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Busted for a DUI, SLO County's former medical examiner can keep his license, for now

Dr. Gary Walter was arrested in March 2016 while driving with a 0.19 percent blood alcohol content after hitting a parked vehicle on his way to an autopsy in San Luis Obispo.
Dr. Gary Walter was arrested in March 2016 while driving with a 0.19 percent blood alcohol content after hitting a parked vehicle on his way to an autopsy in San Luis Obispo.

A medical examiner whose work in San Luis Obispo County was marred by a DUI arrest and a series of questionable rulings will be able to keep his surgeon’s license — for now.

On Wednesday, the California Medical Board ordered the revocation of Gary Alan Walter’s license, but it stayed the disciplinary action pending completion of a three-year probationary period.

A receptionist at Walter's Visalia-based business, Microcorre Diagnostic Laboratory, said Walter was in court Thursday and not immediately available for comment.

Walter, 70, began contracting forensic pathology and autopsy services with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office in 2005. Part of his job included determining causes of death and testifying to his findings in court, usually for the District Attorney’s Office in criminal cases.

He was arrested in March 2016 while driving with a 0.19 percent blood alcohol content after hitting a parked vehicle on his way to an autopsy in San Luis Obispo and was initially given a last-chance agreement to keep his job.

But following several controversial and high-profile rulings — including one determining that a local concertgoer died of an LSD overdose — the county parted ways with Walter in September, hiring a new, full-time medical examiner.

It is unclear whether Walter continues to contract his services with clients in Tulare and Kings counties.

Under the terms of his probation set by the California Medical board,Walter must abstain from all alcohol and controlled substances and submit to random screening. He must also attend an ethics course and complete and pass a clinical diagnostic evaluation.

He’s also required to undergo a medical evaluation and psychotherapy.

Walter’s work and testimony had for years been scrutinized by attorneys in court, including in the 2016 murder trial of former Morro Bay resident James Lypps.

Walter testified that Lypps' wife had likely been strangled and drowned in a bathtub. But under cross-examination, Walter was proven to have contradicted himself several times and the prosecution’s case, which was already unraveling, ended in a jury acquittal.

He performed autopsies on most of the 12 inmates who have died in San Luis Obispo County Jail custody since 2012, including that of 36-year-old Atascadero resident Andrew Holland, who died of an embolism in January after being held in a restraint chair for nearly two straight days.

Walter ruled Holland’s death as natural, to the objections of Holland’ family and many in the community who said his reports can’t be trusted because of his last-chance agreement resulting from the DUI. Holland's family was ultimately awarded a $5 million settlement with the county.

Walter is also linked to a wrongful death claim in Kings County, where a County Jail inmate died after vomiting with a spit hood over his face, according to The Fresno Bee.

In May, Walter ruled that the death of 20-year-old Ventura resident Baylee Gatlin at the Lightning in a Bottle music festival in Lake San Antonio was caused by an overdose of the hallucinogen LSD.

The finding — which would make Gatlin’s cause of death one of the few recorded in history as an LSD overdose — was criticized by pharmacology and chemistry experts who reviewed the autopsy report at The Tribune’s request, and widely ridiculed across the Internet.

Walter later submitted a “clarification” that Gatlin died of multi-organ failure, hyperthermia (overheating) and dehydration.

The medical board filed an accusation for disciplinary action against Walter in April 2017 for his misdemeanor DUI conviction, and a two-day hearing was held Nov. 6 and 7 in Sacramento before an administrative law judge.

During the hearing, Walter told Judge Erin Koch-Goodman that he had trouble sleeping the night before his arrest and drank several glasses of vodka to fall asleep. He said he rarely drank and did not have a problem with alcohol.

Questioned about The Tribune’s reporting on his local career, Walter said it’s a fair statement to say he’s made inaccurate statements in court testimony but defended all of his rulings.

“I welcome scrutiny,” Walter testified Nov. 6, according to the transcript.

Walter also said that working for San Luis Obispo County was extremely stressful, mostly due to the constant travel. However, he said the county “practically begged” him to take the contract because they couldn’t find another pathologist.

Walter testified that the SLO County Sheriff’s Office was “talking about renewal” when he made the decision not to renew his contract over the summer.

His probationary period is effective April 6.

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