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Daily Journal
     October 29, 2020      #47-303 KDJ
Kankakee County Coroner Bob Gessner stands in the morgue Wednesday. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Gessner said he had concerns that 2020 was on track to trend higher than the previous two years in terms of overdose deaths.

Daily Journal/Tiffany Blanchette

Drug overdose deaths in Kankakee County on the

By Jeff Bonty

KANKAKEE — Bob Gessner has been associated with the Kankakee County Coroner’s Office since 1984.

He started working there part time, and since 2003, Gessner has been the county’s coroner.

In his tenure, Gessner has worked to educate the public on drug use and overdoses. His expertise in these matters is what recently brought him into a Kankakee County courtroom.

State’s Attorney Jim Rowe asked Gessner earlier this month to testify in a sentencing hearing for a Kankakee man found guilty of a drug-induced homicide. It marked the first time in Kankakee County a person charged with such a crime had been found guilty.

The victim died after overdosing on heroin and fentanyl sold to him by the defendant. The defendant himself had overdosed and was saved by emergency personnel, then sold the drugs to the victim. The heroin with fentanyl both men used came from the same batch.

“It only takes one granular of fentanyl to be the difference whether you live or die,” Gessner said this week talking about a resurgence in overdose deaths.

As of Monday, Gessner said there had been 41 drug overdose deaths confirmed, with two cases pending for fiscal year 2020, which started Dec. 1, 2019.

It marks the highest number of overdoses in Kankakee County since 2017, where there were 56 recorded. In each 2018 and 2019 there were 29 overdose deaths.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Gessner said he had concerns that 2020 was on track to trend higher than the previous two years.

Of the 41 confirmed overdose deaths, fentanyl was found in 29. Gessner said they have started seeing fentanyl mixed with cocaine lately.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent, according to drugabuse.gov.

Overdose deaths involving opioids, including prescription opioids, heroin, and synthetic opioids (like fentanyl), have increased almost six times since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Overdoses involving opioids killed nearly 47,000 people in 2018, and 32 percent of those deaths involved prescription opioids, CDC data showed.

Stimulus effect

When stimulus checks from the federal government were delivered, Gessner said he saw a jump in overdoses.

“Shortly after, we had four or five cases in quick succession. I think it was because they got the extra money,” Gessner said.

The average age of victims is 40, with the youngest victim 17 and the oldest 61. Of the 41 deaths, 31 have been men.

As for race, 31 victims were white, nine were black and one was Asian.

Because of the pandemic, Gessner has been unable to take his opioid education program to schools and other groups. He looks forward to being able to start again.

During the sentencing hearing, Gessner testified how hard it is to talk to family members who have lost a loved one to an overdose.

“They are losing a son, daughter, mother, father, uncle or aunt,” he said. “It is very difficult and sad. We have to continue the effort to stop this.”

Kankakee County overdose stats

Overdose statistics Fiscal Year 2020

(Dec. 1, 2019 – Oct. 23, 2020)

Cases: 41 

Pending Cases: 2


Average Age: 40

​​Youngest: 17

​​Oldest: 61


Male: 31

Female: 10


Caucasian: 31

African American: 9

Asian: 1

Marital Status

Single: 29

Married: 6​

Divorced: 5

Widowed: 1


​​9th-12th grade: 12

​​High School diploma: 19

​​College, no degree: 5

​​Associate degree: 4

​​Bachelor’s degree: 1

Source: Kankakee County Coroner's Office

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Lethal doses are shown in this photo of vials containing heroin, fentanyl and carfentanyl.

Daily Journal/Tiffany Blanchette