By Scott M. Johnson, Special to The Herald
EVERETT — A bottle of pills. A lonely hotel room. A dead football player.
The autopsy report on former Jackson High School star Johnie Kirton reads like an episode of “CSI,” not to mention an open-and-shut case.
It is neither. The initial autopsy report released in December, almost seven months after Kirton’s death at the age of 26, seems to have created more questions than it answered.
The image of Kirton lying in a hotel room with pills nearby suggests an obvious conclusion: that he overdosed. But the deeper that members of the Kirton family dig into the facts of the case, the more they’re certain that reality and image are two different things.
So certain are they that the cause of Johnie Kirton’s death was about more than just another athlete with a bottle of pills they are willing to mortgage their future to get to the truth. The family hired a forensic specialist and a Seattle-based doctor, took out a loan and re-mortgaged the house they’ve owned for 18 years just to start a quest for answers.
“That’s how much we believe that this is not the (true) story,” Johnie’s mother, Heather Kirton, said.
The Kirtons already have done enough to convince Dr. Joseph P. O’Hara, who conducted the autopsy in Santa Clara County in California, to re-evaluate the case.
In an email sent to the Kirton family, O’Hara wrote that he will bring the results “to our difficult-case conference, to get the opinions of all the pathologists in our office.”
In a separate email to the family, O’Hara wrote that Johnie Kirton’s lack of history with drugs led him to conclude “that it is possible that John was given medication by another person for pain relief. It is likely that John did not know what he was taking, or thought he was taking a much safer drug.”
The Kirton family also has been in contact with a police officer in Santa Clara County in an effort to continue the investigation.
The Kirtons don’t worry how much time or money it takes; they’re dedicated to finding the truth.
“My son is dead,” Johnie’s father, Doug Kirton, said, “and we don’t know how it happened.”
A shocking conclusion
Doug and Heather Kirton were in the midst of the most heartbreaking holiday season of their lives in December when the arrival of mail reopened a wound that will never fully heal.
After nearly seven months of wondering what caused the sudden death of their only son — a former University of Washington Husky who was in California pursuing his dream of playing in the NFL — the Kirtons finally received an autopsy report from the Santa Clara County coroner’s office. They pored through the first five pages of painfully detailed description of their son’s attire (a black, knit-cotton Champs 3XL T-shirt and gray-and-black cargo shorts), appearance (“moderately obese” at 292 pounds, with short blond dreadlocks) and condition (“abundant red-brown vomitus is present on his face and mouth” and a “white foamy fluid” on his mouth and nose) at the time of death. Finally, they came upon a three-word cause of death that shocked them.
Near the bottom of Page 6, the autopsy report concluded with the words: “Acute Methadone intoxication.”
It just didn’t jibe. Anyone who ever knew Kirton would tell you he never used recreational drugs. He rarely drank and didn’t need outside stimulants to provide entertainment. With a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Kirton had every reason to live. He’d always loved kids and felt blessed to have one of his own.
The big, fun-loving father was hardly a candidate for this kind of death, especially considering how clean he’d been in life. Former University of Washington teammate Juan Garcia said Kirton, quarterback Isaiah Stanback and defensive back Roy Lewis were known as the nondrinkers on the 2008 Husky football team. “He was never a guy I saw trashed or partying,” Garcia said.
Former San Jose Sabercats teammate Rauschard Dodd-Masters corroborated, saying: “I’ve never seen him take a drink. He always had a dip (of tobacco) in his mouth, but he didn’t drink at all. I always saw him carrying around a bottle of Gatorade.”
And yet in his final hours, Kirton was in the company of a bottle of pills. It’s a piece to the puzzle of his life that just doesn’t fit.
Fatherhood suited him
Born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1986, John Russell Kirton was a big presence right from the start. The first child of Doug and Heather Kirton weighed in at 10 pounds, 10 ounces, and he would continue to be the biggest kid in the room for most of his life.
Even as an adult, Kirton exuded a giant, childlike magnetism that drew people to him. Kids loved hanging all over his large frame, and they always seemed to bring out the best in him. They were a big reason he decided to take a trip to Africa during his senior year at the University of Washington and were his primary motivation for getting into the teaching profession shortly before his death.
In the end, the most important child in his life would be a girl named Jayde, born to Kirton and his former girlfriend Jessica Brown in September of 2009.
