Still more evidence that disgraced @ucsantabarbara archaeologist Danielle Kurin exploited a mother’s grief to try to get tenure—and that the university administration knew, or should have known, she was doing it. [Updated June 10, 2022]

Jack Cantin/ Noozhawk

This past March, I reported on documents I had received via the California Public Records Act which shed new light on the resignation of archaeologist Danielle Kurin from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Kurin, whose career featured a Title IX finding against her for retaliation against students, ejection from an archaeological group for failing to provide a safe environment at her field school in Peru, and other abuses--none of which prevented the university administration from granting her tenure--finally bit the academic bust after an internal university investigation into her handling of the case of a missing teenager.

(Full disclosure: In June 2020, Kurin sued me for alleged defamation in federal court; after 13 months, the case was settled, and then unsettled, due to Kurin's violation of the court-sanctioned agreement. Discovery documents in the case upheld every word of my reporting about her.)

The evidence from those records, combined with other reporting, make it likely that Kurin had attempted to exploit the grief of a mother who entrusted her with a search for her missing teenager's remains (he disappeared in the 2018 Montecito debris flow, which killed nearly two dozen people.)

The university has now completed its production of documents to me. They include a remarkable letter that Jack Cantin's mother, Kim Cantin, wrote to the university in May 2021. I am including a link to it here, and will quote some of the salient sections below. I strongly suggest that readers look at it closely.

The letter is dated May 15, 2021. It is addressed to Charles Hale, the UCSB dean of social sciences, and Casey Walsh, chair of the UCSB anthropology department, in which Kurin worked from 2013 to January of this year, when she abruptly resigned. (Kurin was on a forced administrative leave for three years of that time, 2016-2019, after being disciplined as a result of the Title IX for retaliating against students.)

The letter is a glowing testimonial to Danielle Kurin, whom Kim Cantin praises highly for her work on the search for her missing son. Kim tells Hale and Walsh that remains of her son have apparently been found, and expresses hope not only that Kurin will get tenure, but also that the department and UCSB will receive credit for the discovery. Kim also states that "Professor Kurin has no idea that I am writing to you today."

However, in the context of the entire letter, that statement is probably only literally true, in the sense that Kurin did not know Kim was going to write on that particular day, or that Kim did not specifically tell Kurin that she planned to write the letter. That's because the letter, in whole and in part, bears the marks of information and issues that Kurin had clearly fed to Kim, including who it should be addressed to (both Hale and Walsh, as dean and department chair, were intimately involved in preparing Kurin's tenure dossier, and the department had recommended against tenure the previous January.)

Here, for example, is what Kim says about Kurin's tenure bid, which Kurin probably told Kim was in danger due to the negative recommendation of her department:

The letter includes lots of other details about Kurin which the archaeologist clearly had to be the source of. But these features are circumstantial, and my speculations about them as well. What is more revealing is the date of the letter, May 15. According to the Complaint in a lawsuit filed against the Sheriff and County of Santa Barbara by Kim Cantin, the first finding of human remains by Kurin and her student team came on May 10 (I have reported on this Complaint in an earlier post.) But Kim and Kurin did not publicly announce these finds until July 22, exactly a week after the initial settlement of the defamation suit Kurin filed against me. The reason given at the time was that Kurin needed the time to analyze the fragmentary human remains and determine if they were indeed Jack's.

Parenthetically, there are a lot of contradictions in what both Kim and Kurin told the press in July about when the first remains were found. At that time, they and the students are quoted as saying that this happened over Memorial Day weekend 2021, ie, exactly a year ago. But according to Kim's legal complaint, they were first found much earlier. Either way, the Sheriff/Coroner have yet to announce their findings concerning the identity of the bones, after an investigation that has gone on for nearly a year. In the meantime, serious issues were raised about Kurin's handling of the bones and her clear violation of California's Health and Safety code concerning handling and mandatory reporting of human remains (that law forbids any further excavation of a site after the first human remains have been found.) Indeed, those concerns led to the UCSB investigation, which ultimately led to Kurin's apparently forced resignation.

With this background, let me now outline the key issues:

1. The letter from Kim makes it clear that Kurin was already telling her, no more than five days after the very first fragmentary remains were found and probably much sooner, that she had found Kim's missing son. Yet according to Kurin's own statements, there is no way she could have known that without analyzing the bones. The claim that they were found together with remains of Jack's clothing and items from the family's destroyed home made it a possibility, but without DNA analysis and other studies, that kind of evidence would have been very circumstantial at best. For Kurin to tell a grieving mother with that much certainty that her son had been found was unethical and unconscionable; even if Kim jumped to conclusions about the certainty of the identification, it's fair to say that Kurin's statements to her led her to believe it.

2. The letter makes clear that the anthropology chair and the dean, who had a direct line to the top administration, knew by May 15, 2021 that Kurin was claiming to have identified Jack Cantin. And as anthropologists, the five day interval between the discovery of the very fragmentary remains and Kim's letter should have been a major red flag for them. If it were not a red flag then, it should have been on July 22, 2021, when Kurin went public on local TV and in print about being "90%" sure she had found Jack. Nevertheless, the UCSB administration went on to grant Kurin tenure in August, countermanding the department's own recommendation.

