Cook County medical examiner retiring amid morgue mess
Updated: October 24, 2012 10:09PM
A national search is on to replace beleaguered Cook County Medical Examiner Nancy Jones, who offered a letter of resignation and will retire after months on the hot seat over complaints of bodies piling up at the morgue.
“I am very grateful for Dr. Jones’ 26 years of service to the county,” County Board President Toni Preckwinkle told reporters as she announced Jones’ retirement and other changes at the West Side facility. “From all reports she is a very fine pathologist and we hope to work with her going forward after her resignation around some of our graduate [student] training issues.”
But Preckwinkle wasn’t offering any roses for Jones’s management of the office, the Sun-Times is reporting.
Asked several times about whether she called for Jones to step down, Preckwinkle offered only a simple refrain: “Dr. Jones chose to resign July 31.”
Jones didn’t return multiple calls for comment Monday and Tuesday. But sources tell the Chicago Sun-Times her departure was hastened by the problems there.
Jones was under fire almost immediately after a January report in the Sun-Times, which included complaints from morgue staffers about trays being full in the 300-capacity body cooler. That led to many of the deceased being stacked atop each other in blue plastic tarps against a wall.
One staffer called the treatment of the dead “sacrilegious” and complained at the time that blood and other bodily fluids were pooling on the cooler floor, creating an unbearable stench and a potential health hazard.
One of Jones deputies also is out. Kimberly Jackson, the morgue’s executive officer charged with planning indigent burials, was asked to step down.
Daryl Jackson — no relation — from the Illinois Department of Public Health has been tapped to take over her duties and a number of other administrative tasks, Preckwinkle said.
Preckwinkle said that in the five months since the problems were revealed, the morgue has worked to shore up operations, firing four staffers and filling vacancies.
An electronic case management system, funded with a $175,000 grant, is in place to keep track of when bodies arrive and ensure burial arrangements are facilitated.
And the county’s Homeland Security office is examining the facility to ensure it’s safe for employees.
“We have all kind of people that come to the medical examiner’s office and we want to make sure the staff is safe and that we have the correct cameras because there have been issues depending on the victim that’s there,” said Robin Kelly, Preckwinkle’s chief administrative officer, who is overseeing the medical examiner’s office.
“I think there are leadership issues which we’ve worked hard over the last six months to address: leadership and staffing issues,” Preckwinkle said.
Jones’ exit had been expected for months.
In January when the problems first became public, Preckwinkle said that management of the morgue was part of the problem and hinted at the time she’d like to show Jones the door.
After the Sun-Times and, later, other news reports, Preckwinkle dispatched her deputies from downtown to the facility at 2121 W. Harrison St. to eyeball operations. The county’s independent inspector general launched a probe, as did the state’s labor department, fraying nerves among morgue staff who declined to give their names when commenting to the paper out fear they’d be targeted.
According to morgue staff — some sympathetic toward Jones, others not — say they witnessed Jones walking around the office and talking openly about how she expected to be axed.
Throughout the controversy, she declined to take reporters’ calls and or answer questions about the morgue. At one point she told a Sun-Times reporter she wasn’t allowed to speak to the media and that all questions had to be directed to Preckwinkle or one of the president’s spokespeople.