‘Data Suggests Cow’: New Report Casts More Doubt over Montecito Debris Flow Remains

Santa Barbara County Coroner Closes Case on Bone Fragments Unearthed by Former UCSB Anthropologist and Team of Students

DNA sequencing revealed bone fragments thought to belong to Montecito debris flow victim Jack Cantin may in fact be from a cow. | Credit: Courtesy

The Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Bureau has closed its case on the remains discovered last summer reportedly belonging to missing Montecito Debris Flow victim Jack Cantin, determining through DNA analysis that the bone fragments unearthed by a former UCSB anthropologist and her team of students are probably not human, but more likely bovine.

“We found no evidence to support the tested bone sample is of human origin,” states a letter from an outside forensics company attached to the final coroner’s report, which noted the “DNA preservation in the bone is extremely poor.” “We cannot determine with certainty the species the bone belongs to, but the strongest evidence available in these data suggests cow,” it says.

The recent finding supports an earlier opinion rendered by a separate forensics expert, before the DNA testing was conducted, that the remains did not come from Cantin. Two of the samples provided by the anthropologist, Dr. Danielle Kurin, were “clearly not bones, neither human nor non-human,” the expert said, and were instead “fragments of stems of a woody plant.” Another two, though confirmed to be bone, showed signs of a prolonged exposure to the elements that indicated “the fragments are not of recent origin and almost certainly are not those of Jack Cantin,” he said.

Given the consenting opinions, and after consulting with forensic anthropologists at Harvard and Marshall universities, as well as the Kern County Coroner’s Office and a radiocarbon dating lab in Florida, the Santa Barbara Coroner’s Bureau concluded its current investigation and still considers Cantin a missing person, states the report, which was finalized July 12 and obtained by the Independent through a public records request.

The development marks the latest tragic twist in the aftermath of the death of 17-year-old Jack Cantin, who was swept away in the 2018 mudslide disaster alongside his father, Dave. His sister and mother, Kim, survived. After two years of searching failed to recover Jack’s body, Kim reached out to UCSB’s anthropology department for help. Kurin responded, obtaining grant money and setting up an undergraduate class to dig across a 110-acre plot of land downstream from the Cantin family home. 

Kurin’s own single-page report stated “with an overwhelming level of scientific probability” that the eight fragments ultimately recovered were “consistent with those of Jack Cantin.” “We are over 90 percent certain,” she stated. She and Kim contacted local media in June 2021 to announce Jack had finally been found. That touched off a legal tug-of-war with the Coroner’s Bureau, which couldn’t immediately confirm the remains’ authenticity, with Kim suing the department over the pieces still in its possession. She claimed Santa Barbara officials were unfairly denying her the ability to declare her son deceased, finalize his death certificate, and bury him next to his father.

Kim later dropped the lawsuit, but negotiations with the Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the Bureau, remain ongoing. Kim’s attorney declined to comment, as did the Sheriff’s Office.

This is not the first time Kurin, the daughter of prominent cultural anthropologist Richard Kurin of the Smithsonian Institution, has found herself embroiled in controversy. While at UCSB, she and her then-husband were the subjects of a Title IX investigation into allegations of sexual assault and retaliation against students. Kurin’s charges were sustained, and she was placed on a three-year administrative leave from 2016 to 2019.

Upon her return, Kurin applied for and received tenure, reportedly over the objections of her colleagues in the university’s anthropology department. This January, amid the Cantin dispute, she abruptly resigned her position. She did so to pursue “a more fulfilling and meaningful job opportunity,” she said.

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