter.
‘So offended and so amazed’
Unsure of what to do about the situation, Tape consulted with an outside colleague, West Baton Rouge Parish Deputy Coroner Yancy Guerin. Tape ultimately decided the homicide victim’s family should know that someone had watched them during what was supposed to be a private moment of grief, so Guerin told Lee’s relatives what happened.
“As doctors, we talk all the time about informed consent,” Tape said. “It’s a big thing in our profession.”
Lee’s family then began calling the coroner’s office wanting to know what happened. This prodded Preston to act, Tape said. The coroner told Tape he would investigate the matter and called in a lawyer to interview Bossier and other employees.
Bossier said the questions they asked indicated the investigation probably had a predetermined outcome. The lawyer wanted to know things such as whether Bossier was angry at Snell for getting a promotion, Bossier said.
“I had nothing to gain and everything to lose by reporting it,” Bossier said. “I just wanted to do my job … It’s not entertainment. We’re helping people get closure, and we’re helping people get justice. This was a murder victim. I just wanted our cases to be treated with respect and wanted our victim’s families to be treated with respect.”
As a result of the internal investigation, Preston wanted Tape to reduce Bossier to part-time status for filing a supposedly false complaint, according to the internal records. The coroner told him Snell, who is white, had accessed the surveillance footage for training purposes and used the footage to teach other workers about how Black people grieve differently, Tape said.
“And the term I think he used was ‘falling out,’” Tape said. “I was so offended and so amazed.”
Tape said Preston’s explanation was absurd. The way a person grieves is just not something one can predict based on race, he said.
Tape refused to penalize Bossier for filing a complaint and submitted what he called “whistleblower” letters to the human resources department in an effort to call out any “retaliation” against Bossier and the other employee who reported the incident. But Preston ultimately fired Bossier, the records show.
Because Bossier’s dismissal left Tape without an assistant, he asked to work from home until the coroner hired an experienced autopsy tech to fill her position. Instead, Preston fired Tape. Then, the contracted lawyers for the coroner’s office, Amanda Plaiscia and Craig Watson with the firm Blue Williams LLC, sent letters to Tape and Guerin, the West Baton Rouge deputy coroner, threatening legal action if they talked with anyone about the incident.
Guerin had Tulane’s First Amendment Law Clinic respond with a letter on his behalf.
“We are unaware of any legal authority that would allow the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office to restrict the free speech of a citizen,” Katie Schwartzmann, the law clinic’s director, wrote in the letter to Preston. “Without such authority, your threatening letters open (St. Tammany) Parish up to liability for a First Amendment lawsuit.”
The coroner’s explanation
Reached by phone, Preston would not answer questions directly and instead referred the Illuminator to Beuerman, the office’s public relations representative. Beuerman said he was unaware of the incident involving Snell but had issued previous public statements on behalf of Preston saying Tape was fired for sharing “confidential information which could interfere with an ongoing law enforcement investigation.”
Beuerman repeated that same line and claimed the allegations against Snell were retracted during the internal investigation, though both Tape and Bossier strongly deny this.
When asked, Preston could not provide any documentation to confirm retraction of the allegation, and no such documentation exists in the internal investigation file that the agency turned over to fulfill the Illuminator’s public records request.
In Beuerman’s emails to the Illuminator, Preston acknowledged Snell viewed the video and said she watched it live to ensure the safety of the coroner’s office investigator who was in the room with Lee’s family. She then used the opportunity to educate new trainees who had not taken part in family notification, the coroner said.
“A supervisor or investigator’s partner views the room remotely whenever an investigator — in this instance another supervisor — is in the surveilled room conducting an interview/notification,” Preston said. “Since the supervisor was in the room informing the family, Ms. Snell prudently watched remotely for his safety.”
Written statements from other employees raise issues with that explanation. Several indicated law enforcement officers were in the room with the family when the notification took place. If so, it’s unclear why Snell would have been concerned for the safety of her coworker.
Case coordinator Ana Welch wrote that she was in her office when she heard screaming from another room. She then went to the front office and was told a death notification was taking place in the family services room. She said she “was informed that law enforcement was also in the room with the family,” according to her statement. However, Welch wrote she did not recall hearing any negative comments from other employees in her presence.
