ALBA, Texas — A billboard in this tiny farming community about 60 miles northeast of Dallas advertises a $75,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest in the mysterious death of a Chicago area doctor who was found dead last year on a ranch that he bought for hunting.
Dr. George Chronis was 57, an obstetrician and gynecologist from Palos Park. He was visiting his remote property when his bunkhouse burned down.
His body was found outside the two-story, converted barn early on May 4, 2018.
An autopsy determined Chronis was burned over half of his body — after he was dead. There was no smoke in his lungs. And there was an unexplained ligature mark around his neck.
A year and a half later, the Rains County, Texas, sheriff’s office is still investigating. Was the doctor’s death murder? An accident? Suicide?
“My gut tells me it was certainly some kind of foul play,” says Stacey Chronis, a sister-in-law.
“There’s no good explanation for how a man died outside a burning building with no smoke in his lungs,” says Chronis’ wife Connie.
Frustrated with the slow progress of the investigation, the family and friends of Chronis posted the reward in this town of 400 people in rural Rains County.
Chicago attorney Andrew Hale, a friend of Chronis’ brother Paul, recently visited there with a film crew, thinking of creating a documentary on the puzzling case.
The billboard that went up last month over U.S. 69 pictures a young, athletic Chronis in a gray T-shirt. Pickup trucks zoom past it. Across the street, a restaurant boasts it offers “Good Ol’ Home Cookin.’ ” This is a place where cowboy hat and boots are proper business attire, and conversations can quickly turn to horses, crop-dusting and brushfires.
The Chronis ranch, now for sale, is about six miles west of Alba, Texas. It was where Chronis would go to get away from the pressures of his medical practice, according to his wife. She says that, during his trip there in the spring of 2018, he was planning to hunt wild boars on the 79-acre property.
An avid outdoorsman, Chronis liked to hunt and fish. And he rode a motorcycle. But his family says he also was a renaissance man who spoke French and Greek, liked to cook and could play three instruments — guitar, trumpet and piano.
He was an athlete who, when he was younger, played baseball, softball, ice hockey and golf and who would still get out on a soccer field from time to time.
He was a craftsman, too. He built the deck at his suburban home and a deer stand in Wisconsin. A few years ago, he took a welding class at Moraine Valley Community College.
“Shy of giving birth, there was not much he could not do,” his wife says.
Chronis went to high school at Morgan Park Academy and graduated from Northwestern University with a chemistry degree.
He met his wife, a nurse, in medical school at the University of Iowa. She remembers them ditching a hospital Christmas party to go play pool.
“No one parlayed the day-to-day into hysteria like George,” she says.
The Chronises bought the ranch in Texas about a decade ago.
The doctor hadn’t visited there for about three years, a few days before flying to Texas on May 3, 2018. He texted his brother Paul: “I’m going down to my ranch. It’s my happy place.”
He was planning to meet with a lawyer about letting a Rains County man named Darrin Gowin graze cattle on the ranch, according to Chronis’ wife.
Chronis had let another man, Justin Wolfe, keep his cattle on the property on the condition that he maintained the land. But Chronis didn’t think Wolfe — the son of a judge — was doing enough work. He wasn’t fixing fences, and neighbors weren’t happy that his cattle were roaming their property. So the Chronises broke off their deal with Wolfe.
And Chronis asked Gowin to take over as caretaker of the ranch.
That was at the suggestion of a neighbor, Gale Johnson. Johnson doesn’t want to talk about Chronis now, saying only, “I’ve said everything I want to say to the sheriff.”
Before Chronis arrived, Gowin had been texting updates about how he was fixing things up. Gowin even texted a picture of wild pigs he said he put in the barn as “mascots” for the ranch.
Chronis was planning to let Gowin graze his cattle on the ranch after Wolfe moved the last of his herd out. He bought a $200 Bass Pro Shops gift card to give to Gowin as a thank-you for his work, according to Connie Chronis.
Heading to the ranch the night of May 3, 2018, Chronis stopped at a grocery store in nearby Emory and bought patio furniture. A video surveillance camera showed him entering and leaving the store alone. At 7:42 p.m., he texted pictures of the furniture to his wife.
At 9:07 p.m., Chronis texted his wife a photo of the kitchen in their bunkhouse and wrote: “View on entry. Notice anything?”
The photo showed a table and chairs in the kitchen.
But the furniture wasn’t theirs. Nor was the food in the refrigerator. It seemed that someone was living in their bunkhouse without permission.
After he put his groceries away, Chronis spoke on the phone with his wife about the unexplained furniture and food, she says. It was the last they ever spoke with each other.
Early the next day, at 5:59 a.m., Connie Chronis got a call. It was a Rains County emergency dispatcher telling her a fire had destroyed their bunkhouse — and her husband was dead.
According to an initial report by a sheriff’s deputy, Darrin Gowin was on the property as firefighters put out the fire. Chronis’ neighbor Gale Johnson also was there, according to the report.
Gowin, who couldn’t be reached, told the deputy that he’d communicated with Chronis at 8:30 the previous night and they agreed to have breakfast that morning in Emory, according to the sheriff’s report.
Johnson saw the fire from his home and went to the property. He called Gowin, who came over, officials say.
The Chronises’ bunkhouse was on a hill with a view of a creek. Neighbors’ homes and a county road are visible through the tree line.
