Week 6 of Princeton’s Citizens Police Academy focused solely on the job of Bureau County coroner.
Janice Wamhoff, our county coroner, came ready and willing to talk about all aspects of what’s got to be the area’s toughest profession.
I’m going to be wholeheartedly honest when I say as a reporter, while Janice is at the top of my list of the most respected people I work with, she’s also at the bottom of my list of people I like to call for a story.
When a story leads to having to make a call to Janice, it means there’s been a death, and it’s my job to get facts surrounding that death.
It’s harder than it sounds. It’s never a comfortable situation. And after nine years of reporting, that call has never gotten any easier for me. There’s always a heavy feeling in my stomach when my fingers are dialing for Janice.
So taking advantage of this opportunity to learn more about who she is and get a closer look at what she does, I figured it might help me understand her role and why those interviews tend to be difficult.
Janice started Wednesday evening off by talking about how she fell into the job of coroner. It wasn’t something she always wanted to do or ever imagined she’d spend her life doing. The job, more or less, fell into her lap. She’s carried the role since 1995, and she said she still has plans to do it a few more years, even though she’s approaching 70 years old.
Did you know she was the first female on the LaMoille ambulance crew? That’s a pretty neat story you’ve got to hear if you don’t know it already. She’s a local trailblazer for women in the role of a first responder. She proved a lot men wrong in her ability to do the job and execute it with utmost professionalism.
Being the county coroner, Janice is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year long. She does have four deputies who assist her with cases, but for the most part, she’s our No. 1 person for death investigations.
When Janice is called, she goes to the scene to investigate the cause of death, she notifies families of the deceased, she’s responsible for taking care of the site where the death occurred, and she performs autopsies and inquests (which occur only if she questions the cause of death). She said 99.9 percent of her cases, the cause of death is pretty obvious.
For criminal investigations, she works with a forensic pathologist out of Rockford, who will meet her at the hospital in Dixon where the autopsies are performed. The Rockford forensic pathologist is the closest one to this area. There are only five or six in the state of Illinois, she said. There’s obviously a high demand for that profession.
Janice presented a slideshow of pictures from cases she’s handled over the years. She showed a variety of cases including suicides, cases involving house/car fires, drug overdoses, decayed bodies that went undiscovered for a length of time, a case where just bones of a person were found in the woods, and even a case where a leg was found on the shores of the Vermillion River (that case has a pretty interesting background story). The pictures were not adjusted in anyway, but the class received a fair warning before they were shown.
Janice explained the matter of each death and the circumstances surrounding the death.
For someone considering this course, I highly recommend Janice’s presentation. Don’t plan to skip it. It was very informative to get a better sense of the reality surrounding a death investigation. It’s definitely not like what we see on “CSI.” Janice will be the first to tell you that, too.
Bureau County is lucky to have such a respectable, compassionate, professional coroner. She goes above and beyond what her duties entail. She lives by a saying her mother passed on to her, “Treat all people how you’d like to be treated.”
When the day comes where Janice is finally ready to retire, she’s definitely going to leave big shoes to fill.
Note to readers: Goldie Rapp is a senior staff writer for the Bureau County Republican. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @bcr_grapp.