UPDATED 04/08/11 5:59 a.m.

WAUKEGAN, Ill. (WBBM/CBS) — The sheriff of Lake County says an audit of the county Coroner’s office has turned up some serious problems.

Sheriff Mark Curran says human bones, including two unidentified skulls, were left in an unlocked area of the coroner’s office, while thousands of prescription pills were found nearby.

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Another skull was discovered in an evidence locker, while hazardous substances including liquid mercury and strychnine — a poison — also were located in the coroner’s downtown Waukegan office, Curran said, disclosing the results of an audit done earlier this year.

“This was a ship out of control,” Curran said, adding his investigators were stunned by the disarray they found. “It’s something we’ve never seen before.”

Curran temporarily took control of the office in February when Dr. Richard Keller abruptly resigned the post after pleading guilty to felony charges stemming from his operation of a suburban methadone clinic.

The month-long audit uncovered numerous problems with the way the office was run, particularly with how human remains and other evidence related to death investigations were handled, Curran said.

Two skulls, along with jaw bones and other bone fragments, were stored in a box on a shelf in the office’s x-ray room. The remains apparently are related to pending death investigations, but had never been sent for forensic or DNA testing, Curran said.

A third skull located in the office also was unidentified, Curran said, noting all the skulls and bone fragments have been sent to an outside laboratory for analysis.

Nearly a third of the 170 pieces of evidence recorded in the audit couldn’t be linked to a specific case or death investigation, he said.

Investigators also located thousands of prescription pills taken during death investigations that had been tossed into a container in an evidence locker, but then not destroyed as required by office policies.

The mercury and strychnine had been stored in the office for so long none of the deputy coroners questioned could recall why the substances were there, Curran said.

A review of the office finances also found Keller had scheduled his deputies so they received such frequent overtime payments that in the last two years he exceeded his office budget by about $55,000, Curran said.

Some deputy coroners also had strayed from their specified duties, acting in some cases almost like police officers by aggressively questioning suspects at death scenes, he said.

But none of the problems discovered appear to warrant criminal charges, Curran said, and he acknowledged there was no indication the problems had jeopardized criminal cases.

Now, sheriff Curran asserts employees don’t mind the reins being tightened.

“One of the things that they were most excited about is that they knew that this was basically a ship out of control, and they were going to be given some direction,” Curran said. “They knew that the way they were handling evidence was not right.”

Former Waukegan Police Chief Artis Yancey has been nominated to replace Keller as coroner. His nomination is expected to be confirmed next week by the Lake County Board.

Keller, who surrendered his medical license as part of his probationary sentence, couldn’t be reached Thursday for comment.

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.