Our February story with Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Director John Dowdy sent shockwaves throughout the Magnolia State and had some coroners very upset.
The state's top narcotics enforcer told the Raycom national investigative team weeks ago that he knew some elected officials weren't reporting drug overdose deaths.
As the fallout from John Dowdy's fiery words continue, 3 On Your Side has uncovered that the data Dowdy gave us may not be accurate and MBN's own reporting may be faulty, too.
"I do know for a fact that we still have coroners in this state that absolutely will not report drug overdoses," Dowdy said in a January 9 interview.
In a fifteen-minute span, Dowdy laid out his case against some coroners in front of our cameras.
He told our national investigative team that a large percentage of county coroners - nearly 70 percent in 2016 and 40 percent just last year -- did not report drug overdose deaths to MBN.
"I have suspicions as to why," Dowdy said.
The former U.S. attorney also may have used speculation to support his argument by implying coroners in rural counties may have a reason to cover up those deaths.
"You've got a prominent family within that particular county, and their son dies of a drug overdose or, let's say heroin. The family doesn't want the family image tarnished because their child died from a drug overdose, so the person that can control all of that is the coroner," Dowdy said.
The result was nearly instantaneous: dozens of coroners, from one side of the state to the other, said they were offended.
We're told a few complained to the governor.
"It just appears to me that there's a witch hunt going on towards coroners in the state of Mississippi," said Lee County Coroner Carolyn Green.
After our story aired in February, Dowdy told coroners he was outraged, saying parts of his interview were cherry-picked to emphasize a negative slant.
"The director also said -- told us a different timeline that the interview took place than when it actually took place. So that was confusing to us. Why not be forthcoming with the information? If you're going to be bold enough to go on the news with a story like that and accusations and supposedly facts, be forthcoming with when you did the interview," Green said.
Dowdy claimed he talked to our crew in November, but the interview was actually shot on January 9, two days before he stood up at the winter coroners conference in Jackson and praised coroners all over the state.
"It was a very positive presentation where he implied that coroners were reporting a whole lot more now and working better with MBN. I was just shocked," Green said.
Coroners also said Dowdy told them the interview had been done in New Orleans, but the MBN seal can clearly be seen during footage of his interview, indicating it was shot in Byram at the agency's headquarters.
As this fallout intensified, some coroners kept telling us the data we got from MBN was not accurate, which mystified some because they said they had good working relationships with the agency.
"We had coroners going on record saying 'I reported overdoses. I had my [MBN] agent personally come to scene, so I know I reported my overdoses to the Bureau of Narcotics.' Calls into question their reporting techniques. Could that be faulty?" Green said.
MBN requires coroners to fill out a specific form when they have a suspected or known drug overdose death.
The coroner is then required to fax or email it to the state agency.
However, Green told us she and others get no confirmation the bureau has even received their death notification.
"Other than my fax confirmation sheet, we don't know whether someone got in in their hands or not," Green said.
Green said some coroners don't even use the form because they report their numbers directly to a MBN agent.
Those phone calls, she said, could be harder for MBN to keep up with, because there's no paper trail.
That means some of these reports may not be counted at all.
Of the 21 coroners we called, four had numbers that didn't match MBN's own data: Amite, Calhoun, Franklin and Rankin counties.
In every one of those cases, the coroners said they reported more deaths, not less.
Rankin County Coroner David Ruth told us that in 2016, he had 23 drug overdose deaths in his county.
MBN listed 11.
Franklin County Coroner Percy Peeler told us he had four overdose deaths in 2016 and another four last year.
MBN listed none for 2016 and only 1 in 2017.
Green calls Dowdy's own reporting into question, too.
You see, Dowdy originally told us that he knew some coroners weren't reporting because of a discrepancy in numbers.
He claimed coroners reported 99 overdose deaths in 2016, but then told us that the Bureau of Vital Statistics had 211 death certificates on file that claimed "drug overdose" as the cause of death.
Green doesn't buy that.
"When I personally requested that same report just for my county, Lee County, I'm told that report does not exist. They cannot produce that report, and they don't know where those numbers came from," Green said.
3 On Your Side tried to get that same information, too, but the Department of Health had a much bigger number than Dowdy had: 348 deaths from drug poisoning, which could also be called drug overdoses.
MSDH told WLBT the same information shown in this story was also also sent to Dowdy's colleague at MBN.
Where did Dowdy's number come from?
It's one of several questions 3 On Your Side asked Dowdy via email days ago, but after two attempts to reach him, he never responded.
Two weeks after our story aired, coroners and MBN called two special meetings to address concerns brought to light because of our investigation.
The first one was held at the State Crime Lab.
Sam Howell, the director of the crime lab, told us we couldn't sit in because we hadn't cleared it with the Department of Public Safety's public affairs office, even though DPS had nothing to do with that meeting, we had been invited inside by coroners, and the building itself is public.
We also weren't allowed to attend the MBN meeting between Dowdy and more than a dozen coroners.
So we waited outside MBN headquarters, and after hours behind closed doors, Tallahatchie County Coroner Ginger Meriweather came out feeling like they made progress.
"Today was an opportunity for us to gather information and to try to figure out ways that we could work together within our agencies and build those relationships. We're not here to throw them under the bus, and we hope the same is from them as well," Meriweather said.
Meriweather said to expect a press release detailing how coroners and the Bureau of Narcotics were working together to improve reporting.
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