Investigators close case into 2012 death of Kokomo teen, rule death accidental

Tanner Barton

KOKOMO, Ind. – After a lengthy investigation into the 2012 death of a Kokomo teenager, the Howard County prosecutor determined no charges are warranted.

Tanner Barton died on April 22, 2012, while at a friend’s home in Howard County. Investigators spent years trying to figure out what led to his death, and Barton’s family wondered if foul play was involved.

Barton was a 2011 graduate of Northwestern High School and a freshman at Marian University. He was also on the football team.

Samples from Barton’s blood showed the presence of alcohol and marijuana in his system at the time of his death. A comprehensive drug screening was performed that also looked for the presence of ketamine, investigators said. At the time, investigators believed Barton’s death may have been caused by a medical episode.

However, the investigation continued for years. Dr. Steve Steele, the county’s newly elected coroner, began familiarizing himself with the case in 2017. After reviewing the autopsy report and case file, he identified an enlarged heart as being a significant factor in Barton’s death.

Steele submitted the case for an independent review from forensic pathologist Dr. Thomas J. Sozio of Central Indiana Forensic Associates. Sozio also noted that Barton had an enlarged heart, was considered morbidly obese and had a short neck.

An enlarged heart puts a person at risk for sudden cardiac death; morbid obesity could also lead someone to positional asphyxia, especially when combined with the use of drugs or alcohol.

Sozio ruled out trauma and a drug overdose as causes of death, and came to the conclusion that Barton collapsed and died from positional asphyxiation. The coroner agreed with the findings and will change the manner of Barton’s death from “natural” to “accidental.”

“Although the initial triggering event was medical in nature, the position in which Tanner collapsed resulted in positional asphyxia which was accidental,” according to the Howard County Sheriff’s Office.

Barton’s case gained national attention when his mother appeared on Nancy Grace and Dr. Oz. She also reached out to the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute, which requested a forensic examination of her son’s phone by Laura Pettler & Associates (LPA).

The examination into the phone revealed that Barton had sent text messages indicating he’d been up for more than 30 hours and had taken Adderall. LPA concurred with the positional asphyxia conclusion, but believed his cause of death should be listed as “accidental” instead of “natural.”

“Furthermore, LPA found no evidence of foul play, staging of the crime scene, or conspiracy among investigators to cover up Tanner‘s death,” the sheriff’s office said.

The sheriff’s office and coroner’s office have closed the case. They’ve asked Indiana State Police to conduct a peer review of the investigation.