Autopsy of Farm Worker Finds Spray, Bad Heart

Times Staff Writer

Tests conducted on the body of the farm worker who died after working in a Jamul tomato field that had been sprayed with pesticides indicate that the man had heart disease, authorities investigating the case said Wednesday.

The preliminary results of toxicological tests conducted on the body, however, also showed traces of the pesticide Monitor on the hands of the dead man, despite the fact that the body had been embalmed in Tijuana and refrigerated for more than eight days before tissues samples were taken for investigation, said James Stratton, a state health department medical officer.

Although the official report has yet to be released by the San Diego County coroner’s office, Robert Bucklin, supervising pathologist for the coroner’s office, confirmed that Juan Chabolla Casillas, 32, suffered from a heart condition called myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. Whether exposure to Monitor --listed in the “most toxic” category of pesticides by the state --contributed to Chabolla’s death has not been determined, Bucklin said, and a conclusion is not expected until next week.

“We haven’t closed the case yet,” Bucklin said. “We’re waiting for interpretations from the toxicologists and the lab that performed the tests.”

Chabolla, whose widow and four children live in Tijuana, collapsed in mid-afternoon Aug. 5 after starting work at 8 a.m., an hour after two fields were sprayed. In the field sprayed with Monitor, workers were putting down stakes for young tomato plants, officials said. None of the other workers in the field felt ill.


By law, workers are not allowed to have substantial contact with treated plants within 24 hours of the spraying, said Jan Wessell, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture. Monitor is used to control worms and other bugs on crops such as beets, cotton and tomatoes.

After collapsing, Chabolla was driven in a van to Tijuana by the owner of Mirada Farms, Fred Hatashita. Hatashita has said he took Chabolla to Tijuana at the request of Chabolla’s co-workers. American authorities were not notified that day, which has made it more difficult to determine exactly how Chabolla died, Stratton said.

“In retrospect, the fact that this man was taken to Tijuana and not to an American hospital has greatly impeded our efforts,” Stratton said. “We were reduced to looking at tissues from a body that was eight days in refrigeration, embalmed and washed and dressed for burial.

“In the final analysis, we may never know to what degree Monitor contributed to his death because a lot of the evidence was removed during embalming.”

The United Farm Workers union on Aug. 10 had the body brought back to San Diego for an autopsy and demanded an investigation by state authorities into the man’s death. In addition, Los Angeles lawyer Federico Sayre has filed a $10-million lawsuit on behalf of the Chabolla family against Hatashita and the firms that produced, distributed and sprayed the pesticides.

The fact that Chabolla suffered from a heart ailment probably made him more susceptible to the toxic chemical, said Stratton, whose department is overseeing the toxicological testing being conducted at a Sacramento laboratory.

“As far as I’m concerned, the heart disease probably did make him more susceptible to the poisoning from the chemical,” said Marion Moses, director of the United Farm Workers union medical clinic in Keene, Calif. “But there is no question in my mind that it (Monitor) contributed to his death.”

The Chabolla family attorney said that the test results explain why Chabolla was the only worker to fall ill that day.

“Let’s assume that he did have heart disease, that would explain why he was adversely affected,” Sayre said. “I still believe that the pesticides probably killed him.”