Building engineer Richard Fields also wrote that he saw a sheriff’s deputy walk into the lobby just before the notification took place. The family services room is at the very front of the coroner’s building adjacent to the lobby. Fields also wrote that he didn’t hear any negative comments and couldn’t recall which staff members were in the office.
Other current employees, including experienced death investigators, disputed Preston’s claim that it is normal practice to have someone watch surveillance monitors during death notifications. They said they have never heard of such a thing.
Bossier also said Preston’s safety excuse doesn’t fit with usual practices and doesn’t make much sense because the surveillance monitor is in the investigations room on the opposite end of the building from where the death investigator was notifying Lee’s family.
“From what I understand, if safety is a concern, then two investigators would be present in the room or [one would] wait just outside the room,” Bossier said. “What good can she do if she’s on the opposite side of the building, you know?”
Not even Snell herself mentioned anything about safety in her written statement. Her only explanations for viewing the footage had to do with “interest” in the case and to discuss it with trainees who “expressed curiosity.”
Although viewing the surveillance video wasn’t part of Snell’s role as a morgue supervisor at that time, Snell was previously a supervisor of investigators and “took the initiative to fill that role when it was needed,” the coroner said. …“Ms. Snell recognized that there were brand new trainees present who had not taken part in family notification and used the training opportunity to educate them.”
According to her statement, it appears Snell did not initially plan to hold an impromptu teaching session on family notifications. It was only after she got to the room with the camera monitors that she found two trainees already there “standing in front of the camera display to also watch the notification,” she wrote.
For her part, Snell never said she watched the video for training or for safety reasons. In her statement, she wrote only that she “discussed it” with the trainees after watching the family notification on the surveillance monitor. Only Preston, the coroner, has claimed that Snell was there for safety and training reasons.
The only trainee named in the internal investigation file is Analaina Martindale. Although Preston wrote in the memo that “all witnesses were interviewed and asked to submit written statements,” Martindale is apparently the only person who didn’t submit a written statement, and the memo neglects to mention whether she gave a verbal statement.
An ‘atypical occurrence’
Tape accused Preston of changing his story in response to public scrutiny.
“[Snell] sounds like a hero,” Tape said, critically. “Preston didn’t mention safety of the investigator ever to me. He said it was for racial differences in grieving. [Executive director] Amy Kudel and [human resources director] Laura White and Robert Sigillito were all in the room when he said that.”
Tape also said Lee’s family never consented to being a part of the supposed training.
Asked if the coroner’s office has always conducted grief training by using the surveillance system to watch families identify the bodies of their relatives, Preston said it was an “atypical occurrence” because the identification process usually occurs in the field.
“It was recorded coincidentally because the identification and notification were made in the room that was surveilled on an ongoing basis,” Preston said in an email. “The recording was not viewed by trainees or trainers after the event. The viewing occurred live, during the event, remotely, in the Director of Investigations workspace area.”
Employee statements included in the internal investigations file did not precisely corroborate the initial allegations brought by Bossier and the other employee, administrative assistant Doreen Mittelstaedt. The coroner included four signed statements from employees.
Dr. Chuck Preston — coroner
Dr. Robert Sigillito — deputy coroner
Doreen Mittelstaedt — filed initial complaint
Lali Snell — accused in complaint, later promoted
Morgan Bossier — filed second complaint, was fired
Dr. Christopher Tape — pathologist who was fired
Two of them, Welch and Fields, said they couldn’t recall hearing any negative comments about Lee’s family. A third statement came from the accused, Snell, while the fourth came from an employee who was off that day and not in the office, administrative assistant Tammy Switzer.
Switzer wrote that on the following day, Sept. 6, a coworker came to her “very upset after having witnessed an episode” in which someone used the camera system to observe a family identifying their loved one in the family services room. The “concern was that cameras were used to observe the episode,” Switzer wrote, adding that a second coworker later came to her sharing the same story. She suggested they speak with their supervisors.
