DENVER (AP) — Relatives suspect that a Colorado sheriff's deputy who ran a group home for adopted and foster children suffered a heart attack just before a crash that killed him and five children last week, a close family friend said Wednesday.
Pastor Eric Kilborn said an autopsy on 57-year-old Howard Mitchell showed a major blockage of blood to his heart, leading the family to believe he had a heart-related medical crisis before his van collided with an empty cattle trailer on a rural highway. Seven other children in Mitchell's van were injured in the crash.
Cheyenne County Coroner Susan Kern didn't immediately return messages Wednesday seeking a cause of death for Mitchell.
Kilborn and Mitchell's wife, Melody, spoke at a news conference in Denver, where the injured children have been recuperating.
Thursday's accident took place in a highway construction zone in eastern Colorado. As he did each weekday, Mitchell was taking the children to school in Eads, about 20 miles south of Kit Carson. About 25 feet of skid marks were at the accident site, and weather conditions were clear and calm.
Investigators have ruled out alcohol, drugs and cellphone use as factors.
Though they operated a state-licensed foster home in Kit Carson, the Mitchells took their children to school in Eads after the Kit Carson school board declined in 2007 to support their application for a group home, Kit Carson schools superintendent Gerald Keefe said. Some residents objected that the group home could have children in trouble with the law and would place a strain on the 115-student district, he said.
Kit Carson is about 130 miles southeast of Denver.
Melody Mitchell said she loves being a foster mother and has no intention of quitting.
"I love it and I still love it and will continue to love it," she said.
The Mitchell family will be allowed to continue caring for children, Colorado Department of Human Services spokeswoman Liz McDonough said. She declined to say whether the surviving children will be returned to the Mitchell home.
"Our concern is what would be best for the kids and Mrs. Mitchell to grieve and heal," she said.
In addition to Howard Mitchell, the crash killed Austyn Atkinson, 11; Tony Mitchell, 10; Tayla Mitchell, 10; Andy Dawson, 13; and Jeremy Franks, 17. A funeral service was planned for Friday.