DISPUTE OVER HOW STUDENT DIED
3 doctors say death at Rollins a homicide
Published: Monday, January 12, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 11:26 p.m.
WINTER PARK - Three pathologists say the death of a Rollins College student nearly six years ago was a homicide, despite a medical examiner's ruling that the 19-year-old woman died accidentally.
Jennifer Kairis' death on March 31, 1998, in her dormitory after a party was suspicious from the beginning. Her body was found on the floor and marked with bruises from blows to the head and neck.
A pathologist's report ruled it was a homicide, but Orange-Osceola Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Shashi Gore reversed the decision - calling it a mistake - and said Kairis died accidentally, likely of a drug overdose.
For the first time publicly, the pathologist who decided Kairis' death involved someone else is contradicting Gore's ruling.
"It was a homicide," Dr. Merle Reyes, who conducted Kairis' autopsy, told the Orlando Sentinel for a story Sunday. "I never changed my mind."
The contradiction raises questions about the Winter Park police's investigation into the death and Gore's intervention.
Reyes talked about the case after being forced out of her job by Gore. Until then, she had declined requests since 1998 by the Sentinel to comment, saying she had feared for her job.
Gore, who has 40 years of experience but is not board-certified in pathology, declined repeated requests for comment. Orange County hired a board-certified pathologist in September to replace him, though he has not announced his retirement.
Two other pathologists who signed off on the death as a homicide in August 1998, former Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. William Anderson and Dr. Sara Irrgang, are siding with Reyes.
"The injuries were consistent with homicide," said Irrgang, who still works for Gore. Anderson resigned last year.
Gore's decision to change Kairis' cause of death was supported by Dr. Stephen J. Nelson, now head of the state Medical Examiner's Commission, as well as a pathologist working for Nelson.
Gore stepped into the case after being asked to review it by Winter Park police Lt. Art King, then a sergeant, who did not think there was any evidence of a homicide.
Records show that Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar's chief homicide prosecutor at the time and three veteran Orange County investigators reviewed the case and agreed with Gore's staff that someone killed Kairis.
Winter Park's lone investigator also agreed but changed his mind a few days after King took over the case.
Records show that Winter Park police never tested hair found in the dead student's mouth and on her body to see whether they belonged to someone else. And specimens from the rape examination remained at the morgue for 10 weeks before they were taken to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime laboratory for testing, delaying the cause-of-death ruling, Reyes said.
Gore later claimed in a letter to Kairis' parents that Reyes supported his ruling, which said their daughter died from an overdose.
The student's blood contained more than twice the toxic amount of a heart medicine occasionally prescribed to control migraines, two antidepressants, another drug for migraines, and over-the-counter cold medicines, the autopsy found.
Police said she drank four mixed drinks and a beer at a restaurant before a party, passed out at the party and was taken back to her room.
"We believe that if we've committed an honest mistake, the most appropriate way to deal with it is to correct that mistake as soon as possible," Gore wrote in a statement in 1998. "I have confidence in Dr. Reyes' work."
However, Reyes now says she disputed Gore's finding, taking the autopsy photos and presenting the case without his knowledge in the fall of 1998 to pathologists and investigators in South Florida.
"We did agree that this did not look like an overdose," said former Palm Beach County medical examiner Dr. Jacqueline M. Martin, who attended the meeting. "It was certainly very suspicious."
Kairis' injuries were consistent with a struggle in which someone pinned the kicking victim on her belly and tried to pull apart her legs to have sex, Reyes said.
Police attributed Kairis' scrapes and bruises to falls at the party and during her drunken return home, records show.
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