Mother of Debris Flow Victim Sues Santa Barbara Sheriff over Son’s Remains

This story was originally published by the Santa Barbara Independent and is reproduced here in partnership with Edhat.

By Tyler Hayden of The Independent

Kim Cantin, the mother of 17-year-old 1/9 Debris Flow victim Jack Cantin, is suing the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office over possession of what she believes are her son’s remains. 

Last summer, Cantin announced to the community that a UCSB forensic anthropologist had unearthed bones belonging to Jack, who was swept away in the 2018 disaster alongside his father, Dave. While Dave’s body was found on Hammond’s Beach near the mouth of Montecito Creek, Jack’s was never recovered.

The Sheriff’s Office has disputed the findings of the anthropologist ― who abruptly resigned from her tenured position at the university earlier this month ― and still considers Jack a missing person. Cantin has therefore been unable to officially bury her son, the lawsuit states, and the department is now reportedly threatening her with punitive action if she does not turn over the bones she has collected for further testing. 

“All Kim wants is to bury the few remains she has of her son next to his father,” reads the complaint, which was filed in federal court and alleges civil rights violations. “Her pleas to be able to do this are being treated with outrageous disrespect.”

Attorney Barry Cappello said he and Cantin had entered into “resolution discussions” with county officials and were therefore unable to comment on the case. Through a spokesperson, Sheriff Bill Brown said he could not discuss pending litigation. Multiple attempts to reach Amber Holderness with the County Counsel’s Office were unsuccessful. The UCSB anthropologist, Dr. Danielle Kurin, said her recent resignation was not related to the Cantin matter and instead was to pursue “a more fulfilling and meaningful job opportunity.” 

The lawsuit was first discovered in the federal docket by science writer Michael Balter, who has documented previous controversies involving Kurin, including a Title IX investigation against her that led to a three-year administrative leave from the university and an official letter of censure.

Cantin’s complaint begins with her own efforts to locate Jack in May 2018, four months after the debris flow, when the official search for him had ended. Cantin organized volunteers, secured permission from property owners to inspect their grounds, obtained permits to dig up old wells, and rented soil-penetrating radar equipment from Canada. She kept a shovel and pair of boots in her car and after each rain would scour nearby creek beds. She and the volunteers ultimately found a number of Cantin family artifacts, including Dave’s poker chips and Jack’s teddy bear, but never Jack.

In early 2020, the lawsuit says, Cantin reached out to UCSB for help. Kurin responded, quickly obtaining grant money and setting up a class to search for Jack and another lost victim of the disaster, 2-year-old Lydia Sutthithepa, who still remains unaccounted for. Kurin and her team targeted a 110-acre area, and on May 10, 2021, they discovered suspected human bone alongside pieces of carpet from the Cantin family home and remnants of Jack’s underwear. The group collected two specimens ― a cortical fragment and a toe bone ― and notified the Sheriff’s Office.

The next day, the complaint continues, Cantin drove the bones to the Coroner’s Bureau, which is operated by the Sheriff. She was informed the samples would be sent to Dr. Frederick Snow, a former police officer and forensic anthropologist based in Tennessee, for testing. A week later, a Sheriff’s official broke the news to Cantin that the analysis revealed the cortical shard was more than three years old and the toe piece was plant matter, not bone. Cantin offered to pay for more in-depth testing but was reportedly told that the Sheriff would be taking the matter no further. Adding insult to injury, the complaint says, Cantin was dismayed to find the samples in pieces when they were returned to her.

The lawsuit attacks Snow’s credibility and takes issue with his four-page findings report, describing it as “grossly inadequate and simply wrong.” Kurin, the complaint insists, proved the toe fragment was in fact bone by documenting high concentrations of phosphorus and calcium in the sample. She also demonstrated the cortical specimen was buried between two and three years ago based upon its sharp edges and a lack of fluorine in its composition, the lawsuit says. 

