Medical examiner picked

Florida forensics expert to split time between counties, MU duties
Tuesday, February 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:30 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

A certified forensic pathologist from Florida is the new chief medical examiner for Boone and Callaway counties.

Valerie Rao, who officially begins work March 1, will investigate murders and other violent crimes in the area. She also specializes in dealing with sexual assault victims, particularly children.

At a press conference Monday, Boone County Commissioner Skip Elkin called Rao’s appointment a “new dawn” for the medical examiner’s office, saying she embodies a “community service — to provide assistance to law enforcement, to the judicial system, and to give families answers.”

While her title reflects a full-time commitment to Boone and Callaway Counties, Rao was actually hired by MU and will be contracted out as medical examiner to the counties. Of Rao’s $160,000 yearly salary, Boone County will contribute $55,000 and Callaway will add $25,000.

“Our counties don’t have enough (money) to employ a full-time forensic pathologist of this caliber,” Doug Anthony, chair of MU’s pathology department, said. “Dr. Rao will be a vibrant, strong member of the MU faculty, as well as an excellent example of how MU and local governments can collaborate.”

Rao will split her time between duties as chief medical examiner and faculty positions with MU’s Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences and Department of Child Health, where she will teach courses in forensic pathology to law and law enforcement students. She is also expected to serve as medical examiner for smaller surrounding counties on a case-by-case basis.

Rao, 59, moved to the United States in 1980 from Madras, India. She served as a forensic pathologist in Miami-Dade County, Fla., beginning in 1981 and was chief medical examiner for Florida’s 5th District in Leesburg, Fla., from April 2000 to July 2003.

Rao said Monday that she “chose not to seek reappointment” in Florida, citing an easier caseload and the opportunity to work more closely with rape victims in mid-Missouri as attractions to this area.

However, the St. Petersburg Times reported on May 28, 2003, that complaints were filed by law enforcement officials in Florida’s 5th District, alleging Rao “walked barefoot through a bloodied crime scene, probed a victim’s bullet wound with an ungloved hand and poked another victim’s wound with a tree branch.”

“I don’t know where these statements came from,” Rao said. “It was one sheriff that said these things, and there were other issues there.”

Officials in Florida could not be reached for comment.

Rao emphasized that she always wears gloves on the job, adding that concerns about AIDS and hepatitis make taking proper precautions even more crucial.

Anthony, a member of the selection committee that picked Rao out of a pool of about 16 applicants, said, “We were aware of these stories (before hiring), but we’ve talked to the people in Florida and we’re very confident in Dr. Rao.”

According to an MU press release, Bruce Hyma, Miami-Dade County’s chief medical examiner and a former co-worker of Rao’s, said, “It can be stated, without a doubt, that Dr. Rao is committed to a standard of excellence and trustworthiness that is unwavering.”

Rao fills the position formerly held by Jay Dix, who served as medical examiner in mid-Missouri for more than 20 years before his death in November 2002.

Rao, who cited “just getting started” as the biggest challenge she expects to face, said she’s optimistic that she can build on Dix’s foundation in office. But she expects to put her own stamp on the position.

“I don’t know how to fill another person’s shoes,” Rao said. “I have a style of my own.”

Kathryn Benson, of the Boone County Public Defender’s office and a selection committee member, said Rao’s attitude is one reason she voted for her.

“I think she’s an independent thinker, and that’s always a good thing in my book,” Benson said.

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