Heat caused deaths of Jensen boys
Wintertime case is first in his career, pathologist says
The circumstances surrounding the deaths of two young brothers inside a vehicle on Grand Mesa last year are exceedingly rare, with just six reported similar cases in the United States, according to longtime Mesa County forensic pathologist Dr. Robert Kurtzman.
Those six deaths include two boys on Grand Mesa on Nov. 27.
Kurtzman ruled on the cause and manner of death for William and Tyler Jensen: the first cases of pediatric hyperthermia death, in the wintertime, inside a vehicle, that Kurtzman says he’s seen in a career covering 10,000-plus autopsies.
“This case is unusual, but there could easily be more out there that haven’t been recognized,” Kurtzman said Tuesday.
Kurtzman declined comment on a host of issues more specific to the case.
The Mesa County Coroner’s Office on Tuesday said William, 2, and Tyler, 4, died after overheating when left alone in their mother’s Toyota 4Runner near Powderhorn Ski Resort. The deaths were ruled accidental. The boys died of hyperthermia, a condition when the body temperature rises to dangerous levels.
District Attorney Peter Hautzinger said his office is still considering what charges, if any, will be filed in the case.
Hautzinger said he couldn’t recall a case over 20 years in Mesa County when the local District Attorney’s Office filed homicide-related charges after a ruling of accidental death by the coroner.
While high temperatures in vehicles during the summer are commonly recognized among risks to children and pets, “it’s not so well-known the same thing could happen in the wintertime with the heater running,” Kurtzman said.
Jan Null, an adjunct professor in California who maintains a website devoted to pediatric hyperthermia deaths, said there have been 558 mostly warm-weather cases in the United States since 1998.
In roughly 20 percent of the cases, the caregiver leaves the child to do something else, such as head to a bar, he said.
“Overall, the cases that most often get charged criminally are those when a child is left in vehicle and there’s some sort of substance abuse (by caregiver),” Null said.
According to the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, high temperatures of 44 and 48 degrees were recorded within a mile of Powderhorn Ski Resort on Nov. 27 and Nov. 28, while lows were 21 both days. A meteorologist estimated temperatures would have been in the 30s around 6 p.m. both days.
The boys’ mother, Heather Jensen, 24, called 911 at 6:31 p.m. on Nov. 27 and reported William was unconscious, not breathing and had no pulse, according to a search warrant affidavit, which was obtained by The Daily Sentinel shortly after the incident. The affidavit said Jensen told dispatchers around 6:50 p.m. that Tyler was breathing but “gurgling” with every breath. William was pronounced dead at the scene. Tyler died days later at Children’s Hospital in Aurora after being removed from life support.
Jensen, in her initial statement to Mesa County Sheriff’s deputies, said she had taken her sons to play in the snow near the ski resort. She said when they finished, she put the boys back in their carseats and started her 4Runner.
“Heather said she stood outside the vehicle, smoking a cigarette and then spoke to a friend who happened to drive by,” the affidavit said. “Heather said after about 10 minutes, she got in the vehicle and started driving home. She described hearing Tyler making gurgling noises within minutes of driving away.”
She said when she pulled over, she found William in distress and called 911, the affidavit said.
Jensen gave another description of events later that same day.
Interviewed at the Sheriff’s Department, Jensen said she made arrangements to meet a male friend and let her children play in the snow. After that, she said she put the children back in their car seats and started her engine. Jensen described “getting into the man’s truck,” which was parked next to the 4Runner.
Jensen admitted leaving the boys alone in her 4Runner, with its engine running, for approximately 90 minutes, the affidavit said. She told investigators both children were wearing coats when they were outside playing in the snow and she took the coats off when they got back into the 4Runner because they were wet, the affidavit said.
‘Every other weirdo..’
Robert Mathena of Clifton — step-grandfather of the Jensen boys who is locked in a bitter fight with Heather Jensen over the disposition of the boys’ remains — said the family was “totally devastated” by Tuesday’s revelations. They learned about it from a family friend in Denver who saw a news account.
“It’s still a 2 year old and a 4 year old whose lives were cut short because of one person ... either negligence or abuse,” Mathena said.
Asked about the prospect of no criminal charges, he said, “you just open the door for every other weirdo out there to go out and do the same thing.”
“I hope no other family ever has to go through what we’ve had to,” he added.
Heather Jensen has not returned messages, while her Grand Junction attorney said he wasn’t authorized to speak on the matter.
Greg Leavitt, an attorney who represents the Mathena family, said a Mesa County judge on Tuesday granted another 14-day extension of an emergency injunction, which blocks cremation of the boys’ bodies. The bodies have been in the care of Callahan-Edfast Mortuary since early December.
The Mathenas are seeking to bury the boys next to their father, Eric Jensen, in Palisade. They’ve said in court filings Heather Jensen had expressed plans to have the boys cremated.
“We’re coming down to a point,” Robert Mathena said Tuesday, “where we’ve got to do something with the boys.”