UNITED STATES NEWS

FACT FOCUS: No head trauma or suspicious circumstances in drowning of Obamas’ chef, police say

Jul 26, 2023, 3:47 PM

The drowning death of former President Barack Obama’s personal chef on Martha’s Vineyard this week is sparking a frenzy of false claims on social media, as users share conspiracy theories and baseless speculation about what happened.

Many are suggesting, without evidence, that Tafari Campbell died under questionable circumstances, claiming he knew how to swim and was in calm, shallow water. Others are sharing patently untrue statements, such as that he was found with head injuries or was equipped with a life vest.

But Massachusetts authorities confirmed on Wednesday that Campbell didn’t suffer any head trauma, nor was he wearing a life vest, and there’s no evidence the death was suspicious. They said he lost his balance while standing on his paddleboard and struggled to stay afloat when he fell into the water. Water safety experts also stressed that even strong swimmers can drown, regardless of the type of water they’re in.

Here’s a closer look at the misinformation circulating around the death, and the actual facts.

CLAIM: Campbell suspiciously suffered blunt force injuries to the head and had been wearing a life vest when he died.

THE FACTS: Massachusetts State Police and the state medical examiner’s office say there was no external trauma or injuries on Campbell’s body.

Dave Procopio, a state police spokesperson, also confirmed the 45-year-old Dumfries, Virginia, resident was not wearing a personal flotation device nor was he leashed to his paddleboard when he went under the water on Sunday evening.

In a statement provided Wednesday, he said the agency’s investigation and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s initial post-mortem examination have “found no evidence that the death was suspicious.”

Another paddleboarder told police that Campbell, who had worked as a chef for the Obamas since their time in the White House, had been standing on his board when he lost his balance and fell in.

The other paddleboarder had tried to swim to Campbell as he struggled to stay afloat, but they weren’t able to reach him “in time,” the statement said.

The paddleboarder then swam ashore and notified another person, who called 911.

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CLAIM: Former President Barack Obama was paddleboarding with Campbell when he died.

THE FACTS: The other paddleboarder who witnessed the incident was not Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama nor the couple’s two adult daughters, state police confirm.

Procopio said the family, which has long vacationed on the resort island off Massachusetts, had been elsewhere Sunday evening.

“I won’t comment on where exactly President and Mrs. Obama were, but they were not at the house or with Mr. Campbell that evening,” he said.

The Obamas’ 6,892-square-foot estate sits on 30 acres overlooking Edgartown Great Pond, where Campbell drowned.

Procopio declined to identify the other paddler who had been with Campbell, saying the agency generally does not identify witnesses.

As to exactly where the Obamas were on the island Sunday, a spokesperson for the former president declined to comment Wednesday.

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CLAIM: The medical examiner’s office has “called off” its autopsy.

THE FACTS: That’s false. The initial post-mortem examination of the body is complete, leading officials to conclude the death wasn’t suspicious.

Officials are now just awaiting the results of toxicology tests, which generally take several weeks, according to Procopio.

“For the autopsy to be considered complete, the toxicology tests would be finalized and the results reviewed,” he said.

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CLAIM: Campbell’s death is suspicious because he knew how to swim and was in a pond with access to a paddleboard he could have held onto.

THE FACTS: Water safety experts told the AP that none of these factors would necessarily prevent someone from drowning, a tragedy that often occurs quickly and silently.

Some online are pointing to a video on Campbell’s Instagram account that shows a man swimming laps at a pool as evidence that the chef was an able swimmer.

Although the level of Campbell’s swimming abilities is unclear, Adam Katchmarchi, executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, said that even the best swimmers can and do drown.

For example, they may suffer a medical emergency that prevents them from staying afloat, even if they have an object such as a paddleboard to hold onto. Or they may find themselves in an environment they’re not trained to handle — like tides or currents — especially if they overestimate their strength and stamina.

Additionally, a pond is not necessarily safe just because it’s smaller and less volatile than other bodies of water. Murky waters can obscure hazards beneath the surface, and safety equipment or assistance are not always available nearby.

What’s more, Edgartown Great Pond is not all that shallow, as some online had claimed. Campbell’s body was found about 100 feet (30 meters) from shore at a depth of about 8 feet (2.4 meters), according to state police.

The pond has an average depth of 3 to 4.3 feet. But people can drown in far shallower water, so long as their mouth and nose are submerged, said Tom Gill, vice president of the United States Lifesaving Association.

“It doesn’t even take 8 feet of water,” Gill said. “It could take 1 foot of water.”

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Associated Press reporter Angelo Fichera in New York contributed to this story.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.

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FACT FOCUS: No head trauma or suspicious circumstances in drowning of Obamas’ chef, police say