Intelligence Report: Proposal would change indigent burial process in Cook County

May 9, 2012 (CHICAGO)

The restructuring comes almost four months after a series of I-Team reports uncovered management problems at the county morgue.

Under an ordinance to be unveiled Thursday, the Cook County Sheriff would take over some indigent burial duties from the county morgue. This comes after the I-Team obtained photos in January that depicted hundreds of bodies left in the morgue for months or in some cases more than a year.

The proposal that will be announced Thursday is among several plans still in the making to prevent such a horrific backlog from happening again.

The I-Team revealed the photos of hundreds of bodies that were unceremoniously piled up at the county morgue, some of the remains uncovered and left to rot, stacked on wooden caskets and even on the floor.

Since then, medical examiner Nancy Jones has avoided talking to the public, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle asked for a review of morgue management. And county commissioners have demanded answers.

Nearly three months ago, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said he wanted to help.

"I'll be quite honest with you, we care, we care," Dart said. "We can make all these excuses for people and say this or say that, bottom line, if you care, you won't let things get this way. You are very comfortable with what is being done with someone's child, at one point, someone's father maybe, someone's mother, aunt or uncle and you treat it with respect."

Thursday, Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey will announce new legislation that would require burial of indigent and unidentified remains on a piece of property near an old county cemetery in Markham.

For more than a century, until 1971, the county maintained its own indigent cemeteries. Since then, the county has contracted with a privately owned cemetery that handled mass burials of the poor and unidentified.

Last February, Sheriff Dart said that his experience investigating the Burr Oak grave-selling scandal and his success identifying the remains of John Wayne Gacy's unknown victims is what the medical examiner's office needed to move forward.

"Our office is uniquely qualified to work in that area," said Dart, "to see if one of these many missing persons cases filed throughout the city, state or country, whether their loved ones are sitting right there in the ME's office-- and unfortunately those things could occur-- if you do the proper work you can try to bring that to closure."

Fritchey also proposed the sheriff have Cook County inmates construct caskets for indigent remains and assist with their burials, something Dart offered to the I-Team months ago.

Commissioner Fritchey says the ME's office has failed to include the characteristics of hundreds of unidentified persons they have buried into the National Crime Information Center, a database to help law enforcement track crimes. He hopes the matter will be brought in front of the board before the end of the summer.

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