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Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011 10:26 pm

Coroner’s office switches pathologists amid accusations of politics

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While the wife of a doctor who conducts autopsies for Sangamon County considers running for coroner next year, Sangamon County coroner Cinda Edwards says that she is switching pathologists and that politics has nothing to do with it.

Rachel Ralston, spouse of Dr. John Ralston, said that she has approached Jim Moody, chairman of the Democratic Party of Sangamon County, about running, but has not made a final decision.

Rachel Ralston, of Rochester, is a deputy coroner in Bureau and Madison counties and said that her interest in death investigations dates to her teen years, when she job-shadowed the Bureau County coroner. She holds an associate’s degree in mortuary science from Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Wheeling and is studying criminal justice at Lincoln Land Community College, according to a resume she emailed Illinois Times.

Rachel Ralston said that she has never met Edwards, a registered nurse who was appointed last spring to replace embattled former coroner Susan Boone, who was pressured to resign last spring by top county officials who suspected that she and Dr. Jessica Bowman, the pathologist she hired, were not competent. Edwards is the wife of Springfield Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards, which led to suspicions of politics when she was appointed to the post.

“I know that she (Edwards) is a nurse, and I have a lot of respect for the nursing field,” Rachel Ralston said. “My career is based on death and death investigations. I think that makes for a more qualified coroner to make some of the decisions.”

Rachel Ralston said she has not decided whether she would employ her husband to conduct autopsies if she became coroner, but she did not rule it out.

“That’s something I can’t answer at this time,” Rachel Ralston said. “The thing that’s important to me is that they’re (pathologists are) qualified and board certified and professional in their job.”

Cinda Edwards praised Dr. Ralston’s skills as a pathologist, but says that he has fallen so behind on finishing autopsy reports that she has to make a change. Edwards says she will send bodies to Bloomington for autopsies. She said that she is waiting for reports on deaths that occurred as long ago as July and that families need closure and complete death certificates.

“The last coroner let a pathologist take her down,” Edwards said. “I’m not letting a pathologist take me down.”

Dr. Ralston acknowledges that he has had delays producing reports due to problems getting tapes transcribed, but says that he has always provided preliminary findings promptly, an assertion disputed by Edwards, who says that she has had trouble getting preliminary reports in some cases.

At least one central Illinois coroner says that he has had problems getting reports promptly from Ralston.

“I’m kind of in the same boat as Springfield,” said Logan County coroner Robert Thomas, who says that he has waited as long as three and a half months for reports. “I think it’s gotten slower. It’s an inconvenience. We’re trying to work with him as best we can.”

Thomas said that he believes that an increasing workload may account for tardy reports. Neither he nor Edwards question Ralston’s skills as a physician.

“That’s one reason why I wait,” Thomas said. “I think that he’s a very good pathologist.”

Edwards last week notified the finance committee of the Sangamon County Board that she would be switching pathologists, just one day after Morgan County coroner Jeff Lair says that Edwards asked him about a rumor she’d heard about Rachel Ralston running for coroner. Moody says that he smells politics.

“It’s purely political – clearly,” Moody said. “She finds out that Ralston’s going to run and she terminates her husband.”

Not so, says Edwards.

“I don’t care whether she runs, it doesn’t matter to me,” the coroner said. “It’s an elective office. Somebody is going to run against me.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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