|Montecito mudslide, Jan 2018/ U.S. Coast Guard photo/ Wikimedia Commons|
Early in the morning of January 9, 2018, the wealthy suburb of Montecito, California, just east of Santa Barbara, was hit with an avalanche of mud that destroyed numerous homes and took 23 lives. After a devastating fire in the hills above the town, followed by a huge downpour of rain, there was nothing to stop the earth and debris that bore down on the unprepared inhabitants. Two of the dead and missing, a small child and a teenager, were not recovered by rescuers.
There would be a lot of recriminations in the months to come, as Santa Barbara County officials were blamed for the lack of preparation. The people of Montecito were angry, and many still are. One of the dead was Dave Cantin, a popular local Scoutmaster, whose body was found washed down near the Pacific Ocean beach. Dave's wife, Kim, was spared, as was their daughter, Lauren. But despite extensive searching, their teenage son, Jack Cantin, was never found. But Kim never gave up hoping that one day he would be laid to rest. Neither did many of her neighbors.
In January of this year, Kim Cantin approached the University of California, Santa Barbara to see if any of its scientists could help with the search. UCSB put her in touch with Danielle Kurin, an archaeologist and forensic anthropologist at the university. For Kurin, the timing could not be better. She was up for tenure, and it was not sure that she was going to get it. There were two reasons for that.
First, Kurin had recently come back to work from a three-year administrative leave after the university, in a Title IX proceeding, had found that she had retaliated multiple times against students who had reported her former husband--a Peruvian archaeologist who worked with Kurin at sites in and around the city of Andahuaylas--for sexual harassment. Many of her colleagues in the university's anthropology department, along with archaeologists across the United States and Peru, felt she was a "danger to students" (as many put it in just those word) and should not be rewarded for her documented misconduct. Feelings were even stronger after her colleagues found out that her husband was accused of sexually assaulting a student in 2018, and that Kurin was kicked out of a field school umbrella organization for failing to provide a safe environment for the students.
Second, in June 2020, Kurin had sued me, the journalist who reported on her misconduct with the help of many survivors and other witnesses, for defamation. After 13 months the case was eventually settled; but very recently, after Kurin violated the settlement agreement, I declared the agreement null and void.
Obviously I am not objective where Kurin is concerned, and I expect that any discerning reader will examine what I say carefully to see how well I back it up. However, what I can say is that during the litigation, my attorneys and I received thousands of pages of documents in discovery, and that every page backed up my reporting fully. Indeed, some of the documents revealed additional details we were not originally aware of, which only made the case against Kurin worse and more definitive.
Very shortly after Kurin agreed to help try to find Jack Cantin's remains, her department met to decide its recommendation on her tenure bid. According to several sources, the verdict was thumbs down. That left the decision to the university administration, which overruled the department's recommendation in August and awarded her tenure. I have heard a number of hypotheses as to why UCSB gave her tenure, ranging from threats by Kurin to sue the university--something she had also done back in 2016 when she was denied a promotion while on administrative leave--to a deal by the university to award her tenure if she dropped the lawsuit against me, which was very embarrassing to the institution, to possible pressure from Kurin's father, Richard Kurin, a major official at the Smithsonian Institution and a very powerful scientist who is widely feared by Danielle's colleagues. I don't know whether any of these scenarios are correct, or whether the truth could involve a combination of all of them.
But the university took no public action between February 2021, when the department was likely to have passed on its recommendation, and August 2021, when tenure was awarded.
In the meantime, Kurin and her volunteers worked in the hills of Montecito, trying to find the remains of Jack Cantin.
On July 14, 2021, Kurin and I signed the settlement agreement, and she applied to the court to dismiss the case the same day. The following day, U.S. District Judge Vincent Briccetti of the Southern District of New York, who was overseeing the litigation, approved the settlement and ended the lawsuit.
On July 22, seven days later, Kurin and Kim Cantin announced to the media that Jack Cantin's remains had been found. Kurin told reporters that she was "90 percent" sure that the remains belonged to Jack, and provided the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office with a one-page fact sheet explaining her findings. However--and this is a very key part of the story--the remains were reportedly found nearly two months earlier, over Memorial Day weekend, by Kurin and her team.
The delayed reporting of the remains to county officials clearly put the Sheriff's Office in a tricky situation. In a terse statement issued later on July 22, the Office made it clear that they were not taking Kurin's word for it, pending their own investigation; and, that they had found out from a media report rather than from Kurin directly. It is worth citing the statement in full:
that indicated that the remains of Jack Cantin, a 17-year-old who has been missing and presumed dead since the devastating 1/9 Debris Flow in 2018, had been found.
Further update Oct 29: Some people have suggested to me privately that Danielle Kurin might have planted the bones she found, or her team found, from the very large collection of bones stored in her lab at the university (Kurin regularly teaches osteology and other anthropology courses.)
Given Kurin’s history, I have always thought that possible, but there is no evidence for it and I am not making any claim of that sort. However, the following chronology, which I partly laid out in the main post above, should be considered. [Please note that this chronology has been corrected as of Oct 30]
—Kurin and her volunteers began looking for Jack Cantin’s remains in February 2020, the same month that I began reporting on her 2016 Title IX for retaliating against students who reported her partner and later husband for sexual harassment (she knew my report was coming some weeks before it was first published.)
—Kurin knew that her department would take up the question of her tenure in January of this year. Indeed, they met on January 29 to discuss it. Soon afterwards, the department recommended against tenure.
—Kurin and I, with the help of a mediator, tried to settle the case over a period of nearly eight weeks in April and May of this year. We seemed to come close to an agreement, but those talks broke down on May 28, as I announced at the time on Twitter. May 28 was the Friday that began Memorial Day weekend.
—Kurin told the news media that the bones were discovered over Memorial Weekend, ie, 29-31 May.
—Kurin withheld telling the Sheriff’s Office and the media that the bones had been found.
—On July 14, Kurin v. Balter was settled with an agreement that I would no longer report about her if she would allow the publication of a smoking gun document which showed my reporting had been right all along.
—On July 22, Kurin and Kim Cantin announced to the media that they had found bones Kurin was “90% certain” belonged to Jack. The Sheriff found out about it only after seeing media reports, and then made contact with Kurin who supplied them with a one-page summary of her findings.
—Today, more than three months later, the Sheriff/medical examiner/coroner have yet to announce their findings in what continues to be an open investigation.
I think that readers, and local reporters in Santa Barbara and vicinity, might have some questions to ask Kurin, UCSB, and the authorities. But I do hope Kurin is right about her identification. It would give the Cantin family the closure they have sought for nearly four years. I also hope that the Cantin family has not been exploited for an ulterior motive.
Update Oct 30: A very pertinent observation.
I’m pulling up a comment that was posted today because I think it gets to the heart of the problem here. Kurin says she is “90% certain” that the remains her team found were those of Jack Cantin. But that can only have been after she analyzed them over a period of two months, according to her own timeline. What if she is wrong, or had realized during that two months she was wrong about the identification? If so, she would have withheld human remains from authorities for that period of time, as the commenter remarks.
Update Nov 1: Did Kurin involve innocent students in a violation of California law?
The article below names four students who worked with Kurin in the recovery of the purported remains of Jack Cantin and appear to be direct witnesses to their unearthing. Many believe that Kurin violated the CA Health and Safety Code by withholding both the bones and news of the discovery from law enforcement authorities for two full months, whether or not they really turn out to be Jack Cantin’s. If so, Kurin may have involved innocent students she was supervising in a crime, even if they did not know it. What reason did she give the students for keeping it secret for so long? Unfortunately, they may end up having to talk to authorities about that, if they have not already.