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Officials suggest overhaul of Cook County morgue

Thursday, January 26, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by DON BABWIN, KAREN HAWKINS

CHICAGO (AP) — After a string of news stories about stacked bodies in the Cook County morgue and other practices that the sheriff says puts investigations at risk, county officials announced Thursday an overhaul of the office and an effort to make it much easier to fire the medical examiner.

At about the same time Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was in Dr. Nancy Jones's office — with Jones conspicuously absent — saying Jones' job was safe for now, a county board member was filing a proposed amendment to a county ordinance that could lead to Jones' ouster.

Neither Preckwinkle nor Commissioner John Fritchey would criticize Jones, and Preckwinkle suggested that no change at the top was imminent. But Preckwinkle's comments and suggested solutions added up to a damning assessment of the way the morgue is being run.

"I think Dr. Jones is a fine physician," Preckwinkle said. "What we're looking at are the operations of this office. Those are separate things."

The overhaul of the office will include a reorganization of senior management, new disciplinary measures that Preckwinkle made clear will cost some people their jobs, and stepped-up recruiting efforts for hard-to-fill jobs, she said.

The most recent scrutiny of the morgue came after staff complained about bodies being stacked up and unsanitary conditions. Preckwinkle said after a tour Thursday that she found things "clean and in order."

Until recently, the morgue's cooler held 363 bodies in a space meant for 300, officials said. Recent burials have reduced the number closer to 300, but the situation changes hourly.

Preckwinkle and others blamed dire financial straits for both families and government.

Families who can't afford to bury their loved ones are increasingly leaving them for the county to bury, even as the state cut its funding for the burials of the indigent.

Fritchey acknowledged it was all the news stories that prompted him to look closely at the medical examiner's office and its chief.

"The medical examiner's term is similar to that of a U.S. Supreme Court justice," he said. "Once they're appointed, they are in for life unless they're removed for cause."

Preckwinkle agreed, saying, "I think, frankly, that it's inappropriate for anybody in county government to have a term that's equivalent to a federal judge."

Under Fritchey's proposed ordinance amendment, the county board president does not have to give any reason to fire the medical examiner. All the president needs is a majority of the board to agree.

Fritchey said it is simply a matter of common sense to give the board president and the commissioners the authority to have a "medical examiner of their choosing rather than one they find themselves with at any point in time."

Jones did not return a message left at her office Thursday.

The way the office handles the remains of the county's dead has been under scrutiny for months. Last February, for example, the sheriff's department announced that an investigation revealed stillborn babies were piled into the same boxes and the remains of indigent adults were stacked in mass graves in a haphazard way in a suburban Chicago cemetery.

Though most of the criticism was leveled at the cemetery, the investigation also highlighted problems at the medical examiner's office. In particular, Sheriff Tom Dart and others have been troubled by office's inability or unwillingness to monitor the cemetery that has a county contract to handle indigent burials or take the most basic recordkeeping steps to ensure they know remains are being released properly and exactly where they're taken.

"From a pure law enforcement standpoint, it will or has already compromised our ability to close out missing persons investigations," said Dart.

Dart said he was astounded to learn that the office, after storing bones of unidentified victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy for about 30 years, decided to release the bones to a cemetery for burial.

"We asked them, 'Why didn't you call us?' and they had no reason," said Dart, whose detectives learned what happened when they went to retrieve the bones late last year for DNA samples they needed in their effort to identify the remains.

Included with the bones was a note from an odontologist that said the bones were never to be removed from the medical examiner's office until the victims were identified — a note Dart said was still in the office.

Even more questions were raised in the fall after the medical examiner started releasing the bodies of eight indigent people to the Anatomical Gift Association — something, Dart said, that is only supposed to happen if family members say they do not want the bodies for burial.

"Five had to be brought back because the families came forward saying, 'No, we want to bury our loved ones,'" said the sheriff.

Dart said he has suggested to Preckwinkle's office that the sheriff's office take over the indigent burial program and the medical examiner's investigative duties.

But, he said, after he made those suggestions as part of last year's budget process, "Nobody did anything."


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