coroner

El Paso County Coroner Dr. Robert Bux gives a tour of the Coroner’s Office in December. Bux, 70, is retiring in January after 13 years as El Paso County’s coroner.

After NFL star-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman died in the fog of war in Afghanistan, his family’s hunt for answers took an unexpected detour into Colorado Springs.

Here, Tillman’s survivors found a soft-spoken gunshot- wound expert in Dr. Robert C. Bux, then El Paso County’s newly appointed coroner.

Serving as a consultant for the family in 2006, Bux was one of two independent pathologists who reviewed materials showing the cluster of wounds in the soldier’s head. They helped bolster the case Tillman was accidentally shot by a fellow soldier, as documented in “Where Men Win Glory,” journalist Jon Krakauer’s 2009 account of an alleged Army cover-up.

For Bux, 70, who retires in early January after 13 years as coroner, work on the Tillman case was essentially a side gig, performed in secret — another grim-but-gripping chapter in a more-than-four-decade study of death.

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“It’s fascinating work,” Bux said at his office in the shadow of the El Paso County jail. “I never know what’s going to be here.”

As the county’s chief medical examiner, Bux led the office that probes the cause and manner of unattended and suspicious deaths, using a combination of medical science and investigative work to determine how and why people died in hundreds of cases each year. Such findings shed light on insurance and estate claims and drive criminal and civil actions.

In a profession that lends itself to obscurity in the glare of fluorescent lights, Bux was no stranger to the public eye.

During a career split between San Antonio and El Paso County, Bux served as a globe-trotting consultant for the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights and similar human rights groups, for which he examined remains from mass graves in Bosnia in 1996 and probed genocide and war crimes in Sierra Leone in 2004, among other dives into government-sanctioned murder.

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In 1998, Bux was part of a team of U.S. investigators that accused the Guatemalan government of ignoring “clear evidence” that the country’s military was involved in the death of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi Conedra, a human rights advocate, the L.A. Times reported at the time.

The bishop was beaten to death after documenting atrocities in Guatemala, including 400 civilian massacres carried out by the military, the newspaper said.

In a separate case in Guatemala, Bux played a role in documenting how a white van was repeatedly seen before the abductions, torture and killings of university student dissidents, another indication of possible government involvement, he said.

“I don’t go to Guatemala anymore,” Bux said.

As a seven-year member of the El Paso County Board of Health, Bux, a Republican, twice defied party voices in supporting needle-exchange programs for drug users, once in 2013 and again in 2017. Both measures failed, leaving Colorado Springs one of the few holdouts statewide refusing to implement an exchange program.

In his work as a coroner, Bux struck a defiant posture toward public records laws, withholding documents in several high-profile cases, including the fatal shooting of an El Paso County sheriff’s deputy, arguing that privacy trumps the public’s right to know. The Gazette is among the media outlets that challenged Bux in court, sometimes prevailing and sometimes losing public records battles.

This year, Bux helped lead a statewide charge to change Colorado law to keep the autopsies of children hidden from public view. Reporters objected en masse, citing improvements in the state’s child protection system after autopsy reports helped highlight gaps in the care of children who later died.

The measure passed both chambers, with wide bipartisan support, but Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed it.

The common thread may be Bux’s conviction to go where the facts point him, and to hold his position regardless of pushback.

“I don’t negotiate,” he said in explaining the independence of a coroner’s work. “My opinion is as good as my information.”

He completed side jobs as a consultant in his own time, including his work on the Tillman case, which he said he is barred from discussing under terms of a nondisclosure agreement.

The son of a physician, Bux was born in Kansas and raised in Arcata in northwestern California.

After studying at zoology at the University of Washington, Bux took a left turn into the field of medicine — learning Spanish over the summer break before enrolling in medical school at the Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara in Jalisco, Mexico.

An Army doctor, he was assigned in 1982 to Fort Carson, marking his introduction to Colorado. Two years later, he was appointed chief deputy of the post’s department of pathology, discovering by “accident” his love for the work, fueled by the satisfaction of solving medical mysteries and bringing closure to families, he said.

Bux began work as a staff medical examiner in Bexar County, Texas, home to San Antonio, in 1984 and stayed through 2002, rising to deputy chief.

