Savannah coroner of 40 years exits under suspicion

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 11, 2013

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Even at age 81, Dr. James C. Metts Jr. liked to stay busy. By day, he treated some of Savannah’s poorest patients at a downtown medical clinic. By night, or whenever police called, he examined dead bodies as the Chatham County coroner — an elected job that gave Metts a taste of the spotlight in the bestselling book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

Metts surprised nobody last fall when he cruised to re-election without opposition, just as he had done since he took office 40 years ago. Barely a month later, the man affectionately known as Dr. Jimmy shocked everyone when he abruptly resigned.

Metts cited only his advancing age and personal reasons for his exit, but it was later revealed that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was called in after county auditors questioned at least $141,000 in payments for a secretary Metts didn’t have and what appeared to be personal expenses for property taxes, auto insurance and cellphone bills. The GBI’s findings will go to local prosecutors, who will decide if Metts should face criminal charges.

“We were flabbergasted,” said Dr. Julia Mikell, a Savannah neurologist who has known Metts for 32 years. “It’s just a lot of money and I was surprised that would be something he would do… He’s very close to the police. That’s why it’s all so stunning.”

Cathy Sapp, the GBI agent in charge of the investigation, declined to comment on specifics other than saying allegations against Metts involved “financial issues.” As of Friday, the former coroner had been charged with no crimes.

Metts returned a phone call but said he did not want to comment. His attorney, Tom Withers, also declined to discuss the case.

“I don’t believe he would’ve done anything intentionally criminal,” said Chuck Powell, a business associate who worked with Metts for 36 years on an initiative to reduce strokes and heart attacks in the Savannah area. “For those of us who know him intimately, none of it adds up.”

The son of a local physician, Metts followed his father into medicine but in mid-career eschewed the lucrative pursuit of a private practice and spent the last 20 years working at the Curtis V. Cooper Primary Health Care Clinic, which treats poor and uninsured patients. From 1969 until last year, the doctor led a local initiative that targeted cardiovascular disease by offering blood pressure screenings and other preventative treatments to the poor.

It wasn’t clear how much he was paid to work for the clinic, but he had an annual salary of about $54,500 as coroner. The coroner’s office had a budget of just over $317,000 last year.

Powell and others credit Metts with slashing the rate of strokes and heart attacks in Chatham County. In 2010, the Georgia Legislature honored Metts with a resolution praising his “unselfish and dedicated public service.”

When Metts wasn’t treating the living, he was usually tending to the dead.

“With his practice of medicine and the coroner’s job, Jimmy never slept very much,” said Savannah attorney Sonny Seiler, who’s been a friend of Metts’ since kindergarten. “You could find him almost any time of day, but you weren’t going to find him home in bed.”

Metts first ran for the coroner’s job when it came open in 1972. After his first election, nobody else would step up to run against Metts over the next four decades.

The coroner found himself featured in a chapter of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” John Berendt’s 1994 nonfiction bestseller that focused on a Savannah antiques dealer on trial for the shooting death of his young lover. In the book, Metts describes the crime scene to a defense attorney.

The coroner is quoted saying he feels sympathetic for the accused, considering the victim was ill-tempered and vitriolic: “Hell, I’d have shot Danny Hansford too.”

In 1996, the coroner tried to solve a mystery that had lingered since the Revolutionary War when he exhumed human remains buried beneath Savannah’s 1854 monument to Brig. Gen. Casimir Pulaski, the Polish nobleman regarded as the father of the American cavalry.

Pulaski was killed leading colonial cavalrymen in an ill-fated attempt to re-capture Savannah from the British on Oct. 9, 1779. Historical accounts conflicted on what happened to his body. Some said he was buried at sea, but others claimed he was buried in an unmarked grave and those remains were later moved to the Pulaski monument in Monterey Square.

Metts and a team of experts spent years trying to extract DNA from the remains for comparison with a descendent in Poland. They gave up in 2005, reporting the results were inconclusive. Regardless, Pulaski received a hero’s funeral in Savannah on the 226th anniversary of the battle.

The GBI investigation comes after Chatham County officials conducted an audit of Metts’ office, a copy of which was obtained by The Savannah Morning News. The Associated Press requested a copy of the audit under Georgia’s Open Records Act, but county attorneys refused, citing the criminal investigation.

In its report, The Savannah Morning News said auditors questioned payments for a secretary the coroner didn’t have. Metts told auditors the money went to supplement the pay of his assistant coroner and to cover other office expenses, the newspaper reported.

The newspaper also said auditors flagged $7,112 in personal property taxes; $3,7070 in auto insurance payments for private vehicles; $2,549 for personal cellphone bills and a payment to the county Republican Party for $1,638 — the amount Metts owed the local GOP last year to qualify as a candidate for coroner.

It appears the former coroner may have hoped to settle the case without involving authorities. On Dec. 28, a check for $126,000 from Metts’ personal bank account was sent to county officials along with a letter from his son, attorney James Metts III, asking that the money be applied to “accounting discrepancies” uncovered by auditors.

The county received a second check from Metts, this time for $15,000, on Tuesday. Jon Hart, the county attorney, said officials had not decided what to do with the checks.

While Metts relished his work as a physician and coroner, he never was much of a bookkeeper, friends said.

“The last thing he wanted to do was pay attention and cross T’s and dot I’s on administrative stuff,” Seiler said.