As coroners of Champaign and Vermilion counties, DUANE NORTHRUP and JANE McFADDEN have a painfully unique perspective on the toll gun violence takes in a community.
Here, they describe for The News-Gazette what they’ve experienced far too often in 2021 — being the ones responsible for notifying family members of the passing of loved ones.
JANE McFADDEN, who ran the criminal investigation division of the Danville Police Department before being elected Vermilion’s coroner in 2016
“I have seen some awful, horrible deaths due to fire, traffic crashes and drowning. These pale in comparison to what a human being can do to another human being.
“I was exposed to death as a young police officer. Once I was determined to become a crime scene technician, I was exposed to so very much more. Murders where children or the elderly were involved were especially hard, emotionally and spiritually. How could someone murder a child or a person in the twilight years of their lives?
“Pregnant women whose children were killed in their womb along with them who never had a chance at life? This can horrify you, so much so that you can no longer do the important work you need to do. Burnout is real and in the grand scheme of things, nothing I ever considered would affect me.
“How many young people can you see shot and killed before you cannot take it anymore? How many grieving mothers can you comfort and cry with and console? How many? We as a society have too many.
“It is gut-wrenching to be the one to make that notification. I have to steel myself every time I knock on a door to tell some mother, father, wife, husband or parent that their loved one is dead.
“It’s the finality of the notification, the fact that I cannot do one thing to take away their pain and suffering. I can’t tell them I know how they feel because I don’t. I have never lost a loved one to gun violence or murder. I have lost loved ones, sure, but not in the sudden, horrific way of a murder.
“The victim that is murdered isn’t the only victim. The murdered person’s whole family and close friends are victims as well.
“Many hours of training and still nothing can prepare you for walking into a scene and seeing a woman lying naked on the floor with a huge hole through her chest and her eyes staring blankly up at you. All of these memories stay with you, you do not forget.
“I remember a particular murder where I knew the young victim. I saw her with a hole in her forehead lying in a pool of her own blood and the first thing that came to my mind as I stood there was: ‘Her hair looks so pretty today.’ I was in shock. Then I thought: ‘What I am I gonna tell her mother?’
“You pray for the souls of the dead you encounter and every time you make a notification, you think: ‘God bless that poor family.’ I have never walked away and not felt sick to my stomach because I put myself in their shoes and think: ‘What if that was me?’
“If you are a pessimistic person, I guess you may say after doing this job that there is no God. How could God allow someone to do this to another human being? I choose to believe that ultimately God will deal with the perpetrator and deliver justice.
“That is what gets me through the tough cases. It is how I cope.
“Karma or whatever is out in the universe will return the evil to the person who committed a horrendous act.”
DUANE NORTHRUP, whose office has conducted 31 autopsies of gun violence victims in 2021, including 15 from Champaign, eight from Urbana and four from Danville, two of Rantoul, one of Monticello and one of Buckley
“I am fortunate that I have not lost a loved one to senseless gun violence and never before believed that I could lose a loved one to the same gun violence that plagues certain areas of this county.
“However, the past two to three years have proven gun violence happens in all areas of Champaign County, including places previously thought to be safe, such as North Prospect Avenue on a Sunday afternoon and the food court or parking lot of the mall.
“I advise my family and friends to avoid places in Champaign, Urbana and Rantoul that were previously considered ‘safe places.’
“As coroner, I often have an insider’s perspective on the emotional toll gun violence has on families from our local communities. When notified of a homicide victim at a scene or the local hospital, I immediately feel sadness knowing we must now notify a victim’s surviving family of the death of their loved one.
“Despite how the victim lived his or her life prior to death or the circumstances of how they died, he or she was still someone’s son, daughter, mother, father, brother, sister or friend.
“I cannot express in words the feeling I get as I approach the victim’s family members and clear the lump from my throat before informing them of the death of their loved one. I have made countless death notifications and have a pretty good idea how the scenario will play out.
“In spite of how much I dread doing them, I know it must be done and I know it is my responsibility to inform them. I deliver the news with care and compassion as I witness unfathomable grief and sadness take the place of hope and prayers that their loved one was OK.
“I see the emotional and physical toll it takes on my deputy coroners who have to make these notifications as well as investigate these cases. Many of these young victims are similar in age to my staff. My staff spends many sleepless nights working these cases and tracking down family members so we can notify them as soon as possible.
“I see the emotional and physical toll these cases take on the police officers and detectives who work these cases. Despite what many people may think in the communities where these victims lived, the police do care and do try everything possible to solve these senseless crimes.
“I see the emotional and physical toll these cases take on health-care workers. Caring for thousands of COVID-positive patients over the past two years has taken its toll on healthcare workers and then you add triple the average homicide cases to an already stressed healthcare system.
“And then you have the funeral industry. Funeral directors are tasked with putting these victims of gun violence back together and making them presentable for families during the funeral service. Now you have additional stress and uncertainty wondering if additional violence could happen at or during a funeral service for these victims of gun violence by means of retaliation.”