Will County coroner’s job safe, for now

Bolingbrook, IL

Against the wishes of Stacy Peterson’s loved ones, Will County board members narrowly defeated a measure to include a referendum on the November ballot that would have asked voters if the county should replace elected coroners with appointed medical examiners.

Board members voted 14-12 against the referendum. The seven board Democrats were joined by seven Republicans in defeating the motion, effectively killing its chances of winning approval in time for the November ballot. Hounded by questions regarding the efficiency and cost of switching to a medical examiner’s office, several board members said they would like to continue to probe the possibility for a future referendum.

The vote came after nearly two hours of board debate and audience testimony, including arguments from friends and family of missing Bolingbrook mother Stacy Peterson, whose husband, Drew Peterson, is the sole suspect in her disappearance. Those close to Stacy Peterson said she would likely not be missing had authorities, including the coroner’s office, fully investigated the March 2004 death of Kathleen Savio, Drew Peterson’s third wife.

“I believe in my heart, that had Kathleen Savio’s case been properly handled, my sister would most likely be alive today,” Stacy Peterson’s sister, Cassandra Cales, said. “I cannot help thinking about that on a regular basis and believe that no family member should suffer the emotional roller coaster that I have been on the last 10 months.”

Savio was found drowned in a dry bathtub in her Bolingbrook home. At the time, a six-person coroner’s jury ruled the death an accident, despite what many authorities now say were strong indications of a homicide, including a laceration on her head, and the lack of a blood trail that should have occurred if water had slowly leaked out of the tub after a fall, as originally assumed.

The ruling stood for nearly four years until Stacy Peterson suddenly vanished on Oct. 28. Almost immediately, investigators began reexamining Savio’s death and exhumed her body in November. By February, two pathologists had ruled her death a homicide.

The homicide rulings led many to criticize the coroner’s office and eventually led to the push for replacing an elected coroner with an appointed medical examiner. Many opponents of the referendum said the measure was simply a political move by Republican board members to oust Democratic Coroner Patrick O’Neil, who has held the position for 16 years.

Republican board members Kathleen Konicki and Wayne McMillan said their constituents are no longer confident in the office and deserve a chance to decide if they want to keep it.

“Clearly, something went wrong four or five years ago,” Konicki said. “There is nobody today who doesn’t believe that the ball was dropped back then.”

But Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow, who was not in office at the time of Savio’s death, said the jury’s ruling in Savio’s case did not prohibit police and the state’s attorney’s office from continuing an investigation and filing charges.

“I don’t believe this would’ve happened on my watch,” Glasgow said.

Glasgow also cautioned board members against approving a medical examiner’s office that is board certified but not accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners, as the tentative referendum planned. A non-accredited office, Glasgow said, would render prosecutors helpless against defense attorneys aiming to discredit testimony.

“You’re going to tie my hands,” Glasgow warned board members. “Bottom line is, you can’t do it halfway.”

The board heeded Glasgow’s advice and quickly voted 14-12 to change the referendum to mandate an accredited office. The question then came to money.

Preliminary estimates for switching to a board certified but non-accredited medical examiner’s office showed the city would spend about $452,000 extra annually, according to an analysis by the state Coroners and Medical Examiners Association. The cost of a credited office would require an additional investment of $5 million to $7 million in additional technology and staff.

Some board members balked at the increased cost without convincing evidence that a medical examiner’s office would significantly change or improve the death investigation process.

After the votes were tallied and Stacy Peterson’s supporters in the audience found themselves on the losing side, the group huddled together and vowed to continue their quest. 

“I knew it was going to be an uphill battle and of course we were discouraged,” Penning said. “But we feel we’ve done due diligence to speak on (Savio’s and Peterson’s) behalf and hopefully on behalf of future individuals who might befall this tragic circumstance.”