The mysterious death of a Palos Park obstetrician and gynecologist in rural Texas two years ago appears to have been a homicide, not an accident, according to a nationally known medical examiner who reviewed the death at the request of a friend of the doctor’s family.
Dr. George Chronis, 57, was found dead May 4, 2018, on a ranch he’d bought as a getaway for hunting. His fire-scorched body was face down outside the doorway of a two-story barn house that burned down.
Sheriff’s officials in Rains County, Texas, continue to investigate Chronis’ death, which they say is suspicious despite a death certificate signed by the justice of the peace saying it was an accident and an autopsy that lists the cause and manner of death as “undetermined.”
Dr. Brian Peterson, the chief medical examiner for Milwaukee County, examined the autopsy report and postmortem photos of Chronis this past week at the request of Chicago attorney Andy Hale, a friend of the Chronis family.
The pattern of a ligature mark around the neck indicates that Chronis’ death was a homicide, according to Peterson, who has done more than 10,000 autopsies in his 30-year career and has been a consultant on “Forensic Files” and other television shows.
“It’s hard to conclude other than this was a homicide,” Peterson told the Chicago Sun-Times. “And it was caused by strangulation before the fire.”
Capt. Walter Kimmel of the Rains County sheriff’s office said he plans to contact Peterson about his conclusion.
According to Chronis’ wife, he’d go to the 79-acre ranch to hunt and get away from the grind of his OB-GYN practice.
The tree-lined property is about 60 miles northeast of Dallas in Rains County, pop. 2,000. Emory, the county seat, is the picture of small-town Texas: pickup trucks, cowboy hats and mom-and-pop barbecue restaurants.
On Chronis’ last trip, he was planning to stalk wild boars on the tree-lined property, the Sun-Times reported in December.
The last that Connie Chronis heard from her husband was a text asking, “Notice something?”
He’d sent a photo of the kitchen in their bunkhouse, but the kitchen table and chairs weren’t theirs — leading her to believe someone must have been staying at the house without permission.
Chronis’ body was discovered early the next morning.
Rains County sheriff’s officials have said they are working the case every day but have been strapped by “a lack of resources.”
A sheriff’s captain told the Sun-Times in December he was considering asking for another autopsy. That hasn’t happened.
Sheriff’s investigators have interviewed possible suspects, but no one has been arrested.
The Chronis family set up a hotline for tips and have offered a $75,000 reward in an effort to determine what happened to the doctor.
In December, Kimmel told the Sun-Times the Texas Rangers, the statewide investigative agency, wouldn’t join the investigation because Chronis’ death wasn’t ruled a homicide but that he needed their help. The Rangers provided assistance only at the beginning of the investigation.
On Feb. 25 — amid a contested political campaign that saw Sheriff David Traylor narrowly win reelection in March over challenger Jenkins Franklin — the sheriff’s office posted an update on the Chronis case, saying the Texas Rangers, Texas Department of Public Safety and Secret Service all had been involved in the investigation.
“This case is very complex and the deputies have put in a lot of hours on the investigation,” the Facebook post said. “We have been actively working to determine what happened and to give Mrs. Chronis and her family closure.”
Two days later, on Feb. 27, Franklin’s campaign posted a response on Facebook that said, “It wasn’t until a media outlet out of Illinois published a story about this case that the citizens of Rains County were made aware of it. This is police incompetence and dereliction of duty.”
“Yes, they have been working on the case, but still months will go by with nothing being done on it,” Franklin said. “I’m simply seeking justice for a family and a county that deserve long overdue answers and closure.”
Even though sheriff’s investigators think Chronis’ death was suspicious, they haven’t formally classified it as a homicide because the autopsy report said the cause was undetermined.
Peterson, the Milwaukee medical examiner who reviewed the case, disputes that finding.
“I’m not sure how you get ‘undetermined,’ ” he said, noting that the postmortem photos show the ligature mark around Chronis’ neck was horizontal, not vertical.
He said that indicates the death was a homicide, not suicide.
“You also look at the orientation of a ligature mark on the neck,” he said. “The old forensic rule of thumb is that if it’s angled, that’s suicide; if it’s horizontal, that’s homicide. It has to do with the way you put a ligature around somebody’s neck.”
Despite being found burned, there was no soot in Chronis’s lungs. And the carbon monoxide level in his blood was normal, indicating he didn’t die from inhaling smoke, according to Peterson.
“We’ve got, evidently, a case where the fire was not the cause of death,” he said. “This certainly smacks of homicide, where somebody, you know, essentially garroted this gentleman to death and then set a fire to try to disguise that fact.”
Asked about the justice of the peace listing the death as “accidental’ on the death certificate, Peterson said: “There are two possibilities. One of them is it’s just wrong. The other one is that there is extra information that they turned up that I don’t know about. And I freely admit that could be possible.”
Peterson said he doesn’t challenge the way the autopsy was done: “I will give the pathologist who did the autopsy the benefit of the doubt in the sense that I will always accept their physical findings. Now, I might interpret that differently, like in this case, but I can’t really argue with him because I wasn’t there.”
He also said he wouldn’t seek another autopsy if he were in charge of the Chronis investigation.
“Autopsies change bodies a lot,” he said. “And I got to say, over the years, I have spent a lot of time discouraging families from pursuing second autopsies. Exhumations are not inexpensive, number one, and, number two, they don’t tend to be really helpful.”