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Autopsy findings cleared deputies

Jessica Cuffman • Nov 14, 2013 at 6:19 AM

When Craig Burdine was arrested on Aug. 11, 2007, no one was surprised.

The 37-year-old had multiple run-ins with police prior to that, with a history of drug abuse and crime.

To this day, his family doesn’t claim his innocence.

But six years later, they continue to fight for justice in his death.

Lucas County deputy coroner Cynthia Beisser ruled Craig’s death an accident caused by drug-induced excited delirium. In her autopsy report, Beisser took note of his injures — extensive external blunt trauma, internal bleeding, and fracturing of the cartilage in his neck — but she did not see them as causing or contributing to his death.

Beisser focused her findings on the levels of methamphetamine and alcohol in Craig’s system, and she stuck with this explanation in testimony during a wrongful death lawsuit filed by his parents, Jess and Mardella Burdine, of Oak Harbor.

Expert testimony by a former New York medical examiner, Michael Baden, was starkly different

Beisser should have focused on the fractured thyroid cartilage, according to Baden, which he said was proof that Craig suffered severe pressure to his neck the night he died.

Former Sandusky County jail guard Frank Kaiser readily admitted during court proceedings that he pinned Craig down in a jail shower room, after Fremont police delivered Craig to the jail following his arrest.

Frank Kaiser is the son of retired Sandusky County Deputy Bill Kaiser, who currently works as an investigator for county prosecutor Tom Stierwalt. Frank was fired last year by Sandusky County Sheriff Kyle Overmyer, after Frank was implicated in the sexual exploitation of a mentally ill inmate at the jail.

At 350 pounds, Frank Kaiser, according to court documents, placed his knee on Craig’s back when the inmate was face-down, his arms behind him and handcuffed as jail personnel tried to wash from his eyes the mace that Fremont police had used to subdue him minutes earlier.

Moments later, after he started to vomit and officers called for paramedics, Craig was dead.

The fractured thyroid cartilage and an unexplained bruise on the left side of his neck indicate he died of asphyxia, Baden said, a lack of oxygen. This was further substantiated by descriptions jail guards and police provided, noting Craig “turned blue” as he died. 

The level of methamphetamine in Craig’s system, Baden said, would have had to be five to 10 times higher than what was detected in his blood, according to court documents.

His blood-alcohol level, 0.10 percent, was also much too low to contribute to his death, Baden said.


Follow the links to read all four parts: 

Autopsy by design

Craig Burdine, sudden death and its causes

Gregory Montgomery, death by suicide despite objections

Deputy coroner's deadly details and difficult questions 

Click here for a photo gallery with more information about the people involved and impacted by the investigations into the killing of Jacob Limberios. 


Despite Baden’s testimony and other evidence the family presented, the Sixth Circuit federal court of appeals dismissed the Burdine family’s lawsuit earlier this year.

The Sandusky County Sheriff’s Office celebrated the ruling, declaring victory and vindication in a news release. In the release, Overmyer said the case “highlights the need for all young people to avoid the use of drugs. We hope that the ruling of the Sixth Circuit will enable his family to obtain closure and come to terms with their loss.” 

No surrender

Craig’s father, Jess Burdine, is far from waving the white flag.

He readily admits his son had problems. But police and jail guards are responsible for his death, he said, and they should be held accountable.

”I am hoping that we will be able to reinstate the case, go right back into the Sixth Circuit court,” he said.

And Beisser should correct the autopsy, Jess said.

It would not be the first time Beisser has been forced to change her findings in an autopsy report.

In 2010, six years after the death of a 25-year-old Toledo man, Carlton Benton, Beisser later changed her ruling on his cause of death from natural to homicide.

Her about-face came after an FBI investigation into Benton’s death led to the indictment of then-Sheriff James Telb and three of his deputies. They were accused of conspiring to cover up information that one of the deputies had actually used a sleeper hold on Benton while he was in the jail the day before he died.

The family of 19-year-old Jacob Limberios, a Castalia teen killed by a single bullet to the head in 2012, also seeks to have his cause of death changed from suicide. The accidental suicide ruling came from Sandusky County coroner John Wukie, although Beisser agreed with this determination when she performed an autopsy 14 months after Jacob’s death.

A few weeks ago, Jess Burdine delivered a packet of information to Stierwalt’s office, asking for a criminal probe and death investigation into the actions of Fremont police and Sandusky County deputies the night Craig died.

Jess said that when he and his attorney met with Stierwalt this past week, Stierwalt agreed to ask Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to investigate Craig’s death.

Stierwalt did not return multiple phone messages this week from the Register, which is seeking to confirm he is asking DeWine’s office to reexamine the case. >

Jess, however, said Stierwalt’s interest was piqued by certain evidence in the case, particularly in respect to a jail guard’s use of a Taser when he attempted to subdue Craig. The jail guard’s actions were documented in records Jess obtained from former Sandusky County Sheriff David Gangwer, before Gangwer died in 2008, about a year after Craig’s death.

Stierwalt met with Jess and his Toledo attorney, Wesley Miller, and discussed a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of pages prepared in the civil lawsuit.

”With that one expert who testified about the Taser, it just blew everything apart,” Jess said. “When he said he will turn it over to the state, I about fell right out of the chair.

 DeWine has also taken over the probe into Jacob’s death, a case in which Beisser also plays a prominent role. Beisser’s findings in the Jacob’s autopsy have been harshly criticized by yet another well-known pathologist, Dr. Cyril Wecht.

Wukie had ruled Jacob’s death an accidental suicide, without ever visiting the crime scene. He had relied on information from deputies and on statements made by three witnesses who were at the scene when Jacob was killed.

Wecht later determined Jacob could not have shot himself, given the lack of stippling, or gunpowder residue, around the gunshot wound on his head.

Beisser conducted an autopsy on Jacob 14 months later, and she, too, said she did not find evidence of gunpowder burns. 

Even so, her report said her findings were “not inconsistent” with Wukie’s original ruling of suicide. 

In a critique of Beisser’s findings, Wecht criticized her logic, describing it as “remarkable and convenient rationale.”

 Arrest and death 

Craig Burdine, 37, was arrested Aug. 11, 2007, by Fremont police, who were called to a home where he was causing a disturbance. Craig either fell or was pushed into a fire pit at about 3 a.m., after people at the home told him he wasn’t wanted there, according to court documents.  

Witnesses described Craig as irrational and agitated.

Police used pepper spray to subdue him before handcuffing him and loading him into a police cruiser bound for the county jail.  

On arriving at the jail’s sally port, officers and deputies carried Craig, still handcuffed, into the jail shower room to rinse the pepper spray from his face. In court documents, the officers and jail guards said Craig continued to struggle in the shower room, prompting an officer to zap him with a Taser three times. <\z12f”serif”>One of the jail guards, Frank Kaiser, placed his knee into Craig’s back to hold him down until paramedics showed up. 

He was dead by the time he arrived at the hospital.

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