Dying for Religion: Part 2

Dying for Religion: Part 2 »Play Video
BOISE, Idaho - In May, KBOI 2News anchor Mike Murad conducted a special report on two children from two separate families who recently died, likely from untreated pneumonia.

Their parents are members of Followers of Christ, and it's that report that prompted one elected official to call us immediately, saying another one isn't doing her job.

After seeing our story, Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg said he was concerned by something his counterpart in Canyon County, Vicki DeGeus-Morris, said to us regarding how rarely she performed autopsies on Followers of Christ children.

"We haven't done one in quite a while with them," DeGeus-Morris told KBOI 2News in May. "It's been years, because usually there's enough history surrounding it (the investigation) from what they're (the family) telling us that we can do it without it."

"Well, that's against all national standards," says Sonnenberg. "National standards are they are to be autopsied."

Sonnenberg says there are several reasons to conduct an autopsy.

"If the story makes perfectly good sense as far as saying they had a cough or a cold and died, well children at that age aren't supposed to die if they have a cough or a cold," says Sonnenberg. "Something else is going on, so the coroner's responsibility is to find out what is going on."

Sonnenberg says he's probably had 100 cases involving Followers of Christ over his three decades on the job. But when it comes to a child, regardless of religion, he says he can't remember a single time when he did not perform an autopsy on one who died unexpectedly. He says up to 15-percent of the time, the story he gets from any parent just doesn't match up.

"A lot of cases we look at look fine at the start, like there's no trauma, and then we go in and find trauma," says Sonnenberg. "Part of the reasons for these national standards is to cover all the bases."

KBOI 2News also received emails and more than 100 web comments after our investigation.

Many of the people claimed they were Followers of Christ, or friends of them. Some didn't agree that medical intervention might have saved the toddler and teenager who recently died.

On kboi2.com, one person wrote "...a trained physician can make a mistake and almost kill someone who needed a miracle. Remember please that physicians only practice medicine."

Another viewer, who referred to himself as a Follower, wrote "...everyone knows that medicines cause sickness and death."

But that's not what a congressional report found, conducted just a few years ago.

It showed that in 2003, the life expectancy in the United States was 77 years. That was up from 49 years in the year 1900.

In the report, titled CRS Report for Congress, researchers credited the increase "...first as a result of the control of the infectious and parasitic diseases that had plagued mostly infants and children in the early part of the century, and later because of medical advances that led to large decreases in adult mortality..."

But how do those numbers play out in the Treasure Valley?

Back in May, KBOI 2News looked at Peaceful Valley Cemetery in Canyon County. Many, if not all of those laid to rest there, are Followers of Christ.

For this follow up investigation, KBOI 2News compared the cemetery records of two other local cemeteries, and found a big difference when it comes to the lifespan, buried in each.

At all three cemeteries, KBOI 2News only included people born from the 20th century onward, and picked cemeteries that each included around 500 graves.

In Middleton, which didn't list a single Follower of Christ in obituaries, the average life span was more than 58 years.

That number climbed slightly above 60 years for Joplin Pioneer Cemetery in Meridian, which also didn't list any Followers of Christ.

But it dropped way off in Peaceful Valley Cemetery, where hundreds of Followers are buried. The average life span there was just 43 years, which was about 16 years shorter than Middleton and Joplin, and still about six years shorter than the life expectancy of the average American, born in the year 1900.

"It is sad when you work with children or adults where medical care could have helped them, but it's our responsibility to at least follow through and let people know this is what happened and go back and substantiate, 'yes it looks like medical care could have saved this person,'" says Sonnenberg. "That's just as important for the public to know also."

KBOI 2News contacted the Canyon County Coroner's office before airing this story. DeGeus-Morris told us she stands by all her investigations, based upon the information she gathers in each one.