Gunshot deaths and murders were extremely rare in the Red Deer area when Dr. Robert Cooper first became a coroner in 1964.
“There were very few homicides that I can remember. . . Unfortunately, they are a lot more common now,” said Cooper, who reminisced on Friday about his 40-plus years of signing death certificates — and of the special relationship he established with the RCMP.
Red Deer City RCMP detachment presented Cooper with an artwork and an aboriginal blanket in recognition of his assistance. Supt. Brian Simpson offered him a “sincere thank-you.” And Insp. Lawrence Aimoe said it’s customary to give a blanket to someone with a long-standing relationship with the aboriginal community. “We provide a blanket to elders who are wise,” he said to Cooper.
“I am speechless,” responded the local physician, who graduated from medical school in 1957 and later became a designated doctor who performed physicals every three years on RCMP members.
Because of this, Cooper said many police officers eventually became his patients.
In fact, he was once pulled over by a police cruiser while inadvertently speeding on Hwy 2. The officer leaned into the window of his vehicle and said, “Oh, Dr. Cooper, it is you. I just wanted to tell you the vasectomy you did on me last year is still working,” recalled Cooper with a laugh.
“Then he said, ‘Slow it down a bit.’”
There were a lot of lows and highs in his four decades of being a coroner — from the pain of dealing with accidental child fatalities and crib deaths — to the camaraderie and dark humour that sometimes flowed between professionals at unpleasant accident scenes.
Cooper recalls his son’s appalled reaction when he came along with him to a particular highway collision. As a police officer was struggling up a muddy hill with a body on a stretcher, he made casual chit-chat with Cooper about his golf game.
“That’s when my son decided he didn’t want to be a doctor — he was going to be a lawyer,” quipped Cooper, who was born in Prince Albert, Sask., to a former RCMP officer and his wife.
Regardless of the affected bravado (“When you’ve done thousands of these things, you don’t become involved emotionally,” admitted Cooper), there was always a respect for the body, and a sense of responsibility to tell family members what happened to a loved one, he said.
While a coroner’s duty has changed over the years, the fundamentals are still the same: determine the time, place, and manner of death, and the name of the deceased.
Cooper said he had his first DNA matching case about 25 years ago to discover the identity of a fire victim. At the time, the DNA had to be sent all the way to a lab in England. While DNA analysis is now done locally, there’s no way to get results in minutes — like they show on CSI TV shows, he said.
“I’ll tell you one thing, there’s no heaving bosoms, high heels, pistols on the belt, or beautifully made up hairstyles in my line of work,” added Cooper, who can’t stand watching the TV shows because of the glamorization and the inaccuracies.
He didn’t want to get into specifics about his cases for privacy reasons, saying “they were all interesting. Some were more sensational. Some were gory, some we didn’t know what the hell was going on . . .”
Most times, the cause of death was obvious — but not always. One time, he was called to schoolyard where a dead man, wearing only a shirt and pants and no shoes, was lying stiffly frozen in the snow.
The initial impression was that the man died of exposure, since people experiencing hypothermia will sometimes remove their clothing. But in this case, there was no garment trail, or sign of the missing shoes. Cooper later discovered the man, who with some companions had robbed a veterinary clinic of drugs, had overdosed. His accomplices had dumped his body in the field.
One of Cooper’s more difficult cases was overseeing the fatality inquest for Const. Dennis Shwaykowski, a Red Deer RCMP officer who was killed on the job in 1977. He was making an arrest in the Parkland Mall parking lot when the driver began to pull away.
The 31-year-old officer jumped on the truck’s running board, and was later thrown off the vehicle and killed instantly after striking his head on a boulder in a landscaping display.
Cooper said the case was difficult because he knew the officer.
It’s easy to “throw barbs” at police when they make mistakes, added the retired coroner. “But most the time they do pretty darned good work” and seldom receive credit. “People don’t recognize the good things they do, and that’s not nice. That bothers me.”
On the other hand, Cooper has seen about the worst that people can do to each other — and some cases have left him shaken.
“People are capable of doing some damn bad things, whether it’s because of anger, or mental imbalance or stupidity . . .”
About the only thing a coroner can do to help surviving loved ones is “tell them what they need to know — what’s going on.”