Cops to continue probe into Elliott man's death after coroner's jury rules it a homicide

PAXTON — Ford County authorities will continue to investigate last May’s death of an Elliott man after a coroner’s jury ruled it was a homicide Wednesday night.

“We have people to talk to and more work to be done,” Sheriff Mark Doran said following the verdict.

The jury of three men and three women deliberated for about 1 1/2 hours before reaching its verdict around 10:50 p.m., finding that the cause of death of Jeremy C. Turner, 34, was a gunshot wound to the head and that the manner of death was homicidal.

Mr. Turner’s widow, Dyna Turner, teared up after the findings were announced by Coroner Rick Flessner.

“I knew he didn’t do this to himself,” she said. “I pray to find out who did this and find justice.”

Mr. Turner was found dead alone in his home at 202 E. Railroad St. in Elliott on May 8, 2018, after firefighters from four agencies were called there to extinguish a major fire that had engulfed it.

While an autopsy showed that soot was present in Mr. Turner’s airways, indicating he was alive at the time of the fire, it was determined that the official cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head.

Flessner said that Dr. Shiping Bao, the pathologist who performed the autopsy, found Mr. Turner to have suffered a bullet wound that entered the left side and exited the right side of his head. The bullet wound was not immediately apparent, however, even on radiologic examination, due to the body’s badly burned condition. The wounds were found only after Bao excised the scalp to examine the brain.

Mysteriously, a semi-automatic pistol that Mr. Turner reportedly kept loaded in the side of his recliner — as well as an estimated 11 to 13 other guns kept in the household — were removed on the night of Mr. Turner’s death by a man purporting to be a “family friend.”

The man told police he removed the guns at the request of Mr. Turner’s widow — an assertion she strongly denied. Dyna Turner said she had not spoken to the man in five to six years.

When the man brought the pistol to the sheriff on the day following Mr. Turner’s death, police found it “strange” that the gun had been taken apart and cleaned.

Ford County Sheriff’s Lt. Pat Duffy said that once the gunshot wound was discovered in Mr. Turner’s head during the autopsy, investigators began looking for the pistol in photographs of the fire scene taken by Shane Arndt, a certified inspector and special agent with the Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal.

In one photo, investigators found the pistol’s muzzle to be facing backward and placed pointing down in the right side of a recliner where Mr. Turner’s body was found. The gun’s location placed it near Mr. Turner’s right side.

Duffy said a total of five shells were eventually recovered from the scene, although only four were initially found. Duffy said those to arrive first at the scene reported hearing some “pops” from inside the house that they thought might have been ammunition “cooking off” from the heat of the fire.

However, Duffy emphatically stated the five pistol rounds “did not cook off — they were fired.”

Duffy explained that was clear because of the striations found on the spent casings. Those striations were formally tested and found to be a match to Mr. Turner’s pistol.

Duffy said witnesses in the area reported seeing no vehicles present before the fire or leaving the scene afterward.

Dyna Turner testified that both she and her 20-year-old son had left the house for their respective jobs early in the day and that she was notified of the fire around 10:20 a.m. while at her job in Bloomington.

Any enemies?
When asked if Mr. Turner could have had enemies, Dyna Turner said the various medications he kept on hand to control his various diseases could be the only reason she could think of that might cause someone to want to harm him.

According to Bao, Mr. Turner had chronic conditions of Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis and emphysema. Flessner read notes from Mr. Turner’s personal physician, internist Dr. Omar Geada of Gibson City, indicating that Mr. Turner was a heavy tobacco user, had a history of alcohol and caffeine use and was a medical marijuana user.

Dyna Turner said that while her husband kept a loaded pistol in the side of his recliner, there was never a bullet in the chamber. She also noted that her husband would be unable to rack a bullet into the chamber on his own due to his right hand being mostly useless to him and the severe shaking the diseases caused in him.

The pistol notably was found near Mr. Turner’s right side — the same side that Dyna Turner testified he had little use of. Mr. Turner was right-handed, she said.

Dyna Turner noted that when her husband tried to fire the pistol, the recoil caused him to smack his forehead. She said he had little control of it because he “shook uncontrollably.” Due to his condition, she said she had to assist him with most of the basic activities of daily living.

Dyna Turner testified that her husband could have picked up the pistol with one hand but positively could not have fired it without using both hands.

Jurors asked about the weight of the weapon, and Doran provided a similar weapon for them to examine. Two female jurors held it and founded it surprisingly heavy.

‘Things were great’
Dyna Turner testified to the couple’s loving and close relationship. She also described Mr. Turner’s daily routine of being mostly in a recliner and watching television. She said he used a wheelchair to let the couple’s two dogs out or to go to the kitchen for snacks as needed.

“Things were great,” she testified. “We were happy.”

She described happy outings with friends during the weekend before his death.

State's Attorney Andrew Killian asked Dyna Turner whether her husband suffered mood swings or depression that can be related to Huntington’s disease. She characterized his only negative emotion as being angry if he fell.

Dyna Turner also described the home’s layout, indicating there were three entrances into the home. The deck exit had a wheelchair ramp. She also said that Mr. Turner had a window next to the recliner chair.

“My husband would have thrown himself out that window to get to me,” Dyna Turner said of his potential escape if the fire was accidental. “He was a fighter.”

Jim Cook, a 20-year friend of Mr. Turner, said the last time he saw Mr. Turner was about two weeks before his death. He said Mr. Turner was happy and the two went shooting. Mr. Turner was in a wheelchair and had to be assisted to hold up his gun.

“He couldn’t hit anything, but he was having a good time doing it,” Cook said in describing the pair’s outing at Cook’s property in Melvin.

Fire investigation
Arndt determined the area of origin of the fire was the “dining room area at floor level.” However, Arndt said he was unable to locate an exact point of origin, which he said is a common problem in fire investigations.

Mr. Turner’s recliner was located in the northwest part of the living room, near the interior doorway between the living room and dining room.

Arndt said that due to the house being older, the framing allowed the fire to quickly travel to the second floor and the attic once it was in the home’s walls.

Flessner said he declared the time of Mr. Turner’s death to be 11 a.m., the time he arrived at the scene. Arndt said Mr. Turner’s body had been removed by firefighters before he arrived there.

A toxicology report provided by NMS Labs of Willow Springs, Penn., showed caffeine, nicotine and cannabinoids were present in Mr. Turner’s body.
 

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