A story for every victim

Cause of death determinations: January to June 2011

Los Angeles County coroner's officials routinely provide The Times with a weekly list of deaths initially considered to be homicides.

Reporters follow up with the department to obtain additional information about each case and, in some cases, learn that the victim's cause of death has been deferred. This means the final determination on the mode of death is postponed pending additional laboratory tests. The death can later be ruled a homicide, suicide, natural or accident. The results usually are available within six to eight weeks.

The Homicide Report has followed up with the coroner's office on about 30 deferred cases. Here are the findings in several cases from 2010 and the first six months of 2011::

Marilyn Villatoro, a 1-year-old Latina, died Feb. 10, 2010, two days after she was found unresponsive in Long Beach. The initial coroner’s report listed the child as going into cardiac arrest. However, the coroner's office was unable to conclude the exact cause of death and it was ruled undetermined.

Russell Rathert, a 50-year-old man, was found dead Aug. 31, 2010, in Valley Village. Firefighters found a car engulfed in flames and discovered Rathert's remains in a four-door-sedan. Coroner's officials have since ruled the death as a homicide citing "affects of drugs and other unknown factors."

Alois Nihswohl, an 84-year-old white man, was found dead at his home Sept. 1,2010, in El Sereno. Firefighters arrived at the ransacked residence to find Nihswohl dead. According to preliminary coroner's records, he died from possible blunt-force trauma. Coroner's officials have since ruled his death an accident stating he died from systemic heart disease.

Sue West, a 93-year-old white woman, was found dead at her home Dec. 18, 2010, in North Hollywood. Preliminary coroner's records show West may have died from elder abuse. Although the coroner's office conducted laboratory tests to establish the mode, her death was ultimately ruled as undetermined.

Joe Ward, a 67-year-old black man, died Dec. 22, 2010, after he was found in his home in Lynwood. Ward had signs of decubitus, or bed sores, all over his body, according to preliminary coroner's records. Officials said he was taken to St. Francis Medical Center, where he died. Coroner's officials said the case is still deferred.

Kenneth Cowan, a 42-year-old white man, died Wednesday, Jan. 5, four days after he was found unresponsive in his home in Palmdale. The night before he was discovered, Cowan celebrated New Year's Eve with some friends. Authorities said during that time Cowan may have been involved in a fistfight and then went home. Coroner's officials have determined he died from a blunt head injury and his death has been ruled a homicide.

Bich Truong, a 56-year-old Asian woman, died Sunday, Jan. 9, in Harbor City. Truong and her daughter Lisa Nguyen, a 27-year-old Asian woman, were found dead in the front of a residence. It was later revealed that the victims' husband and father killed the two women before committing suicide. Coroner's officials said Truong died from asphyxia by neck compression and her death was ruled a homicide.

Averon Fletcher, a 45-year-old black man, died Sunday, Feb. 13, after he was believed to have sustained trauma in Hawthorne. Preliminary coroner's records revealed Fletcher had trauma to his right rib area and noted that he had been kicked several times. Despite the injuries, his death was ruled as undetermined.

Isiah Meza, a 3-year-old Latino, died Thursday, Feb. 17, in Elysian Valley. According to preliminary coroner's records, Isiah was jumping on a bed when he was later found on the floor. The case was initially listed as deferred, however investigators have since placed a security hold on the case and the coroner's office is unable to provide any further information about the child's death.

Janet Hays, a 54-year-old white woman, died Sunday, Feb. 20, in Covina. Authorities received a call regarding a possible suicide at a convalescent home and found Hays dead. The coroner's office said Hays did not commit suicide, but was killed. She died from asphyxia by neck compression and her death was ruled a homicide.

A man identified only as John Doe #3 was found dead Wednesday, March 9, in unincorporated West Covina. The body was discovered behind a field. The coroner's office was unable to determine the age or race of the decedent since there were only skeletal remains. A cause of death was listed as undetermined.

Roy Thomas, a 54-year-old black man, died Thursday, March 24, in Historic South-Central. Thomas was found dead in a parked car with possible head trauma. The cause of death was initially deferred, but the coroner's office has since determined Thomas died from liver cirrhosis and left ventricular hypertrophy, or an enlargement of the heart muscle. His death has been ruled as natural.

Harvey Dobbins, a 40-year-old black man, died Saturday, April 2, in Watts. Dobbins was discovered on the street with possible stab wounds. Authorities were called and he was pronounced dead at the scene. According to coroner's records, Dobbins died from several factors including atherosclerotic heart disease, cocaine use and multiple sharp force injuries. His death was ruled a homicide.

Sergio Salazar, a 53-year-old Latino, died Monday, April 4, in Sylmar. Salazar, who critically wounded a Los Angeles police officer, was found dead inside his home. He had been barricaded inside for nearly a day as authorities fired tear gas and used a hydraulic forklift to rip open the house. His body was found on the second floor with a rifle at his side. At first it was unclear if Salazar sustained a self-inflicted gunshot wound or if he had been shot by an officer. The coroner's office has since determined that the gunshot wound to the head was caused by authorities and the death was ruled a homicide.

Frederick Buzzell Jr., a 77-year-old white man, died Saturday, April 9, two days after he was taken from a hospital in Lake View Terrace. Coroner's records show Buzzell's body had "decubitus ulcers," commonly known as bed sores, and his death may have been the result of elder abuse. The death has since been ruled as natural. The coroner's office cited septic shock, as well multiple bacteria organisms as the cause of death.

Michelle Lozano, a 17-year-old Latina, was found dead Tuesday, April 26, near the southbound 5 Freeway at State Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights. A homeless person called police after finding Lozano's nude body in a broken-open container in the brush. Investigators determined from evidence that Lozano had been wrapped in plastic bags and stuffed in the plastic container. Afterward, the container was dumped over a concrete barrier along the freeway. When it hit the ground, the container broke open and spilled Lozano’s body into the shrubs. The coroner's office said Lozano died from asphyxia by strangulation and her death was ruled a homicide.

Xi Huang, an 82-year-old Asian woman, died Friday, April 29, in Monterey Park. Huang was found dead on the floor in the bathroom of her home. According to coroner's records, Huang died from asphyxia by strangulation and her death was ruled a homicide.

Ernesto Castillo, a 38-year-old Latino, died Monday, May 9, 15 years after he was shot in Historic South-Central. It was initially believed Castillo died as a result of the gunshot injury. However it was later determined that his death was an accident. Castillo died from hyper-trophic heart disease, in conjunction with a drug overdose.

Dori Cassaday, a 49-year-old white woman, died Thursday, June 30, in Stevenson Ranch. Cassaday was found dead in her apartment by an exterminator. The coroner's office said her death was a suicide. She killed herself through multiple drug intoxication.

-- Los Angeles Times

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