(Editor’s Note: This is the fourth story in a four-part series interviewing four candidates who have qualified to run for St. Tammany Coroner.)
By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West news
SLIDELL – There are four highly-qualified physicians who have qualified to run for St. Tammany coroner in the primary election set for Saturday, April 5.
But Dr. Charles Preston of Slidell believes he has unique qualifications that make him the best candidate in the field.
With much attention being given to the coroner’s race this year following the recent conviction and prison sentence for former Coroner Dr. Peter Galvan, all the candidates are pointing at the opportunity to move forward, operate the department with transparency, and take full advantage of the state-of-the-art facility Galvan was responsible for having built in Lacombe.
But Preston, who has spent his life as an emergency medicine physician, said he sees the spotlight on the Coroner’s Office as an opportunity to educate the public about the important work being done there—especially when it comes to handling emergency cases, and the evidence that needs to be compiled with important investigations into sexual assault.
“Law enforcement agencies have been involved in handling the evidence for sexual assaults, and they have done the best job they could. But these cases are best handled in an ER and it is the Coroner’s Office who is most qualified to gather the evidence properly and assure it is processed correctly for trial. These women have been victimized—I’ve seen it many times in my years in the ER—it’s a brutal crime, but we can do a better job to respect the dignity of the victims and handle the evidence correctly. I’ve got the experience to know how to get it done,” he said.
Preston worked for 20 years in the Charity Hospital emergency room and saw every kind of case almost on a nightly basis. From gunshot wounds to psychiatric evaluations to sexual assaults, he said he spent many years essentially serving as an assistant coroner.
“I have worked with the police and deputies to gather important evidence and make determinations that aid in prosecution,” he said. “That’s something the Coroner’s Office needs to be in charge of.”
As co-owner of Doctors Urgent Care in Slidell, Preston said he is in a position to be a full-time coroner, even though the job is not spelled out to require that kind of commitment.
“Given the salary of the job for a physician, this looks like a part-time job as an administrator,” he said. “But I am retired from my daily practice and will work full-time to make the Coroner’s Office better. The peoples view is that something is missing from the department and we need to be transparent and accountable. That’s what I plan to bring.”
Preston, 57, has never run for public office before, but he said he was steadily urged by a host of friends, patients and community members to run for the job as Galvan’s past year unwound
“Many people said I needed to run because I was the most qualified person for the job, given my history in emergency medicine,” he said. “I know part of the job is administrative, but I have that experience as well, previously serving as chief of emergency medicine at Slidell Memorial, and operating Urgent Care with up to 25 employees.”
Preston said he also wants to tackle one of the other key responsibilities of the Coroner’s Office, which is the mental health issue—including evaluations and commitments. Current Deputy Coroner Dr. Leanne Truehart said she was in charge of commitments the past two years and signed 2,600 orders.
“That sounds like a lot of commitments in two years and it makes me wonder, where did they put all those people since we certainly don’t have that many psychiatric beds,” Preston said. “I don’t think a straight-jacket is the answer for everyone. Two of my brothers killed themselves, so I understand about mental health issues. We need to look much closer at how we can help people with these issues.”
Several other candidates in the race said they would like to utilize the DNA lab and crime lab more fully at the new facility, something they believe could reduce or eliminate the current millage which was recently reduced from 3.38 to 2.96 by the St. Tammany Parish Council.
Preston wasn’t so quick to say he would make such a promise.
“We have to keep enough millage to maintain the integrity of the office. The new building is a fabulous facility, but death investigations are serious work and the first priority is to serve St. Tammany. I want to reduce the millage just as much as anyone else and I think there is the possibility to bring in more work since the facility was certainly overbuilt for our parish. But I don’t want to compromise the work to serve our community,” he said.
Preston has been married for 20 years and the couple has two daughters, ages 18 and 16.