PINCKNEYVILLE, Illinois — The investigation into the prison death of a southern Illinois priest shortly after he began serving a nine-year sentence for child pornography and drug possession has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, a county coroner said.
Perry County Coroner Paul Searby has been investigating the death of 56-year-old Gerald Hechenberger, who was pronounced dead on March 6 at a hospital, shortly after he was taken there from Pinckeyville Correctional Center.
Searby told the Belleville News-Democrat that an autopsy was conducted but that he hasn’t been able to complete his inquiry because he hasn’t received received investigative reports from the Illinois Department of Corrections.
“(The department) has an investigative unit that comes in, but it has not been allowed into the prison due to the COVID to finish their reports,” Searby said.
The prison warden, Jeff Dennison, acknowledged that the virus crisis has delayed the investigation. A spokeswoman for the corrections department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hechenberger was associate pastor in 2018 at Holy Childhood of Jesus Catholic Church and School in Mascoutah when he was arrested. He pleaded guilty late last year to three counts of possessing pornographic photos of children and one count of possessing methamphetamine.
At his sentencing hearing in January, Hechenberger’s attorney, Randall Kelley, told St. Clair County Circuit Judge Zina Cruse that Hechenberger was in poor health and that sending him to prison would amount to a “death sentence.” It was not immediately clear what Hechenberger’s health problems were, but at his January sentencing hearing, he was severely overweight and used a cane to walk.
Cruse sentenced him to nine years in state prison.