Ten-year-old Arnav Dhawa's Autopsy Done While Police Sat on His Medical Records
You probably have passing familiarity with the boy-in-the-bathtub story, about 10-year-old Arnav Dhawan, the Frisco child whose decomposing, five-days-dead body was found by police under ice packs in the family bathtub. The mother, 38-year-old Pallavi Dhawan, is charged with murder, even though the official finding on cause of death in the final autopsy report was, "Natural disease is most likely."
At some point soon her case will be taken before a grand jury. The findings of the autopsy also left open "the possibility of an unnatural cause of death."
But would that door still be open at all if the assistant medical examiner who did the autopsy had been provided the boy's full medical history before the autopsy was performed?
On the night of January 29, police were called to the Dhawans' comfortable suburban home by the father, who had just returned from a long business trip to find his son missing. Only after police arrived did they and the father discover the boy lying dead in a bathtub.
Police say they asked the mother at that point if she killed her son. They say she nodded yes. Early on in the case, family and friends suggested to reporters that in India people sometimes nod yes when they mean no. Either way, it seems like a strangely vague answer to an awfully important question.
Pallavi Dhawan's lawyer, David Finn, says the head-nod conversation seems odd because it never took place. Finn is a former trial judge, former federal prosecutor and former Tarrant County assistant district attorney.
"That conversation didn't happen," he said. "I drilled down hard on her. I drilled down hard on the husband, who was standing right next to her.
"Here's what really happened. The husband and wife were sitting there. The husband asked the wife privately but kind of close to the police, 'Where's Arnav?' And she said, 'He is no more.' Which is their way of saying he's dead.
"And the husband goes, 'What?' And the wife said, 'He is no more.' So the husband looks to the police and is about to cry, and they can see something is going on. And they ask both of them, 'Is he in there [the closed bathroom]?' And, 'Yes.' And here's the second question: 'Is he alive?' Those are the only two questions they asked my girl. Because the minute they kicked the door in, they called for the paramedics.
"He wasn't declared dead for an hour. But the minute they found him in the bathroom, they separated the husband and the wife about 10 feet apart. They told the wife, 'Turn around, you're under arrest.' They cuffed her. They put her in the squad car. And then about 45 minutes later they Mirandized her.
"But this, 'Did you kill him?' That question was never posed to her."
The police say they did ask her if she killed her son and she did nod yes. Finn says they did not ask and she did not nod, yes or no. At this point we might put most of this away as sort of a he-said she-said dispute between the police and an aggressive defense lawyer. But there is a second important point of divergence between Finn's account of things and the police version.
Arnav Dhawan was born with serious medical conditions diagnosed early in life by physicians at the University of Wisconsin and at the Mayo Clinic. He suffered from a brain cyst and a condition that caused him to have a smaller than normal skull. Children with these conditions typically lead short lives and may present behavioral issues.
Arnav was a cheerful child who for some years was able to live a more normal life than many with his conditions. But in recent years something changed. The change was enough to cause his mother to quit her professional career in order to take care of him full-time at home. The father traveled to support the family, often abroad.
The final report of the Collin County medical examiner ticks down a list of possible indications of foul play and finds none present. Then it presents a series of conditions found in the body that could have led to death, all consonant with the boy's long-term medical problems. So why wasn't the report more definitive about assigning death to natural causes?
When the assistant medical examiner was carrying out the autopsy, none of the boy's medical history had been made available to her. Dr. Lynn A. Salzberger, assistant Collin County medical examiner, states in her report: "No medical history was revealed until two days after the autopsy was performed."
Salzberger told me, "That information was not revealed at all to us or to anyone in my office. The only information we got in this case was that this child was ADD, which ironically is the one diagnosis that this kid does not have that I could find in his medical records. That was it. That was basically all that we were told was wrong with this child, period, when the autopsy was performed."
I asked how she finally learned there was a history to look for.
"I'll tell you how I found out that this child had a medical history," she said. "It was when I was sitting at my home drinking coffee in the morning reading The Dallas Morning News."
So where was the child's medical history? Finn says the files were stacked in the trunk of the mother's car, where she put them for fear they might be stolen from the house by burglars. The police impounded the car at the time of her arrest. The Morning News knew about the files in the car because Finn had gone to court to force the Frisco Police Department to turn over the records.
Finn says Frisco P.D. listed the medical history files, including documents from the Mayo Clinic, in a court document composed the day of the arrest tabulating all of the evidence seized from the defendant's home and car. He said he and the boy's father asked repeatedly that they turn over copies.
"I asked these sons of bitches for a copy of these fucking medical records, like constantly, and they kept saying basically, 'Pound sand,' so I had to file a fucking emergency writ with Judge Scott Becker up in McKinney to get a copy. I said, 'I'll pay for them.' Those motherfuckers fought me on that, and I didn't get the medical records until about 12 noon March 1 (two months after the autopsy was performed). It's just really bizarre the way this thing has been handled from stem to stern."
Lieutenant Jason Jenkins, who is over the Frisco Police Public Information Office, told me there was never any delay or dispute in the police department's rendering of the medical history to the medical examiner, only in the provision of the documents to Finn.
"We worked with the medical examiner's office from the very beginning," he said. "As we were made aware of things, we provided that information to the medical examiner's office. I think what Mr. Finn is saying that is getting confused is that there is a difference between turning over the medical records to the ME's office versus turning it over to the defense attorney. The medical examiner had everything that we had as soon as we knew we had it."
Collin County Medical Examiner William Rohr told me he does not believe that the Frisco Police Department would ever withhold evidence to sway or color findings of an autopsy. "That they would withhold documents from the medical examiner? That's just in a fantasy world. Anything we need we get."
Dr. Salzberger told me the advanced decomposition of the corpse was a significant limiting factor on what she could say definitively about cause of death. She said it would have helped, therefore, to know things like the full history of the brain cyst before doing the autopsy.
But she said medical histories come more often from families than from the police. She said she prompted Sumeet Dhawan, the father, to tell her about any underlying medical history for the boy, but he said nothing. That conversation, however, took place after she had already performed the autopsy.
Maybe at the bottom of the page we can agree that the cops are not going to find a dead 10-year-old on ice in a bathtub and not very seriously entertain the possibility of foul play.
The business about nodding yes when you mean no is a little out there. Doesn't sound like something you'd want to rely on with your typical Texas jury.
But the role of the boy's medical history and the family history is troubling, and not merely for the forensic value to the medical examiner. Could long months caring for a disabled and medically doomed child cause a parent to act a little wacky after a while? What do you think?
Maybe Finn's accusation is unfair. Maybe the Frisco police didn't sit on the medical history a minute longer than it needed to. But many of the facts in the case seem to support Finn's contention that it did. The true cause of death and the way this child died are of enormous importance and gravity, but so is the way the case has been handled by law enforcement.
And here's a question: No matter why the delivery of the medical history to the medical examiner may have been delayed, will the grand jurors hear anything about that sequence of events when the Collin County district attorney asks them to indict Pallavi Dhawan?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.