Snow, by contrast, failed to explain his own testing methodology or provide any reference sources, the lawsuit goes on. It calls him an “unqualified expert,” claiming he possesses no recent certifications or training, lacks publications as a lead author, and is not board certified. The complaint alleges that, despite these professional shortcomings, the Sheriff’s Office is stubbornly standing by Snow to protect itself from liability after relying on him in other cases in which he may have provided “inaccurate or patently wrong opinions.” Snow did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Despite Snow’s dissenting opinion, Kurin and her team continued their search, ultimately finding more skeletal remains that supposedly showed evidence of thermal trauma, injuries Kurin said were consistent with electrical fires and transformer explosions triggered by the debris flow. The second set of samples was also recovered near items connected to the Cantin house, including tile from Jack’s bathroom.

In her own report, Kurin said she was 90 percent certain the bones belonged to Jack and claimed her analysis had been favorably “peer-reviewed” by “Dr. Valda Black” of Washington State University. Those with knowledge of the case, however, point out that Black is in fact a graduate student at Washington State who is still pursuing her PhD; Kurin also reportedly sits on her review committee. Black did not respond to a request for comment.

As Santa Barbara media were reporting on Cantin’s announcement that her son had been found, she attempted to schedule a funeral. But Cantin was told by the funeral home that it could not obtain a burial permit unless the cause of death on Jack’s death certificate was changed from “missing” to some medical cause. Cantin requested that the Sheriff’s Office make the amendment, but it demurred, the lawsuit says. Instead, Sheriff Brown asked Cantin to relinquish one of the newly found bones ― a shin bone ― for further testing at a Kern County lab.

Cantin agreed, but only on the condition the shin bone be returned to her, the lawsuit states. On August 4, 2021, the lab issued a verdict that the bone was animal, not human, and the Sheriff’s Office suggested it be sent to Marshall University’s forensics department for yet more analysis. Cantin declined, worried the process would destroy the bone, and asked for it back. Brown has so far refused, the lawsuit claims.

A week later, on August 11, a funeral was held for Jack. “The Sheriff and other officers were in attendance, prominently standing front and center, and misleadingly appearing to the public as supporting [Kim],” the complaint reads. “Because the Sheriff would not change the death certificate, Kim could not bury her son’s remains. She was forced to use an urn to hold his bones, and the Sheriff was present as she left with that urn.” Cantin now allegedly faces a demand from the department that she relinquish all of the bones in her possession to the Coroner. Sources close to the case say concerns exist that some or all of the remains may in fact be of Chumash origin.

The lawsuit concludes by noting a recent report by Santa Barbara’s Grand Jury that recommends separating the county’s Sheriff and Coroner positions. Brown currently occupies both. “Such a separation might preclude the type of conflicts involved here, where Defendants’ demands were likely made in order to protect the finality of prior criminal or civil investigations,” it states. The Grand Jury report also suggested that county officials require the Coroner Bureau to satisfy medical standards for accreditation set by the U.S. Department of Justice, which it does not currently meet.


Written by Tyler Hayden

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  1. This is all very sad, and only gets more sad as time goes on. It seems this all leads back to the anthropologist who, while well-intended, appears to have pushed beyond her abilities and knowledge, giving the family false hope and exacerbating their pain and suffering through her erroneous claims that have and are being scientifically proven wrong. It has obviously done a number on this family. I hope they find peace soon.

  2. I can’t even begin to imagine the loss and grief, and the toll that it would take on Mrs. Cantin. Her desperate need to have her son’s remains, and closure, is heartbreaking and indescrible. It may be that she has bones from an animal, and not from her son, but she needs closure and needs that to be his remains. I hope that she is getting counseling, for herself and for her daughter, and that she finds peace. It is a horrible sad situation, my heart breaks for her.

  3. I agree, this is very sad. I was so glad to hear they found Jack but I must say the initial announcement without much confirmation seemed a bit odd at the time. I recall an earlier article that the anthropologist had a bit of a sketchy background. Let’s not give up hope that we find both of our missing….

  4. The anthropologist, Danielle Kurin, does indeed have a sketchy history, which includes threatening one of her own students who reported being sexually assaulted by Kurin’s then-husband. She’s been embroiled in scandal at UCSB for several years.
    There’s deepening suspicion on the part of many who have been following her situation for a while that she may have intentionally committed fraud in the Cantin case.
    You can read a much more in-depth and skeptical account of her motives in this case here:
    And here:

  5. Based on information that’s begun to trickle out from students on the search team (which I can’t reproduce here because of edhat policy) they may well be part of a criminal fraud and evidence tampering investigation, now.

