Lake sheriff says coroner's office is a 'hornet's nest of bad management'

Lake sheriff says coroner's office is a 'hornet's nest of bad management'

Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran said Thursday he “essentially walked into a hornet's nest” this week when he was named interim coroner.

Curran was appointed to replace former coroner Richard Keller until the county board can name a permanent replacement. Keller resigned Tuesday after pleading guilty to a pair of felony charges.

Curran said he and his staff discovered poor or nonexistent inventory and control procedures for evidence collected by the coroner's deputies doing death investigations.

In addition, Curran said he found deputy coroners were not particularly cooperative with police agencies.

“I essentially walked into a hornet's nest of bad management and poor decision-making,” he said. “We are going to be instituting some policy changes and intend to refocus the employees on their real responsibilities and duties.”

Calls placed to the Lake County coroner's office seeking comment were directed to sheriff's officials.

In a statement issued late Thursday, Curran announced he has ordered an operational and financial audit of the entire coroner's office.

Among the problems already identified, Curran said he has found drugs seized by deputy coroners during death investigations that were kept “in what is basically a big garbage can” with little or no documentation of their source.

He said he ordered his officers to bring that evidence to the sheriff's office where it will be inventoried and re-documented to the best of their ability.

Coroner's office employees will be trained on the inventory system and will be expected to continue it, Curran said.

He said he also will instruct coroner's office employees to follow established guidelines for regular destruction of evidence from closed death investigations that have apparently been ignored for some time.

No criminal cases are believed to be affected by the problems with evidence control, he said, because police agencies generally take control of all evidence related to criminal cases.

Curran said he had also heard from several police chiefs in the county who complained that the coroner's office was not fully cooperative with police investigations.

“We are going right back to the basics with the deputy coroners and intend to reinstruct them with the statutes and accepted guidelines that spell out their responsibilities,” he said. “We want to make sure that we have a cooperative attitude in place when it comes to their dealings with other law enforcement agencies.”

Round Lake Park Police Chief George Filenko, chairman of the county police chiefs association, said he was not aware of any specific cases where the coroner's office had refused to cooperate in police investigations.

Filenko said he did welcome the idea of bringing that office into a closer relationship with police agencies.

“I agree with the idea of working more closely with the coroner's office, especially when it comes to release of information about cases to the public,” Filenko said. “Early release of information or public comments about a case can, at times, detract from or impede an investigation, and it is important that we all be on the same page in that area.”

Curran said the coroner's office is understaffed, and interviews of candidates for employment are being conducted.

But he said he has ordered that no hiring of new employees take place until the county board appoints a new coroner to complete Keller's term, which expires at the end of next year.

Keller pleaded guilty to delivery of a controlled substance and obstruction of justice, resigned from office and agreed to give up his medical license. Those moves came as a result of a years-long investigation of a Waukegan methadone clinic that was linked to an overdose death, and where Keller served as medical director.

He was sentenced to probation and fines.