A report on the death of windsurfer Yu Chen is now in the hands of Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne. Chen was killed in Lake Mendota May 31 after a collision with a University of Wisconsin-Madison Lifesaving Station rescue boat.
Barry Irmen, director of operations for the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office, said reports on deaths that prompt law enforcement investigations — including accidents, suicides and homicides — typically are sent to the district attorney’s office.
Irmen would not say what the finding of manner of death was in the Chen case.
Ozanne did not respond Tuesday to a message asking when he anticipated a decision on whether to bring charges in the case.
It had been anticipated that the death investigation would be completed much more quickly. A spokeswoman for the Dane County Sheriff’s Office alluded to a four to six-week time frame early on, but Irmen said the medical examiner’s office is too short-handed to meet case turnaround goals.
Chen, 43, was a popular volunteer windsurfing instructor with the Hoofers Sailing Club, UW-Madison’s oldest student organization. Chen had checked out a board from Hoofers and had been working with a student in the water shortly before being struck by a rescue power boat near UW-Madison's Lifesaving Station at 144 E. Gilman St. The lifesaving station boat was returning from another rescue call when it collided with Chen, a spokesman said. Three employees of the lifesaving station reportedly were on the boat when it collided with Chen.
The lifesaving station is part of UW-Madison’s Department of Environment, Health and Safety under the Division of Facilities Planning and Management.
Frustrated by the lack of information on Chen’s death, Milwaukee attorney Jay A. Urban sought to force its release through a court filing, seeking information on the rescue boat and its maintenance, the UW workers and their training, and other matters. Urban anticipates a wrongful death suit by Chen’s family.
Irmen said that his office is short two forensic pathologists, meaning it cannot meet the goal of a 60-day turnaround for uncomplicated cases.
“We’re probably three times that now,” Irmen said.
Forensic pathologists are medical doctors with special training who perform autopsies.
Added to the staff shortage are the challenges of more complicated homicides, deaths of children and infants, and the uptick in opioid overdose deaths. “It’s kind of a perfect storm right now,” Irmen said.
The medical examiner’s office has funds to hire the pathologists and has been recruiting for more than a year, he said. But there is a national shortage of forensic pathologists, who are paid less than their counterparts at hospital laboratories, he said.
Michael Stier, an associate professor of pathology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, spoke of the forensic pathologist shortage for a TV news report earlier this year.
Stein has more bodies to examine than time, he told WZAW News in Wausau.
"There is no place to do forensic autopsies in northern Wisconsin. Marathon County sends its decedents for autopsy to Fond du Lac County Medical Examiner’s Office and UW. There's just a void, a vacancy up there," Stier said.
Dr. David Fowler, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, an accreditation agency, last year predicted a crisis in forensic pathology. “Many offices are struggling with resources. It is a problem nationally,” Fowler said.
Only about 40 forensic pathologists graduate from fellowship programs each year, which is just enough to keep up with the retirement rate, Fowler said.
“I anticipate a bit of a crisis in the near future,” he said.