The race for Cambria County Coroner began with three candidates, but will now be decided in this fall’s general election between a Republican and a Democrat seeking the position.
In April, Frank Duca announced he planned to withdraw from the Tuesday primary ballot as a Republican candidate for the post.
Duca, owner of Frank Duca Funeral Home, said he made a personal and family decision to withdraw.
Because his withdrawal announcement came after a statewide deadline to be removed from the ballot, Duca’s name will still be an option for Cambria County voters on Tuesday. If he wins the race, it will be up to him to decline the position.
Duca’s choice to withdraw from the coroner’s race tasks voters to decide between incumbent Democrat Jeffrey Lees and Republican Gregory Jones.
Jones said he’s pursuing a lifelong passion in running for Cambria County coroner.
During his last 15 years in the U.S. Army, Jones worked for mortuary affairs, which included duties such as processing remains, collecting deceased soldiers’ personal belongings, ensuring benefits are extended to the families of the fallen and serving as an escort for bodies of the deceased until burial.
He also served as an assistant inspector general for a period of time in which he honed his investigative skills.
“The military was that stepping stone in my life that got me grounded in integrity and discipline,” he said.
Aside from his experience in the military – 22 years of active duty with the U.S. Army and five years in the U.S. Army Reserve – Jones’ passion to pursue the title of Cambria County coroner is personal.
Jones lost two sons to gun violence in 2016, one in North Carolina and the other, Kyfen Jones, who was 24 years old when he was shot and killed in the West End of Johnstown.
“I really know firsthand how those losses feel,” Jones said.
Jones said, if elected, his goals are to be transparent, visible in the community, play a role in discouraging deadly gun violence and support those who have lost loved ones.
Jones grew up in Prospect and left high school in 1987 to join the Pennsylvania National Guard. The next year, he completed basic training for the U.S. Army and obtained his GED.
In 2008, Jones started pursuing his associate’s degree in general studies from Columbia Southern University and completed the necessary paperwork to get his high school diploma in 2009.
He has since earned his bachelor’s degree in health care administration from Columbia Southern University and is currently working toward a master’s degree in public administration from Liberty University.
Jones also opened Carrie’s Kitchen, a soul food restaurant on Main Street in downtown Johnstown, last year.
Lees said he’s seeking a second term in office to continue the work he’s done over the past 18 years as a deputy, chief deputy and now full-time coroner.
In that span, Lees said he’s investigated or supervised more than 10,000 deaths across the county, including 1,300 trauma deaths and 72 homicides.
For each of those deaths, Lees said it means meeting with thousands of mourning family members during “one of life’s most difficult moments.”
“It’s not a job for everyone,” he said.
“To me, we owe it to the deceased and their families to do whatever it takes to get those answers.”
Lees, who resides in Stonycreek Township, is a former Oakland Volunteer Fire Company chief, who began working in the coroners office since 2000.
He worked as a per diem deputy before being appointed by then-Coroner Dennis Kwiatkowski to serve as chief deputy in 2008.
When Kwiatkowski retired in late 2015, Lees was elected to replace him.
Lees oversees a staff of 11 people and an office caseload that averages 1,800 death investigations annually.
“You must have certification, knowledge and experience in forensic science, (firearm) ballistics, accident reconstruction, fire investigations blunt force trauma injuries ... just to name a few,” he said. “This isn’t the profession for on-the-job training.”
Lees has continued the office’s Cambria County Suicide Prevention “Yellow Ribbon” Program, which has seen teen suicide rates drop since its 2002 debut, and also serves on the Cambria County Drug Coalition, the county’s Elder Abuse Task Force, Sexual Assault Response Team and holds seminars for local police, fire and EMS responders to educate them on crime scene preservation.
Lees is one of 14 nationally certified coroners in Pennsylvania and, in 2017, his office became one of just six in the state to become certified by the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners.