MORRISON – Preliminary results indicate that a 65-year-old Rock Falls woman died of hypothermia in the woods near Whiteside County Jail, Coroner Joe McDonald said Friday.
A hunter found the body of Janet L. Sims on Tuesday after she had been released from jail Monday morning, her 65th birthday, as a snowstorm blew through town.
Exactly when she died, however, might never be known, the coroner said.
“Once a body comes down to the temperature of the surroundings, it’s very difficult to determine a time of death,” he said.
Results of toxicology tests are not expected for at least 3 weeks. The sheriff’s department does not suspect foul play.
Family members said Sims had suffered from bipolar and schizoaffective disorders for more than 30 years.
After being released from jail, she apparently wandered about a block north of the jail, passed through Grove Hill Cemetery, and clambered over a barbed wire fence and into a wooded area just northeast of the graveyard. Her body, partially covered by snow, was found by a hunter tracking a white-tailed deer, McDonald said.
Sims, an average-sized woman, was wearing boots and appeared to be otherwise dressed for the weather, the coroner said. He did not know whether she had a cellphone.
Had she wandered the same distance in the other direction, she would have been on U.S. Route 30 near the downtown. But hypothermia causes circulation to slow, organs to shut down, and oxygen levels to the brain to deplete.
“People get confused,” McDonald said. “They don’t know where they are at, and they may do strange things they normally wouldn’t do.”
It’s possible, considering the remote area, that had the hunter not come across her body, she might not have been found until later, perhaps spring, he said.
“Anytime someone’s found in a wooded area, you’re somewhat at the mercy of whoever encounters you,” McDonald said.
Sims, who lived in Civic Plaza, a public housing project for low-income seniors, was jailed Nov. 19 on a misdemeanor trespassing charge and served 5 days of a 10-day sentence before she was released.
Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi was off work Friday and did not return a call and a text seeking more information on the circumstances of her release.
On Wednesday, he said he didn’t know whether she had called anyone for a ride home. It’s not jail policy to make that call for an inmate, or to provide a ride home, the sheriff said.
He did say that after her release, around 8 or 9 that morning, she sat upstairs in the jail for a few hours, then decided on her own to leave.
Wilhelmi said he was not sure whether jail staff knew of her mental illness; there was no court-ordered mental evaluation, he said.
“I feel horrible,” he said Wednesday. “You never want to see anything like this happen. You want to see everyone get home safely.”
The woman’s son, Jamie Richards, 42, of Lyndon, said he didn’t know his mother was in jail, but this wasn’t her first time. She had been there recently, Richards said, and that time, someone on the jail staff had called him to drive her home.
Her sister, Deloris Estes, 69, of Sylva, North Carolina, was angry Friday when she called the office of Sauk Valley Media.
Sims had battled her illness for 35 years, Estes said. She had a cellphone, but she often lost it. Sometimes she would think she didn’t need to take her medicine, “and she would get kind of loud,” Estes said.
Still, “you don’t turn a woman out in a darned snowstorm in northern Illinois,” she said Friday. “They did wrong.”
Richard said his mother had not always been that way. Although she’s had little to offer in the way of material goods throughout her life, she would help anyone she could, any way she could, he said.
“She’s been sick so long that a lot of people who knew her just knew the sick side of her,” he said. “She was the perfect mother, ever since I was a kid.
“This is just tragic.”
Janet L. Sims, who was born Janet Royer on Nov. 24, 1949, in Sterling and grew up in Harmon, has been cremated.
Friends and family will gather from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at McDonald Funeral Home in Rock Falls. There will be no service.
She is survived by, among others, two sons and three grandchildren.
Her complete obituary appears on Page A4.