Dr. Donald Reay, who retired as King County’s Medical Examiner in 1999, will receive the nation’s highest medical examiner’s office award later this year.

Share story

When Dr. Donald Reay retired as King County’s medical examiner in 1999, he left a long legacy that included presiding over more than 5,000 autopsies, including the victims of some of the nation’s most notorious killers, and mentoring colleagues throughout the state.

Now, 16 years later, the 78-year-old will receive the Milton Helpern Laureate Award, the nation’s most prestigious award for medical examiners.

Dr. Gregory Schmunk, the chief medical examiner in Polk County, Iowa, and the past president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, calls the award “long overdue.”

Schmunk, who trained under Reay during his medical residency at the University of Washington, said the award has only been given out 10 times since it was created in 1991. He said it’s not uncommon for the award to go to someone who has retired from the profession.

“There are many qualified people. We only have the potential of giving one award out a year,” Schmunk said.

When reached this week at the Oak Harbor home he shares with wife Judy, Reay said he was “surprised and pleased” to receive the award.

“I thought if it were to come it would come sooner,” he admitted.

After he retired from King County, Reay briefly worked as a consultant. He has since fully retired from the medical-examiner profession.

Reay will receive the award during the association’s annual conference in Charlotte, N.C., in October.

According to the association, Helpern was a driving force behind the creation of the National Association of Medical Examiners in 1966. Helpern, who died in 1977, was the longtime chief medical examiner for the City of New York.

“Don Reay embodied all of the attributes of the ideal expert witness,” said King County Superior Court Judge William Downing. “He had the intellectual curiosity, the scientific objectivity and the unshakable honesty that led jurors to know they could trust every word he said from the witness stand.”

Downing, a former King County deputy prosecutor, recalls working closely with Reay when Downing prosecuted the defendants in the Wah Mee Massacre. On Feb. 18, 1983, three men entered the exclusive gambling and social club in Seattle’s Chinatown International District and bound, robbed and shot 14 people. Only one person survived. Three men were convicted.

Downing said Reay “was crucial for us in recreating the crime and figuring out the sequence of events.”

“So many expert witnesses we see become advocates and lose their credibility. The ideal expert witness seems to have the curiosity and scientific objectivity,” Downing said.

Downing recalls being “a little afraid” on more than one occasion as a prosecutor that Reay’s honesty might have a negative impact on his case.

Reay, in an interview with The Seattle Times in 1999, proclaimed: “I’m not a witness for the defense or for the prosecution. I am a witness for the dead. I’m the one person who can say anything about that person’s last minutes on Earth.”

Reay helped turn a fledgling medical examiner’s office into one that was nationally respected. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office was one of the first in the country to use genetic fingerprinting to identify homicide victims.

He conducted autopsies of victims of serial killer Ted Bundy and Green River killer Gary Ridgway, long before the latter was identified as a suspect.

He once turned down a chance to be the medical examiner of New York City.

Reay, a coal miner’s son who grew up in Wyoming and Utah, stumbled into the medical profession. He worked three summers in the mines, but thought there had to be more to life. The company’s doctor struck him as a decent fellow.

Reay earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame, and he went to medical school at the University of Utah. Before working in King County, he was a lead pathologist for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and for the Air Force Academy Hospital.

Seattle police Detective Cloyd Steiger, who has been in the department’s homicide unit since 1994, said Reay was “an icon.”

“He’s like a God. He was an incredibly knowledgeable fountain of information, but a regular guy when you talked to him,” Steiger said. “I worked with him a lot on a lot of cool cases.”

Steiger recalled one homicide scene that Reay was called out to while Reay was attending a Christmas party.

“I remember being with him on the side of Woodland Park, on a rainy December night,” Steiger said. “He comes up there in his slacks and nice clothes and got down and dirty like anyone else and did the work.”