Autopsy questions: Marion County pathologist under scrutiny in Chicago and Indianapolis

Dr. John Cavanaugh (Photo: Chicago Sun-Times)
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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - A central Indiana mother says a doctor at the Marion County Coroner's Office ignored clues about how her daughter died.

13 Investigates has learned the pathologist who conducted that autopsy is the same doctor now under scrutiny for questions about his work in Chicago. The Cook County Medical Examiner's Office said Cavanaugh missed a murder case.

Now there are new calls here for an independent review.

Photos document the last hours of Jessica Elliott's life.

Doctors in Richmond thought she overdosed. She was transferred to an Indianapolis hospital, where a nurse discovered injuries which could be "consistent with abuse."

Diana Elliot holds a photo of her late daughter, Jessica.
Diana Elliot holds a photo of her late daughter, Jessica.

A CAT scan revealed something even more ominous.

Something her family says a Marion County pathologist ignored and allowed a possible suspect to go free.

Instead of getting timely responses, Diana Elliott said she has had to do the leg work to try to get answers.

"I'm a mother, I should not have seen my daughter's autopsy pictures. It's inexcusable for what they've done," she told 13 Investigates. "I just want the truth to come out and I want people to answer for what they've done."

Jessica's mother believes her daughter's head-to-toe injuries cried out about how Jess really died.

"They noticed marks on her neck and plus she had big bruises on her chest, her hands were beat up and then the head injury," explained Elliott.

According to police and autopsy reports, Jess suffered trauma to her brain. Doctors say it was bleeding in two places, but it went undetected for nearly nine hours because Curtis Smith, her live-in boyfriend, told emergency crews she overdosed on her prescribed Xanax.

Police say shortly before Smith called 911, he recorded a cell phone video. In the video, Jessica can be seen sitting on the edge of a bed talking to Smith.

"You want to threaten me with cops? Be prepared. I'll go into court tomorrow...I'll go to the (expletive) courthouse tomorrow and show them what you (expletive) did to me."

"What did I do to you?" responded Smith.

"You put your (expletive) hand around my throat (expletive)!" Jessica said, raising her voice in the video.

"My daughter talked to my sister and told her he had strangled her," Elliott told 13 Investigates.

Jess was found unresponsive two hours after that conversation. Curtis Smith told police they wrestled, but said Jess was the aggressor. No one questioned the story until doctors said it was too late for Jess.

"I asked him what happened to my daughter's brain and he said her brain moved from one side of her head to the other," revealed Elliott.

The Marion County Coroner's Office conducted an autopsy. Dr. John Cavanaugh was the pathologist. He is the same pathologist 13 Investigates reported is under scrutiny in Chicago, where 200 cases are under review.

The Marion County Coroner's office also revealed for the first time, it is reviewing all of Dr. Cavanaugh's homicide cases from over the past year.

"It finally came out. That he wasn't doing his autopsies the way that he should," said Elliott, recalling the moment she saw the report on WTHR.

In Jessica's case, Cavanuagh determined she died from complications of two types of hematoma.

"It would be more like blunt force trauma," she said explaining what other pathologists in central Indiana told her.

But the manner of death?

"He's ruled it undetermined," Elliott said.

Undetermined, despite the physical altercation and Smith reportedly admitting to "roughly manhandling" Jessica.

Just as troubling, the autopsy did not find even a trace of Xanax. The toxicology report revealed just a small amount of THC related to marijuana and the drug Prozac.

Detectives say Jessica's half-full Xanax prescription was found by her mother hidden under a mattress.

"My daughter lost her life," said Jessica's mother, overcome with emotion. "It's inexcusable what they did."

For two-and-a-half years, Diana Elliott has been pushing to get Dr. Cavanaugh's findings reviewed and changed. Now the Richmond Police Chief is demanding the same. After seeing WTHR's reports, Chief James Branum confirmed to 13 Investigates that he sent a letter to the Marion County coroner asking for a review of Jessica's case.

"I want justice for my daughter and closure for my family," said Diana Elliott, wiping away tears. "I just want what's right. The truth to come out."

The chief deputy coroner confirmed Jessica Elliott's case is one of those in Marion County to get reviewed. Alfie Ballew says another examiner in the office confirmed Cavanaugh's findings last year.

Still, with all of the new heightened concern, Jessica's case will go out for an independent review.

Dr. Cavanaugh worked in Chicago for 10 months. All 219 cases he worked on are now under review. He's also facing hearings with the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulations.

Right now, only Marion County homicide cases from the last year are being reviewed in addition to a few select cases.

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