Community / News / October 23, 2008

Knox County Coroner running uncontested for second term

GALESBURG–Mark A. Thomas may be running for re-election in an uncontested race for Coroner of Knox County, but his experience suggests he is qualified to serve a second term in that position.

Thomas works at the Watson Funeral Home, where he also served as deputy coroner under the former coroner, John Watson, for 16 years.

“My responsibility as coroner is to the deceased,” Thomas said. “To be honest, it makes no difference how a subject comes to die. What’s important is that it is investigated and reported properly.”

As coroner, Thomas investigates most deaths in Knox County, including those that occur at home, in accidents, at state institutions, or hospitals and nursing homes. In cases of homicide, or deaths that have mysterious circumstances, he is empowered by the state to subpoena a jury, much as in regular trials.

Witnesses to the death are called upon to give testimony as to what happened, he said. In these cases, the jury uses the evidence given by the autopsy and the witnesses to determine the cause and circumstances of death. Based on this decision, the cause of death is made official. Most unnatural deaths are subject to inquest. In rare instances, Thomas said, the cause of death cannot be determined due to an array of possible reasons and is declared as such.

Thomas became interested in being a funeral director in high school. His family originally moved to the area in 1942 and he was born and raised in Galesburg. His grandfather first came to work on the railroad and the family has stayed in the area ever since.

Thomas received his bachelor’s degree from Western University. He then went to mortuary school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and graduated in 1984. He moved to Bloomington when he graduated, where he lived and worked as a funeral director for three and a half years. Thomas returned to Galesburg in December 1998 to work for John Watson, owner of the Watson Funeral Home, at 1849 North Seminary Street.

Although he is running for office as a Democrat, Thomas said that as a coroner, political affiliation doesn’t figure in. On a rough guess, he said there are 700 to 800 deaths per year in Knox County, and of these, 25 to 30 of them require an inquest.

In the search for cause of death, Thomas frequently works in conjunction with city, county, or state police at the scene of the death. The investigations of the coroner always begin when he is called to the scene, where he is responsible for bringing the body in for autopsy.

One of those crime scenes occurred in the summer 2008 murder of Galesburg resident Ronald Randall at the hands of Nicholas Sheley, a man accused of the deaths of eight people.

Thomas said his role in the case was typical, involving the investigation of Randall’s death rather than the manhunt for Sheley.

“[Sheley] doesn’t get preferential treatment because he’s a killer,” Thomas said. “My role as coroner is to the deceased. The police placed Sheley at the scene.”

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