One might say Kirton had been preparing for fatherhood most of his young life. He had four younger sisters, born when he was 5, 8, 15 and 17 years old. Family photos at the Kirton home mostly show Johnie at the center of his loving sisters, and the image serves as an appropriate metaphor. At home, he was simply known as “Brother” and his sisters never had to fight for his widespread affection.
Joclyn Kirton, currently an 18-year-old freshman at Biola University in California, turned down offers from friends to go to Mexico and Hawaii during spring break of her senior year at King’s High School so she could spend the week with Johnie in Arizona nine months ago. What she remembers most about that visit was Johnie telling her once again how proud he was of her for living her life so piously. Then he apologized for all the mistakes he’d made.
“But he didn’t need to apologize,” Joclyn Kirton said, her eyes welling with tears. “He was the best brother. I kind of wish I’d have told him that.”
Head coach Kevin Guy of the Arena League’s Arizona Rattlers said there was a time when Johnie Kirton was frustrated with the direction of his life — mainly because of his football career. When Kirton was in his first stint with the Rattlers in 2010, he and Guy butted heads, mostly because Kirton felt his role as a pass-blocking fullback would not attract the eye of NFL scouts, Guy said.
But by the time Kirton returned to the team two years later, after a year playing in Chicago, Guy saw a more mature man.
“When I got him back in 2012, I saw a completely different Johnie,” Guy said. “He had a new daughter. He was at peace with himself … I think (Jayde) made a very, very big impression on him. You could tell that he had different goals. It was just a completely different turnaround from when I coached him in 2010.”
A gentle giant
Johnie Kirton spent a good deal of his adult life chasing his football dream. After a Bunyanesque career as a bruising, all-state tailback at Jackson High School (he rushed for 2,675 yards as senior, one yard shy of the state single-season record) and two position switches for a struggling UW program, he was ignored by NFL scouts heading into the 2009 draft. But Kirton continued to cling to his ultimate dream, working as a two-way player in indoor football leagues in hopes of one day getting to the NFL.
He helped the Spokane Shock of Arena Football League2 win the af2 championship in the summer of 2009, then moved to Arizona to be close to Jayde while she was living with her mother in Jessica’s hometown. Kirton played four games with the AFL’s Arizona Rattlers in the summer of 2010, but he broke his hand and struggled with his pass blocking. He thought he should be playing in the NFL, Guy said, and seemed to have a chip on his shoulder about being in the Arena League.
“Johnie just wasn’t happy where he was at,” Guy said.
A somewhat disgruntled Kirton left Arizona for Chicago to play the 2011 season with the AFL’s Rush.
He set a franchise record for rushing yards that season but also suffered a torn rotator cuff that would continue to bother him for the ensuing months. Kirton returned to Arizona after the season to be close to Jayde, and he began the 2012 season with the Rattlers while teaching in the after-school program in the Kyrene School District.
But in May of last year, Kirton was traded from Arizona to San Jose. The Rattlers had a younger fullback who had emerged, and Kirton’s only playing time had been as a reserve on the Arizona defense. In a football sense, the fresh start looked like a good thing for his career.
The SaberCats had just lost starting fullback Tommy Taggart to an injury and Kirton immediately fit in with his new teammates, who teased him about the tattoo in the small of his back advertising his high-school nickname and number: “Bubba 37.”
“He was only there two and a half, three weeks, but it felt like he was with us since training camp,” former SaberCats defensive back Ruschard Dodd-Masters said. “He had that kind of aura: a fun-loving guy.”
Fitting in was always easy for Kirton, despite a physical presence that stood out in any crowd. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds during his AFL days, Kirton seemed to be among the most popular players at every stop along the way.
“People were just drawn to him,” said Dan Howell, a former UW teammate and close friend. “They gravitated to him (because) he had such a presence. You never felt alone and never felt distant when Johnie was in the building. He was large in stature but gentle in heart.”
On May 19, 2012, Kirton made his SaberCats debut by scoring two touchdowns in a blowout loss at San Antonio. The following week, while playing in front of 9,000 fans at San Jose’s HP Pavilion, Kirton scored five touchdowns in a win over his former Chicago team. He scored the game-winning TD in overtime of an 84-77 victory that Saturday night, May 26. The following day, Kirton was honored as the AFL’s Player of the Week.
