Issue January 28, 2009

Tough coaching or criminal act?

Coroner says football player’s toxicology report was negative and that heat stroke clearly caused his death

Since Max Gilpin collapsed during football practice in the sweltering heat last summer, there have been rumblings about the 15-year-old taking a dietary supplement and prescription medication that might have contributed to his death. But a deputy coroner who handled the case says a toxicology report was negative, reiterating that heat stroke was undoubtedly the cause of death.

The Pleasure Ridge Park High School sophomore fell to the ground while running sprints on Aug. 20, 2008, a day on which the heat index soared to 94 degrees. The boy’s body temperature reached 107, and he was rushed to Kosair Children’s Hospital.

Three days later, Gilpin died due to septic shock and multiple organ failure caused by heat stroke, according to his death certificate. Rumors soon swirled about the fact that the boy had taken creatine, a controversial dietary supplement, as well as Adderall, a prescription drug used to treat attention deficit disorder. Some suggested the drugs might have played a role in his death.

But the results of his toxicology test suggest otherwise, according to deputy coroner Sam Weakley.

“His toxicology report upon admission at Kosair, as I remember, was negative,” says Weakley, who reviewed Gilpin’s case and ultimately opted against an autopsy because “there wasn’t much doubt as to what killed this guy.”

The deputy coroner says he reviewed Gilpin’s three-inch thick hospital chart, consulted with his doctors and discussed the matter with the state medical examiner before deciding not to perform an autopsy.

“At that point in time [the police] were not involved and there were no rumors whatsoever of malfeasance,” he says, adding, “Hindsight is 20/20.”

Five months later, however, it seems the decision to not perform an autopsy could hinder the prosecution of David Jason Stinson, the head football coach at Pleasure Ridge Park who is charged with reckless homicide in connection with Gilpin’s death.

A Jefferson County grand jury indicted Stinson last week, launching what appears to be an unprecedented case of a coach being charged in connection with the heat-related death of a player. On Monday, national media outlets flocked to Jefferson County Circuit Court, where Stinson pleaded not guilty.

After the hearing, a lawyer representing Stinson raised concerns about the fact that no autopsy was performed.

“Without an autopsy, it will be difficult to discount other problems that might have been there,” says Brian Butler, one of two defense attorneys handling the case. “I’ve never been involved in a homicide case where there wasn’t an autopsy.”

Several witnesses who were watching football practice on the day Gilpin collapsed claim the coaching staff, lead by Stinson, withheld water from players as they sprinted up and down the field. One concerned parent e-mailed school officials to describe what he calls an “appalling” display.

“Those coaches thought that they were training young teenagers for the Navy SEALS team instead of a football team,” writes Brian Bale, father of a PRP student who was playing soccer that day on an adjacent field. “I never once in the time I was there saw anyone offered a water break. I did, however, hear the coach say numerous times that all he needed was one person to say that they quit the team and all of the suffering and running and heat would be over.”

On that summer evening, Gilpin — a 220-pound offensive lineman — was one of two players to suffer heat stroke. The other player also stumbled to the ground and had trouble breathing, but was treated at the hospital and released.

One month after Gilpin died, his parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit accusing the coaching staff of negligence.

In a deposition filed as part of the civil suit, PRP Athletic Director Craig Webb, who was present at the practice, recounts the events leading up to Gilpin’s collapse: “He just started like he was going down to one knee. And you could see the kids kind of like grabbing his arms and trying to hold him up. And then he just went to the ground.”

Right away, Webb says he knew something was not right, and he drove a medical vehicle to where Gilpin was lying on the field. The young man was breathing, but was sweating profusely and moaning loudly, unable to speak.

Because Gilpin was limp and unable to move, it took two adults to load him into the vehicle and take him to a nearby water station.

“We then took the hose and started to shower Max from the back of his neck,” Webb recalls in the deposition.

The player’s father, Jeff Gilpin, arrived at the water station and crouched down by his son: “He made a couple comments that he had never seen anything like that before. And I think he even mentioned he was scared.”

During the deposition, Webb was asked whether he had communicated with anyone via e-mail or text messaging regarding Gilpin. In response, Webb said he received a text message from PRP Principal David Johnson after Gilpin’s death: “It was in reference to Max taking creatine.”

The court file also contains an e-mail Webb sent to the principal on Sept. 1, 2008, informing him that Gilpin had taken Adderall, which he points out is a form of amphetamine: “I am by no means a medical professional, but this has stirred my curiosity,” he wrote. 

Read more about heat-stroke fatalities in high school football across the country at leoweekly.com/news.