Today, the property is overgrown. Tall weeds nearly obscure the charred remains of the building. Twisted metal and shattered glass are strewn about. All that’s left of the wooden barn posts are blackened stumps. A tall, fire-stained beam still stands in the middle of the rubble, like some grim monument to Chronis.
The sheriff’s report says Chronis’ body was face-down on the ground outside the burned-down bunkhouse near what had been a doorway. Investigators took photos of Chronis’ body. In one, he appears to be clutching something in his burned left hand. His wife wonders if it was cash.
Around Chronis’ neck was a “blue string” that appeared to be the collar of a shirt, according to the sheriff’s report.
The autopsy noted there was a “furrow” on Chronis’ neck — an indication something had been bound or pressed around it, causing a ligature mark. But the autopsy didn’t mention a “blue string” or anything else that might have caused the mark.
The deputy had noted that blood was coming from Chronis’ mouth and the top of his head. But the autopsy report didn’t mention that, either.
According to the autopsy, there wasn’t any soot in Chronis’ lungs — an indication he might have been dead before the fire started. It also said Chronis’ burns were postmortem — they occurred after his death.
For a time, it was unclear what were described as white plastic pellets found in Chronis’ stomach. But that later was explained: It was the plastic part of the pills he was taking for multiple sclerosis.
Chronis had the disease for more than two decades. But he didn’t talk about it with acquaintances or even his own three children, according to his wife. He stopped golfing and running because of balance problems related to MS, but he kept up his normal daily activities, she says.
The autopsy also found nontoxic levels of antidepressants in Chronis’ blood and signs of heart disease.
The pathologist who did the examination listed the cause and manner of Chronis’ death as “undetermined.”
Investigations by the state fire marshal’s office and a private investigator hired by the Chronis family were unable to determine what started the fire.
“We know very little because the autopsy, fire investigation [and] sheriff’s investigation gave us little help,” Connie Chronis says. “I just don’t know — except that it was neither suicide nor accident.”
She says her husband kept guns on their property in Texas — long-barrel guns and a handgun. The handgun was found on the seat of a fire-damaged tractor that was stored in a space under the bunkhouse. The long guns were found elsewhere in the debris. She doesn’t know why the guns wound up where they were.
A stove, microwave, sink and refrigerator were among objects that have disappeared from the property since the fire, according to Connie Chronis, who suspects looters.
Rains County Sheriff’s Capt. Walt Kimmel joined in the investigation nine months after Chronis’ death. By then, the original investigator had left the department, and the case was cold.
But Kimmel says he works on it every day.
He says he even conducted a burn-pattern test in his backyard and did another unusual test: choking himself with a dog collar in an effort to replicate the mark found on Chronis’ neck.
Murder doesn’t happen very often in Rains County. Over the three years that Kimmel has been with the sheriff’s office, he says it’s had only one investigation of a suspicious death — that of Chronis.
The lack of smoke in Chronis’ lungs “kind of raises my spider senses,” Kimmel says.
He views the suburban Chicago OB-GYN’s death as “suspicious.”
Officially, though, it’s not classified as a murder investigation. The death certificate, signed by the local justice of the peace, lists the death as “accidental.”
The Texas Rangers, the legendary statewide investigative agency, won’t join the investigation because the death hasn’t been ruled a homicide, according to Kimmel, who says he really could use their help.
“I think one of the biggest problems we hit is just having the resources available to us to get all this, some of these questions answered,” he says.
Kimmel says that at least six “people of interest” have been interviewed. He’s thinking about asking three of them to submit to lie-detector tests. He won’t say why he and deputy Mike Enckhausen are focusing on them.
Among the answers he’s looking for, he wants to know more about the material that was in Chronis’ left hand when his body was photographed at the morgue. He agrees with Chronis’ wife that it looks like cash. He has submitted the photo to the Secret Service for analysis.
Kimmel says a photo of Chronis’ right hand shows he might have been holding a handgun. That’s based on the burn pattern on his palm and fingers.
“You can see a pretty good outline of what looks like a gun,” he says.
Kimmel says he also is considering having Chronis’ body, which was buried in the Chicago area, exhumed.
He has doubts about the quality of the autopsy, done in Tyler, Texas, by a regional medical examiner about 60 miles southeast of Emory.
For one thing, the autopsy said the eyes of the person recovered from the fire scene were blue. Chronis had brown eyes.
“That was like a bombshell in this office,” Kimmel says. “I said, ‘Look, this ain’t right. Something is wrong.’ ”
The medical examiner’s office has stood by its conclusions.
The Chronis family was forced to submit a DNA sample to help identify the body as his.
Kimmel says he’s considering asking for another autopsy to see if the first one missed anything. He fears that key, untested evidence — like the “blue string” and the potential cash in the left hand — might have been buried with the body.
The mystery of George Chronis’ death might be a rarity in these parts, but it’s hardly the talk of the area. Some shopkeepers and waitresses in nearby Emory say they never heard that a doctor was found dead outside a burning home. Even a neighbor who says his son called 911 to report the fire says he didn’t know a body was found there.
Ben Wedeking Sr. lives on a ridge overlooking the Chronis ranch. Gale Johnson’s ranch is next door.
Wedeking’s own home burned down last Christmas, but sheriff’s officials don’t see any connection. They believe a welding accident sparked that fire.
Asked about Chronis’ death, Wedeking says, “I didn’t know that. Wow. Nobody’s told me.”
He ponders that for a moment, then looks over at a red barn that still stands on the Chronis property, and says, “Well, I don’t get into other people’s business.”