In the next two weeks, a Washington County judge will rule whether a report in the suspected overdose death of a Washington County teen will be made public or remain sealed during an investigation.
Dakota Ellerbusch, 18, of Ashley, was found dead in a cabin near Okawville on New Year’s Day. Investigators are trying to find out how he ended up having a rare substance in his blood at the time of his death.
The Belleville News-Democrat submitted a Freedom of Information Act request in March for Ellerbusch’s toxicology reports, but was denied access to that information because of “imminent litigation.”
Shortly after, Washington County State’s Attorney Daniel Bronke filed a motion to have the toxicology report sealed, meaning it would be kept secret. In addition to sealing the report, Circuit Judge Daniel Emge also granted Bronke’s request to have that motion sealed.
Don Craven, Illinois Press Association attorney, then filed a motion on behalf of the News-Democrat requesting the toxicology report be unsealed.
In court on Wednesday afternoon, Bronke addressed why he felt the report needed to remain secret until investigators have found what or who they are looking for.
“Obviously, the individual we are dealing with is deceased,” Bronke said. “(Ellerbusch) got that way somehow and we are trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again — and catch those who might be responsible.”
But the county bears a constitutional burden to explain in detail why the documents are sealed, Craven argued.
“As I said, at this point we have nothing except this amended order that only says there is a pending criminal investigation,” Craven said in court Wednesday. “The claim that there is a pending criminal investigation is not enough to seal a document.”
Bronke explained that few people in the area have access to one or more of the substances found in Ellerbusch’s body. He implied that investigators from multiple counties are looking into where the teen may have received the substance or substances.
Releasing information about the substance in question, Bronke argued, could alert people that police are looking into those in the area with access to the substance.
He suggested to Emge that redacting specific parts of the report — including mention of the type of substance or substances in question — before releasing it to the newspaper could be a possible solution.
Emge said he needed time to read up on relevant case law and would issue a written order regarding the toxicology report’s sealing within two weeks. However, he did release the written request by Bronke to have the report sealed.
That motion simply states investigators were still working to determine whether Ellerbusch’s death was accidental or “of a more serious nature.”