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Family Sues After Woman’s Body Left At Morgue For 14 Months

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Carmelita Johnson went missing in January 2010. (CBS)

Carmelita Johnson went missing in January 2010. (CBS)

roberts250 Bob Roberts
Bob Roberts is a native of Wilmette who has worked in Chicago media...
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CHICAGO (CBS) – A woman’s body sat unidentified in the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office for 14 months, despite the best efforts of the family to identify her. Now, the family has filed suit against the county, alleging that morgue personnel stymied their attempts to find and identify her.

As WBBM Newsradio’s Bob Roberts reports, the family of Carmelita Johnson said called the morgue almost daily, from the time of her disappearance in January 2010 until June 2011, trying to determine if her body had been found.

Attorney Christopher Hurley said the family offered to provide dental records, DNA or anything else that could be used as an identifier. Hurley said they were told repeatedly not to call back, that they could not view bodies, and were ignored — even after the 47-year-old woman’s body arrived at the morgue in April 2010.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Bob Roberts reports

“Finally, a police detective took pity on the family and brought the lady’s dental records over to the morgue, demanded some answers, and got some,” he said.

As it turned out, police officers had found Johnson’s body on the Lake Michigan shore, south of Rainbow Beach. The body sat, ignored, in the back of the morgue for months, he said.

“That’s unacceptable,” he said.

Hurley said the treatment of the Johnson family raises serious questions about the county’s oversight. He said the Johnson family is more interested in answers than money.

The medical examiner’s office has come under intense scrutiny lately, after news reports that the cooler that stores bodies was at times filled to nearly double its designed capacity of 300 bodies. There have also been complaints of unsanitary conditions and badly decomposing bodies due to the overcrowded conditions.

Last week, WBBM reported the medical examiner’s office was still holding 44 bodies that have been in the morgue for 10 months or longer and officials couldn’t explain why 15 of them were there so long. About were recently cleared for burial. For others, doctors had placed holds on them, or there is another reason they’re still unburied. But there was no clue at all why 15 bodies were still being held.

Last month, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle promised to overhaul the Medical Examiner’s office and fire some workers.

Preckwinkle said the morgue would have daily inspections of the overstuffed cooler, and new technology will be used to help track down relatives of the dead who are brought to the office in order to speed up the burial process.

She also said the morgue will place time limits on how long the bodies of indigent people can be stored in the cooler, as well as how long the morgue will keep remains for families trying to collect enough money for a burial. The county will also put in place new training standards for the staff, as well as a new disciplinary process.

But the County Board has delayed a vote on an ordinance that would have made it easier to fire the county’s chief medical examiner.

As it stands now, Dr. Nancy Jones’ term as the county’s chief medical examiner lasts until she steps down or is removed for cause. Commissioner John Fritchey (D-12th) is sponsoring an ordinance that would allow the board to have the medical examiner removed by a simple majority vote.

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