autopsies pic

Macon County Coroner Michael Day and assistant Tina Engdale work in his office in the Macon County Courthouse in this 2017 file photo. “If I don’t know if someone is deceased and who they are, how would I be able to put a notification process into play?” Day said.

CLAY JACKSON, HERALD & REVIEW

DECATUR — Sheriff Howard Buffett is preparing to donate up to $1.4 million  to pay for everything from new software at the Macon County Jail to autopsies for people who die of suspected drug overdoses.

The 13 donations, which still need to be approved by the Macon County Board, are the latest in what Buffett has characterized as a sweeping effort to strengthen law enforcement in the region. A five-year volunteer for and strong financial supporter of the sheriff's office, Buffett was appointed by former Sheriff Thomas Schneider in September and has continued to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars toward new equipment and jail improvements. 

Among the donations is $60,000 that would be earmarked to cover cost of autopsies for drug-related deaths. The one-time payment is meant to complement the prosecutor focused on opioid cases for the state’s attorney’s office, which the county board approved late last year — also funded by a donation from Buffett. Autopsy records, which define the cause of death, could allow prosecutors to bring murder charges against those they believe sold drugs to someone who later died from taking them, Buffett said.  

“There are places where they are trying to take the death of a person from an overdose and track it backwards, take the person who sold the drugs to them, and charge them with some sort of crime,” Buffett said.

Under the program, the coroner’s office would work with local law enforcement to determine on a case-by-case basis whether an autopsy is needed. Macon County Coroner Michael Day said the program would provide extra assurance, and dollars, for law enforcement and the state’s attorney’s office to investigate cases and bring charges.

“We’re very hopeful that it will assist in the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of those who sell drugs in the community,” Day said. 

Numbers for last year were not immediately available, but Day said his office had 22 substance-related deaths in 2016. The office handles roughly 25 autopsies a year, costing several thousand dollars each.

Without the donation, Day said his office simply would not be able to cover the cost of drug-related autopsies along with its typical workload.

The ultimate hope, Buffett said, is that the possibility of murder charges for drug dealers will act as a deterrent.

“The autopsies completely support the financial support we’ve given to the state’s attorney for the opioid prosecutor, it all fits together as a package,” said Buffett, the son of multibillionaire investor Warren Buffett. “And I think if we start prosecuting these dealers in homicide cases, it’ll raise the ante. It will impact what people are willing to do.”

The donations are the latest in millions of dollars given by Buffett's private foundation to Decatur-area causes over the past few years, including many gifts to law enforcement. The county in the fall approved in-kind donations from Buffett totaling $236,000 to allow consultants to evaluate the Macon County Jail and recommend improvements, and most of the upcoming gifts on the county's agenda are also aimed at the jail.

An Illinois Department of Corrections inspection last year found that the jail complied with state standards for how jails must be maintained. Buffett has said, however, that he hopes to renovate the facility to the point that residents feel pride in it; he expects to spend at least $1.5 million on that effort. 

Buffett has said the upgrades and hiring of consultants has nothing to do with an ongoing lawsuit in U.S. District Court that alleges neglect in the death of an inmate who died in the jail in July 2015.

The lawsuit, filed last summer and set for trial in 2019, argues that the sheriff's office, Decatur Memorial Hospital and individual medical personnel and correctional officers ignored a diabetic emergency of 35-year-old Decatur man Michael A. Carter. The plaintiff in the case is Felita McGee, the administrator of Carter's estate, who is seeking more than $50 million for actual damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees and other costs.

Other donations on the docket from the Buffett Foundation include:

  • $110,710 for  a new records filing system at the jail for Civil Process, Records and Warrants.

  • $50,744 for a new exchange server to improve stability, speed, efficiency and security with the jail’s computer servers.

  • $5,562 for a new computer hardware and a new Windows Server to host the sheriff’s office’s website and improve its speed, efficiency and security.

  • Up to $522,730 for a new jail management system, which will include new hardware, software and other associated software licenses.

  • Up to $265,000 to improve medical services in the jail

  • $122,526 to hire a correctional officer for the purpose of implementing a new classification system in the Macon County Jail. The donation will cover 21 months, and the county is likely to pick up the future costs of the position, officials said. 

  • Up to $105,000 for the purchase of a new 2018 Ram 4500 Ford E450 equipped for prisoner transportation, with an interior camera system.

  • $86,500 to engage a consultant for expert assistance in developing a new corrections policy manual for the jail.

  • $45,000 for new uniforms for Macon County Jail correctional officers.

  • $20,000 to engage a consultant for the development of medical policies in the jail  and subsequent support and customization of those policies.

  • $17,749 for 15 ballistic vests to be for Macon County Jail correctional officers for inmate transportation.

  • $7,872 for the purchase 14 Glock 22 .40 caliber pistols and two Glock 23 .40 caliber pistols and associated accessories to be used by Macon County Jail correctional officers. Buffett said the guns will replace the ones being used now, which are decades-old and were formerly used by the patrol unit.

The donations are set to for consideration by the Macon County Board next month. 

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Staff Writer

Government-watchdog reporter for the Herald & Review.

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