Baby Phoenix hearing: Defense lawyer, coroner spar over whether suffocation, not fentanyl overdose, caused infant’s death

Baby Phoenix hearing: Defense lawyer, coroner spar over whether suffocation, not fentanyl overdose, caused infant’s death

SAN JOSE — A defense lawyer suggested in court Wednesday that David Castro’s infant daughter Phoenix died of accidental smothering while sleeping on the couch with her father, not from a fentanyl overdose.

But a Santa Clara County coroner who conducted the autopsy and found methamphetamine and fentanyl in the 3-month-old baby’s system vehemently disagreed.

“There is no indication of suffocation in this case,” Dr. Mehdi Koolaee testified during the second day of Castro’s preliminary hearing. “This is a drug death.”

The coroner also testified that he believed the baby died roughly 24 to 36 hours before she was rushed to the hospital the morning of May 13, 2023. That puzzling revelation is at odds with the story Castro told a detective: that he fell asleep on the couch with the baby on his chest the night before while watching a movie, and he didn’t notice anything wrong with her until the next morning when she was cold to the touch.

The death last spring of baby Phoenix Castro, whose two older siblings were removed from their parents’ custody a year earlier because of severe neglect, led to calls in recent months for an overhaul of the county’s child welfare agency that sent Phoenix home with her father, who had a history of drug use.

It also led to Castro’s arrest on felony child endangerment and other enhancements that could land him in prison for up to 10 years if found guilty.

Castro’s preliminary hearing is scheduled to end Thursday and will determine whether there is enough evidence to send the case to trial.

The charges against Castro are less severe than the murder charges against the parents of three other Bay Area infants and toddlers who have died of fentanyl poisoning since 2020.

While cross examining the coroner Wednesday, defense lawyer Mishya Singh pointed out that the baby died face down because blood had “pooled” there, making her face dark red. Although Koolaee agreed the baby died face down, he reiterated that “in my opinion, unsafe sleeping has nothing to do with this death.”

The defense lawyer also pointed out that the amount of methamphetamine and fentanyl in the baby’s blood stream was “low” and that she could have developed a tolerance for it because she was born with both in her system — opening the door to a different cause of death. She also said that because the blood tested by the lab was from the heart instead of the limbs, the concentration of drugs there could appear higher than they were when the baby died, another indication that something else could have been an overriding factor in her death, she said.

“Would it be fair to say your finding should have been ‘undetermined’ rather than drug poisoning?” Singh asked.

“No,” the coroner said.

“Would that mean you would have to admit you were wrong?” she asked.

“There is no reason to change it,” Koolaee said. “Everything is not supporting any asphyxial or suffocating. This is a drug death.”

“If other medical examiners disagreed, would you still stick to your finding?” she asked.


Four other medical examiners in the Santa Clara County Coroner’s Office agreed with his determination, he said.

San Jose Police Det. Mike Harrington also testified Wednesday, and explained his conversation with Castro when he arrived that May morning. Castro told him that he had fallen asleep the night before watching a movie. He woke up the next morning, smoked a cigarette, had some breakfast and made a bottle of formula for the baby. It wasn’t until he began to change her diaper the next morning that “he realized something was not right with Phoenix,” Harrington testified. “She wasn’t warm like she normally is.”

Castro told him that “he wasn’t really sure what to do,” and about 20 minutes passed until a friend showed up unannounced and told him to call 911, which he did. The baby’s mother and maternal grandmother coincidentally showed up a few minutes after that.

Castro said he was living alone with his daughter while the baby’s mother was in a drug and mental health treatment center.

Castro told the detective that he had stopped using drugs about two months before Phoenix was born.

Earlier Wednesday, San Jose Police crime scene investigator Ian Carabarin testified that he found drug paraphernalia, including glass pipes and burned tinfoil, in a box on top of the refrigerator, drugs in a black bag in a kitchen cabinet and a tar-like substance that looked like heroin in a yellow Lego box in the dining room.

“You didn’t find drugs laying out in plain view?” Singh asked.

“Correct,” he said.

Carabarin also acknowledged that he couldn’t say whose drugs they were for certain or the last time they had been used.