SALMON — Mike Mitchell learned an important lesson during his nearly 20 years as Lemhi County coroner: the dead do speak, if only in a language forensics scientists understand.
The 40-year veteran of the Lemhi County Sheriff’s Office will retire at the end of the year as a deputy and coroner, an office he was appointed to fill in 1995. After his appointment, Mitchell was elected to four more four-year terms.
As coroner, Mitchell investigates all unattended deaths. During his tenure, he learned that what first meets the eye at a death scene may not mesh with what a scientific examination later reveals.
“A death from what looks like natural causes can sometimes be verified by (the) medicines people are taking or (by) talking to their family, but a lot of times, we’ll send the body off for an autopsy and blood samples for a toxicology report,” he said.
‘It’s not optional’
Mitchell has seen all manner of death – the very young, the very old and the very unexpected. The job, which he said demands compassion and patience, has taught him not to fear his own mortality.
“I’m not really afraid to die any more. I’m not in a hurry, but I’ve learned this about death — it’s not optional,” Mitchell said.
Still, his acceptance of the inevitable is rocked when the victim is a child, such as the toddler who died in an apartment fire in Salmon in 2010. The 81-year-old has eight adult children of his own, two dozen grandchildren and more than a dozen great-grandchildren.
“What has really bothered me is little kids (the) suicides and a couple nasty traffic accidents where people were mangled pretty bad,” he said. “It don’t get any easier.”
A Lemhi icon
Known for his white hair, mustache and cowboy hat, Mitchell is a recognizable figure in a county that spans an area larger than Delaware, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia combined.
“Mike’s an icon,” Lemhi County Sheriff Lynn Bowerman said. “Everyone in the county knows him and he knows the county like the back of his hand.”
Mitchell worked dispatch in the early days, when notification to law enforcement about an emergency call entailed activating a red light atop a downtown building.
“When it came on, the officer knew he had a situation,” Mitchell said.
The retired Air Force sergeant, who served a year in Korea in 1953, spent part of his childhood in Gibbonsville in the northern tip of Lemhi County. Later, he graduated from Salmon High School.
“I know most of the country around here, it’s a lot of rugged country that takes you a while to climb it,” Mitchell said.
Working for a legend
The former volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician said he respected the five sheriffs for whom he has worked, including the late Bill Baker.
Baker’s tenure several decades ago saw him look and act the part of sheriff in a fashion that appeared to come naturally.
A tall man with ruggedly handsome features, the legendary Baker was best known as “your typical Western sheriff,” Mitchell said. “He was real down-to-earth and used a lot of common sense. He was very popular.”
Changing face of crime
Computers have revolutionized law enforcement, providing officers with crucial information with the tap of a keyboard, he said.
“You can get information now in 3 minutes that used to take you a week and a half to get 40 years ago,” Mitchell said.
Crime, too, has changed in the decades since he entered law enforcement, Mitchell said, but the people are the same even if their habits are different. During the county’s logging and mining heyday, local bars ran full every weekend and fights routinely broke out.
Today’s crimes frequently are tied to drugs or domestic disturbances, Mitchell said.
Mitchell heads into retirement with mixed feelings. On one hand, he will miss the day-to-day interactions with county residents. On the other, he can expect a full night’s sleep for the first time in decades.
“I guess I’ll miss those calls at 3 o’clock in the morning, telling me I have to go to May or Patterson,” he said.