County suppresses Holcomb death details after family threatens to sue

Commitee on Open Government says that’s legal

Steve Holcomb talks to the press at the Whistler Center following his historic gold-medal victory in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. His win ended a 62-year gold-medal drought for the United States in Olympic four-man bobsledding. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

LAKE PLACID — Essex County officials aren’t releasing final toxicology and autopsy reports on the cause and manner of death of bobsled gold medalist Steve Holcomb. That’s because the late bobsledder’s family has threatened to sue the county coroner if he releases details.

Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw said he was formally informed of the family’s decision on Friday via a letter from their attorney Stewart Jones, based in Troy.

Speaking Monday evening, Jones said the family “didn’t feel this is a matter the public was entitled to have any information about.

“This is personal,” Jones said. “This is family. He is dead. Let him rest in peace. There is no investigation, no civil lawsuit.”

“In death, (Holcomb) should not be meant to pay a price because he was a hero when alive,” the attorney added. “If he were not who he is, there would be no interest in him.”

Whitelaw said the family’s decision came as a surprise to him. He added that he was in contact with the family in the weeks since Holcomb’s untimely death May 6, while sleeping in his dorm room at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid. The following day, Whitelaw issued a press release attributing the 37-year-old’s death to a diagnosis of pulmonary congestion — excess fluid in the lungs — based on the diagnosis of Dr. C. Francis Varga at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake.

In that May 7 press release, Whitelaw added that Holcomb’s final cause and manner of death were pending toxicology studies to be performed by an independent laboratory. A preliminary toxicology screen, performed that weekend at AMC, was negative for drugs, and Whitelaw also reported no suspicion of foul play.

Whitelaw had added that he’d provide a follow-up press release on the determination of cause and manner of death. Now that press release won’t happen.

Whitelaw said he’s never received a threat like this before, either as coroner or in his prior career with the state police. Normally in this area, coroners share the cause and manner of death in cases that make news.

“This is the first and only time that it’s happened,” he said, “in 20-plus years of doing this kind of work, and doing press releases and media contacts.”

Whitelaw added that he and the Holcomb family had previously agreed to issue a “scaled-down” press release drafted by one of Holcomb’s sisters.

Whitelaw’s decision effectively passed the buck to Essex County Attorney Dan Manning, who also blocked access. Whitelaw said he mailed his final coroner’s report, Varga’s final autopsy report and the independent laboratory’s toxicology report to the Essex County clerk Saturday morning. On Monday, Manning denied this newspaper’s Freedom of Information Law request to access those reports. Manning cited New York County Law Section 677-3(b), which precludes access to coroner’s reports and investigations, except to the district attorney, personal representatives (such as an estate) or next of kin, or through a court order.

“Therefore, we can not release the information without a court order,” Manning wrote in an email.

Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said Manning is right; that law makes autopsy reports confidential. Speaking from Albany Monday afternoon, O’Neill said the coroner and/or the county could, within their discretion, disclose the reports, though they are within their rights to withhold the reports when it comes to a FOIL request. O’Neill added that she is not aware of any other state statute that would require the county to disclose the records.

State police Troop B Public Information Officer Jennifer Fleishman said the Ray Brook-based troop wouldn’t release any information Monday on Holcomb’s official cause and manner of death.

This situation here in Essex County developed over a weekend when hundreds gathered in Holcomb’s hometown of Park City, Utah, to pay tribute to the legendary bobsled pilot. At the memorial at Utah Olympic Park, the former site of the 2002 Winter Olympics, USA Bobsled & Skeleton CEO Darrin Steele announced the federation would waive its minimum requirement of being retired from the sport for 10 years and induct Holcomb into its hall of fame on July 1. Steele added that Holcomb would be the federation’s only 2017 inductee.

The Park City ceremony came a month after more than 350 people packed the Lussi Ballroom at the Conference Center at Lake Placid to pay their respects to Holcomb at a celebration-of-life ceremony organized by USA Bobsled & Skeleton.

Holcomb’s sudden death leaves behind a gaping hole for the U.S. bobsled squad. Holcomb was the face of the American team: a three-time Olympian, five-time World Champion and six-time World Cup overall winner. His team’s 2010 Olympic four-man gold medal ended a 62-year drought for the U.S. in bobsled’s signature race. Four years later, he added a couple of bronze medals at the 2014 Sochi games.