I-Team Report: Exodus from the County Morgue

Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones

February 15, 2012 8:45:37 PM PST
Cook County Medical Examiner Nancy Jones and top county officials have attributed a recent backlog of bodies at the morgue to a lack of state money for indigent burials.

While funding has disappeared, there has also been an exodus of doctors and technicians from the morgue staff, and some of them accuse Dr. Jones of mismanagement.

"She just wanted to be like, 'it's my way or the highway,'" said Patricia Bennett, former morgue employee.

Bennett took the highway. She retired in December after more than 30 years, working her way up to supervisor and medical technologist.

Bennett and several other current and former employees, who asked not to be identified, say that some of Dr. Jones' most experienced employees, including several top forensic pathologists, have resigned or retired.

"The morale, the morale did a complete nosedive," said Bennett.

Nearly 20 percent of the medical examiner's jobs are currently vacant, according to a county spokesperson. The office is budgeted for 98 full time positions; 17 spots are now unfilled.

Since the I-Team first revealed photos of human remains sloppily stacked on floors and outside coolers, chief county medical examiner Jones, a public employee, has ignored the I-Team's requests to discuss the crisis.

She did, however, come to a west suburban banquet hall to give a speech to Cook County funeral directors association. Jones dodged the ABC7's camera and the funeral directors would not allow the I-Team in.

According to an attendee though the medical examiner said she is frustrated by complaints of poor service and by certain members of her staff; she is having trouble hiring good people and feels handcuffed by the county and state.

Two Cook County commissioners questioned Wednesday why the medical examiner is incommunicado with the public and with them.

"I think the medical examiner should come over here and explain to us who is in charge of the burials," said William Beavers, Cook County commissioner. "The administration wants to hide the medical examiner, they want to speak for her. I don't need for them to speak for her, I need for her to speak for herself."

"I'm troubled that the medical examiner hasn't spoken to us," said John Fritchey, Cook County commissioner. "I'm more troubled that the medical examiner hasn't made a public statement during the pendency of this entire situation."

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle recently deployed a management team to oversee morgue operations. Some of the piled-up bodies were buried last week in a mass grave.

But the I-Team has learned there are still 283 bodies at the morgue, as authorities try to solve the overcrowding problem. The conditions in photos jarred former veteran morgue employee Patricia Bennett.

"I was totally shocked to see those deceased on the floor," she said.

Bennett says she never saw such treatment while working under the legendary Cook County M.E. Dr. Robert Stein or Stein's successor, Dr. Edmund Donoghue. And she says there was never an employee exodus such as the recent one from the county morgue.

"When Dr. Stein and Dr. Donahue were there we never had the turnover we had with the pathologists. Never," said Bennett.

In Cook County, the medical examiner is appointed by the county board president. But under an unusual government arrangement the M.E. cannot be fired by the board president. Legislation to change that procedure was introduced a few weeks ago by Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey. The proposal was considered by a committee Wednesday and tabled until the next meeting.