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Evaluation of McHenry County Coroner's Office highlights lack of operational oversight

Third-party evaluation of coroner’s office highlights multiple deficiencies

The McHenry County Coroner's office is photographed on Monday, June 24, 2019 in Woodstock.  Michael Rein will take over as the new coroner after former coroner Anne Majewski, who recently retired.
The McHenry County Coroner's office is photographed on Monday, June 24, 2019 in Woodstock. Michael Rein will take over as the new coroner after former coroner Anne Majewski, who recently retired.

A third-party evaluation of the McHenry County Coroner’s Office after the resignation of former Coroner Anne Majewski characterized the department as being in an “abhorrent and dysfunctional state.”

The report, which was conducted by Dr. Dennis Kellar, highlighted a number of deficiencies, including a lack of security and quality assurance of fluid and tissue evidence, failure to meet minimum standards of education for deputy coroners and limited operational oversight.

McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks said reading the report made his blood boil.

“The mess we uncovered shows that an elected coroner is a bad idea for a county our size,” Franks said.

He also said that the 200-year-old process of choosing people via election to serve as a coroner based on limited qualifications is plain wrong.

Evidence storage

In a portion of the coroner’s office where evidence is stored, Kellar, a pulmonologist practicing in Algonquin who was chosen by Franks to perform the independent evaluation based on his relevant experience, documented that there were open boxes of loose and bottled prescription drugs totaling “thousands of pills” within arm’s reach of anyone walking in the room.

According to the report, Majewski had been “dumping” drugs into the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office’s public drug disposal.

A sheriff’s office representative said Majewski had been told to stop and a deputy coroner had advised that Majewski refused to use money from her budget for proper disposal.

Kellar also observed a bag containing more than $20,000 sitting in an open and unsecured file cabinet.

No official inventory list was available to account for belongings, drugs or money.

Investigators were told by a deputy coroner that things would just get thrown in the room, according to the report.

About 100 years of records had sustained “damage” and were sitting in the conference room after Majewski planned on “digitizing” the records but never completed the task. It was unclear what records could now be accounted for, and Majewski had refused to release the records to the records department.

Tissue and body fluid samples

The report stated that tissue and body fluid evidence was stored in a 10-year-old residential refrigerator with broken racks, a broken door and a padlock latch on the side that didn’t have a lock.

Specimens – which were labeled with a Sharpie – either were in containers similar to urine cups, in plastic Tupperware-style containers or wrapped in what appeared to be plastic wrap, according to the report.

“There was no way to ensure specimen integrity,” the report said.

Kellar said proper storage for blood and tissue samples should be in a temperature-controlled location, similar to where you would store vaccinations. There should be an alarm on the fridge that indicates when the temperatures are out of range and someone should be checking and charting temperatures on a daily basis.

“There was no secure monitoring of any area in the department,” the report read.

Education

Under state law, within 30 days of assuming office, a coroner elected to the office for the first time shall apply for admission to the Coroner Training Board’s coroners training program.

Completion of the training program shall be within six months of application. Any coroner may direct the chief deputy coroner or a deputy coroner, or both, to attend the training program, provided the coroner has completed the training program.

However, Kellar said he could not find any documentation of this training being completed for the coroner or deputy coroners, and Majewski did not return his calls.

“No one I could find kept up with current education,” Kellar said. “To add insult to injury, you have deputy coroners nominated by a previous coroner who didn’t go to school for proper investigations, have no continuing education and have no standard operating procedures to follow.”

State statute also requires that every coroner attend at least 24 hours of accredited continuing education for coroners in each calendar year. 

“No funding was made available for continuing education, to my understanding,” Kellar said. “All they would need was about $3,000 a year for continuing education to their coursework.”

Conclusion

Kellar concluded that Majewski was aware of all of these deficiencies but allowed the department to be deficient and noncompliant.

“[Majewski’s] unwillingness to work with other departments of local government and lack of internal leadership and essentially no oversight or accountability puts the county at incalculable liability exposure,” the report read.

Kellar said that direct authority and oversight of the office could prevent these issues from occurring in the future and ensure accountability, stability and service to the residents of McHenry County.

The McHenry County Sheriff’s Office conducted a similar investigation of the coroner’s office, focusing on its operations from a law enforcement perspective.

That report recommended the appointment of a supervisory chief deputy coroner to provide continuity within the office.

It also strongly recommended in the report that the residents 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.

Although state statute requires that a replacement coroner be named within 60 days of a formal declaration of the vacancy, a new coroner has yet to be appointed. Franks had said he didn’t want to name a potential appointee until he received Kellar’s report.

But after reading the report, Franks said he will reach out to the McHenry County Board and ask for its help in making the office professional again.

“Those responsible need to be held accountable,” Franks said.

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