County and City Employee

Winter 2012

Retiring after 44 years of service

by County and City Employee writer on January 13, 2013

 Two aspects of his working life set Joe Frisino apart from almost everyone else.

The first is that he has just retired from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office after doing the same job there for an amazing 44 years.

“He is one of the few people who have worked that long for a county or a city,” says Council 2 President/Executive Director Chris Dugovich. “Some people work for 30 years and then retire, but he has added an additional 14 years. This is an outstanding service that deserves everyone’s commendation.”

The second aspect that distinguishes Frisino is that he turned what could have been a routine job into much more than that. He transformed it into a dedication to honoring the lost, the forgotten and the discarded in our society. He turned it into a vocation with a reward of its own that could not be measured in mere dollars and cents.

Frisino began work as an investigator in 1968 at what was then known as the King County Coroner’s office. When was summoned to a death scene, he was part of a team mandated to determine the cause of death. After examining the scene and the circumstances of the death, he would take the body to the coroner’s office for an autopsy and toxicology investigation and he would try to determine the person’s identity.

Frisino’s duties could have stopped there. After all, that is what he was paid to do. And he did it well.

But, as he worked his way up to lead investigator and visited more and more death scenes, Frisino became concerned about the people who died alone. He looked beyond the bodies themselves to the wide circle of people who were involved in the person’s passing. He thought of family, close friends and associates. Did they even know of this person’s death? If they did, how would they cope with it?

He realized, too, that sometimes a person’s remains were kept for as long as one-and-a-half years without the person being identified. They did not even have a name to put on the remains.

So Frisino dedicated more of his time to finding out who they were and tracing their families or friends. It was not always an easy task. In spite of the Internet, Frisino says, it has become harder and harder to find some deceased people’s real names and next of kin.

 “As we have become an increasingly transient community, you are finding more and more people who are unidentified or whose families cannot be traced,” he says. “They have no paperwork. No driver’s license, no bills, no credit cards. There’s nothing to tell us who they are.

“During the investigation, I wondered where the people were who knew this person and had no idea what had happened to them. Perhaps they got into an argument and left without saying where they were going. Perhaps they had just lost contact with their family or friends. Perhaps they tried deliberately to disappear, erasing all traces of their past. An example is a woman who arrived in Seattle with a phony name. We found a bus ticket on her, but that was all and we never found out who she was.

“In today’s society, if you don’t want to be found, you can move to the next city and disappear.

 “A lot who die on the streets are much younger than before. Sometimes they have no identification. We tried fingerprinting them and spent a lot of due diligence on it, but sometimes we were never able to find out who some of them were.”

In many cases the hard work paid off, however. Frisino and his fellow workers were able to trace relatives. But often those people needed help with the burial and that help was either not readily available or involved fees that they could not afford.

Yet Frisino was determined that they would not be forgotten. He worked with pastors, priests, rabbis and ministers of every denomination to provide those who had died with funeral services. He worked with the county to purchase a cement vault in the Renton area and about every 18 months buried them. Each burial consisted of about 200 urns of their ashes to honor them.

“I saw a need there,” he says. “These people needed a burial with dignity.”

In addition to putting considerable effort into tracing a dead person’s family and friends, and seeing that the lonely were given a decent burial, Frisino was concerned about the suicides that were part of his investigation. He wondered whether a suicide could have been prevented through counseling the person, often alone in an alienated world. “There was nowhere for them to go.” He wondered, too, about the effect on family and friends of the suicide.

So it was that Frisino helped set up S.O.S., (Survivors of Suicide) Group in the early 1990s that works not only with those contemplating suicide but also helps the families, significant others and friends to cope with such a death.

Frisino might now be retired, but he is still involved in his life’s mission.

He is serving out a three-year term with the American Board of Medical Legal Death Investigation, which sets up a standardized method of death investigation. Being on the board enables him to see how other officers around the country run their operations and to pass on any advice he has from his years of investigation.

Ever since he joined the office of the coroner/medical examiner, Frisino has been a member of Local 1652, the oldest union in the county, of which he served as president for some time.

“Council 2 was very supportive,” Frisino says, enabling him and his fellow workers to gain good contracts, even though they went through some tough times. “They were always there when we needed them,” he adds.

He knew that, even as he was helping others, Council 2 was helping him.