The 2018 Montecito debris flow killed more than 20 people and destroyed many homes.
On July 22 of last year, former University of California, Santa Barbara anthropology professor Danielle Kurin went public with claims that she and her undergraduate students had found remains of the missing teenager Jack Cantin, who had disappeared on January 9, 2018 during a major mudslide and debris flow in the Santa Barbara suburb of Montecito. Kurin, along with Jack's mother Kim--who had never given up the search for her missing son--gave a number of interviews to print, TV, and online media about the finds. Kurin told reporters that she was "90% certain" the bones belonged to Jack.
The Santa Barbara Sheriff's office (which includes the county coroner) was taken by surprise by the announcement, and had to ask Kurin to provide details. Kurin gave them a one-page summary of her findings, whereupon the Sheriff announced that it would launch its own investigation into what up to then had been classified as a "missing person" case.
On July 12 of this year, after nearly a full year of investigation that included forensic reports and DNA analysis, the case was declared closed. Conclusion: The bones Kurin and her team had found were not human, but belonged to a non-human animal species, most likely cow.
Over the past few weeks, in response to California Public Records Act requests from me and a local Santa Barbara reporter, the Sheriff has begun releasing the relevant investigative documents, which were kept confidential while the inquiry was ongoing. More documents may be coming soon, but those already made public add up to a convincing case that Kurin never had any basis to claim that she had found the missing teenager. The question remains whether Kurin knew that all along, but claimed she had found Jack to help her with her bid for tenure at UCSB, which her own anthropology department had recommended against.
If she did know, then she has perpetrated a fraud against Jack's mother Kim, the Montecito and Santa Barbara communities, and her own UCSB colleagues and students. More than 20 people were killed in the 2018 disaster. While most of their bodies were found, the remains of Jack, along with a two-year child, have yet to be found.
Note: Neither Kim Cantin's attorney nor forensic anthropologist Rick Snow (mentioned below) agreed to provide any comment on the record for this post. However, Raquel Zick, the Sheriff's spokesperson, told me that the department was satisfied that the remains found by Kurin's team did not belong to Jack Cantin, and that the missing person case would remain open.
I began expressing my own doubts about Kurin's claims a few months after the announcement, when developments in a bogus $18 million defamation suit Kurin had filed against me for my reporting about her long history of misconduct and abuses made it possible. For background, here are links to my reporting on the Jack Cantin case:
-- New evidence suggests former UC Santa Barbara anthropology professor Danielle Kurin exploited a grieving mother and vulnerable students in her bid to get tenure. Now she has resigned.
"The DNA preservation of the bone is extremely poor. We found no evidence to support the tested bone sample is of human origin. We cannot determine with certainty the species the bone belongs to, but the strongest evidence available in these data suggests cow."
Astrea further found that the amount of DNA in the sample that aligned to the human genome "does not rise above background," meaning that any human DNA present would probably have been due to contamination. On the other hand, the DNA found aligned most closely with Bos taurus, the domestic cow, and that alignment was more than ten times more extensive than for any other animal species (including pig, dog, black bear, horse, and sea lion) and about 100 times greater than for the human genome.
These analyses were based on DNA from the cell nucleus. Astrea further looked at DNA from mitochondria, the so-called energy factories of the living cell. It found that zero segments aligned with human mitochondrial DNA, while 22 segments aligned with a mitochondrial reference genome from the cow.
To put it simply, Kurin got it completely wrong. The question is, why?
A fraud on a grieving mother, and on a grieving community? Plus, a serious media fail.
In the articles linked to above about Kurin and the Jack Cantin case, I gave my reasons for suspecting that Kurin was simply using the situation to try to get tenure from UCSB, which her department had strongly recommended against. For example, documents I received through the Public Records Act from UCSB had shown that Kurin was telling Kim Cantin from the very first day that remains were found that they belonged to her son. This was before she had done any analysis of the remains at all.
Even before the Jack Cantin investigation began, I had written extensively about Kurin's long history of misconduct and abuse of students. This included a Title IX investigation that found Kurin had retaliated against students who reported her then partner (and later husband) for sexual harassment, which led to her three year suspension from the university. Taken together with her history, the evidence from the Jack Cantin case suggests strongly that Kurin knew, or should have known, that she had no basis for her conclusions. It is hard to come to any other conclusion than that she used Kim for her own selfish purposes: To get the university to give her tenure and overrule the department's recommendation against it.