But that Sunday, a longtime female friend who happened to be in the Bay Area couldn’t get in touch with him at the hotel where many of the players stayed in Santa Clara. Kirton’s final phone message to her offered the phone number of a teammate, telling her that his cell phone battery was dying.
By Monday, the friend still had not heard from Kirton and became worried. According to the Kirton family, she called the teammate, whose name is not known, and asked him to check on Kirton. The Kirton family contends that player likely was the first to find Kirton’s body and that he quickly called the female friend back in a panic. She then called the Kirton house in Everett, where Heather Kirton answered the telephone at 11:09 p.m. and screamed at the news. She immediately hung up and called 911 in Santa Clara.
Where did the pills come from?
To this day the Kirton family doesn’t know exactly what killed their son. They did know at the time that Johnie Kirton had a pre-existing brain condition known as Chiari malformation, which was diagnosed while he was playing at UW. Kirton also had been diagnosed with sleep apnea during his college career, so Doug and Heather Kirton spent days and weeks and months wondering if perhaps that had been a factor.
Then, in mid-December, the autopsy report from Santa Clara arrived and opened doors that led to nowhere.
The report mentioned that a bottle of methadone “prescribed to another individual was present in the room.” (The Kirtons said that further investigation by the family found that the drug was actually Methadose — the prescription form of methadone — and that the label said it had been prescribed for pain but had both the patient’s name and doctor’s name torn off.)
The report also mentioned a condition known as concentric left ventricular hypertrophy, an enlarged heart that had previously gone undetected. Kirton’s left heart ventricle measured 2 centimeters — about four times the diameter of his right.
But the biggest questions involved the bottle of pills. Could it have been prescribed to another teammate? Could Kirton have brought it with him from Arizona, presumably to help deal with the lingering pain of a violent profession? How did Kirton, with no history of drug use, get the bottle of pills?
The Kirton family has plenty of theories, none of which they’re ready to share with the general public as the investigation continues. Each new door that opens seems to lead to another room filled with questions.
“I still have a question on: Where did it come from?” Doug Kirton said. “It had to come from someone. We don’t believe our son took something for casual drug use. For us to accept that, it’s ludicrous.”
Former SaberCats teammate Ruschard Dodd-Masters was shocked when told of the results of the autopsy report and added that the thought of Johnie Kirton getting methadone from a SaberCats doctor or team trainer was far-fetched.
“They would never give us anything like that,” he said, adding that ibuprofen was the primary pain medication provided by the team.
Arena League player Caesar Rayford, a former UW teammate of Kirton’s, said the AFL has medical standards just as stringent as other leagues.
“They’ve got top-notch trainers just like the NFL, the CFL, college,” Rayford said. “All the doctors are the same as with an NFL team.”
Rayford is as baffled as anyone as to how Kirton died.
“It makes you think,” he said. “A perfectly healthy, strong guy, and right there — boom, he’s gone.”
‘We want the truth’
The Kirtons are frustrated by their impression that Johnie’s cause of death was rubber-stamped without further investigation. The report leads one to assume that Kirton overdosed, and yet the family says there are multiple other possible causes that were only casually mentioned in the report: the enlarged heart, the presence of vomit that could prove their son suffocated in his sleep. The Chiari malformation of the brain also went without mention in the autopsy report, as the conducting doctor was not aware of it at the time.
The Kirtons wonder why it took nearly 24 hours for his body to be found, even though he was at a hotel with teammates, and they continue to get conflicting feedback about who was on the scene before paramedics arrived.
The Kirtons are too early in their journey to start pointing fingers, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to put a hand over their mouths.
“We want the truth, and we want things to fit,” Heather Kirton said, “but we know they may never.”
The community around their southeast Everett home is rallying around the Kirton family. Family friend Kerry Cirillo said she fields a question every week from concerned acquaintances who all want to know: What happened to Johnie Kirton?
She wants to be able to answer but can’t until the whole truth comes out.
“He impacted so many kids,” Cirillo said. “Our kids need heroes, and as a community we can’t have our heroes misrepresented.”
‘A dangerous medication’
According to an American Medical Association report in 2009, methadone was involved in more than 30 percent of the overdose deaths linked to pain medications. Once used primarily to help soothe the effects of opiate addiction, methadone has in recent years become one of the fastest-growing medications to deal with chronic pain.
