New Lake County coroner cites early successes
By Carrie Napoleon Post-Tribune correspondent October 7, 2012 10:02PM
Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey looks through a drawer packed full of unclaimed items from identified bodies at the Lake County Coroners office on Monday, October 1, 2012. Frey and her office colleagues have been struggling to keep up with the workload due to a lack of employees. | Scott R. Brandush~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 9, 2012 6:06AM
CROWN POINT — New Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey hit the ground running in her first three weeks in office.
She completed required certification by her second week in office, reorganized and reassigned staff, replaced some potentially dangerous malfunctioning equipment and responded to her first disaster — a small-plane crash Wednesday in Gary.
“It was a challenge,” Frey said.
The new coroner found one of the tasks she faced was identifying and returning the remains of about a dozen unclaimed individuals, at least one of whom has been in the office since 2009, to their next of kin for proper burial.
Frey has experienced some success in the effort already. Remains of four individuals have been returned to their families in the past week. She is working with Stephen Nawrocki, forensic anthropologist with the University of Indianapolis, to ID the incomplete sets of remains.
The office also is making headway on returning unclaimed belongings of the deceased that have accumulated over time.
Generally unclaimed belongings are held for 30 days then turned over to the sheriff’s department for auction. Frey said the office does not hold firm to the 30 days, trying instead to reunite families with their loved one’s personal effects, but the situation has gotten out of control.
While some of the items may be innocuous, such as the contents of someone’s pockets at the time of death, other belongings can be much more significant, such as jewelry and even large sums of money. She has assigned death investigators to focus solely on the issue.
“I’ve assigned two investigators for closure cases,”Frey said.
It is not uncommon to have unclaimed remains, said Porter County Coroner Chuck Harris. The larger the county is, the busier the coroner’s office. However, the length of time some of those remains have stayed at the coroner’s office is a bit uncommon.
So far this year the Lake County Coroner’s office has processed 687 cases. The office handled 956 in 2011 and 938 in 2010, according to Frey.
Even though remains may be unclaimed, it does not mean they are all unidentified. Tracking down the family can sometimes be difficult, Harris said.
“Most of the times the family members they are estranged from don’t want to take the4 financial responsibility for burial,” Harris said.
Frey said not only is tracking down relatives difficult, it is time consuming. She last week requested two new death investigators from the Lake County Council in the 2013 budget to reverse the effects of cuts made the past three years.
She warned if her office does not get help soon it could get overwhelmed with bodies. The investigators are needed, she said, to conduct the investigations and continue with the follow through uniting the deceased with his or her next of kin.
“We are very short staffed,” she said.