Along with that damage, she used her own undergraduate students as part of the theater, some of whom were publicly identified in local news media as part of the project. I can only hope that the university is providing them with some kind of counseling given the incredible betrayal they have suffered at the hands of their own professor, in whom they put their trust. Anthropology chair Casey Walsh did not return repeated requests for comment on whether such counseling had been offered to the students; a UCSB spokesperson declined to comment as well, saying only that such counseling was available to anyone who asked for it.
I have written elsewhere about the way that Kurin was enabled, and by whom, over all the years that she was doing damage to students and colleagues. Rather than repeat it all, I will leave it to readers to review that evidence and my comments on it, here and here. Suffice to say that without these powerful enablers, who include UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang and Kurin's father, the famous Smithsonian Institution anthropologist Richard Kurin, none of this could have happened.
It remains to comment on the truly pathetic role that a gullible local media played in this sad saga, hyping Kurin's claims and asking no--no--critical questions about the basis for them. Examples can be found here, here, here, here, and here (the absolute worst), and include the venerable Los Angeles Times and CBS News. The media has a lot of mea culpas to do; but more important than that, it must begin to report on the context for this debacle, including the role that Yang played in keeping Kurin alive, as it were. Yang is currently involved in a hit-and-run case in which he refuses to cooperate with police; perhaps it is time for him to hand in his resignation.
I do have some hopes that more light will now shine on the Kurin saga, which, for so long, I was the only reporter covering. There are some good signs: Tyler Hayden at the Santa Barbara Independent has just done a story on the Sheriff's records, and I am confident that other publications and reporters will feel compelled to do so as well. The truth, and the welfare of UCSB students, Kim Cantin, and the Santa Barbara community--not to mention the anthropology and archaeology communities in which Kurin swam like a shark for so long--demands no less.
Update Sept 13, 2022: The Santa Barbara County Sheriff has now released a new batch of documents related to Kurin and the Jack Cantin case which are very illuminating. You can read about them, along with links to two key documents prepared by Kurin, at this Twitter thread. I will be preparing a redacted version of the email threats by Kurin's attorney David Scher against the Sheriff (redacted because they include personal details of innocent parties) and posting that here shortly. In brief, once Kurin learned the Sheriff-Coroner would not agree to issue a death certificate for Jack Cantin without DNA evidence that the bones belonged to him, it appears that she doubled down on her efforts to persuade Kim Cantin to oppose the testing--which she must have known would, and finally did, expose the fraud she appears to have perpetuated against Kim and the Santa Barbara community.
Kurin gets her own attorney, David Scher, involved in negotiations with the Sheriff over the analysis of the bones. Scher quickly threatens to sue the Sheriff for their return.
Regular readers of this blog will recall that in June 2020, Kurin sued me for $18 million in federal court for allegedly defaming her with my reporting on her long history of misconduct. Over the course of the 13 months of that lawsuit, Scher served as a hired gun for Kurin while she did everything she could to try to get tenure from UCSB. He immediately showed himself to be ethically challenged, as they say, and in fact as the case ended we were asking the judge for sanctions against both him and Kurin for deliberately hiding one of the most important documents in the case.
Remarkably, Scher got involved in the Cantin case very early on, something that was only revealed with this latest batch of documents. I am excerpting from the relevant emails to avoid revealing personal identification details such as email addresses and phone numbers, which were not redacted in what I received.
The first relevant email is dated Sept 5 of last year and is from Kim Cantin to Sol Linver, the Santa Barbara County Undersheriff (Number 2 in the department.) The "Professor," of course, is Danielle Kurin. Lauren is Kim Cantin's daughter.
I hope you are well and enjoying Labor Day Weekend. I wanted to send you a note to get an update on the status of Jack's case being closed. I know at the cemetery service, August 11th, you shared with me that you and the Sheriff are wanting to help close this case so Jack's remains can be buried. I appreciate you and the Sheriff attending the cemetery service.
