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.
Kilborn said Mitchell was a very responsible driver, usually stopping two to three car lengths behind stopped vehicles on the highway and turning his wheel to the right so if he got rear-ended, his vehicle would go off to the side of the road and not into the car in front of him.
"This accident is very out of character for him," Kilborn said during a news conference in Denver with Mitchell's widow, Melody, and other relatives.
Cheyenne County Coroner Susan Kern didn't immediately return messages Wednesday seeking an official cause of death for Mitchell, who was a sheriff's deputy in the same county.
While family members don't know for sure if Mitchell had a heart attack, officials say it's a possibility, Kilborn said.
"It brings a little bit of comfort," he said after the news conference. "As much as it can as to explaining why would this even happen."
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.
Community members described the Mitchells as dedicated to "developing citizens" with their work with foster children, most who came from difficult backgrounds. Melody Mitchell said her parents were foster parents to 68 children as she grew up.
"As a child, I said, `I'll never do this,'" she said. "And God said, `not only will you do it, you will do it bigger and you'll do it better.' And I love it, and I still love it and I'm going to continue to love it. These kids are amazing and they bless us."
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.
Melody Mitchell said the family is being sustained by their faith and they're thankful and amazed at the outpouring of support from across the country and the farming and ranching towns on Colorado's plains.
"Our house is full of food, friends came in and helped with yard work, with house work, they have taken us to appointments, to meetings," she said. "We have got letters and cards, gifts from states we don't even know people in."