It came in the form of a letter than answers one key question about the coroner's findings from his autopsy. Unfortunately, that answer pretty much compounds the mystery even more, over how and why this healthy, athletic boy suddenly collapsed at a party.
This letter also shakes the family's faith in how authorities have investigated Joe's death. Actually, this faith has pretty much eroded to nothing in the months since Joe's death. And despite "extreme pressure" from some members of the Orinda community to "just let this pass," Joe's family will not stop seeking answers.
"We continue to draw strength from the courageous [other] members of the community who share our sorrow and outrage at this terrible situation," says Joe's uncle and godfather, Thomas Payne. "Over and over again, we hear from mothers of elementary school kids--who are frightened that their kids will grow up in a community with no moral compass. Some ask what they can do, and many are taking action. We are very thankful for this."
This above-mentioned letter comes from the Northern California Transplant Bank, and it clears up the mystery of how an unusual prescription drug, papaverine--which is used to help people with circulatory problems--made its way into the Joe's system.
The Contra Costa County Coroner's Office had earlier ruled that Joe did not die of binge drinking, as initially suspected. As has been earlier reported, quite a number of teens were drinking at this party, hosted by a Hillcrest Drive neighbor and rugby teammate.
Rather, the coroner's office concluded that high levels of the drug, combined with some alcohol, but not a high amount, caused Joe to vomit and to choke.
The thing is, no one had any clue as to how or why Joe would have this drug into his system. Back when the coroner's findings were released, Orinda Police Chief Bill French said papaverine is not a drug his department had seen being used recreationally. However, the suspicion of recreational use lingered. Either Joe took it himself or someone slipped it to him, or so the speculation went. His family hired a private investigator and put out a plea to the Orinda community, asking if anyone had a prescription for papaverine. Maybe, the family thought, one of Joe's friends or classmates had found the drug in the family medicine cabinet and decided to give it a try for fun, or they mistook it for another prescription drug to get high on.
It turns out that Joe didn't take the drug himself, and no one slipped it to him. That's what Joe's family learned this week from the letter sent by the transplant bank.
Allen Brown, executive director of the transplant bank, said staffers at the Oakland organization introduced papaverine to Joseph's system to prepare his vessels for the tissue-donation process, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Because the drug is a vasodilator, it relaxes the muscles in blood vessels and makes them bigger.
The blood samples that the coroner analyzed for the autopsy were provided by the transplant bank after staffers had injected the drug into his system. "We take full responsibility for (the autopsy) finding," Brown wrote in a letter to Joseph's mother, Marianne Payne. "I want to formally apologize."
So, now the coroner's findings on cause of death is in doubt. For Joe's mother, Marianne Payne, and her brother, Thomas Payne, news about the mistake related to the papaverine and the blood samples just adds to their grief.
"All I can say is: yes, we have lost all confidence in the Orinda police the corner's office and the Sheriff's deapartment," Thomas Payne said in an e-mail to me. He added that Joe had no physical conditions that would have contributed to his death.
The family also believes that a serious crime or crimes was committed: "Alcohol was provided by adults to Joe who was a minor. In California, a death caused in the commission of a crime is the definition of manslaughter."
So far, police are pursuing criminal charges against three people, including the party's 18-year-old host, Patrick Gabrielli, and Gabrielli's sister. But not for manslaughter--for allegedly furnishing alcohol to minors.
Adding to the Paynes' frustration is that the information in the police report, which they finally received, is "quite sketchy and provides no timeline," Thomas Payne said. "It especially does not provide information on the long period of time after Joe collapsed until 911 was finally called. We believe this time period coincided with at least one visit from the Orinda police who did not enter the [home of the hosts] while Joe was either dead or dying."
I earlier reported that police twice visited the Hillcrest Drive home the night Joe collapsed. French says police first went to the Gabrielli's home at around 10:30 p.m. Gabrielli was hosting the party while his parents were out of town. French says officers, there to investigate a noise complaint, spoke to a girl, supposedly Gabrielli's sister. The officers saw "nothing unusual," including no minors drinking alcohol, and left.
It turns out that there were quite a number of teens at the home, and quite a bit of drinking going on. Payne says the family has learned that kids at the party tried and were successful at reviving Joe after he collapsed in a hallway: "So, in reality he died twice that night."