Joe Merrill, a Seattle-based doctor who specializes in addiction and pain medication, said methadone is a particularly dangerous opioid because of the metabolites it leaves in one’s system. Merrill, who has no knowledge of or affiliation to the Kirton case, added that many overdoses happen to users who are new to the drug. Known as “naive” users, a first-timer could conceivably take a perfectly safe dosage one day, then believe the same dosage would work the following day — without realizing that the metabolites left in the body heighten the power of the drug, sometimes to lethal levels.
“It’s certainly increased in terms of the proportion of people who are dying,” he said of the drug. “It’s a difficult medication to dose, more so than other opioids.”
Merrill added that methadone has little street value other than for opiate addicts dealing with withdrawal, and he said the primary use of prescription methadone is to manage chronic pain.
“It’s a particularly dangerous medication to be taking without professional help,” Merrill said. “Anyone who’s being prescribed for pain needs to understand that.”
As a professional football player, Kirton undoubtedly dealt with pain. But his family and friends had no knowledge of a history of methadone use, and according to the autopsy report there were no other drugs in Kirton’s system.
Former UW teammate Caesar Rayford, one of Kirton’s closest friends on the Huskies, said Johnie Kirton was not into drugs at all.
“He was definitely a good-character guy,” Rayford said. “He wasn’t a guy you’d see in the newspaper with anything negative. He wouldn’t get into trouble — never like that.”
The autopsy report states that Kirton had a methadone level of 320 nanograms per milliliter of blood. Lethal levels vary for every person, depending on his or her metabolism, and it’s entirely possible that Kirton’s death had less to do with the actual dosage in his system than it did with existing metabolites and/or the undiagnosed enlarged heart.
And yet the three words — “Acute Methadone intoxication” — send out warning signs for anyone who’s looking for a quick answer in this impatient, Internet-driven world.
Even Guy, the Arizona coach who had Kirton in 2010 and again in 2012, seemed to form his own conclusion upon being one of the few people to hear the results of the initial autopsy a few weeks ago.
“It’s pretty self-explanatory when you look at it,” he said. “… It is what it is. All we can do (as a franchise) is educate our players and hope that they make good choices.”
The Kirton family knows how it looks from the outside. Even though his parents admit to being their son’s greatest defender, they promise that blind loyalty has nothing to do with their quest for answers. And they don’t like that the news has to come out now, before all the facts and stories have been corroborated. They know that words like methadone and overdose could become unfortunate shorthand for their son’s death, and the Kirtons don’t think it should be that way at all.
“We’re not trying to be stupid or blind here, we just want the truth,” Heather Kirton said.
In addition to convincing Dr. O’Hara in San Jose, Calif., to re-evaluate the case, the Kirtons have retained the help of forensics expert Carl Wigren. He and other experts have looked at the medical report and concluded Kirton suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a potentially fatal heart condition, Heather Kirton said. The Kirtons have had their four daughters examined and two of them have been diagnosed with a genetic predisposition for the ailment.
While it’s going to be quite a financial drain on the family, the Kirtons are willing to sacrifice to get to the true story.
“We can’t have that concern 20 years from now: What block did we not turn over?” Doug Kirton said.
‘He was my best friend’
The image that sticks with the Kirton family, and one that they think best represents Johnie’s life, has nothing to do with a lonely hotel room, a locker room filled with teammates or even a high school football field littered with would-be tacklers.
What sticks out most seven months later are the thousand-plus faces at Kirton’s memorial service at the Christian Faith Center in Everett. Heather Kirton grins at the thought, and she even chuckles when telling the story about how no fewer than 12 people came up to her independently and declared, “You just don’t understand, he was my best friend.”
Said former UW teammate Juan Garcia: “Everybody loved him. That’s because you’d never met anybody like Johnie. In a locker room, where there are 100-something guys, you have your cliques. But Johnie, he would come out with the O-linemen, with the (defensive backs). He was good friends with everybody. That’s just who he was.”
While the members of the Kirton family may never find closure, that won’t deter their search for answers.
“It doesn’t add up,” Doug Kirton said. “It just doesn’t. I will go to my grave saying that.”
For others who knew and loved Kirton, the how and why no longer matter.
“At first, I wondered what happened; he passed away so young,” Garcia said. “Then you don’t hear anything. … Now, I’m just like: It doesn’t matter. He’s gone. Whether he fell asleep or fell down, it doesn’t matter. He’s gone.
“It won’t change anything. It wouldn’t change the way I feel about him.”