Longtime Duluth doctor, medical examiner dies in plane crash in Wyoming

Longtime Duluth pathologist and deputy St. Louis County medical examiner Dr. Donald Kundel was flying to Wyoming for a celebratory hunting trip with his son on Friday when the experimental plane he built crashed, ending his life. He was 79.

Donald W. Kundel
Donald W. Kundel (Steve Kuchera /

Longtime Duluth pathologist and deputy St. Louis County medical examiner Dr. Donald Kundel was flying to Wyoming for a celebratory hunting trip with his son on Friday when the experimental plane he built crashed, ending his life. He was 79.

Kundel, the sole occupant of the home-built single-engine plane, had just been declared cancer-free after being treated for bowel cancer, said Kolleen Kennedy, chief investigator in the medical examiner's office, who worked with Kundel for 11 years.

"He'd gone through chemo and they said, 'you're clear,' " Kennedy said. "He was going to Laramie to celebrate, to go bird hunting with his son."

"We all had the utmost regard for him," said St. Louis County medical examiner Dr. Thomas Uncini, who took that post in 2000 when Kundel stepped down to become his deputy. "He was a great guy, easy to work with, full of energy. ... He's going to be missed."

St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said he would miss Kundel as "a medical examiner, as an expert witness and a friend. He was a tremendous man. My goodness, what a loss."


District Court Judge John DeSanto, a longtime prosecutor, said he worked with Kundel on a number of homicide cases over the years.

"The guy was amazing. I loved the guy," said DeSanto, who was shaken by the news.

DeSanto talked about Kundel's dedication to his work.

"I can't tell you the number of times that I was in his office on weekends and late at night," DeSanto said. "He'd give you all the time you needed to prepare."

A native of Minden, Iowa, Kundel had eight brothers and sisters, including Duluth pediatrician Dr. Ray Kundel. His sister Dorothy Olson of Blair, Neb., said Donald Kundel finished three years of pre-med in just two, and graduated from medical school from the University of Iowa. Kundel and his family moved to Duluth in 1964.

"He was very detail-oriented, a brilliant, brilliant guy, to complete pre-med in two years," Olson said. She said her brother was "very caring, very kind ... level-headed with a great sense of humor."

He became county medical examiner in 1986, taking over the top post from Dr. Volker Goldschmidt after serving as his deputy for many years. Kundel ushered in a new era for the office, the News Tribune reported in 1986, because he was board-certified as a forensic pathologist -- the only one north of the Twin Cities at that time.

Uncini started working with Kundel in 1988, and the two essentially swapped roles in 2000 when Kundel scaled back to become deputy medical examiner, and Uncini took the top spot.


At the time of Kundel's death, Uncini said, Kundel was handling autopsies for Duluth and the southern part of St. Louis County, about a half-time workload. He also assisted authorities in neighboring counties.

As recently as Thursday, Kundel testified in a murder case in Duluth district court, involving a fatal fight outside a Proctor bar last year. He testified about his findings from an examination of the victim's body.

A tearful Kennedy said Kundel remained sharp and physically strong to the end.

"This was a guy whose moral compass always pointed in the right direction," she said. "He was a wonderful man. He worked really hard. He just loved to do it."

He didn't keep working because he needed the money, she said. He never billed for death certificates. He helped with instruction in the anatomy lab of the University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth campus without accepting pay.

Until recently, Kundel owned a farm in Iowa. "It was a huge farm, and he worked the farm," Kennedy said. "He wasn't just a gentleman farmer."

DeSanto said Kundel's court appearances had to be scheduled around corn-planting and corn-harvesting seasons.

Kundel and his wife, Kathleen, had two children, Donald Jr. and Katie; Donald Jr. is attending a technical college in Laramie. Kundel, who only hunted birds, made frequent flights to Wyoming to hunt with his son, Kennedy said.


Olson said her brother also had three children from a previous marriage -- Geoffrey, who died in 1986; Julie; and Eric; as well as two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Kundel owned two airplanes, but he was flying the plane he built when he died, Kennedy said. She said family members told her that he had radioed in to air traffic controllers and had been cleared to land when the crash occurred. "Someone heard the engine stop," she said.

The Laramie airport does not have a control tower, according to Federal Aviation Administration records; air traffic control is handled out of another location.

She was told that Kundel died on impact, and that his body was taken to Loveland Air Force Base in Colorado for an autopsy.

According to FAA records, the plane was a Van's RV-7A, classified as an experimental aircraft.

The crash was reported at 2:49 p.m. Friday, according to the Laramie Boomerang newspaper. FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the plane had departed Duluth and crashed on landing at Laramie "under unknown circumstances." Kenitzer said the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.

Among the well-known cases Kundel worked on over the years was the 2001 death of Erik Schrieffer of Duluth. Schrieffer was beaten and run over by a truck, and his body dumped in the St. Louis River. After months of forensic investigation, officials linked Schrieffer to the truck of a Hermantown man, who then pleaded guilty to the crime.

The case was featured on the television series "Forensic Files," and Kundel was interviewed for the show.


In addition to his medical examiner duties, Kundel retired after many years as a staff pathologist at St. Luke's hospital."His skills as a pathologist were outstanding," Uncini said.

Uncini said he expects to take on Kundel's workload for the time being, until other arrangements can be made.

Rubin said it's too early to know if Kundel's death would jeopardize any cases he had been involved in.

"We'll take a look at all the cases that are pending," he said.

Plane crash
Members of the Laramie, Wyo., Fire Department work to extinguish a grass fire that started after a single-engine aircraft crashed near the Laramie Regional Airport on Friday. The crash killed longtime Duluth pathologist and deputy St. Louis County medical examiner Dr. Donald Kundel. (Peter Baumann / Laramie Boomerang)

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