Coroner puts faith in citizens to make right call

DeWayne Bartels

Death can be quiet and private or loud and public.

In Terry Vinson’s case, it was the latter. For that reason, four members of Vinson’s family sat quietly in the waiting room of the Peoria County Coroner’s office.

Vinson, 56, of Chillicothe, was about to be the subject of a coroner’s inquest, because he died under the wheels of a cement truck on a Chillicothe street. 

Vinson’s family was about to enter one of the legal aspects of death most families do not, and they would emerge on the other side of it unhappy.

The atmosphere

Death can be jarring, but nothing about the atmosphere in the coroner’s office is.

Vinson’s family sat in a room that can only be described as sterile.

The large room is devoid of art and painted a dull gray. Every door, except the dual entrances, are adorned with the words “Authorized Personnel Only.”

Staff members speak in hushed tones. Even the phone is muted.

The family sat looking out the windows on a snowy and bitterly cold scene the morning of Jan. 15.  

Enter the jury

As the family sat unaware of what lay ahead, behind one of the doors only authorized personnel could enter in a small room sat six people — Peoria County residents who volunteered to serve on the coroner’s jury.

They were anonymous faces.

When the family was called into the inquest room, they sat in the back. They faced the juror’s backs.

Ingersoll sat at the front of the room facing the two rows of jurors and the family behind them. The facts of Vinson’s death were recited. Among those facts was Vinson’s disability and that he had anti-seizure drugs in his blood. 

At 1:30 p.m. Sept. 18, 2008, Vinson was riding a bike on the shoulder in the 200 block of Plaza Drive, Peoria County Sheriff’s Lt. Jim Pearson testified.

He was riding his bike north in the southbound lane as the driver of a cement truck approached him.

“For unknown reasons, Mr. Vinson drove past the passenger door. Just after that, the driver felt the truck run over something,” Pearson testified.   

“He drove right into the side of the truck and was run over. We don’t know if a seizure happened ... or if he lost his balance. It’s hard to say.”    

Pearson also testified there was an eyewitness. Pearson’s testimony ended. Before the jurors could ask a question, Vinson’s uncle, Joe Ramos, asked if there was only one eyewitness.

The question went unanswered as Ingersoll cut Ramos off, saying it was not yet time for the family to address the coroner.

One juror asked Pearson if there was anything to indicate it was not an accident.

“No,” was Pearson’s response.

Pearson had testified Vinson was carrying a bag at the time of his death. One juror wanted to know what the contents of the bag were and when those items had been purchased. Pearson could not answer the question.  

As the jury left to deliberate, Ramos jumped on his chance to make a statement. Ramos told Pearson two days after his nephew died, he saw city workers filling potholes at the scene.

“Maybe he hit a pothole,” Ramos said.

“I don’t know the reason for him falling,” Ingersoll said.

Within minutes, a juror came back in the room, handing Ingersoll a piece of paper.

“The manner of death is accidental,” Ingersoll said.

Ramos and the other family members looked down, then stood and quietly left.

A jury divided

That day as the jurors deliberated eight cases, they faced some that were less than typical.

There was a case involving a 77-year-old Princeville woman who died at Methodist Medical Center of an infection caused by a cat bite.  

There was a case involving a 48-year-old Peoria man who died of an infection from a shotgun blast to the back 20 years earlier. 

These cases and the others, save one, were handled in a matter of minutes.

But, one other case involving a Chillicothe resident brought to light a coroner’s jury can be just as deliberative as a grand jury or a petit jury.

As Ingersoll began to address the case of Ricky Lane, 48, the jurors began jotting notes.

Lane died Sept. 13, 2008, at home. He was found unresponsive at home by his girlfriend.

Ingersoll said blood tests showed anti-anxiety drugs and painkillers in his system. Anti-seizure meds were found in his urine.

Chillicothe police officer Joseph Vissering then addressed the jury. He said he found Lane lying on his side in bed cold to the touch. He said Lane had ADHD, diabetes and was bi-polar.

Vissering said he found an empty pill bottle in Lane’s pants pocket and that he had been in an argument with his girlfriend earlier. She found his body and, according to Vissering, told police

Lane was a former methamphetamine user and an occasional pot smoker.

Vissering told the jurors no evidence of a suicide, such as a note, was found.

“It was the amount of drugs that is the cause of death, not the combination,” Ingersoll said.

A juror brought up the possibility of suicide to Vissering.

“He should have had a lot more pills,” Vissering said.

The officer was peppered with questions about suicide and Lane’s intent, which he could not answer.

One juror asked Ingersoll if the amount of drugs in Lane’s blood was five, 10, 20 or 50 times the normal dose.

“That information is not available,” she said.

The jury left to deliberate.

Minutes ticked by until 30 had passed.

Ingersoll re-emerged saying the jury still had questions.

Momentarily, the jury was seated again before Ingersoll and Vissering.

“When was the prescription filled?” a juror asked.

It had been filled two days prior to Lane’s death. There were 120 pills.

Another question followed.

“What was the level of drugs in his system — five, 10, 20, 50, 100 times the norm?”

“You asked that before,” Ingersoll said.

The juror quickly responded with, “We didn’t get an answer.”

“I don’t know the answer,” Ingersoll said. “The combined level of drugs was lethal.”

Ingersoll looked at the jurors and they stared back. The impasse was broken when Ingersoll got up and left the room, returning with a book.

She did some calculations and told the jurors that a level of .3 milliliters of one of the drugs was considered lethal. She said Lane’s level was .340.

The jurors left to continue their deliberations.

A juror returned quickly with a piece of paper in hand.

Ingersoll opened it, paused, and then published the finding.

“The manner of death is undetermined.”