It is my understanding there was a meeting scheduled with the Professor this past week and that her proof to a scientific certainty with peer review did not give you what you need to close the case so I can bury Jack. Lauren goes to Stanford Friday and it would have been so beneficial for her trauma to see her brother laid to rest next to her Dad before she leaves. I so want this for Lauren and me. I feel like it is taking so much time to resolve this and it is causing me distress.
Also, please update me on the status of the shin bone you took to Kern county, tried DNA analysis and it came back inconclusive; we discussed last you were trying to get that into UC Santa Cruz for processing. Please let me know the status and if you need the Professor to help in any way to connect with those research labs. As I mentioned before, I still do want all material of the bone analysis returned to me (even if soupy) and the details of the procedure step by step of what they did with it. Also, I would like the piece of underwear back; it is my understanding that they said it was 'too contaminated" and I would like it back this week.
If you would, please respond to this email with the update and next steps. I am so hopeful that we can get him buried before she leaves Friday morning.
Thank you very much,
Linver responded on Sept 8. It is clear from this email that Scher has already been in touch with the Sheriff's office. Also, the email refers to three labs that Kurin had recommended as possible institutions to perform the DNA analysis. I believe that Kurin must have known that the three labs she mentioned did not do forensics work and would be likely to accept the task. Indeed, throughout the documentation I have received, it is clear that Kurin was trying from the very beginning to dissuade Kim Cantin from having the DNA testing performed, telling her (falsely) that it would destroy the bones.
Thanks for your email. You are correct about our meeting with Dr. Kurin. While her work is intriguing and could be of a benefit for us in our Coroner investigations, it is not enough for us to be able to close a case. As mentioned we would be seeking a positive DNA result to close the case. In relation to the bone tested by Kern County, nothing has changed. The results from the Kern County tests were inconclusive. The three labs recommended by Dr. Kurin have been problematic. All three labs have told us they could not help as they do not work on these types of cases. In relation to UC Santa Cruz, Dr. Kurin has graciously tried to help us with UC Santa Cruz but the result did not change.
I will see that the piece of underwear is returned to you. I will also check on the status of the report from the Kern County lab. In relation to next steps, sending the bones to the Marshall University DNA lab is still our best next step. They have an approximate 30 to 60 day turn around on the testing. The Marshall lab is well recognized and used by law enforcement, Coroner and Department of Justice agencies throughout the nation.
Kim, I am sorry this is causing you distress and would like to take every step possible to confirm whether any of the bones are Jack’s. As Bill mentioned to you in our meeting we are more than eager to help you in every way possible. However there are certain procedures and laws we must follow in these cases. Please let us help you by sending all the bones to the Marshall lab to do our best to get a DNA result. Whatever remains from the tests will be returned to you.
Lastly, I spoke to Mr. Scher earlier to explain that since your recent email also requested that we communicate with you through Mr. Scher. I’m also copying our County Counsel, Michelle Montez, on this email since Mr. Scher is now involved as it is our standard practice. Please let me know if you have any questions.
Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office"
That same day, Scher emailed Linver and outright threatened the department with litigation. A "Complaint in Replevin" is invoked in a case where a return of property to its rightful owner is sought. But as I have written before, any human remains (which Kurin was claiming they were) are, under California law, required to be turned over immediately to authorities.
"Sol ‐ thank you for your email. Because you are now engaging counsel I am required to respond to counsel directly (so please do not take as rude). Ms. Montez, Please arrange for the return of the underwear, bones and any other materials/artifacts provided by Ms Cantin to her tomorrow, Thursday, at about 12pm I am preparing a Complaint in Replevin for these items but will hold off filing it pending their full and complete return. We are preparing a complaint in Mandamus to cause the County to declare Jack Cantin deceased (and not missing). If the County is interested in resolving the matter prior to suit please do give me a call.
Dave Scher, Partner Hoyer Law Group, PLLC"
In response to Scher's emailed threats, that same evening a representative of the Santa Barbara County Counsel's office responded as follows:
Thank you for your email. The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office is sympathetic to your client and hopeful to work together towards a workable solution. To that end, the underwear provided by Ms. Cantin is available for return at the Coroner’s Bureau located at 66 A South San Antonio Road, Santa Barbara, 3 CA 93110. If Ms. Cantin prefers that the Coroner’s Bureau mail her the underwear, please let us know. We are still reviewing the Coroner’s obligations with respect to the bones located by Dr. Kurin. In the interim, we request that your client maintain the bones that were found but not provided to the Coroner’s office. We hope to be in touch in the upcoming weeks regarding next steps.
