Chattooga County cornoner election draws four candidates | Chattanooga Times Free Press (2024)

Compassion for those who just a lost loved one, attention to details of a death scene and a strong stomach — those are the qualities a coroner must have, according to the man preparing to retire from the position in Chattooga County after nearly 50 years on the job.

"You're dealing with people when it's probably the lowest time of their life, when they've lost a loved one, whether it be a mother or father or brother or sister, wife or husband," Earl Rainwater, Chattooga County coroner, said in a phone call. "And the circ*mstances surrounding it, you've got to have a little bit of compassion and you've got to be curious."

Four candidates, Carrie Blackwell, Heath Hammond, Jeremy "Big Mac" McElhaney and Savanna McGill, are hoping to replace Rainwater in the May 21 Repubican primary. No other candidates have qualified for the Nov. 5 general election.

Though the office of coroner has few requirements to run, each of the four candidates has a medical or first responder background. The position pays about $12,740 per year, along with $175 per call, according to Chattooga County government officials.


The office doesn't require medical training to be elected. The candidate be 21 years old, a high school or equivalent graduate and resident of the county where they'll serve. The state offers a 40-hour coroner certification course and an annual required 24-hour training course.

Rainwater said the coroner is called any time somebody dies of unusual circ*mstances, suddenly or in an accident, homicide or suicide. He said the coroner partners with law enforcement to do a preliminary investigation and determine if the Georgia Bureau of Investigation needs to transport the body to its laboratory in Decatur for a closer look.

Availability is also important, he said, because a coroner must be available at a moment's notice.

"Twenty-four seven," he said of the position's hours. "Nobody plans on dying. Nobody plans on getting shot or stabbed or having a wreck and dying as a result of it."


Compassion is required, because Rainwater said the coroner is often the one who must notify a family member that their loved one has died. Sharing the news of a sudden death is also part of the role's cooperation with law enforcement, he said, sometimes side by side with a uniformed officer at a family members' home.

When asked what other characteristics a coroner needs, Rainwater took a moment to answer.

"You've got to have a strong stomach," he said. "If you're so tuned that the sight of blood or the odors of a scene get to you, you need to leave the coroner's office alone.

"The good Lord blessed me where odors don't bother me," he said. "I smell bad stuff, but it doesn't make me get sick."

When Rainwater arrives at a death scene and all the first responders are standing outside, he said he knows someone has likely been dead for days or even weeks. Sometimes, he'll excuse first responders who weren't blessed with his gift to tolerate the harsh realities of the scene.

(READ MORE: Growth and taxes top issues in Chattooga County sole commissioner race)

"They were standing there turning green, and I would say, "OK sissy, just go on outside, we'll take care of this," he said of fellow first responders.

The coroner needs to notice small details at the death scene and in the stories of those present, Rainwater said. If those details don't match up, he said it might be time to call in state-level law enforcement.

The position has changed through the years, he said, pointing to updates in fingerprint and DNA technologies. Tiny details like cloth fibers, tiny cuts on a body's hands or flesh under their fingernails used to be ignored — but now they can solve a crime, Rainwater said.


Contributed Photo / Carrie Blackwell, candidate in the Republican primary for Chattooga County coroner

Blackwell, who lives in the Subligna community, said she moved to Chattooga County from Colorado, where she worked for most of her 20-year career in a county coroner's office. She said she moved to Georgia because her home state became overcrowded, too expensive and less conservative once marijuana was legalized about a decade ago.

"That can be pretty tough, people obviously are grieving and are in shock," she said of the coroner's duties. "It is tough, but that is the one area of our job where we are helping people because there's a lot of information for them to absorb."

Along with comforting a family, Blackwell said the coroner needs to help them find funeral arrangements and secure documents like a death certificate. But informing the family after a death is the hardest part of the job, she said.

Addressing the realities of death and crime scenes, Blackwell said she's assisted on hundreds of autopsies. The scientist part of her finds that part of the role interesting, and she said she's seen it all — from plane crashes to vehicle wrecks to deaths while snow skiing.

