Standing on the spot where their son Jake was found on a bitterly cold morning more than five years ago, Bill and Kristi Anderson said they can’t help but put themselves in his place, thinking about the confusion and loneliness he must have felt as he drifted in and out of consciousness.
Jake Anderson, a 19-year-old University of Minnesota student, was last seen at an “ugly sweater” party a few blocks away on Dec. 15, 2013. After responding to the scene, checking for a pulse and finding nothing, firefighters pronounced him dead. His body remained in single-digit temperatures for hours as police investigated at the scene.
Kristi Anderson wants to fall to her knees and cry. “There are just so many questions,” she said.
They wonder whether the freshman who hoped to go on to medical school actually managed to stumble there drunk and alone, as law enforcement officers later concluded, or if something else happened that night. And they want to know why the first responders on the scene didn’t attempt to warm him that morning. Had they done that, they say, he might have lived.
Those questions led the family to file a federal lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and Hennepin Healthcare.
A U.S. District Court judge dismissed the suit last year, ruling that the first responders involved did nothing to lead to Anderson’s exposure to the cold. The Andersons have asked the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to hear the case, but a decision has not yet been made.
“The big, big question it raises is what is the government’s duty to protect us,” said the Andersons’ attorney, Robert Hopper.
The Supreme Court has already ruled that government officials such as first responders or police do not have a duty to protect, except in certain circumstances, such as situations where they have created a danger.
The Andersons’ suit argues that the police, firefighters and paramedics who arrived on the scene created a danger by failing to warm him and give him CPR. By failing that duty, they argue, they deprived Jake of his constitutional right to life.
The city of Minneapolis and HCMC say their first responders followed best practices and their protocols that morning.
“They did nothing wrong under the law,” said Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal.
In defense documents filed in the case, neither the city nor Hennepin County responded to claims that the first responders should have warmed Anderson. Instead, they argue that none of those responders put Anderson in danger or knew whether he was still alive.
“No official took any step that increased the danger Anderson would have faced had officials not responded,” the city wrote in a legal filing.
The temperature hovered around zero the morning of Dec. 15, 2013, when a photographer found Anderson lying face down on a pile of rocks under the 10th Avenue Bridge along the Mississippi River and called 911.
Three Minneapolis firefighters arrived first. A witness would later say that one of the firefighters reached around a railing where Anderson’s body lay and checked his pulse for about 30 seconds, according to court records.
“Patient had no pulse and no breathing and was frozen, indicating obvious death,” a firefighter later wrote in a report.
When Hennepin County responders arrived, firefighters told them to turn around because Anderson was already dead. No one from the ambulance assessed Anderson or provided him with medical treatment. When police arrived, they also did not check to see whether Anderson could be revived.
After reviewing the case files, Paul Costello, an expert paramedic hired by the Andersons’ attorney, argued that the first responders failed to follow standard procedures. For those with hypothermia, Costello said, there’s a saying: “You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead.”
“You exist in a state of suspended animation. That’s where Jake was,” said Costello, who has been a paramedic and emergency medical services educator for 24 years.
Studies and news reports as far back as the early 1980s have shown that warming hypothermia victims can be lifesaving, even when that person appears dead and has been in freezing temperatures for several hours.
One week before Anderson was found, a Duluth college student passed out on her porch for several hours after being out in temperatures that hit 17 below. Though her body temperature dropped to 79 degrees, she was revived — although her hands and feet were amputated.
Protocols for the first responders on the scene for Anderson instructed them to try to warm any hypothermia victim, according to court records. That never happened. HCMC’s protocols for paramedics instruct that they check to see if a patient’s chest is frozen and, if not, administer CPR. That, too, never happened.
If successful, the Andersons’ lawsuit could apply not only to hypothermia cases, but also to any first responders who fail to take the appropriate action when someone is dying.
“They can’t be reckless or deliberately indifferent when their actions can literally prevent death,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law, who is serving as co-counsel on the case and has argued a half dozen cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
A Star Tribune review of state death records in 2017 found that among 41 Minnesota patients with hypothermia listed as a cause of death last winter, only nine were listed as having been pronounced dead in hospitals.
The firefighters at Anderson’s scene gave control of it to police when they arrived. There were indications of foul play: cuts and scrapes were on Anderson’s hands and legs, drag marks led to his body, and his pants were pulled down to his ankles, according to the police and fire department reports. Officers called in homicide detectives, who opted not to move Anderson’s body.
Two and half hours later, a medical examiner arrived and took pictures.
Those pictures, Costello said, “are haunting.” One shows spit bubbles on his moist tongue, which wouldn’t be possible if Anderson were frozen, Costello said. Another picture shows Anderson’s right eye appeared to be normal. Had it been dilated, Anderson would have been dead, Costello said.
“It left zero doubt in my mind that they deprived him of the opportunity to potentially live,” Costello said.
Anderson was placed in a body bag and taken to the morgue.
The Andersons got the knock on the door about 2 p.m. that day. Those first few weeks afterward felt like a fog, they said, “until we realized that none of this made sense.”
The more they learned about that night, the less they believed his death was an accident.
Anderson was last seen at a party less than half a mile away. He went outside with a friend, who ran back into the house to grab a coat. When she returned, he was gone. None of his friends told the parents or later their attorneys during interviews that Jake appeared drunk when he left. They all expressed confusion as to how Jake could have frozen to death that night.
A detective started calling people who knew Jake and might have seen him that night, according to the case report. But they were of little help. One told a detective he was told “not to talk” about the case. Others didn’t return their calls — including the last person to see him at the party.
Those calls ended in about two weeks. In March, police closed the case after the medical examiner ruled the death an accident from “acute alcohol intoxication” and being found “in a very cold outdoor environment.”
Five years later, the Anderson’s can’t accept that explanation.
They have occasionally gone back to the scene to re-examine the evidence. In their minds’ eye, they can see the drag marks in the snow leading to his body and the tire tracks nearby.
“They think it was just some drunk college kid at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Bill Anderson said. “But that’s not what this is.”
“But we have no idea though,” Kristi Anderson added. “And we’ll never know.”
Brandon Stahl • 612-673-4626