Rana Gerges Warren"
The next day, Sept 9, Scher resumes his threats:
"Ms. Warren, Thank you for your email.
Ms. Cantin will be at the Coroner between 1pm‐2pm today. She expects the underwear and anything else in the Sheriff/County’s possession including all bones.
The bones, underwear, and anything else Ms. Cantin provided are hers, given voluntarily and temporarily. Her lending them to you can be revoked anytime ‐ and she, through me, revokes that consent now. She obtained them with permission, obtained their extraction and simply is the owner by law. The bones are definitively not “ancient” nor “native” and there is no statutory basis for what the County has done here ‐ literally stolen property belong to one of its citizens.
Said another way, that the County intends to wrongfully withhold the bones and perhaps other artifacts for weeks is unacceptable. If the bones, underwear, and anything else belonging to Ms. Cantin in the County’s possession are not returned today, Ms. Cantin has directed us (along with co‐counsel copied here) to bring suit for replevin to recover everything along with seeking a TRO to prevent the County from unlawfully touching, misusing or perhaps destroying Ms. Cantin’s property.
Also, we are preparing and will file a soon an action in Mandamus to compel the County to close Jack Cantin’s case and declare him deceased. We will file this suit within the next 14 days absent a change of the County’s position (and heart) on the matter. Happy to discuss if you’d like.
Hoyer Law Group"
The following day, more legal threats from Scher:
Have not heard back from you and the bones were not delivered to Ms. Cantin.
The bones were lent to the County 37 days ago (see attached). Ms. Canting wants the back.
We will, with 100% certainty, be filing a Writ of Replevin action and seek a TRO if the bones are not returned immediately.
Hoyer Law Group PLLC"
And later that day:
"Good afternoon, Mr. Scher:
Thank you for your emails. I hope to be in touch next week regarding the bones located by Dr. Kurin.
Best, Rana Gerges Warren
Senior Deputy County Counsel
Santa Barbara County Counsel"
As I reported earlier, Kim Cantin did eventually sue the County for the return of the bones, using a local Santa Barbara attorney. That case was dismissed last January, around the time that Kurin was forced to resign from UCSB after the university conducted its own investigation of Kurin's handling of this matter.
The involvement of Kurin's own attorney, David Scher, in this matter raises all kinds of ethical issues. That's because Kim Cantin and Danielle Kurin had and have different interests, making Scher's representation of both of them highly questionable. Kim Cantin's interests were to find the remains of her missing son and give him a burial so she could have closure as his mother. Danielle Kurin's interest was to use the publicity from the Cantin case, which was considerable and uncritical of her claims, to convince the Chancellor of UCSB to give her tenure despite a negative departmental recommendation (she succeeded at first, although the tenure was very short lived.)
I have asked Scher to comment on this possible conflict, but he has not responded as of this writing. If he does, I will make additions as appropriate.
Finally, I have mentioned that Kurin tried hard to dissuade Kim Cantin from having the DNA testing done (something that was also, as we now know, not in her personal interests.) A taste of her approach can be found in the email thread linked to here, which I invite readers to peruse. In brief, Kurin tried to convince Kim that one of the leading forensic DNA testing labs in the country was not qualified to do the job.
As I have said above, I believe that there is considerable circumstantial evidence to support the conclusion that Danielle Kurin deliberately defrauded Kim Cantin, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Coroner, UCSB authorities, and the Santa Barbara community when she claimed to have found the remains of Jack Cantin. This belief is bolstered by the incontrovertible evidence that Kurin falsely claimed she had sent her work out to be peer reviewed to a colleague with a doctorate and a professorship at Washington State University.
That belief on my part is constitutionally protected, and is based on due diligence reporting and detailed documentation. And since Kurin has made herself into what is called a "limited-purpose public figure" by thrusting herself and her claims to have found Jack Cantin's remains into the media arena, my good faith attempts to get at the truth of this matter will doom any attempts on her part to file defamation suits against me or anyone else.
