COVINGTON — After just 29 days into a four-year term, Newton County Coroner Dorothea Bailey-Butts is facing a petition to have her removed from office.
The petition, filed Jan. 29 with the Georgia Coroner’s Training Council by County Manager Lloyd Kerr, alleges that Bailey-Butts has displayed a lack of professionalism that reflects negatively on the county and on the position of coroner throughout the state. The complaint states that Bailey-Butts, who refers to herself as Madam Coroner, “has demonstrated that she is wholly unable to competently serve as the county’s coroner.”
Under a law passed in 2019, the Coroner’s Training Council has the authority to review complaints regarding coroners and make recommendations concerning their retention, suspension or removal and to withdraw or suspend a coroner’s certification.
Kerr’s petition outlines several instances in January in which Bailey-Butts allegedly improperly handled the bodies of deceased individuals — a guest who died at the Hampton Inn on Jan. 16; a man who was killed in a two-car crash on Ga. Highway 212 on Jan. 22 and whose body was on the roadside for nearly three hours; and the apparent suicide by hanging of a 13-year-old boy on Jan. 27.
In addition, Kerr alleges that Bailey-Butts has publicly announced that she will not transport bodies, which is a fundamental duty required of her position by Georgia law, and that she has mismanaged the operation of her office by employing three deputy coroners who have not gone through the county’s hiring process.
Attempts by the Citizen to reach Bailey-Butts for comment Friday were unsuccessful.
In the Jan. 16 death at Hampton Inn, the petition states that the hotel manager was “very concerned” about the way Bailey-Butts handled the call. According to the petition, Bailey-Butts asked the hotel’s chief engineer to help her turn the body. “The chief engineer appropriately replied that ‘he was unable to assist them.’ Madam Coroner then grabbed him by his jacket to look at his name tag in a threatening manner.”
The process of removing the deceased guest from the hotel took more than three hours, according to the petition. During that time, the body was placed in a body bag and on a gurney. The gurney was reportedly left in the hallway during that time, with other hotel guests walking by.
“Understandably, this whole process was unsettling for the family members, the hotel staff and other guests,” the petition reads.
In the Jan. 22 fatal accident on Ga. Highway 212, Bailey-Butts allegedly arrived at the scene with two deputy coroners, took a few photos, put a body bag on the trunk of a car and advised a Sheriff’s Office deputy that “her investigation was complete and she was leaving.”
When first responders on the scene asked Bailey-Butts who would be removing the body, she reportedly replied that the Fire Department would take care of the body and that she “does not remove bodies.”
When told that the Fire Department could not transport a body in a firetruck, Bailey-Butts reportedly said, “I’m out,” and attempted to leave.
Sheriff’s deputies at the scene reportedly called Sheriff Ezell Brown. A sergeant with the Sheriff’s Office and two employees with a wrecker service removed the body from the wrecked vehicle. The sheriff then called Bailey-Butts, and she eventually transported the body.
In the Jan. 27 suicide, Bailey-Butts is accused of berating the family and first responders at the child’s home for “messing up her crime scene.”
She reportedly began conducting her investigation while the family was still in the room, including cutting off the child’s clothing. “Clothing should not have been removed,” Kerr wrote in the petition. “This interferes with evidence collection and could potentially destroy evidence. The young man should have been removed with the noose around his neck and his clothing should have been intact.
“Disturbingly, the family was in the room during this action,” the petition states. “Understandably, the family was mortified at how their young son’s body was mishandled.”
In addition to the allegations of mishandling death scenes, the petition alleges that Bailey-Butts extorted additional funding for her office from the Board of Commissioners on Jan. 19 by threatening commissioners with the release of damaging information that she had in a manila envelope.
When the Citizen filed an Open Records Act request for the documents in the envelope, Bailey-Butts initially claimed they were her personal information. The Citizen filed a second request, stating that the documents, by the coroner’s admission, were a matter of public importance and that since they were used by her in a public presentation regarding matters of public interest and concern, they must be produced. Bailey-Butts then responded that the documents are excluded from the Open Records Act under O.C.G.A 50-18-72(a)(3) because they would be an invasion of personal privacy. That code section refers to “records compiled for law enforcement or prosecution purposes to the extent that production of such records would disclose the identity of a confidential source, disclose confidential investigative or prosecution material which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or persons, or disclose the existence of a confidential surveillance or investigation.”
Kerr’s petition notes that despite the county clerk’s efforts to persuade Bailey-Butts to disclose the documents, she has refused. “This is a violation of the Open Records Act and subjects the county to liability for Madam Coroner’s blatant disregard of the law,” the petition states.
A final note on “inappropriate action” in the petition states that Bailey-Butts went to a residence in Newton County to inform a woman that her child had been killed in an auto accident. When the woman collapsed, Bailey-Butts reportedly attempted to perform CPR, although the woman was alive.
“She fundamentally cannot complete her duties if she cannot determine if an individual is alive,” the petition states.
If the petition to remove Bailey-Butts is successful, Kerr said he believes the county would be able to hold a special election to fill the coroner’s position.
Bailey-Butts, a Democrat, defeated long-time coroner Tommy Davis, a Republican, in the November General Election.