by Irvin Muchnick
Sworn testimony by the former chief medical examiner for Alameda County included evidence that the head team physician for University of California-Berkeley football, Dr. Casey Batten, phoned him immediately after the February 2014 autopsy to promote a clinically spurious explanation that Ted Agu had died only of a sudden heart attack. The ex-coroner, Dr. Thomas Beaver, also testified that the university’s failure to disclose police statements by two players at the death scene hampered the effort to determine the role of Agu’s sickle cell trait, which manifested itself during a brutal conditioning drill many minutes prior to his final and fatal collapse.
Beaver, who left the county a few months after this controversial sequence of events, made the statements in his June 16, 2015, deposition in the Agu family’s wrongful death lawsuit against UC. The case settled earlier this year for $4.75 million.
This deposition transcript, acquired by Concussion Inc., is among thousands of pages of the “Ted Agu Papers” — primary-source documents establishing a real-time cover-up by Cal of the excesses of head coach Sonny Dykes’ football program, and in particular the strength and conditioning program under assistant Damon Harrington. We will be publishing these files in the near future as an ebook, with sales proceeds benefiting sickle cell research.
In his deposition, coroner Beaver spoke of an unsolicited phone call from Dr. Batten, either the very afternoon following the morning autopsy of Agu, or the next day.
Batten “had some, I think, preconceived idea about the cause of death,” Beaver testified.
Asked to elaborate, Beaver said, “I was under the impression that it was a sudden collapse and [Batten’s] clinical impression was this HCM [hypertrophic cardiomyopathy], and I didn’t really have any reason to doubt that.”
A. [D]id Dr. Batten ever tell you that Ted Agu had sickle cell trait?
Q. No, he did not.
A. Okay. So sickle cell trait was not even in your mind at the time you talked to Dr. Batten the day of your autopsy and your cutting young Agu?
Q. That’s correct.[…] [I]t didn’t even cross my mind.
A. Okay. And having been told that Ted Agu collapsed suddenly, did you then begin to initially believe or lead you to believe that there may be a cardiac death?
A. Okay. If you’d been told that Ted Agu struggled over a period of many minutes, gradually got worse, did not collapse suddenly, may have collapsed several times until the ultimate collapse, would sickle cell trait have been a consideration at that time?
A. [M]y interpretation of [others’] deposition testimony is that Ted Agu was ill for a period of time […]
[W]hat I could see from reading the depositions of different players that were in the drill with him is — and the varied, as you said. There was, there was various laps and various times and, and so it, it wasn’t consistent, but, but the one thing that was consistent is that there was this period of time. It wasn’t a sudden collapse. It wasn’t as if he took a knee and died. That, and that was what I was looking at initially. So there’s this period of being, being ill, being sick, being tired, being, you know, decompensating, so he had this period of decompensation prior to his cardiac arrest. So in that, in that context that’s, that is more consistent with a, a death from, from a sickle crisis than it is a death from a sudden cardiac dysrhythmia from hypertrophic myocardiopathy in my opinion.
In a precursor of the county’s revised finding of cause of death, Beaver stated:
“So in my opinion based upon all of the information that I have today as we sit here is that the cause of death is best certified as sickle cell crisis or complications of sickle cell crisis and, and I think that is, outweighs the hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.”
With Beaver’s testimony, the evidence grows suggesting Cal’s concealment from the county of Agu’s known sickle cell condition. Asked if “anyone from the University of California … [let] you know this gentleman had sickle cell trait, Beaver responded, “No.”
Beaver also addressed the confusion sown by the campus police’s forwarding to the Alameda County sheriff’s office — of which the coroner’s office is a division — only 29 of 141 pages of generated reports and supplements. Twenty-one of those pages were not submitted until May 7, 2014, the month after the coroner initially issued an incomplete finding that Agu died from a heart attack brought on solely by HCM. In a highly unusual, nearly unprecedented amendment, spurred by discovery in the Agu family’s civil lawsuit, the county report later would reflect the sickle cell aspect of cause of death.
Police report pages not supplied to the county sheriff by university police included statements by two former players, one of them Joey Mahalic, who also described conditioning coach Harrington’s incitement of the incident, three months before Agu’s death, in which J.D. Hinnant severely beat up teammate Fabiano Hale for missing a workout and causing the rest of the group to endure a collective “punishment drill.”
Cal police chief Margo Bennett has told Concussion Inc. that any further release of investigative material from the period of November 2013 through March 2014 would have to be requested by the county district attorney. Nancy O’Malley, the district attorney, and her assistant, Paul Hora, have declined to explain why her office has not made such a request, even though the investigation of the Hinnant-Hale incident — for which charges against Hinnant were “deferred” — remains within the scope of the criminal statute of limitations.
At the Beaver deposition, Agu family lawyer Steve Yerrid asked, “Can you think of any reason whatsoever as to why University of California would not supply you with certain players that gave statements surrounding the events that occurred with Ted Agu in the last minutes of his life?”
Beaver replied, “I don’t know. I don’t know why they would.”
Q. Is that something you would come to expect when you, when you are investigating as a medical examiner a death of a young athlete if other athletes observed or had statements that were submitted to authorities, is that the type of information you would like to see as to how he was acting before he died?
Q. Okay. Why is that important?
A. Because in this case the cause of death is very, it’s not an easy thing to determine, and it requires a, a really, a judgment call, an opinion call, and, and so I need as much information as possible so that I can make the most accurate cause of death.
Q. Okay. For example, if the information provided to you regarding how someone died is inaccurate, would this affect the accuracy of your cause of death determination, or could it?
A. Yes. Yes.
Q. Again, to use this example, when you’re trying to find out how a young athlete, a young football player, 21 years of age, died, could it make a difference to you to know whether the young man, died suddenly, you know, instantaneously, or struggled over a period of time? […]
A. Yes, sir. It would make a big difference.
Q. … [I]n fact, you were never told this athlete struggled over a period of five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five minutes, were you?
A. No, I was not told that.
Q. In fact, you were told the opposite, weren’t you?
A. I was, my understanding at the time when I performed the autopsy was that he had collapsed suddenly while at practice, and I had really no details regarding this, the actual drill, no details regarding the time and how sudden this event was except it was that he collapsed suddenly while at practice. That’s that’s the extent of the details that I had.
Q. … [Y]ou have had the opportunity now to see a number of player statements taken under oath in deposition, right?
A. Yes, sir. I have.
Q. That’s because we supplied them to you, right?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. Okay. And we gave you how many statements? Six, seven, eight?
A. Yes. Over a thousand pages.
Q. Okay. And we told you simply to read those, that those were the players’ accounts of what this young man went through in the last minutes of his life?
A. Yes, sir. I read them.
Q. Okay. And do they differ significantly from what you were told —
A. Yes, sir.
Q. — from the sources at University of California?
A. Yes, sir.