Three other statements were added to the file, but their authorship is concealed. One corroborates the allegations in general but is short on specifics. “In my opinion, I did not think it was professional for everyone to be in the front office looking and/or listening to how the family was going to react to such news,” the employee wrote. “I do not recall exactly what was said by C. Snell or any other employees.”
The other two unsigned statements contained similar details and timelines, but the anonymous authors turned the allegations completely around, placing blame on those who filed the initial complaints. While the authors didn’t sign the statements, they refer to certain actions that reveal their identities.
In one, the author writes, “Me and Kylie were playing with Meka when we heard the mother scream.” Meka is the name of Dr. Tape’s dog. In the other statement, the author wrote, “Tori and I were playing with the dog when we heard the mom cry.” Those are references to death investigator Kylie Hearst and autopsy technician Victoria Piediscalzo, two employees mentioned in Bossier’s statement as having allegedly joined Snell in laughing at the woman’s cries.
In her statement, Piediscalzo included a relatively brief initial paragraph regarding the Sept. 5 allegations and then digressed into almost two pages of unrelated complaints against Bossier. At one point in her discourse, Piediscalzo said Bossier flirted with a police officer.
It appears the coroner did not lend much credence to their claims. “The statements of those two employees were not confirmed by the other employees present and were denied by Mittelstaedt,” Preston wrote.
When contacted by the Illuminator, Hearst declined to comment. Multiple attempts to reach Piediscalzo were unsuccessful.
Ultimately, the coroner and his second-in-command, Sigillito, concluded Snell did nothing wrong and accused Bossier of making false statements.
In her written complaint, Bossier said “they were laughing,” referring to Snell and two other employees, Hearst and Piediscalzo. In a later in-person interview with her bosses, she said only Snell was laughing. Preston and Sigillito decided this contradiction was enough to render Bossier an “unreliable witness.” They fired her because of this and previous unspecified infractions, according to the internal investigative report.
Bossier told the Illuminator she changed that detail because she didn’t want Hearst and Piediscalzo to get into trouble. They are very young, new to the workforce and were only following Snell’s lead, she said.
Bossier’s immediate boss, Tape, would have normally been included on the “investigation committee” that looked into the allegations, but the coroner excluded him, claiming Tape was the complainant. He also cites this as the reason for removing Tape’s “whistleblower letters” from the personnel files of Bossier and Mittelstaedt, the administrative assistant who was the first to file the complaint against Snell.
Preston appears to contradict himself on this matter in the report. He claimed Tape was the one who filed the complaint but then said HR received complaints from Mittelstaedt and Bossier.
Also, the internal investigative file doesn’t include any formal complaints from Tape. Aside from the “whistleblower letters” that Tape wrote trying to shield Bossier and Mittelstaedt during the investigation, the only written statement from Tape was an email to Preston and Sigillito in which he urged them to investigate Bossier’s complaint about Snell.
‘…Why good people refuse to stand up’
Notably absent from the internal investigative report is any mention of surveillance footage of the employees in the front office at the time of the incident. The facility has cameras throughout, including in the front office area where Snell and others allegedly laughed and made the inappropriate comments about Lee’s family, but the coroner either made no attempt to watch the footage to corroborate the allegations or left it out of the file.
Preston also denied the Illuminator’s request to view it, claiming it is a security feature exempt from the Louisiana public records law.
As for Tape’s termination, Preston acknowledged his pathologist’s alleged disclosure of “confidential information” was to Guerin, his associate in West Baton Rouge Parish. Preston specified that the information was Lee’s family’s name, phone number and “confidential information about an internal personnel investigation.”
In a previous statement to the Illuminator, Preston said the information could have interfered with a “law enforcement investigation” and never mentioned anything about an internal personnel investigation.
In a phone interview, Guerin said Preston is lying. He said he obtained information on his own and through public records, adding that Tape never gave him any confidential information about Lee’s family.
“This story is a perfect example of why good people refuse to stand up and speak out against a public official committing a wrongdoing,” Guerin said. “People like Dr. Preston and his assistant, Dr. Sigillito, will deny allegations, attack the accuser, then reverse the roles.”
Guerin said Tape’s primary concern was protecting the dignity and privacy of Lee’s family.
