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San Francisco official likely tossed out human skull, lawsuit says

The missing skull is seen in a cast.
The skull of an unidentified man, seen here in a clay cast, has gone missing from the San Francisco medical examiner’s office. (Courtesy photo)

The disappearance of a human skull has spurred a lawsuit against the top administrator of San Francisco’s medical examiner’s office from an employee who alleges she faced retaliation for reporting the missing body part.

Sonia Kominek-Adachi alleges in a lawsuit filed Monday that she was terminated from her job as a death investigator after finding that the executive director of the office, David Serrano Sewell, may have “inexplicably” tossed the skull while rushing to clean up the office ahead of an inspection.

Kominek-Adachi made the discovery in January 2023 while doing an inventory of body parts held by the office, her lawsuit says. Her efforts to raise an alarm around the missing skull allegedly led up to her firing last October. 

Records obtained by The Standard show that the skull belonged to an unidentified man who was found dead near a homeless encampment at Lake Merced in October 2014. The body was discovered by a passerby who walked down a trail at the lake and saw the body at the bottom of an embankment.

The skull, which the office was required to keep until the man was identified, was encased in a clay cast that reconstructed the appearance of his face, according to photos obtained by The Standard.

“The skull was a critical element in the [office’s] ability to identify [the remains],” reads the lawsuit. “Without the skull, further identification procedures could not be completed.”

Serrano Sewell was not immediately able to comment when reached by The Standard.

Alex Barrett-Shorter, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office, provided a brief statement.

“Once we are served with the lawsuit, we will review the complaint and respond appropriately,” Barrett-Shorter said.

According to her lawsuit, Kominek-Adachi told her supervisors about the missing skull and her belief that Serrano Sewell was likely responsible for its disappearance. But Serrano Sewell allegedly “made no effort to initiate an investigation into the whereabouts of the skull” or to respond to an email she sent about his alleged involvement in its disappearance.

Instead, he allegedly tried to prevent her from getting a promotion by “illegally” directing her to take a polygraph test and subjecting her to a background check. The lawsuit alleges that Serrano Sewell sought to “uncover all aspects of her personal and private life … for his own personal use, particularly because of her complaint that he had discarded a human skull.”

While she did get a promotion, Kominek-Adachi was placed in a temporary position that allowed her to be fired at will, her lawsuit says.

Then, she and her boss were embroiled in a dispute over a consumer affairs complaint that she filed in June against a funeral home in Placer County, which she said failed to cremate her grandmother’s remains on a timely basis.

While she maintained that she filed the complaint in her personal capacity, the funeral home contacted her office, apparently out of concern that the complaint was improper because of her position as a death investigator.

Serrano Sewell allegedly seized on the complaint “to concoct a reason to terminate” her or pressure her out of the office.

Kominek-Adachi was investigated by human resources, and in October, she was notified that Serrano Sewell was terminating her temporary employment. 

Kominek-Adachi was told that her termination was due to budget cuts at first, but the city later attributed it to her having “exerted undue influence” by filing the complaint against the funeral home, according to her lawsuit.

With her lawsuit, Kominek-Adachi hopes to clear her name. She is seeking her job back with her lawsuit as well as unspecified compensation.

“She saw a career in the medical examiner’s office, and that career is over,” her attorney, James Urbanic, told The Standard. “Her termination is a terrible black mark on her ability to continue to work in her field.”

Alex Mullaney contributed to this report.

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