In 2002, he returned to Colorado Springs, this time as an associate coroner in El Paso County. He was appointed coroner in January 2006 and elected that year to the first of his three terms. There are no term limits for coroners in Colorado. Bux said he is retiring with plans to pursue neglected hobbies — fishing among them — and to spend more time with his family, including grandchildren in South Carolina.

While serving in El Paso County, Bux continued his humanitarian work abroad while working to improve professional standards at the Coroner’s Office.

Under Bux’s lead, the office relocated to an expanded facility in 2013, leaving behind an aging building prone to floods and foul odors.

Although the move was not far — from one county-owned building to another near the jail — the change in scenery was dramatic.

Previously four or five investigators shared a single cramped office, doctors doubled up, and security was lax. Poorly routed ventilation piped the smell of decomposing bodies into an administrative area, where it clung to upholstery and lingered for days.

“You ended up taking it home with you,” said Sandy Way, an employee of 27 years, who said she grew to live with the aroma.

At the new facility, decomposing bodies, like other new arrivals, come in by means of a secure loading dock, and are all but quarantined behind a vaultlike door, in a refrigerated, air-tight room with separate ventilation.

Elsewhere, state-of-the-art equipment fills well-lit, spacious offices, with enough vacant space to accommodate up to 25 years of projected population growth — what Bux considers among his proudest accomplishments.

Among the amenities is a low-dose X-ray scanner, said to be the only device of its kind in operation at a coroner’s office in Colorado. The $500,000, room-size machine can scan bodies within 13 seconds, detecting bullet fragments, knife tips and orthopedic devices whose serial numbers can help quickly confirm a person’s identity.

A histology laboratory makes it possible to examine human tissue on a molecular level, and blood and bodily fluids are processed with a dual-column gas chromatograph, the “gold standard” for determining blood alcohol levels, Bux said.

Those resources, along with a staff of board-certified physicians and investigators, enabled El Paso County to take on autopsy requests from other counties, providing a critical service while raking in revenue for the county.

In 2017, for example, roughly a quarter of the 1,215 autopsies performed by the office were for out-of-county deaths, raising more than $500,000 for the general fund, or roughly 20 percent of the coroner’s $2.6 million budget.

“My people work harder for less,” Bux beamed during a recent tour. “My people hustle.”

In a personal touch, Bux’s family dog, Bailey, became a fixture in the coroner’s hallways. Resembling an oversize poodle at 15, the mixed Polish Lowland sheepdog and Portuguese water dog is drawn to grieving families.

“He comes in and kind of takes over and gets everybody calmed down, so what we tell them is what they hear,” Bux said.

What’s said in a coroner’s office can leave lasting marks on people mourning loved ones.

In one memorable case, from 2008, Bux directed an investigation that used odds and ends found at a crime scene to reconstruct how a Crystal Park father killed his two sons, ages 5 and 21 months.

The boys, who were part of a custody battle, were found lying next to each other in bed, stained with blood, but they had no obvious injuries.

Testing and a close examination of a disabled Jeep belonging to their father, Scott A. Montgomery, revealed they were gassed in a garage before Montgomery placed their bodies in a bed and crawled in with them. The blood, investigators determined, belonged to Montgomery, who had slashed his wrists in a bid to die at their side.

Montgomery was killed by El Paso County sheriff’s deputies after charging at them with a knife moments after they discovered the boys’ bodies during a welfare check.

A bust of a man’s head in a conference room adjoining Bux’s personal office highlights another haunting case.

After Colorado Springs police found skeletal remains in a storm drain at the entrance of North Cheyenne Canon Park a decade ago, investigators commissioned a forensic analyst to recreate what the person might have looked like.

When the police detective in charge of the investigation saw the model — with its distinctive, broad nose — he instantly recognized the dead man from a missing person’s file. With an identity now assured, a proper homicide investigation could begin.

It remains unsolved — full of questions that the next coroner, Dr. Leon Kelly, might be called upon to answer.

Bux said he leaves the office in good hands, having spent the past two to three years mentoring Kelly in preparation for the transition, expecting that voters would approve.

“He’ll take this place further and higher and better,” Bux said. “I’ve done about all I could do.”

Gazette reporter Jakob Rodgers contributed to this story.

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