Jil Vaughn

Jil Vaughn stands outside the Lake County Coroner's office today after meeting with county prosecutors at the courthouse in Waukegan about felony charges against Lake County Coroner Richard Keller. Keller treated Vaughn's son Steve while Steve was a methadone patient and later ruled on Vaughn's death as coroner in an apparent conflict of interest. Keller pled guilty to two felony charges later Tuesday. (Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune / February 21, 2011)

Lake County Coroner Richard Keller resigned today after pleading guilty to two felony charges stemming from an investigation of a death at a methadone clinic.

Keller showed no emotion as he appeared in a Lake County courtroom this afternoon, speaking only when he entered a plea of guilty to unlawful delivery of a controlled substance and obstruction of justice. Under a plea deal, Keller will avoid jail time if he meets the terms of his two-year probation.

As part of the deal, Keller will relinquish his license to practice medicine for five years but can apply after that to have his license reinstated. He also must perform 100 hours of community service and pay fines and fees, including a $2,000 donation to CrimeStoppers.

“I suppose this is kind of an ultimate betrayal of trust," Circuit Judge John Phillips told Keller. "How great a fall … just very disturbing."

The charges stem from Keller's tenure as medical director for a now-shuttered Waukegan methadone clinic.

Officials began investigating Keller after the death of Steve Vaughn, 30, of Lindenhurst on Dec. 3, 2008. Vaughn died on his second day of treatment, hours after being administered 70 milligrams of methadone that Keller had prescribed.

At the time, Keller worked as both coroner and as medical director of the Green Dragonfly clinic, which helped people with opiate addictions. Methadone is a powerful synthetic narcotic used to treat heroin addicts.

The coroner’s office found that Vaughn had both methadone and Xanax in his system, and likely died of respiratory arrest after mixing the two.

The death prompted Lake County officials and the Drug Enforcement Administration to look into whether Keller and clinic staff followed proper procedures in administering methadone. They questioned if Keller was prescribing methadone without gathering adequate medical history or obtaining urine samples from patients -- typically done before methadone is administered.

Keller resigned as clinic medical director in August 2009. The Green Dragonfly closed less than a month later after state and federal inspections revealed numerous violations at the clinic.

Last December, Jil Vaughn filed a lawsuit against Keller claiming her son was addicted to Xanax, not heroin. She said she believes her son lied to clinic staff so he could quickly enroll in their methadone treatment program after having been turned down by other clinics.

Vaughn was accompanied by his brother, who did not hear any staff members warn about the dangers of mixing the two drugs, she said.

Keller was charged with obstruction of justice for failing to turn over all of the Green Dragonfly clinic’s records as required by a grand jury subpoena. Authorities later seized the records in September 2009 through a search warrant.

The unlawful drug delivery charge stemmed from a prescription Keller wrote as clinic director to another Green Dragonfly patient on July 7, 2009 for clonazepam, more commonly known under the brand name Klonopin.

Keller's attorney acknowledged after today's hearing that Keller made mistakes in prescribing pain medication and in record-keeping.

“Unfortunately, he was not always dealing with people who were honest with him,” Christopher Kennedy  said. “He has defenses for all of the charges but he has decided, because of his family, it would be better to take responsibility. He is a very committed, compassionate public servant and most of his work has been uncompensated.”

Keller issued his own statement saying he was resigning and noting that his actions "should not reflect upon my office, its employees, or its mission.

"I am proud of what we have accomplished during my six years as coroner, including my personal commitment to calling family members of the deceased myself whenever possible, and raising community awareness of the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. I have sought to provide comfort to victims’ family members, assist victims of abuse, and assist people in getting treatment. I thank the people of Lake County for allowing me to serve your coroner.”

Jil Vaughn called the plea and resignation "a hollow victory for us.”

“We are still without a son but maybe some other parents will never be put in this position," added Vaughn,  who attended the hearing with Steve Vaughn's father, Butch Vaughn. "And maybe I can find some forgiveness in my heart for this man."

Vaughn found her son dead when she returned home from work. Months later, she learned through a reporter that Keller was the same man who prescribed methadone to her son and had ruled on his cause of death.

"He should have dismissed himself from that case," Vaughn said. "An autopsy should have been done.

“He will no longer be the coroner; he will no longer be a doctor,”  she added. “It’s what I wanted.”

Keller was first elected to the post in 2004 and had already announced that he did not intend to seek re-election when his term ended in 2012. Keller narrowly defeated then-incumbent Jim Wipper in 2004, and was the first Democrat elected to the office in decades.

Keller has said he thought the investigation was politically motivated.

Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran has agreed to assume the duties of the coroner until the county board appoints a replacement to serve the remainder of the term.

Keller was the second Chicago area county coroner facing criminal charges. In Kane County, Coroner Charles West was indicted last year for official misconduct for allegedly giving two deputies a television that belonged to a man whose death West had investigated.

West is fighting the charges, is out on bail and continues to run the coroner's office as he awaits trial.