When did Belleville judge die? BND asks experts to review reports

News-DemocratJune 8, 2013 

Medical experts who reviewed pathology and toxicology reports at the request of the Belleville News-Democrat concerning the March cocaine death of St. Clair County Associate Judge Joe Christ concluded that exactly when he died may never be known.

However, their estimation that Christ died within minutes to not more than a few hours after taking his last hit of cocaine and of when he ate his last meal may help narrow the time of death.

But whether Christ was found within moments of his death or if he lay unresponsive for hours on the floor of a bathroom, or whether there was a delay in calling 911 after he was found, is not publicly known.

Pike County Sheriff and Coroner Paul Petty, the head investigator in Christ's death, declined to answer any questions. He did release the autopsy and pathology reports, but they list only an official time of declared death of 6:47 p.m. Sunday, March 10, or 29 minutes after Christ's fellow judge Mike Cook made a 911 call to a sheriff's dispatcher. During the call of about 15 minutes, Cook told the dispatcher that Christ's hands were cold, his stomach was cool and his jaws were clenched shut, which could indicate Christ had been dead for a considerable time.

Two of three toxicologists said Christ, who, the autopsy showed, had severe heart disease, is likely to have died soon after -- perhaps a few hours to a few minutes -- of ingesting a large quantity of cocaine. A closed vial of cocaine was found within his clothing, but the autopsy report did not state the drug's likely ownership.

Private St. Louis pathologist, Dr. Stephen Godfrey said the examination of Christ's stomach contents showed he died within two hours of eating a meal.

If his last meal had been at a nearby hunting association's banquet the night before that he attended with Cook, which began about 6 p.m. and ended about 9 p.m., that would put his death at no later than about 11 p.m. on Saturday, some 19 hours before the 911 call. The police report was not released by Petty, which might note whether a later meal had been prepared at the cabin.

Cook was arrested on May 22 by federal agents outside a North 38th Street house in Belleville, the home of his friend Sean D. McGilvery, 34, who was later charged in federal court with intent to distribute more than two pounds of heroin.

Cook, 43, was charged with a misdemeanor count of heroin possession and a felony count of being a heroin user in possession of firearms. He is in drug rehab in Minnesota following his not guilty plea and release on a $10,000 recognizance bond. Cook, who resigned his judgeship, is not charged with any wrongdoing regarding the death of Christ or the discovery of his body.

A third person connected to the St. Clair County court system, probation officer James Fogarty, 44, is charged in federal court with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He told an FBI agent that he sold Christ and Cook an "eight ball," or eighth of an ounce of cocaine, probably on March 8, the Friday before the judges drove to the hunting cabin on Saturday. He said all three did a "line" of the drug, which means they snorted it.

Fogarty, who is no longer a probation officer, also told the agent, according to a copy of his statement, that after Christ died but well before Cook was arrested, the former judge told him he had heard a "bang" and then within moments found an unresponsive Christ lying on the floor of a bathroom. Fogarty's statement does not state exactly when, or even on what day -- Saturday or Sunday -- that Cook is said to have found Christ.

What is known is that Christ and Cook attended a banquet held by the Pike County Quail & Upland Management Association in Pittsfield, about a 20 minute drive from the cabin. Pittsfield is about 115 miles north of Belleville.

Banquet moderator Allen Horton said he remembered Christ and Cook and believed they were gone by 9:30 p.m. Beef, ham, potatoes, green beans and beer were served, he said.

Godfrey, the St. Louis pathologist, said in his review of the pathologist's report noted that the stomach was "distended," by slightly more than a quart of, "unidentifiable food fragments within liquid" that be said were eaten not more than two hours prior to death.

Toxicologist Richard A. Parent of New Harbor, Maine, examined Christ's autopsy and toxicology report, obtained by the BND under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Parent, a toxicologist certified by the American College of Toxicology, who regularly testifies in criminal court cases, said that Christ's last ingestion of cocaine before his death occurred, "Anywhere from an hour or two to a few minutes." He said that a metabolite of cocaine -- benzoylecgonine -- was at high levels in his urine and the drug itself was at a high level in his blood.

"It clearly shows he was exposed to high levels of cocaine ... he died within a few hours probably closer to minutes of taking the cocaine. It was not 10 or 12 or more hours later. Certainly not. Not even six hours. It could have been a minute or two."

Dr. Brian A. McMillen, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Brody School of Medicine, East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C., also examined copies of the same reports.

"The high value of the (benzoylecgonine in the) urine suggests multiple hits of cocaine -- possibly taken several hours or a day before and the blood value says some (cocaine) within at least a few hours of death."

The combination of cocaine-related factors found in the blood and urine, "...suggests a significant amount (of cocaine) was consumed over time during the two days previous to death ... There is no real way to say exactly when relative to death the last hit of cocaine was taken."

A third toxicologist and pathologist, Dr. Judy Melinek of San Francisco, discounted the evidentiary value of the reports' findings as far as time of death is concerned.

"In the presence of heart disease and obesity, cocaine is much more lethal," Melinek said, adding that with a bad heart even a small amount of cocaine can cause a fatal heart arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 239-2625.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 239-2570.

 

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