Savannah coroner of 40 years exits under suspicion

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 11, 2013 at 8:30 am •  Published: January 11, 2013

The coroner is quoted saying he feels sympathetic for the accused, considering the victim was ill-tempered and vitriolic: "Hell, I'd have shot Danny Hansford too."

In 1996, the coroner tried to solve a mystery that had lingered since the Revolutionary War when he exhumed human remains buried beneath Savannah's 1854 monument to Brig. Gen. Casimir Pulaski, the Polish nobleman regarded as the father of the American cavalry.

Pulaski was killed leading colonial cavalrymen in an ill-fated attempt to re-capture Savannah from the British on Oct. 9, 1779. Historical accounts conflicted on what happened to his body. Some said he was buried at sea, but others claimed he was buried in an unmarked grave and those remains were later moved to the Pulaski monument in Monterey Square.

Metts and a team of experts spent years trying to extract DNA from the remains for comparison with a descendent in Poland. They gave up in 2005, reporting the results were inconclusive. Regardless, Pulaski received a hero's funeral in Savannah on the 226th anniversary of the battle.

The GBI investigation comes after Chatham County officials conducted an audit of Metts' office, a copy of which was obtained by The Savannah Morning News. The Associated Press requested a copy of the audit under Georgia's Open Records Act, but county attorneys refused, citing the criminal investigation.

In its report, The Savannah Morning News said auditors questioned payments for a secretary the coroner didn't have. Metts told auditors the money went to supplement the pay of his assistant coroner and to cover other office expenses, the newspaper reported.

The newspaper also said auditors flagged $7,112 in personal property taxes; $3,707 in auto insurance payments for private vehicles; $2,549 for personal cellphone bills and a payment to the county Republican Party for $1,638 — the amount Metts owed the local GOP last year to qualify as a candidate for coroner.

After Metts resigned, a judge appointed another physician, Dr. Bill Wessinger, to serve as coroner. Georgia law says the appointed coroner will serve until the next general election, which will come in 2014.

It appears the former coroner may have hoped to settle the case without involving authorities. On Dec. 28, a check for $126,000 from Metts' personal bank account was sent to county officials along with a letter from his son, attorney James Metts III, asking that the money be applied to "accounting discrepancies" uncovered by auditors.

The county received a second check from Metts, this time for $15,000, on Tuesday. Jon Hart, the county attorney, said officials had not decided what to do with the checks.

While Metts relished his work as a physician and coroner, he never was much of a bookkeeper, friends said.

"The last thing he wanted to do was pay attention and cross T's and dot I's on administrative stuff," Seiler said.