First Alert Investigation: Concerns about the Cape County Coroner

Two Cape Girardeau County families who are still grieving describe troubling interactions with the county coroner
Published: Oct. 5, 2023 at 3:13 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 5, 2023 at 10:30 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (KFVS) - The county coroner is a position that holds a great deal of power.

The coroner is the only one who can arrest a sheriff, and the only one who can call for a death investigation.

Wavis Jordan became Cape Girardeau County Coroner in January 2021.

Jordan won a three-way Republican Primary in August 2020 with 39 percent of the vote.

Right now, the Missouri Attorney General’s office is deciding whether Jordan will face a misdemeanor stealing charge--connected to money missing from a deceased person during a welfare check back in April.

Jordan tells us exclusively--he did not do it.

But as that process continues--we have learned about several complaints leveled against Jordan involving his behavior with grieving families, his handling of bodies, and the way he runs his office.

And we’ve done our own digging.

We’ve got an in-depth look at those concerns, starting with a Cape Girardeau woman who lost her husband less than a month ago.

“Kevin was a showman”, Joni Hand says of her husband of 23 years. “He was a comedian. He loved being in front of people and making people happy.”

Kevin Hand showed that side of himself often following his battle colon cancer.

As the Cancer Chicken. We spoke to Hand about it back in June of 2018.

“In my case, it was a real battle with fear”, Hand told us. “And fear is epitomized by chickens. So here I am in a chicken suit.”

“It went beyond just the Cancer Chicken”, Joni says. “It was more about just doing good works for people.” On September 8th--Joni believes Kevin collapsed while training for his next race.

She called 9-1-1 and learned a crew had already been dispatched to the Cape La Croix Trail.

Hand says she expected a call back from the police with an update.

But the next call she received came from Cape Girardeau County Coroner Wavis Jordan.

“And he didn’t identify himself as the coroner”, Hand tells me. “I didn’t recognize his name.” And what did he say? I asked.

“He was looking for my house and he was lost. I thought he was from the police department to give me some information about Kevin.” Hand says she met Jordan out in the street. He approached her with a handful of papers and asked her name. “I said yeah, I’m Joni Hand. And without even blinking he said, “I’m sorry to tell you but your husband has passed away”. Didn’t identify himself as the coroner. Nothing. And I mean, I still don’t know even know what happened in those moments. And he was staring at me. And he said-did you hear what I said?” He repeated the news again, Hand says. She asked to see her husband. Jordan told her she’d have to pick a funeral home first. “And then he started to talk to me about the different options that I had. Who was the cheapest. Who was the best. As I’m standing in the street, two seconds earlier having heard that my husband had died. There was no empathy. There was no sympathy. There was nothing. It was--just talking about it makes me nauseous. It was horrific.”

Concerns about Wavis Jordan’s behavior are echoed in several complaints we found contained in documents sent to us by the Cape County Commission, County Clerk, and Prosecuting Attorney through a Missouri Sunshine Law request. Longtime ER nurse Terra Aufdenberg sent her complaint to the County Commission in early July. “Coroner Jordan’s behavior was so unprofessional, I just didn’t know what to do with it”, she tells me.

Aufdenberg wrote the email just days after she witnessed Jordan’s interaction with her close friends Dan and Robin Rose the night they lost their 24 year old daughter, Scarlett. “”Scarlett was quite a unique young lady”, Dan Rose tells me. “She was born with cerebral palsy. And despite obstacles that come along with having CP, she never let anything get in her way. Never.” Dan Rose takes me back to that painful night.

They found Scarlett unconscious.

Started CPR.

Called 911. He recalls a houseful of first responders when Coroner Wavis Jordan arrived and asked to speak with him outside. “And he asked me, so tell me about your daughter’s disease”, Rose recalls. “And I said let me correct you. It’s not a disease. Cerebral palsy is a condition. And it’s not something that progresses typically.” Rose says he spent 10 to 15 minutes explaining Scarlett’s condition to Jordan. “So, when I was done, he went right back to his original point. He said so, explain to me again how the disease works. So three times, Kathy, I had to correct him that it’s not a disease. It’s CP. Cerebral palsy.” Back inside, both Rose and Aufdenberg say Jordan then began asking a series of questions they did not expect. “Would she be embalmed, or would we want to have her cremated?”, Rose recalls Jordan asking. “Things that wasn’t really his place to ask.”

“He told Robin that they were going to put Scarlett in a bag and zip it up”, Aufdenberg recalls. “Why would you say that to a parent who just lost their child?” Rose also had concerns about Jordan’s comments regarding Scarlett’s possible cause of death. “So, Coroner Jordan would stand there and have a verbal debate with himself. It wasn’t like he was talking to us. Trying to decide if he felt like it was this or that. Did she choke to death or a heart issue. And all of this with very little knowledge that I could see demonstrated.”

Rose says he did appreciate Jordan agreeing that night to call Scarlett’s doctors so he could learn more about her condition. But Rose tells me he later learned; those calls never happened. “What happens the next time he runs into another scenario where that person has cerebral palsy. Will he be any more knowledgeable the second time than he was the first? I can’t say yes. Because he didn’t seek to understand.

Another incident involving Coroner Jordan reported to the County Commission involved a 90-year-old Cape Girardeau woman named Annie Pruitt.

Pruitt died in her home on July 22nd, but these records indicate her body remained in the coroner’s custody until mid-September.

The Pruitt case came to the County Commission’s attention on August 24th, when an employee from Crain Funeral Home questioned why Wavis Jordan wanted Ms. Pruitt’s case handled as an indigent cremation.

That happens when someone dies with no immediate family or assets and could qualify for a cremation paid for by the county.

She gave Commissioners three documents faxed over to Crain by the coroner’s office on August 11th.

The first contains wrong information about Pruitt’s birth and death dates.

The second shows Pruitt had a daughter who signed over the rights to her mother’s body.

But the third indicates Pruitt had no family.

I spoke to funeral home owner Brian Crain by phone.

He told me despite the confusion, his team got to work.

They knew Ms. Pruitt had a home and would not qualify as indigent.

Crain says they learned Pruitt’s daughter had since passed away but found a distant relative.

At the same time, emails between the coroner and commissioners show Jordan still considered Ms. Pruitt an indigent case.

On September 8th, one email indicates the coroner reached out to a second funeral home, Ford and Sons, to have her handled as indigent.

Ultimately, Annie Pruitt’s distant relative agreed to have Crain Funeral Home handle her cremation.

Her estate would cover the cost.

That happened on September 18th.

When I asked Brian Crain if Ms. Pruitt’s case was handled correctly by the coroner’s office he told me, “It certainly was not”.

Joni Hand and Dan Rose did not find it easy to speak about their interactions with the Cape Girardeau County Coroner.

But both felt they should. “My hope is that something changes so that somebody that is more suited for that position--both with their credentials and their disposition--can take that position”, Hand says. “Because right now it’s just not working.”

“Mr. Jordan was polite”, Rose tells me. “He was kind. He attempted to show empathy. But there were other core competencies that I think anyone would expect a professional to have. And he just did not demonstrate those to us that night.”