There are no big changes she wants to make if she's elected, Blackwell said, but the new coroner will have to establish a new office because right now it's located at Rainwater's funeral home. Chattooga County partners with Floyd County for the storage of its bodies, she said.

Blackwell works part time at a family-owned meat packing company, but said she would quit that job if elected coroner.


Hammond could not be reached through his campaign Facebook page or by cellphone.

On his campaign page, he said he has volunteered with the Teloga Volunteer Fire Department for about eight years and said he will complete his coroner certification this summer. He compared the coroner position to volunteer firefighting in that the coroner needs to be ready at anytime and mentally tough.


Contributed Photo / Jeremy “Big Mac” McElhaney, candidate in the Republican primary for Chattooga County coroner

In a phone call, McElhaney said he's worked as an assistant coroner in Floyd County for several years and assisted the coroner in Walker County as well. He said he's worked with Rainwater during his time as a funeral director, his full-time job.

When families are grieving, the resident of Lyerly said he's learned how to comfort them during his time working in the funeral industry. McElhaney said he's also worked as an emergency medical technician.

McElhaney said he's the only candidate that's a Georgia-certified coroner. He added he is endorsed by the coroners for Floyd and Catoosa counties and former coroners for Walker County and DeKalb County, Alabama.

In the state training, McElhaney said he learned about investigation techniques and similar topics. The state's website said the course also teaches report writing, ethics, photography, child death investigations and reporting procedures.

Most of the public doesn't understand how important the role of the coroner actually is, McElhaney said, and they're mostly shielded from the realities of death investigations and the coroner's role.

Rainwater has done an excellent job, but he said there are some things he'd like to update. The GBI used to have a crime lab in Summerville, and McElhaney said he'd like to reopen part of that facility to serve as the county's morgue rather than use the one in Floyd County.

This is a historic race for Chattooga County since Rainwater has served for so long, McElhaney said, and he thinks he's the most qualified candidate for the job.


Contributed Photo / Savannah McGill, candidate in the Republican primary for Chattooga County coroner

In a phone call, McGill said she's been an emergency room nurse in Rome for more than five years and has worked with coroners from neighboring counties and Rainwater. She also worked for two years as a technician in the emergency room while she was in nursing school before that.

"I really love my job, but I want to do more," the resident of Summerville said. "And I feel like this is a good opportunity to serve my community in a different aspect than what I do already."

McGill said she has met with Rainwater multiple times to learn more about the role. He has done a good job as coroner, she said, but she would like to see the office make some upgrades, including adding a digital system for crime lab records used in other coroners' offices.

In her work as a nurse, McGill said she has already learned how to communicate with families dealing with a crisis and has worked with tragic incidents like homicides, suicides, infant deaths and workplace deaths.

"I guess it would be compartmentalizing performing my job," she said of talking to grieving families. "But also having empathy and being able to talk to those families and dealing with them kindly."


Chattooga County / Earl Rainwater, Chattooga County coroner

Rainwater said he's retiring due to his age and because he wants more time with his family.

The position of coroner has aligned well with his work as funeral director and owner of Rainwater Funeral Home, but he said it's time for someone else to be coroner. He established that business about 20 years ago in the same location where his career in the funeral industry began nearly 60 years ago, according to the funeral home's website.

Rainwater said he didn't want to endorse a candidate, though several of them have taken the time to meet with him, he and the candidates said. None of his deputy coroners wanted to run for the main coroner role, but he said he would have picked one of them if they had decided to run.

(READ MORE: Spike in property values spurs Chattooga County citizens group into education, organizing effort)

During all his time in Chattooga County, a relatively small county with a population of about 25,000, he said he's never known four candidates to run for coroner. Over the years, Rainwater said he's only had three challengers — none of those running against him at the same time.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at or 423-757-6659.

Chattooga County cornoner election draws four candidates | Chattanooga Times Free Press (2024)
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