  6. I am a science journalist who specializes in anthropology and archaeology. I have talked to a number of archaeologists, anthropologists, and some leading forensic anthropologists who are well qualified and respected in their fields. None of think that Danielle Kurin properly identified the remains of Jack Cantin nor had any scientific basis to come to that conclusion. I totally agree with those here who have expressed sympathy for the Cantin family. Of course they were going to give credence to someone who told them her son had been found—I think we would all react similarly under the circumstances. For the details of my reporting on these issues, please see Balter’s Blog (I am not providing links out of deference to the moderators who seem concerned that this not be done.)

  7. Chancelor Yang should go too. From the mega dorm from Hell to this. He does not help the image or success of UCSB.
    The Cantin Family should not have to endure this after enduring so much death and destruction from the actual debris flow. They deserve respectful closure.

  8. I see that the mods deleted a lengthy post detailing Dr. Kurin’s history of misconduct at UCSB and dismantling the fallacies in the lawsuit. Too bad. It’s been a real struggle to get the truth out about this whole mess.
    I’m going to re-say what I said in response to it:
    What concerns me most is the willingness on the part of so many locals to simply accept Dr. Kurin’s findings as fact, for the purpose of ‘closure.’
    First of all, that’s not how the law works. The Sheriff is not going to endorse a fairytale in order to make people feel good.
    Second, they need to ask themselves, if their own child were missing, would they still really want to bury a few fragments of plant and animal bone if they knew the truth?
    I doubt Kim Cantin truly wants to do that. People are mistaking the gaslighting of a grieving mother by a dishonest academic for Kim’s supposed desire to find closure no matter what. The lawsuit was filed last October. Since then, Kim has been made aware of Kurin’s atrocities against her own students (and, yes, there is a serious, overlooked ‘metoo’ scandal about sexual assault and intimidation buried in all of this, too). I hope by now she understands that she’s been dealing with a seriously ‘sketchy’ character who is not to be believed.
    A mother wants to find her child. Her REAL child, not some pieced-together imposter in an urn.
    For her sake, I hope the Sheriff launches a criminal investigation.
    For her sake, I hope they find the real Jack.

  9. Leave the links to the sources where these claims are made so people can read them for themselves but regurgitating them here without any evidence leaves this website at risk for lawsuits. Its unfortunate America is so litigious but small media organizations can’t afford the risk if they haven’t independently reviewed these claims and sources.

  10. Here is the link to the SB independent facebook post where I found the comment:
    Here is a link to the lengthy investigation into Kurin, backed up by thousands of pages of legal documents:
    Everyone can peruse the documentation and decide for themselves who the more qualified and honest parties are, Danielle Kurin or Kern County lab and Dr. Frederick Snow.

  11. I’m not so sure. I don’t believe this is the Sheriff’s fault. Kurin gave these people false hope, and questionable bones. It is basic common sense that found bones need to be analyzed and identified by a professional to ensure they aren’t evidence of a crime. It is also common knowledge that it can take years to have items returned from law enforcement. It is unfortunate but just how it works. I do with the Sheriff would return the “animal” bones to her. Whether science says they are human or not, they clearly mean a lot to the mother.

  12. I’m skeptical of the lawyer-speak uttered by Capello and Co. It makes it sound as though the Sheriff is ready to close the missing person case for feel-good purposes.
    What is really happening, I suspect, is that Kim Cantin has come to understand that she was deceived by Danielle Kurin—who has since left town—and now realizes that the Sheriff is not the enemy, but has been trying to do everything he can to get to the truth.
    I suspect Kim has consented to letting the bones be sent to Marshall University to be examined and tested for DNA, if any can be obtained.
    But we shall see. The Sheriff’s office will issue a press release and all will be revealed in time.
    In the meantime, it is incumbent upon the citizens of Santa Barbara to hold Chancellor Yang and UCSB to account for perpetrating the fraud that they run a legitimate forensic anthropology lab, when no such thing exists on campus. In doing this, they have prolonged the suffering of an entire community, and, most awfully, a grieving family that simply wanted closure for their loss.
    Shame on them. The damage they have done is incalculable.

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