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September 23, 2021

Messages show fired Rowan medical examiner didn’t think hole in man’s head was bullet wound

SALISBURY — A former Rowan County medical examiner told superiors in June she saw a hole in the head of Edward Leland Geouge III, but she didn’t think it was a gunshot wound because there was no exit point, no mention of foul play, no gang affiliation, no drugs and “nothing suspicious.”

Geouge, 28, was killed June 9 after being shot by Rene Oscar Gomez Jr., according to the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office. Gomez and Geouge lived on Saw Road, where the latter was found outside of a rolled-over vehicle. Geouge’s widow, Victoria, told the Post his body was set to be cremated until workers at Wilkinson Funeral Home in Concord raised questions on June 10 about a hole in the right side of Geouge’s head that the medical examiner, Lakisha Hayes, noticed one day earlier.

“The funeral home picked the body up the morning of 6/10/21 and called me and asked about the wound,” Hayes wrote in an email obtained by the Post through a public records request. “They informed me they were pretty sure it was a gunshot wound based on their experience.”

For failing to identify a gunshot wound, clean the body or remove clothes, Hayes was suspended on June 11 and prevented from responding to new cases until further investigation into the incident could take place. State officials revoked Hayes’ appointment as a Rowan County medical examiner on July 29, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services told the Post.

Trish Fore, a medical examiner trainer, predicted the likely outcome in a mid-June message to Hayes, saying, “I’m not sure you can recover from this big of a mistake.”

Hayes declined to comment Friday on her inspection of Geouge’s body.

‘Never reported to me’

A public report by the N.C. Highway Patrol describes only what happened to the car Geouge was driving. It was traveling on Saw Road when it ran off the roadway and into several fence posts in the 300 block. After impact, the vehicle came to rest on its roof in a field, facing north. While the initial crash report states the vehicle was traveling north, an email from Hayes said troopers later determined the vehicle was traveling south before the crash.

Geouge’s body was transported to the Rowan Medical Center morgue, where Hayes performed an external exam. She took pictures, “noted an approximate .5x.5 cm hole on the right side of his head” and that the right eye was swollen. Geouge wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, according to the N.C. Medical Examiner’s Office.

“There was no exit wound, so I believed it could have been from the accident,” she said. “In the report I received from law enforcement, there was no mention of foul play, no gang affiliation, no drugs or paraphernalia. At the time, there was nothing suspicious indicating the suspicion of a gunshot wound. My plan was to follow up with law enforcement the next day to see if they had any more info because the last time I spoke with the officer they were still investigating and still no suspicion of foul play.”

The Highway Patrol relies on medical examiners to make determinations about the cause of death, and their conclusions dictate the type of investigation that occurs and which agency investigates, a spokesman told the Post. Hayes initially ruled the case to be a death caused by debris in the rollover or a possible ejection. She did not report Geouge’s death as a potential homicide to the N.C. Medical Examiner’s Office, according to emails obtained by the Post through the public records request.

After the Concord funeral home identified the gunshot wound, Hayes learned from law enforcement officers that Geouge “had some issues” with someone that lived on the road he crashed on and that there was a change in the direction of travel, according to an email sent by Hayes.

“I am more than willing to take responsibility for my part but also feel that law enforcement should have contacted me as soon as the story took a turn and new evidence had been given,” she wrote. “I plan to sign the suspension letter and also email in my side of the story, take any course you have on gunshot wound identification and any other suggested courses. Going forward I will consider every possible situation when performing an external of any kind.”

State steps in

Geouge’s body was transported from Rowan County to the N.C. Medical Examiner’s Office in Raleigh, where an X-ray found a projectile in his head on June 11. It was the same day the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office announced an investigation into Geouge’s death and when state officials told Hayes about her suspension.

Trooper Christopher Doty told Brian Hyson, a death investigator for the Medical Examiner’s Office, skid marks on Saw Road indicated Geouge slammed on the brakes and swerved to the right to avoid a collision with an object in the roadway, according to an email from Hyson to Chief Medical Examiner Michelle Aurelius and other staff members. Doty also told Hyson about how Geouge might have been killed.

“SHP speculates that the two vehicles were traveling at a high rate of speed, the truck brake-checked the decedent who braked and swerved, that one of the occupants of the white truck got out and shot the decedent as he was crawling out of his overturned vehicle, and then fled the scene as the bystander pulled up behind them,” Hyson wrote. “SHP stated that he was found lying supine with his head turned far to the right so the gunshot wound was not visible without moving the body. They did not see the wound because they do not move the body (at least not without the medical examiner).”

State officials on June 17 told other Rowan County medical examiners about Hayes’ suspension in an email. Medical examiners in Rowan County are contractors for the state, not full-time employees, and are assigned duty days.

Severity of the situation

After the Raleigh News & Observer’s email newsletter named N.C. Insider quoted a Salisbury Post new article about Hayes’ suspension, Assistant Secretary for Public Health Mark T. Benton took a personal interest in the matter, asking for more information in case other media outlets inquired. A staff attorney responded that Hayes was responsive and apologetic when confronted with issues in the past about rushed examinations and poorly written reports, but hadn’t followed up on retraining and re-direction.

Fore said the suspension came rapidly because of the severity of the mistake.

“When I reviewed the photos I was a bit shocked that you missed this injury, it’s pretty clear right off that it’s a (gunshot wound),” Fore wrote. “I’m also concerned that you never removed clothing or cleaned the wounds and I guess you are lucky in that he didn’t have more than one (gunshot wound). This will be addressed as well since we can only assume you never do full thorough examinations on your external cases.”

Maj. John Sifford of the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office said the case against Gomez, who is charged with murder as well as crimes unrelated to Geouge’s death, is awaiting a trial. Gomez remains in the Rowan County Detention Center and his next court date is Sept. 30.

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