Preston issued a similar statement about Lee’s family.
“The family of the deceased has suffered a grievous loss and they deserve to have their privacy protected,” Preston said. “Under no circumstances do they deserve to have misinformation or rumors spread regarding their loved one in a manner such as this one.”
Asked why Tape and Guerin would stake their reputations on the allegations if they weren’t true, Preston said their actions speak for themselves and pointed out that neither man was there to directly witness the incident.
“Neither Mr. Guerin nor Dr. Tape were present on the day of the notification of the family and relied on hearsay and rumor rather than hard evidence and witness statements,” he said.
Tape’s firing comes just a few months after Preston and Sigillito fired longtime morgue supervisor Keith Laborde, who had worked for the coroner’s office for 11 years, predating Preston’s tenure.
In an in-depth report from WVUE-TV’s Dannah Sauer in July, Laborde said Sigillito forced him to do something illegal.
Sigillito, who oversees all day-to-day operations of the coroner’s office, made Laborde stop in the middle of an autopsy and accompany him on a car ride to remove political signs scattered across the parish. The group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany placed the signs along Interstate 12, calling for Preston to resign for various reasons such as an ongoing dispute with the parish council over the coroner’s failed millage renewal.
Shortly after the pair picked up the signs, a photo of the signs leaning against the coroner’s office building began circulating on social media. Preston and Sigillito were determined to find out who leaked the photo, so they demanded to look through Laborde’s phone, according to WVUE. When they couldn’t find the photo, the coroner’s office hired forensic computer technicians to scour everyone’s computers, the news report said.
Laborde was later asked to take a lie detector test, and when he refused, he was fired, WVUE reported. The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office later issued Sigillito a summons for allegedly removing the signs, according to the news story.
The coroner’s office also drew criticism in May when two videos circulated on social media that appeared to show Sigillito physically punishing a dog by using a leash to lift the dog into the air by its neck to the point where the dog had to stand on its hind legs. The coroner’s office provides dogs for therapy purposes.
Sigillito refused to comment when reached by phone.
Others have since backed up Laborde’s claims and said the office has lost nearly 25 employees within the past two years, including another forensic pathologist, Dr. Michael DeFatta, whom Preston asked to resign after he allegedly tried to view the surveillance footage of Sigillito lifting up the dog by its neck. Preston hired Tape to fill the role DeFatta vacated, Tape said.
When Tape’s firing left the coroner’s office without a forensic pathologist, they had to send at least one body to Arkansas for an autopsy, the coroner confirmed.
“It’s unfortunate because it costs $1,900 just to drive the body up there,” Tape said. “I was doing autopsies for $1,600, and I’m still available to do cases.”
Tape noted the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office offers excellent compensation for the small number of homicides it handles, yet it struggles to retain staff.
“They offer huge salaries and you’re near a big iconic city with all its great resources and culture,” Tape said. “They should be able to recruit more doctors, but they can’t, and that should say something.”
One employee described the office as an ever-tightening “surveillance state” and said Preston and Sigillito have been installing hidden wireless cameras over employee workspaces and closely monitoring the staff. Even the coroner’s response to the Illuminator’s public records request included seemingly routine and innocuous recordings of employees answering phone calls from the Illuminator.
Bossier, Tape and multiple current employees have called Sigillito a “bully” and believe Preston stopped caring about his job as coroner within the past few years. The current employees said the two doctors running the office have caused them stress and mental anguish.
When told what some of his current employees were saying about him, Preston accused the Illuminator of drawing conclusions first and “seeking to build a story around them.” He said he has “no interest in helping to weaponize the media in a blatantly obvious effort to advance someone’s personal agenda.”
“Dr. Preston is very proud of those on his staff who go above and beyond every day to serve the people of St. Tammany Parish,” said Beuerman, the coroner’s spokesman. “While, as in any workplace, there may be a small number of employees who, over the past nearly ten years have voiced concerns or expressed unhappiness regarding their employment with the Coroner’s Office, they are certainly the exception rather than the rule.”
Editor’s note: The Tulane First Amendment Clinic provides legal services to the Louisiana Illuminator.
SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.