Coroners Investigate NorCal Forensic Expert

SANTA ROSA, CA. –  Dr. Thomas Gill, a forensic pathologist with a checkered past, left a trail of bungled autopsies across Northern California, according to Santa Rosa private investigator Chris Reynolds.

In 2001, an attorney hired Reynolds to work on the case of Dr. Louis Pelfini, a Petaluma physician, accused of murdering his wife.

“Janet Pelfini was found dead outside of her home one evening,” Reynolds said. “And (Gill) was the person assigned to do the autopsy.”

Reynolds said he made a startling discovery.

“Dr. Gill claimed that the injuries he saw in the autopsy led him to conclude that it was a ‘textbook’ case of suffocation,” Reynolds said.

Gill worked for the Forensic Medical Group of Fairfield, a private firm with contracts to do autopsies for 16 Northern California counties, including Sonoma County. He had served as the expert court witness in numerous cases.

Pelfini was indicted for murder, but Reynolds soon discovered major holes in the autopsy Gill performed on Mrs. Pelfini.

“There were no pictures,” Reynolds said. “He did not properly document what he claimed he did.”

Tapes of Gill being coached to explain his confusing findings soon came to light.

Reynolds acquired tapes where Gill declared, “There are deficiencies in the autopsy. We have alluded to that.”

At one point, Gill tried to describe the location of a bruise on the head as behind the right ear. Before his rambling explanation was over, he put the bruise in three other locations on the right and left side of the head and neck.

Charges against Pelfini were dropped when the judge learned the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office was aware of the autopsy errors and had hired the coach to work with Gill on his court testimony.

Reynolds said Pelfini’s attorney contended Janet Pelfini died when she fell and hit her head during a massive asthma attack.

A California State Bar report dubbed Gill as an “incompetent pathologist.”

The report stated Gill had “committed several serious errors” including “failing to take any photographs, failing to diagram the neck dissection, failing note a scar (on the) neck, placing incorrectly (a) bruise and failing to note mucus plugging that would have been consistent with asthma.”

A checkered past

The bar report also noted Reynold’s background investigation of Gill, which revealed “Gill had serious problems in his past.”

Gill’s working career was filled with autopsies riddled with errors. He had been demoted and terminated at several jobs around the U.S. and at one point, may have had a drinking problem.

Gill taught for almost 20 years at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. During the coaching tapes, he admitted a possible drinking problem ended his career at the school in 1992.

Gill landed in Indianapolis, but by 1994 a prosecutor encountered Gill while he was testifying at a deposition about a shooting victim. The prosecutor said he “observed a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage on the breath of Dr. Gill. His face was flushed and his hands were unsteady.”

Gill testified about errors in his autopsy. A week later the Marion County Coroner’s Office issued a complaint, calling Gill’s testimony “inaccurate and contradictory.” It concluded “Dr. Gill’s credibility is lost forever with the law enforcement community.”

Marion County elected to terminate Gill, but before his contract could end he was on his way to work when he was arrested for driving under the influence.

The California State Bar report said, the “drunken driving arrest resulted in a temporary suspension of (Gill’s) medical license.”

Gill moved to Los Angeles next where the report said, “he failed to secure permanent employment” and was “demoted due to concerns about his skills as a forensic pathologist.”

Then Gill went to Fairfield, where he was hired by the Forensic Medical Group. He left there and went to Kansas where Reynolds said records show he lost his job, again.

Return to California

By 2006, the Forensic Medical Group in Fairfield rehired Gill.

Reynolds said between 2007 and 2009 the forensic pathologist conducted more than 1,000 autopsies in nine counties including Napa, Contra Costa, Sutter, Yolo and Solano counties.

Yolo County and Solano County are reviewing some of Gill’s cases.

“We had always had concerns about the sloppiness of his work but never concerns about the quality of his work,” Solano County’s Deputy Coroner Lt. Gary Faulkner said.

Faulkner explained Gill did 200 autopsies for his office before an incident in 2008.

“Our forensic technician located a fully intact organ for the decedent that hadn’t been properly addressed by Dr. Gill,” Faulkner explained.

The organ was a spleen that was fished out of a garbage disposal in an autopsy room.

Faulkner pointed out the spleen showed no signs of being dissected but, “Dr. Gill turned in a report saying he had done an examination on that organ which we knew had never occured.”

Solano County let Gill go and hired a full-time pathologist and two part-timers to review 27 homicides Gill handled.

“It will take us a while to go through all of it,” Faulkner said.

Faulkner added that so far examiners have not found any problems with Gill’s cases.

Looking for work

Other counties refused to take Gill on, according to Reynolds. With little work for him, the Forensic Medical Group cut its ties with him in December 2010.

Reynolds hopes Gill stays retired.

“He shows no signs of improvement that I can see,” Reynolds mused. “I think it’s time for him to hang it up.”

By Karen Massie,