Update Sept 15, 2022: A real forensic anthropologist comments on Kurin's "findings."
Now that the Santa Barbara County Sheriff has publicly released Kurin's draft report on her claims to have found remains of missing teenager Jack Cantin (a final report was apparently never prepared), it is possible to have experts read it and comment. For that purpose, I asked Marin Pilloud, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, to have a look at it. Marin is a bona fide board certified forensic anthropologist, and also a leading advocate for strict professional standards in the field.
Full disclosure, I first met Marin when she was a graduate student at Ohio State University, probably in the early 2000s. We met at the Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk in Turkey, where I had covered the excavations there for Science and later wrote a book about the history and science of the site. We have kept in touch over the years, and I have always admired her scientific seriousness.
Marin sent me some comments, which I have quoted and paraphrased here.
-- On Kurin's qualifications to do forensic work:
"On page 3 she refers to herself as a 'specialist in forensics' – this is a misrepresentation, all of her publications and research have focused on bioarchaeology, not forensic anthropology, and she does not have board certification to substantiate this claim.
-- On Kurin's speculation that the remains of second child missing since the 2018 Montecito debris flow (which took more than 20 lives), Lydia Sutthithepa, were unlikely to be found.
"Page 3 – to suggest that 'the body of Lydia has almost certainly decayed and is unrecoverable' is not accurate. Bones of 2-year olds preserve all the time, it has more to do with the condition of the soil, and it seems entirely likely that these remains would still be preserved."
(MB comment: This offhanded comment by Kurin about Lydia, which was widely reported in the California press, could be seen as very insensitive to her immigrant parents, who have not been able to attract much media attention and have largely suffered their loss in silence.)
-- On Kurin's characterization of some of the very fragmentary remains found.
"Page 14 – the actual image of what was recovered here in Figure 11 does not look at all like what she says it is, and there is no way she could actually make such precise designations of bone type. For example, there is nothing particularly diagnostic about the fourth pedal phalanx that she could say with absolute certainty that fragment was from that bone."
-- On whether the remains found were human, as Kurin argued, rather than animal, as the Sheriff-Coroner's forensic consultant had suggested.
"Page 15 – this whole section on human vs. non-human is disingenuous. It is accurate that human and non-human bone are distinct and it is possible to tell them apart using histology, but that wasn’t done here – she merely describes differences but does not perform this analysis. Based solely on these photographs, the remains are not distinctly human, the nature of the trabecular bone is more indicative of animal bone. To be absolutely certain, I would need to see the actual remains."
-- On whether the remains found were ancient or recent.
"... there is no scientific basis to claim the remains are 2-3 years old. Their porcine study didn’t go that long and they do not discuss the results of that study. It is unclear how this time frame was decided."
(MB: In the "porcine study" Marin refers to, Kurin and her students buried pigs to study how they decomposed.)
-- On various other aspects of Kurin's analysis:
- "Age-at-death: the age of fusion of the of the pedal phalanx is correct – but, is this one fused or open? If it is open then the individual is under 19 (the latest a fusion can be seen) that does not indicate they are at least 16.
- Stature: the calculations Kurin shows in Table 2 are from metatarsals – she did not recover a metatarsal (foot bone), but rather a pedal phalanx (toe bone) – so, I have no idea how stature was calculated.
- Skeletal pathology: based on the images in the report, I cannot see evidence of periostitis.
- Trauma: Based on the images in the report, I cannot see evidence of perimortem trauma or thermal damage."
- "Final identification: public databases of missing persons were consulted, but that is the last known location or local origin, if those remains were human, they could be any missing person. I do not see how this helps to establish the remains as belonging to a particular individual.
- Figure 10: I have never seen personal identification described in this way. Identifications are 'positive/scientific' or 'presumptive'. Positive identifications are typically made with DNA and dental records. Presumptive IDs are made on circumstantial evidence, like the biological profile, material evidence, etc. That is all they have here. Based on the evidence in the report, it is impossible to say with 90% certainty that the bones belong to any particular individual. They provide no indication as to how that number was calculated."