Mystery surrounding the tragic death of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American student who was detained in North Korea for 17 months and passed away six days after returning with severe brain damage, has only deepened following the release of a coroner’s report.
The report – an external examination by the Hamilton County Coroner‘s office in Ohio, not an autopsy, which his parents refused – lists the cause of death as brain-damaging oxygen deprivation through “an unknown insult more than a year prior to death.”
His body was found to be that of a “well-developed, well-nourished adult man” with several marks and scars and some evidence of medical treatment, such as a catheter and a scar consistent a tracheostomy (a procedure used to create an opening in the neck to bypass an obstructed airway for better delivery of oxygen to the lungs).
It also notes a “large pigmented scar” of about 4.3 by 1.6 inches on his right foot, the result of a wound that was likely open for “months and months and months”.
The parents of Warmbier – who was sentenced to 15 years hard labour after travelling to North Korea in January 2016 and allegedly stealing a propaganda poster – broke their three-month silence on his tragic death via a CNN interview earlier this week.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier called North Korean officials “terrorists” who “tortured” and “intentionally injured” their son, who they say they didn’t recognise the first time they saw him after arriving back on US soil.
Fred described entering the plane carrying Warmbier, saying they were horrified to hear him making a “howling involuntary, inhuman sound”.
We walked over to the plane, the engines are still humming, they had just landed. We walked up the steps. When we got half way up the steps, we heard this howling, involuntary, inhuman sound. We weren’t really certain what it was. We climbed to the top of the steps, and we looked in, and Otto was on the stretcher, across — in the plane, and he was jerking violently, making these inhuman sounds. Cindy and Greta ran off the plane; Austin and I walked over to Otto. Otto had a shaved head, he had a feeding tube coming out of his nose, he was staring blankly into space, jerking violently; he was blind, he was deaf. As we looked at him and tried to comfort him, it looked like someone had taken a pair of pliers and rearranged his bottom teeth.
Strangely, his parents’ account are at odds with some of the coroner’s findings; the report found “the teeth are natural and in good repair”.
Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Kode Sammarco addressed the discrepancy at a news conference, saying she and her team – which included a forensic dentist – stood by their evaluations of Warmbier’s body.
“I felt very comfortable that there wasn’t any evidence of trauma [to the teeth or jawbone],” she said. “We were surprised at [the parents’] statement.”
The Warmbiers have said they won’t be commenting further.