December 03, 2019
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Maine’s medical examiner said alcoholism contributed to a hiker’s death. Experts don’t buy it.

Courtesy of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Courtesy of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Jeffrey Aylward, 63, of Plymouth, Massachusetts, was found dead by a game warden on the Appalachian Trail.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Jeff Aylward was hiking from New Hampshire to Mount Katahdin along the Appalachian Trail when he sent his family a July 23 text message saying he “should be coming out in 4 hours” on Route 17 near Rangeley. They never heard from him again.

About a week passed until his wife, Ann, and their son, Nick, began to worry. While Jeff was a 63-year-old diabetic, they had a plan in place to regularly send him supplies, and a similar amount of time had passed without hearing from Jeff just as he set out on his trek in early July.

With no word for 11 days, they reported him missing. About a day and a half later, on Aug. 5, a Maine game warden found Jeff dead in his tent about 50 yards from the trail near the Height of Land, a scenic outlook, approximately two-tenths of a mile from Route 17.

About four months later, Ann Aylward is reckoning with another discovery. Maine’s medical examiner said alcoholism contributed to Jeff’s death, although she said he stopped drinking after his diabetes diagnosis roughly 15 years ago. No alcohol was found in his tent, according to a warden service log. Two experts who reviewed case files said the alcoholism finding was wrong.

Wardens reported at the time that there was no reason to suspect foul play in Aylward’s death, citing recent health issues. An autopsy was done the next day. His family grieved. His body went home to Massachusetts, where Jeff served the Plymouth Fire Department for 29 years until his 2014 retirement. They buried the Army veteran at a military cemetery.

After that, Ann realized she had never learned what killed her husband. She called the Maine medical examiner’s office and said a staffer read from his death certificate over the phone. The primary causes were a condition that typically causes heart attacks and his diabetes.

But “acute and chronic alcoholism” was listed as a contributing cause of his death. That certificate was signed by Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, Maine’s chief medical examiner. Since then, Ann has been lobbying him and his office to remove that finding.

“I’m not letting it go, I’m telling you right now, because this man has served the public for 40 years, and he’s not going to have another guy who’s supposed to serve him do this to him,” said Ann Aylward, who still refers to her husband in the present tense. “No. No, no, no.”

The autopsy summary from Flomenbaum’s office reported Jeff’s liver as normal. The finding was based on an alcohol level of nearly 0.13 — or more than 61 percent over the legal limit to drive — found in blood taken from his chest cavity during the Aug. 6 autopsy. A different form of alcohol, isopropanol, which is marketed as rubbing alcohol, was also found in that blood.

By then, Jeff could have been dead for nearly two weeks. The process of putrefaction — a body’s decay after death — has been known to sometimes produce blood alcohol levels as high as 0.20. A review of aviation deaths by an Australian forensic pathologist also found that chest cavity blood can have falsely elevated levels of alcohol.

Toronto-based forensic toxicologist Jim Wigmore reviewed the autopsy findings for Ann Aylward. In addition, Dr. Donald Jason, a former medical examiner in New Jersey, reviewed them for the Bangor Daily News. Both concluded that all the alcohol found in Jeff’s blood was solely due to decay.

They reached their conclusions based on the amount of time elapsed between Jeff’s death and the autopsy, as well as the autopsy’s finding of a normal liver. They noted that Jeff’s diabetes would make his blood more sugary, promoting alcohol formation in his body after death.

Jason said he didn’t know why the medical examiner’s office “jumps to the conclusion of alcoholism,” wondering whether it was due to a knee-jerk reaction to the alcohol level. He said it was unusual for a medical examiner to make such a leap in logic, calling it “just a mistake.”

“I have no doubt from my point of view that the result is all due to putrefaction, and the result is untrustworthy to determine any alcohol consumption at the time of his death,” Wigmore said.

Taylor Slemmer, the lead investigator on the case for Flomenbaum’s office, declined to answer questions, saying it’s not the office’s practice “to discuss details of a case investigation with the press.” Slemmer responded to a request for comment to Flomenbaum and a spokesman for Attorney General Aaron Frey, a Democrat whom the medical examiner works under.

Slemmer said Ann Aylward has been offered a meeting with Flomenbaum “multiple times” to discuss the findings, but she has declined them. She said Flomenbaum “is willing to speak to a pathologist Ms. Aylward refers to our office to discuss this case on her behalf.” Aylward said she hasn’t seen the value in meeting with him since she has been rebuffed so far.

Flomenbaum has had a career marked by highs and lows. He led a massive body identification operation while working in New York City during the Sept. 11 attacks, but he was fired as Massachusetts’ chief medical examiner in 2007 after a body went missing. Last year, a national medical examiners’ group named Maine’s office one of the best in the U.S.

But a Connecticut prosecutor wrote Gov. Janet Mills in 2016 when she served as attorney general to alert her to testimony Flomenbaum made while serving as an expert witness in a child death case in that state that a judge deemed not credible. A second trial in the case of a Windham man accused of killing his wife started last week after a February mistrial that came because Flomenbaum used a new description of the trajectory of the fatal shotgun pellets.

If Jeff Aylward had made it to Katahdin’s summit, he would have finished the Appalachian Trail. It had taken him four years because of injuries and family events. After that, Jeff and Ann planned to sell their home and move to a cabin in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.

Ann said she won’t be able to go there now. She hasn’t canceled his cellphone account or removed him from insurance policies.

She called her late husband a “tinkerer.” In their cellar is a toy airplane their son played with as a child. Jeff had been fixing it. Ann won’t clean it up. She said fixing his death certificate is the last thing she has to do to begin healing.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of time it took for Jeff Aylward’s family to report him missing. It was 11 days.


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