Medical Examiner Retires ‘Early,’ at 80 : Chicago: Cook County pathologist with 36 years on job has been involved in cases ranging from mass murderer Speck to cyanide-laced Tylenol.
Pathologist Robert Stein has been a doctor of death for Cook County for 36 years.
He was on the job when Richard Speck killed eight student nurses in 1966; he was there when 29 bodies were found at John Wayne Gacy’s home in 1978, and when a jetliner crashed in Chicago in 1979, killing 273 people.
It was Stein who alerted the world in 1982 that a killer was lacing Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules with cyanide.
But last month, Stein performed his last autopsy as medical examiner. At age 80, he took early retirement from his $152,000-a-year job.
Stein hasn’t kept track of the number of autopsies he’s done, but he estimates the total at more than 20,000.
As a pathologist, he began “hanging around” the morgue in 1957, before getting a job there. He became chief forensic pathologist before being becoming the county’s first medical examiner in 1976, when the county abolished its outdated coroner’s office.
He has worked on some of the city’s most spectacular murders, accidents and deaths, including the Gacy murders and the Tylenol slayings case, which has never been solved. It’s a career he describes as anything but depressing.
“Suicides intrigue me,” he said in an interview. “Decapitated bodies or dismembered bodies--the identification process is very interesting.”
He didn’t always think so. Stein recalls first being asked to tour the morgue by a family friend and physician.
“Just the word ‘morgue’ frightened me,” Stein said. “But I became very intrigued with the work.”
The fascination stuck, even after he received an anatomy degree and answered his country’s call during World War II.
Stein became a forensic pathologist and built his career in Cook County on a reputation of hard work.
“You could set your watch by him,” said Gary Howard, who worked midnights as an investigator at the medical examiner’s office while attending law school.
“He would show up for work at 5:30 every morning--and then work a full day. He loves his work,” said Howard, now felony review supervisor for the state’s attorney’s office.
In 1978, Stein crouched in the fetid crawl space of Gacy’s suburban home as body after body was unearthed.
He worked day and night with investigators in 1982 when seven people died after taking cyanide-tainted Tylenol capsules.
After Mayor Harold Washington collapsed and died in 1987, Stein’s autopsy squelched rumors that the city’s first black mayor had been poisoned.
“The poor human being ate himself to death,” scoffed Stein, whose report found that the overweight mayor had suffered a heart attack. “People still don’t believe it.”
And his career ended with another spectacular crime: the slayings of seven people in January at a fast food restaurant in suburban Palatine. His prediction on that one? “They’ll never find the killers.”
He plans some volunteer work with the elderly and said he hopes to continue one of his favorite pastimes: downhill skiing.
After that, he said, “If there’s something up above or down below, depending on where I’m going when I die, I’ll see many familiar faces. Not too soon, I hope.”