Crawford County coroner falls ill after arrest on alleged oath violation

Shortly after Crawford County Coroner Allen O’Neal was handcuffed Friday morning on a charge that he had violated his oath of office, he sustained a medical emergency that caused him to be admitted to a local hospital.

O’Neal turned himself in after a judge signed arrest warrants Thursday afternoon on two charges related to O’Neal’s refusing to go to a death call last Saturday, said J.T. Ricketson, the special agent in charge of the GBI’s Perry office.

In talking with the GBI on Thursday, attorney Michelle Smith and her client, O’Neal, were under the impression that they had an agreement that O’Neal would turn himself in, be processed, bonded and immediately released, Smith said in a Friday email.

But after O’Neal turned himself in, someone told him no one could sign his bond until Monday -- meaning he’d have to spend the weekend in jail, Smith said.

“Mr. O’Neal’s blood pressure skyrocketed to stroke range,” she said. “He was sent to the hospital.”

O’Neal was booked into the Crawford County jail just before 2:15 p.m. Friday and is being held without bond, according to the sheriff’s office.

Smith said her client “has never violated his oath of office and has faithfully executed his duties” for more than 30 years.

“The arrest is a blatant retaliation for Mr. O’Neal’s continued requests for the proper equipment to perform his duties,” she said.

Last year, O’Neal sued Crawford County, saying the county needed to provide an office, car, supplies, Internet and fax equipment at his house.

O’Neal sent a letter to commissioners in March stating that as of April 1, he would no longer use his personal vehicle for professional calls.

Several times in the letter he stated in capital letters that he would still “faithfully execute my lawful duties.”

About a week ago, a relative of County Manager Pat Kelly died, and O’Neal said he was handling the case from home because the deceased had been in poor health.

“There are certain circumstances that require the presence of the coroner,” Ricketson said. “If there’s any question as to the death, then you expect the coroner to go because you’ve got to make a determination. You’ve got to go. You can’t just do stuff on the phone.”

Based on that episode, Ricketson said there was enough evidence that O’Neal violated his oath of office.

He met with Chief Superior Court Judge Tilman E. Self III, who dismissed O’Neal’s lawsuit against the county on Monday and signed warrants for O’Neal’s arrest.

“When you are dealing with a case of this magnitude and level, it’s just good to get a Superior Court judge to look over our warrant and probable cause,” Ricketson said.

O’Neal fired Deputy Coroner Kent Winslett for responding to the death of Kelly’s brother-in-law after O’Neal insisted that Wins­lett not take his own car. O’Neal threatened to arrest Winslett if he signed the death certificate.

Ricketson said the attorneys would determine if additional charges or disciplinary action is possible related to Winslett’s firing.

“I know in state employment, when you have a superior that gives you an order that you feel is illegal, you have a right to disobey,” Ricketson said. “It takes a lot of character and fortitude to stand up to a supervisor even when he’s being threatened.”

In some deaths, the coroner is not required to respond, such as when a patient is under hospice care.

Ricketson believes O’Neal should have answered the call for Kelly’s relative.

“This is the first death that has occurred that he didn’t respond,” Ricketson said. “We didn’t choose who died. It just happened that way.”

The felony charge of violation of oath of office carries a potential sentence of up to five years, Ricketson said.

O’Neal also faces a misdemeanor charge of “using deliberate means to delay or avoid the due course or proceeding of law.”

Telegraph writer Amy Leigh Womack contributed to this report. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.