WESTWOOD—Officials from the Los Angeles Police Department are investigating the death of 8-year-old Cole Hartman, who nearly drowned in a washing machine four years ago and was taken off life support at UCLA Medical Center, the Los Angeles Times first reported on Monday, June 12. The investigation follows the allegations of a coroner’s investigator that an anesthesiologist gave the boy a fatal dose of pain medication to hasten his death for organ donation.
On July 31, 2013, Cole was reportedly found facedown and unconscious inside a filled washing machine in his family’s Castaic home. He went into cardiac arrest and was transported to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Westwood, where he remained in a coma and on a ventilator.
After doctors told the family Cole would never regain consciousness, they decided to take him off life support and donate his organs. Cole was pronounced dead on August 3, 2013 at about 11 a.m., 23 minutes after he was taken off the ventilator, according to officials.
Homicide investigators and the district attorney’s office are now looking into a claim made by a coroner’s investigator, Denise Bertone. According to the LA Times, Bertone alleges that the anesthesiologist at the time, Judith Brill, gave Cole a fatal dose of the opioid fentanyl to quicken his death for the harvesting of his organs.
Bertone’s claims are outlined in a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit that was filed in May. In the suit, Bertone also contends that her supervisors retaliated against her for bringing attention to the case. According to reports, she was removed from pediatric work.
Dr. Mark Fajardo, the Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner at the time, declared the cause of death as near-drowning. Bertone, a registered nurse, convinced him to test a sample of Cole’s blood, which showed fentanyl in the boy’s system. He refused to change the cause of death after Bertone tried to persuade him.
In May 2014, detectives closed the case after investigating it for more than half a year. Significant causes of death included drowning and Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic condition that causes developmental problems, learning disabilities, and cognitive impairment. The case was closed with the manner of Cole’s death left undetermined. In 2016, Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran re-opened the case and listed fentanyl toxicity as one of the significant causes of death, according to a case document from the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner, released by the Times. The manner of death remains undetermined and is still undergoing investigation.
According to reports, a lawyer for Judith Brill, the anesthesiologist, stated the allegation is wrong and that Brill’s priority was preventing pain in the child. Brill, an expert in pediatric anesthesiology who has been in practice for more than two decades, reportedly administered “comfort care,” which includes opioids, to reduce pain. Cole’s organs were to be retrieved after life support was removed and his heart stopped beating, under “donation after cardiac death,” or DCD, which places organs under time constraints. It is unclear what occurred after Cole was removed from the ventilator.
The court has not responded to Bertone’s lawsuit. The investigation is ongoing.