A four-month probe into the operations of the McHenry County Coroner’s Office identified a number of problems – including limited communications, deficient security measures and poor evidence maintenance – according to a report from the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office.
In a general evaluation checklist, the sheriff’s office determined that evidence was not maintained in a clean and orderly fashion, property was not protected from damage or deterioration, agency directives regarding control and maintenance were not being followed, door locks and other security measures were not working properly, the status of property was not properly reflected in the department’s records and access to property lockers and storage rooms was not limited to authorized personnel.
McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks said the office is in absolute shambles.
“We have no one there right now who has any credentials,” Franks said. “It’s really been a mess from top to bottom, and fixing it is going to take a lot of work and a lot of dedication.”
Former McHenry County Coroner Anne Majewski submitted her resignation in February. McHenry County Sheriff Bill Prim’s then chief administrative officer, David Devane, took over as interim coroner the day after Majewski left and eventually was replaced by Lt. John Miller.
Although state statute requires that a replacement coroner be named within 60 days of a formal declaration of the vacancy, a new coroner is yet to be appointed. Franks had said he didn’t want to name a potential appointee until he receives a second report from a third-party consultant in the medical field, which had been recommended by McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally, was finished.
Franks said the second report should be completed in the near future.
The interim coroner, with the assistance of the sheriff’s office, began audits to establish the existence and whereabouts of equipment, evidence and other operating materials only to find that no existing operations manual or comprehensive index existed to check inventory.
At the time of the audit, control over evidence in criminal cases, blood or tissue samples stored by the office, pills and other pharmaceuticals collected from the scenes of investigations and ancillary security systems, such as cameras and door locks, were either not in place or not functioning adequately, according to the report.
Another noticeable weak point was the lack of experience and institutional memory within the office.
As of March 26, the only individual who had been in the office for more than one calendar year was a part-time intern. Between October 2017 and March, the office lost personnel with more than 70 years of combined experience, according to the report.
“Serving as a deputy coroner is not an easy job,” the report read. “Other than police, medical or paramedical service, there is little in a normal life that prepares one for call-outs in the middle of the night to highly distressing scenes of human death and suffering, where one is expected to function as an accurate fact finder and as the face of government to distraught family and friends.”
When the interim coroner took over, monthly schedules were developed through a collaborative process that often was balanced on a knife edge, according to the report.
Both of the part-time deputies working at the time the sheriff’s office took over held other jobs and were in attendance only when scheduled to, leaving them unable to accommodate the sudden demands of the job.
A lack of communication also was observed as the only information exchanged between the administrative office and other deputy coroners was on an ad hoc basis. A chat group immediately was created with all deputies, full- and part-time, and other staff.
Before she left, Majewski was planning on digitizing coroner’s office records, some of which were almost 150 years old.
Almost 200 boxes of death records and medical files were stacked against the wall of one of the offices. Some of these sustained water damage after a pipe break but were salvaged.
Boxes were inventoried and labeled with bar codes and the project was completed by early May.
In July, keys to the morgue area – which funeral homes and body transport services have access to during off-hours – were recalled until further security measures, such as proximity card entries and security cameras, could be installed.
Miller also recommended that access to the evidence locker and room be limited to one or two designated members of the coroner’s office.
In closing, the report strongly recommended that the citizens of McHenry County be the final arbiters of the overall structure of the coroner’s office, either by passage of a referendum or by the election of a new coroner.
One recommendation from the sheriff’s office – the appointment of a supervisory chief deputy coroner to provide continuity within the office – will be up for a vote during the McHenry County Board’s Tuesday meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. at the county administration building, 667 Ware Road.
Franks said he had asked Majewski to name someone as chief deputy coroner for continuity purposes before she left but she refused.