A federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the mother of 2018 Montecito debris flow victim Jack Cantin has been dismissed by her attorneys, who say they believe a settlement can be reached in the case.
Jack, a 17-year-old Santa Barbara High School student and Eagle Scout, was one of 23 people who were killed in the massive flash flooding and debris flows that devastated Montecito in the early morning hours of Jan. 9, 2018. The disaster was triggered by a night of torrential rains on the wildfire-denuded mountains above the community.
The Cantin family home along Montecito Creek was swept away by the water, trees, boulders and debris thundering down the mountainside. Kim Cantin and her 14-year-old daughter, Lauren, were severely injured but survived.
Jack and Cantin’s husband, Dave, perished in the onslaught, and Jack was one of two victims whose bodies were not found after months of intensive searching. The other missing victim — 2-year-old Lydia Sutthithepa — lived about 100 yards upstream from the Cantins in the Old Spanish Town neighborhood.
Last July, however, Cantin revealed that Jack’s remains had been unearthed with the help of a former UC Santa Barbara anthropology professor, but a dispute with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department over possession of the bones eventually led to the lawsuit.
Last week, that suit was dismissed.
“There have been positive discussions, which we believe may lead to a satisfactory resolution, with the county counsel representing the sheriff-coroner,” Barry Cappello, Cantin’s attorney, told Noozhawk.
“Based on those discussions, our client has chosen to dismiss the matter pending resolution. If the matter does not resolve, we will refile the lawsuit.”
The suit was dismissed “without prejudice,” meaning that Cantin’s attorneys — Cappello & Noël LLP of Santa Barbara — can refile if they choose.
Rachel Van Mullem of the County Counsel’s Office said she could not comment on the litigation, but shared a document confirming the negotiations.
“The parties have entered into negotiations toward a potential settlement of the action, and parties agree that the negotiations may result in a more efficient resolution of the dispute,” stated the executed “tolling” agreement signed by the two parties.
The civil complaint, which was filed in October, alleged that Sheriff Bill Brown, acting as sheriff-coroner, failed to return a recovered bone of Jack’s to Cantin and would not change his death certificate, denying the mother the opportunity to bury her son.
“All Kim wants is to bury the few remains she has of her son next to his father, who also died in the mudslide,” the complaint stated. “But she cannot: The defendants are preventing her from doing that.”
When official searches for Jack and Lydia ended, Cantin began her own search in May 2018.
According to the complaint, she organized a group of volunteers, rented equipment from Canada, secured property owners’ approvals to search debris piles that could possibly hold Jack’s remains, and obtained permits to dig up wells in the flow zone, which stretched from the 300 block of Hot Springs Road to the ocean a mile away.
Cantin kept a shovel, boots and hard hat in her car, and searched creek beds after each rain for years.
The group found family artifacts such as Jack’s teddy bear, T-shirt, backpack and eyeglasses, but nothing else.
In July 2021, Cantin announced that Jack’s remains had been located with the assistance of the UCSB Anthropology Department and a former professor, Danielle Kurin.
Cantin had reached out to UCSB for assistance in the search in early 2020, and Kurin responded, the complaint said.
According to the complaint, Kurin set up a class to search for the remains, and a year later, in May 2021, the team discovered suspected human bones — a fragment of cortical bone and a toe bone — at an undisclosed location.
After the Kurin team confirmed that the fragments were bone and notified Cantin, she called the Sheriff’s Department and brought the bones to the Coroner’s Bureau the next day, the complaint said.
The Sheriff’s Department sent the bones to Forensic Anthropology Consulting Services in Knoxville, Tennessee, to be analyzed by Dr. Frederick Snow. According to the complaint, Snow concluded that one of the specimens was more than 3 years old, and the other was plant, not bone.
But the complaint said Kurin’s team maintained that the toe bone Snow had thought was a plant had both phosphorous and calcium spikes — confirming that it was bone.
The team also said that the cortical bone was not ancient as the bone had been buried for two or three years based on the lack of fluorine, according to the complaint.
The complaint also alleged that Snow’s four-page report did not explain his methodology or reference his sources, and he was not board certified.
“The failings of the report were apparent,” the complaint stated. “These failings, which make the Snow report unbelievable, were and have been apparently overlooked and/or entirely disregarded by (the Sheriff’s Department).”
Kurin’s team kept searching until mid-July 2021 when they reported that Jack’s remains had been recovered.
The complaint said the team found an additional three bones, which they confirmed were human and showed evidence of blunt force and thermal trauma consistent with fires and live electrical wires that exploded during the debris flows.
Kurin said she concluded her report with 90% certainty that the bones belonged to Jack, and Cantin scheduled a funeral and prepared to bury her son’s remains, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit alleged that a mortuary told Cantin she could not get a burial permit unless the cause of death on Jack’s death certificate was changed from “missing” to a medical cause. Only Brown, the sheriff-coroner, can request a change to the certificate.
The complaint alleged that when Cantin asked Brown for the amendment, she was told to come in to talk with Brown and Undersheriff Sol Linver.
At an Aug. 3 meeting, according to the lawsuit, Brown agreed to take only one of the three newly found bones for rapid DNA testing at a lab in Kern County and to return all of the remaining bones and resulting remnants to Cantin.
A shin bone was shipped off to the lab, and the next day Cantin got word that the lab thought the bones were animal bones, and was told the DNA tests would continue, according to the complaint.
On Aug. 6, Cantin was told the tests were inconclusive but that the Sheriff’s Department could send the bone to the Marshall University Forensic Science Center in Huntington, West Virginia.
Unhappy with the results, Cantin revoked her consent for the county to retain the shin bone, stating that transferring it again would destroy the bones further, according to the complaint.
The Sheriff’s Department refused to return the shin bone and has indicated that the coroner plans to send it to the Marshall lab, the complaint said, adding that the Sheriff’s Department threatened to seize all the bones and has demanded that Cantin surrender the remaining bones in her possession for further inspection by the coroner.
The tolling agreement released to Noozhawk by the County Counsel’s Office described the investigation into the second group of bones.
“Dr. Kurin’s subsequent report concluded, based on multiple factors, that the bones were almost conclusively Jack’s remains,” the agreement said. “Ms. Cantin provided one of those bones to the sheriff for DNA testing, and such testing also has been inconclusive to date.
“The sheriff has not returned that bone to Ms. Cantin, and the sheriff also has requested that Ms. Cantin provide the other found bones for testing as well. Ms. Cantin fears that further testing will destroy the bones, and Ms. Cantin desires to obtain a burial permit for the bones.”
A funeral was held for Jack on Aug. 11.
“The sheriff and other officers were in attendance, prominently standing front and center, and misleadingly appearing to the public as supporting (Cantin),” the complaint stated. “She was forced to use an urn to hold his bones, and the sheriff was present as she left with that urn.”
Cappello filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit Tuesday, and the parties are in settlement discussions with the county counsel representing the sheriff-coroner.