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Kane coroner says morgue freezer malfunction shows need for better facilities

Kane County Coroner Rob Russell looks some freezers Kane County Morgue. |  LindGirardi~For Sun-Times Media

Kane County Coroner Rob Russell looks at some of the freezers at the Kane County Morgue. | Linda Girardi~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 4, 2014 6:29AM

GENEVA — The Kane County Morgue freezer is back in operation after the compressor malfunctioned and caused a major problem during the Thanksgiving Day holiday.

Kane County Coroner Rob Russell said the freezer unit was working Wednesday, but after a deputy coroner responded to a death call on Thursday and returned to the office a “recognizable odor” was immediately detected.

Russell said two bodies in the freezer had started to thaw.

“It does not take long for a body to thaw, especially if it had already started decomposing,” Russell said Monday.

Russell said the bodies were placed in the morgue cooler to slow further decomposition and a company that specializes in laboratory units was called, but repairs were not done until Friday. He said the repair took eight hours and the bill will be an estimated $3,500, the cost of about four autopsies.

Russell said employees were called in and wore hazmat suits to clean the interior of the freezer and the floor where the unit had leaked.

Russell said the freezer is more than 20 years old and that the malfunction is a symptom of larger facility issues.

Russell, who completed his first year in office this month, said he believes that during the years the late Chuck West ran the office, the coroner’s budget was “grossly underfunded.”

He said the office, tucked away on the campus of the Kane County Government Center at 719 S. Batavia Ave. in Geneva, originally was built as a garage.

“When I took over, it was my goal to restore integrity and get the office fully functioning,” Russell said.

He said the office previously had not done autopsies that are sometimes standard in the profession, such as in drug overdose or suicide cases, and employee salaries were inadequate.

“Those were the two major reasons for the overages in my budget this year,” Russell said.

He said the 2014 budget was set at $843,000.

“We’ll start there, barring things out of my control,” Russell said. “We have budgeted for 114 autopsies. The general public understands there are no frills or unethical expenses coming out of this office.”

Russell said the coroner’s office is required to refrigerate forensic toxicology samples — such as tissue and blood samples for evidence in homicide cases — which raises concerns over a need to upgrade security at the office.

He said a 6-by-11-foot industrial refrigerator was purchased from a Jimmy John’s restaurant sometime before he took office.

“It’s running fine now, but we don’t know how long it will last,” Russell said. “I am not saying we need a new facility now, but we do need to focus over the next couple of years of what we are going to do.”

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