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Howard County Sheriff closes cold case death of 19-year-old, citing enlarged heart and text messages

Tanner Barton collapsed at friend's house in 2012
Posted: 1:22 PM, Apr 27, 2018
Updated: 2018-04-27 23:43:01-04

HOWARD COUNTY, Ind. – The Howard County Sheriff‘s Department announced Friday it is closing the investigation into the death of Tanner Barton, a 19-year old Marian University student who died on April 22, 2012.

The department pointed to an enlarged heart and Adderall use as factors in Tanner’s death, and said there was no evidence of foul play. Prosecutors found no criminal charges are warranted in the death.

Barton collapsed at a friend’s house, and his mother Michele Barton has been pushing for six years to find out what happened to her son.

The Howard County Sheriff’s Department said Friday a newly elected coroner pointed to Tanner’s enlarged heart as a “significant issue” which put Tanner at risk for sudden cardiac death.

“Morbid obesity can predispose one to positional asphyxia, especially when combined with drug and alcohol use,” read a statement from the sheriff’s department. “Samples submitted to the lab indicated the presence of alcohol and marijuana in Tanner’s system at the time of his death.  The comprehensive drug panel used at the lab covered a wide range of substances to include the drug Ketamine.”

Autopsy and toxicology reports show Tanner had been drinking, but wasn’t legally drunk at a .06% BAC.

Howard County Coroner Steve Seele submitted Tanner’s case to Forensic Pathologist Dr. Thomas J. Sozio of Central Indiana Forensic Associates requesting an independent review of the case.

In his report, Dr. Sozio found the cause of Tanner’s death was positional asphyxia, which means Tanner’s body was positioned in a way that cut off his air supply, and the manner of death was accidental.

This is a change from the original autopsy report which listed the manner of death as “natural.”

Last year, Call 6 Investigates spoke with Tanner Barton’s mother about wanting answers in her son’s death.

“It’s heart wrenching,” Tanner’s mother, Michele Barton, said in 2017. “He was a fabulous kid. He shouldn’t be here [in a cemetery].”

Michele Barton told Call 6 Investigates the friends who were with Tanner know more than what they’re saying.

One friend told detectives she checked Tanner’s pulse after he fell near the bottom of some stairs, but the friend thought Tanner was snoring, so she went to sleep.

“She did not check to see if he was breathing,” according to a report from the Howard County Coroner’s Office.

That morning, the friend found Tanner unresponsive and cold.

He was dead at the age of 19.

“She knew something was wrong with Tanner,” said Michele Barton. “You wouldn’t check somebody’s pulse if you didn’t think something was wrong.”

Tanner also had THC in his system, but at the time, both the coroner and pathologist seemed baffled in their reports.

“This is a very complicated case with many unanswered questions,” wrote Jay Price, the then-Howard County Coroner.

Michele Barton also questioned why no one called 911 until 9:24 am.

Tanner’s case gained national attention when Michele Barton appeared on national television shows and contacted the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute (CCIRI) in regards to Tanner’s case.  
The institute requested that Laura Pettler & Associates (LPA) conduct a forensic examination of Tanner‘s cell phone, according to the HCSD.

“Tanner sent text messaging indicating he’d been up for over 30 hours and taking Adderall,” read the sheriff’s department statement. 

Adderall is the brand name for an often-abused prescription medication used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The case also captured the attention of many, including Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, which is based in Colorado.

“What stands out about Tanner's case is there are many people involved, and there's a lot of inconsistencies throughout the case and the files," said Tara Wrysec, spokesperson with FOHVAMP. “It doesn’t make sense. There’s a big puzzle piece missing to this mystery as to what happened.”

Call 6 Investigates reached out to Michele Barton for a comment Friday, but she said she’s still processing the information.

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