Under the microscope: Beltrami County Coroner retires after three decades

BEMIDJI -- For three decades, in situations where a death left behind questions, Beltrami County turned to Dr. Mark Robia for answers. That era of forensics and public health came to an end June 30 as Robia retired from pathology and 30 years as ...

Dr. Mark Robia

BEMIDJI -- For three decades, in situations where a death left behind questions, Beltrami County turned to Dr. Mark Robia for answers.

That era of forensics and public health came to an end June 30 as Robia retired from pathology and 30 years as the coroner for Beltrami County.

While he spent 30 years in the position, though, pathology wasn't originally what Robia had planned as a career in medicine, and northern Minnesota wasn't on his radar, either.

Robia was born and raised on the West Coast, growing up in San Diego. Through his youth, Robia said his family often moved around, living in cities such as San Francisco and Sacramento.

In his college years, Robia stayed in the Golden State, attending the University of California-San Diego and medical school at the University of California-San Francisco.


Following his studies, Robia next went to Ann Arbor, Mich., where he spent five years training in internal medicine before returning to California to start practicing for three years. While he liked the area, Robia said he was unhappy with the job itself.

"I had lived in a place I loved, but hated the job," Robia said. "At that point, I decided to get retrained in pathology. So I went back to the University of California-San Francisco for three more years.

“After I was done there, I was only considering small to medium-sized towns," Robia said. "I was looking at places in Oregon, Montana, Arkansas and Oklahoma even. But we came here for a visit and we really liked the area and the job and found it to be the best."

Robia arrived in Bemidji in 1985 and started as coroner in July. "It was a position that needed to be filled and I had some interest in it," Robia said. "I had previously served for 10 months as medical examiner in California, working with another pathologist at the time. Then when I was going back to study pathology, I would attend a lot of the lectures and spend a lot of time at the county coroner's office."

30 years of cases For the next 30 years, Robia would deal with multiple autopsies, with different types of questions to be answered each time.

"Being a coroner, one of the main things of the job is forensic medicine, figuring out if a crime has been committed, it's a major part of what a coroner does," Robia said. "But another major part is dealing with public health issues. If somebody dies from a disease that could be highly contagious, we can find that out and try to intervene for the public health.

"It works for public safety, too," Robia said. "If there's an industrial accident, the autopsy is part of figuring out what happened so something can be done to prevent such an accident from happening again."

During his time at the county, Robia said a major component in the job running smoothly were the people he worked with.


"Over the 30 years I was with the county, there were three or four different sheriffs. They varied from good to superb. The present sheriff, (Phil) Hodapp is excellent," Robia said. "I've always had a good relationship with the sheriff and the deputies, the police department and the (Minnesota) State Patrol.

"I've been really fortunate to have good law enforcement people to work with, I've always felt I can trust them to do a good investigation," Robia continued. "I liked the fact that they were willing to work well with me, too. Everyone wants to know what happened, we had the same priority."

Another aspect has been advances in medical and forensic technologies.

"Technology has made unbelievable strides," Robia said. "Probably the most important for forensic medicine has been the DNA analysis. Previously it was rudimentary, but now it's gotten so excellent. It's readily available, it's quick and we can use very tiny specimen.

"There's no doubt that it will keep going in that direction," Robia said. "Another example is public health pathology with the rapid identification of infectious agents. Eventually, we will be able to take a sample from body and know in 30 minutes what it may be infected with."

Now retired, both from the county and from Sanford Health where he also worked, the 67-year-old Robia said he’ll miss the challenge each case presented.

“I will definitely miss working with the people, different county departments and working with the microscope," Robia said. "I've also always loved using the microscope. Getting a case and looking at the slides and discovering what's going on."

Beltrami County held a recognition ceremony during a Board of Commissioners meeting July 21 where Robia was presented with a plaque and thanked for his many years in the position.


Taking Robia's place as the Beltrami County Coroner is Dr. Roberta Zimmerman, who took the oath of office at Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting.

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