3. According to the released records, neither Hale nor Walsh appear to have notified anyone else in the department that Kurin was claiming to have found Jack Cantin, nor that the long search that she and UCSB students in her charge had supposedly been successful. On September 9 of last year, acting chair Sarah McClure (Walsh was on sabbatical at the time) wrote to Hale and Walsh to express her concerns. According to the email exchanges provided by the university, neither of the two men told McClure that they already knew about the remains and the circumstances of their discovery. Rather, Hale commented that "This sounds very serious" and suggests that the UCSB counsel be informed of the situation. The emails indicate that the three went on to have a meeting about the issues, but the results of that meeting are not included in the documents I received. Among the concerns, of course, was whether Kurin had not only exploited Kim Cantin in her now desperate bid for tenure, but UCSB students as well, who--according to documents I reported on earlier--were led to believe they were part of a major forensic discovery.

4. Despite the clear contradictions and issues surrounding the claims Kurin was making and the timing of the finds (which, as I have indicated before, dovetail neatly with events in Kurin's defamation suit against me), the university administration gave Kurin tenure in August 2021, against a departmental recommendation. I have also written earlier about the way that the administration, and UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang, enabled Kurin and her abuses over many years. In still other reporting, I have presented evidence that Kurin was also enabled by colleagues at UCLA, including Cotsen Institute of Archaeology director Willeke Wendrich.

Kurin is now gone from UCSB, and probably from academia, forever (at least in the United States.) But those who enabled her over the years to abuse students (and who allowed her to come back to UCSB after a string of well documented abuses) are still in their positions of power over the lives of students and other colleagues. One can only hope that this is not the end of the story.

Indeed, it probably is not. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff (and its affiliated Coroner's office) have yet to announce publicly the results of their own long attempts to identify the human remains, including attempts to extract DNA from them (which has apparently been difficult due to their damaged state--leading some to suggest that the bones actually came from Kurin's lab, which housed an extensive osteology collection, including the remains of ancient Native Americans.) Kim Cantin's lawsuit, which has been put on hold pending settlement negotiations, is still ongoing, another factor in why the Sheriff has not yet released its own conclusions.

Perhaps Kim Cantin should now sue UCSB and Danielle Kurin for their apparent collaboration in misleading her into thinking that her son had been found. Perhaps she will. Her attorney is reputed to be one of the best in Santa Barbara, and I have no doubt that he has her best interests at heart.


Although Kurin is gone from UCSB, her sock puppets on social media (which in most cases are her as well) have accused me of being "obsessed" with Kurin because I keep writing about her. Of course, since she sued me for $18 million in the famous Southern District of NY and kept me and my six-attorney legal team busy for 13 months, I have taken a great interest in her, understandingly I think. But in reality, until her enablers at UCSB and at UCLA have been forced to accept responsibility--until their is accountability for the damage Kurin did to so many over the years--I am not likely to shut up about her.

I should also mention that whether or not Kurin planted the bones to be found by the students, as some who know her well suspect, it is possible that the remains could belong to the Indigenous peoples of the area. Indeed, behind the scenes local tribes have expressed a lot of concern, and some outrage, about the way the university and the Sheriff handled this situation, and there is likely to be more coming out about that after the final investigation results are announced. According to Kim Cantin's lawsuit, the Sheriff and Coroner did not cordon off nor do further searches of the area where the first fragmentary remains were found. Either they were remiss, or they realized early on that Kurin was not to be trusted in this matter.

(See also:

More thoughts June 2, 2022: DNA testing of the human remains. Who told Kim that would destroy them?

As I was filing away my copy of Kim Cantin's Complaint against the Sheriff and County of Santa Barbara, I was reminded of still more suggestions that Kurin badly led Kim astray. Kim came to oppose suggestions by the Sheriff that the largest of the bones, a shin bone, be sent out for DNA testing.

For example, section 45 of the Complaint records Kim's opposition to an Undersheriff's suggestion that the shin bone be sent to Marshall University Forensic Lab for DNA analysis. According to the document, "Plaintiff is informed and believes that DNA testing of this sort will destroy the bone, since the process requires dissolving the bone to obtain the organic component, collagen."

In Section 50, the Complaint again states that "further testing... will destroy it and any evidentiary value it might have."

Of course, modern DNA testing uses very small samples of bones or other material, and the idea that the shin bone or any other remains would be destroyed seems misplaced. Who told Kim that? Someone who didn't want the bone to be tested, and who never attempted to obtain DNA analysis of the remains, despite spending more than two months "analyzing" them? As I indicate above, so many unanswered questions.

Update June 3, 2022: A reliable source within the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s department tells me the department should be releasing its findings in the Jack Cantin case around the end of this month or early July. It appears that Sheriff-Coronor Bill Brown has decided to wait to break the news until after the June 7 election, in which he will face off against challenger Juan Camarena, a veteran of the Santa Barbara police department. Observers of Santa Barbara County politics say that waiting until after the election to reveal the department's findings in the Jack Cantin case will probably make sense once we know the results.

Update June 9, 2022: Sheriff Bill Brown re-elected. As I suggest above, Brown's victory should smooth the path to release of the Sheriff-Coroner's investigation very soon. Please check back here for updates. Meanwhile this Reddit post, which I included in response to a comment on an earlier post, is interesting reading.


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Anonymous said…
Yeah. Unless Ms. Cantin is herself an academic, no member of the general public will ever write a sentence like “I hope that this won’t be a case of the tenure clock working against her.”
Michael Balter said…
Since Kim Cantin is yet another victim of Kurin’s abuse and manipulations, I don’t want to cast any blame on her. But I earlier posted a comment from a student in the Kurin class that dealt with the human remains, who made it clear that she had whipped the entire group into a frenzy about the importance of the finds and against anyone who doubted them, including the forensic experts the county coroner had used to determine that they might not even have been human. Kurin combined a certain charisma with an amazing ability to blatantly lie about anything and everything, something she did repeatedly to her colleagues and in the defamation suit against me.