McKown faces task of rebuilding life

Buzzing from prescription meds and too many Coors Lights, Doug McKown rumbled down Interstate 85 toward Atlanta.

“Why do I have to lose everything?” he recalls wondered that night in mid-2006.

A psychiatrist had prescribed the pills for McKown when he couldn't sleep or eat after he had been arrested on drug charges that May.

Now he planned to confront his former girlfriend, Erin Jenkins, who made the drug deal that led to felony charges against McKown.

As York County's coroner for nearly a dozen years, McKown's job was in peril, and he could face 25 years in prison.

Nevertheless, by his own admission, he was hammered and on the road.

McKown never made it to Atlanta that night. Somewhere around Greenville, he threw up on himself and pulled onto an exit. He called his buddies, who came to take him home.

McKown, 39, has different problems these days. He was acquitted of the cocaine charges during a May trial but was convicted of unlawfully possessing a half-pill of Viagra. The judge sentenced him to a year of probation.

The misdemeanor conviction couldn't keep McKown out of public office (it takes a felony conviction to disqualify an elected official) and in June he told York County he was coming back to the coroner's job, from which Gov. Mark Sanford had suspended him two years earlier.

His return was short lived. On July 17, McKown was arrested again, this time in North Carolina on charges of drinking while driving and an open container violation. The next day, he was arrested in York County, accused of violating his probation.

McKown resigned and his last day as coroner was Aug. 13.

Since last month, McKown has been staying in his parents' lakefront home, serving 30 days house arrest.

He also set up a cookout for his friends (guys he's known since high school).

But McKown's friends are ticked at him.

In his latest run-in with the law in July, he says he drove his county vehicle to North Carolina to pick up a friend who'd had too much to drink and needed a ride home. He said he didn't know his friend was drinking beer inside the SUV until an officer pulled him over. For his buddies, that's a tough sell.

“I don't believe none of that,” said Billy Bolin, who met McKown as a student at York Comprehensive High School. But McKown's friends did go to his cookout, talking to him about his future.

At nearly 40 years old, they say, Doug needs to grow up.

“You're gonna to have to do something that you have never done in your entire life and that's build a resume and go out and look for a job,” Bolin says he told him.

McKown never thought he would end up like this.

He struggles to explain why he has always worked around death. He's found explaining the tragic to be a natural instinct.

“It's like somebody being called to the ministry, almost,” he said. “It just clicked.” In 1994, he became a licensed funeral director. Also that year, when former York County Coroner Jim Chapman resigned amid a dispute with the County Council over his budget and office hours, McKown decided he wanted the job.

He called a friend, then-clerk of court Rod Benfield, a well-connected Republican, and told him he was interested.

McKown seemed like a man who could help build grassroots Republican leadership in York County. Benfield asked then-Gov. Carroll Campbell to tap the young funeral director for the post.

The irony was that McKown knew nothing about politics. Campbell appointed McKown to the position in December 1994. At 26, he became the youngest coroner in the state.

McKown distinguished himself as a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams.

He helped identify the dead after disasters such as Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He also modernized the coroner's office, becoming the first coroner in the state to earn a national certification for death investigations.

But he also struggled with the political side of the job and sometimes butted heads with local law enforcement.

Former Solicitor Tommy Pope recalls disputes between McKown and police about who controlled a death scene. Some local Republican Party members disapproved of his lifestyle. McKown says he enjoyed the bar scene, swilling beers and chasing women, and stories of his partying made their way to officials' ears.

Pope recalls several conversations with McKown about his misadventures. He tried to offer some friendly advice.

“Man, you need to watch out; you need to be smart,” Pope said he told McKown. “We're held to a higher standard.” But despite what Pope says he and others told McKown, he wouldn't change.

“Doug's hard-headed,” he said. “The problem was, you would tell him and he would be so appreciative. Then, he'd go right back out and do the same thing.”

After McKown's arrest, his friends railed on him. So he depended on his family.

They helped him pay for his massive legal bills, and his mother gave him clippings of Christian newspaper stories.

“I've never said that he's perfect,” brother Ken McKown said. “He's not a drug dealer. He's not someone trying to do anything that would hurt anyone else. And I believe that.

“Could he be a whole lot better off if none of this had happened? Certainly he could. But I believe he'll be all right.”