(CN) — On the night of Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, Matthew Dana was home in his bathroom when his lungs flooded with blood. His girlfriend found him choking on it as he died.
Moments before, the 27-year-old Tupper Lake, New York, police sergeant — and Tupper Lake High School football and hockey player, North Country Community College graduate, National Honor Society member — had been fit and active. He had joined the police department in 2012 and made sergeant in 2016. When not busting drug dealers as part of a county narcotics task force, Dana pumped iron and spent his days off hunting and fishing as a member of the Tupper Lake Sportsmen’s Club.
Dana’s death shut down the tight-knit village of about 4,000 inside the Adirondack Park in Franklin County: on Aug. 10, the mayor ordered all Tupper Lake village offices closed so staff could attend Dana's funeral services.
“He was the nicest kid,” Franklin County Coroner Shawn Stuart said in a phone interview. “I’d be happy if he would have married my daughter.”
A lab test found that Dana had 3,500 nanograms of mitragynine per deciliter of blood. He had died from a kratom overdose.
“The only thing wrong with the guy was [a hemorrhagic] pulmonary edema,” Stuart told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise newspaper, “and the only thing in his system was this crazy amount of kratom.”
And with that statement, all hell broke loose.
The Enterprise story made its way to the r/kratom subreddit, whose members flooded the paper’s email and voice mail inboxes, and online comment section, insisting the report was wrong.
“It was really unexpected,” said Aaron Cerbone, the reporter who covered the story just a few months after joining the Enterprise staff. “I had never seen anything like that before with comments from people all over the country...some people calling it fake news, attacking the [victim’s] family and me as the writer, and some just wanting to tell their stories about their experiences with kratom.”
Then the kratom industry piled on. “Widely Publicized Pair of Deaths Likely Due to Non-Kratom Factors; Bogus Death Reports in 2017 Seen as Replay of Ill-Informed DEA Push in 2016 to Ban Coffee-Like Herb,” the American Kratom Association announced in an October 2017 press release targeting Stuart and other coroners. In it, Jane Babin, the San Diego patent lawyer the AKA had engaged to cast doubt on the FDA’s list of over 40 kratom-related deaths, suggested steroids killed Dana.
“Medical literature does provide links between the use of anabolic steroids and hemorrhagic pulmonary edema,” Babin said.
The AKA press release also contended another kratom overdose victim in Tampa, Florida, 27-year-old Christoper Waldron, could not have died from kratom — because the Hillsborough County medical examiner’s office had allegedly made a mistake eight years earlier in determining the cause of OxiClean pitchman Billy Mays’ death.
“Based on the totality of circumstances, any reasonable person could be confident that kratom did not kill Christopher Waldron any more than cocaine killed Billy Mays," the release said.
Cerbone dutifully wrote the story, emphasizing there was no evidence that Dana had used steroids. Stuart would later release the lab results showing Dana’s blood was tested for 232 substances — steroids included — and every one of them had been ruled out.
The AKA then released another broadside claiming Stuart was in cahoots with the DEA and the Hillsborough County medical examiner in a “shadow campaign” to smear kratom, claiming unspecified “public reports of coordination between the two otherwise widely separated New York and Florida medical offices.” The association submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the DEA seeking evidence of its claims.