Shakeup at troubled Ill. medical examiner's office

AP News
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Posted: Jun 19, 2012 4:56 PM
Shakeup at troubled Ill. medical examiner's office

CHICAGO (AP) — The embattled medical examiner in Chicago, whose office allowed bodies to pile up and get haphazardly tossed into boxes, is retiring and several of her employees have been fired or disciplined, officials said Tuesday.

In an unsurprising move, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle said the county's medical examiner, Dr. Nancy Jones, would retire next month and a national search for a replacement would begin immediately. A top aide was asked to resign, four more employees were fired and seven more were disciplined, she said.

"In our review of operations there, we believed that we needed stronger management," Preckwinkle said. The county's chief administrative officer, Robin Kelly, added: "Staff that were there weren't doing their jobs."

Preckwinkle repeatedly said that Jones chose to retire — but it has been obvious for months that Jones was under increasing pressure to leave. A county ordinance amended last year made it easier to fire the medical examiner, a move that underlined how county officials, from Preckwinkle to the sheriff, were not happy with the way the office was being run.

In fact, one of the leaving employees is the office's executive officer, whose duties included overseeing an indigent burial program that made national headlines last year. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced then that an investigation had revealed that stillborn babies were piled in the same boxes and that the remains of indigent adults were stacked in mass graves at a suburban Chicago cemetery.

Dart also said he was troubled by the medical examiner office's inability or unwillingness to monitor the cemetery, which contracted with the county to handle indigent burials. The sheriff said the office didn't take basic record-keeping steps to ensure that it knew remains were being properly released and exactly where they were taken.

Following the investigation came the stories, including staff at the county morgue complaining about bodies being stacked up and unsanitary conditions. And when the sheriff's office decided last year to conduct DNA tests on bones of unidentified victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, it was discovered that Jones' office had released the bones for burial — despite instructions not to remove them until they were identified.

In the wake of those accounts, Preckwinkle announced in January that the office would be overhauled. She said Jones' job was safe for the time being, though she suggested that Jones wasn't a good fit for the position. Two months later, county commissioners agreed to amend an ordinance to make it far easier to fire the medical examiner.

On Tuesday, Preckwinkle praised Jones as a "very fine pathologist," though she did not say anything about her administrative skills.

Jones did not attend the press conference and did not return a call for comment. Her retirement is effective July 31.