New clues could soon emerge in the Dec. 1, 2012, murder-suicide involving former Kansas City Chiefs and University of Maine player Jovan Belcher and longtime girlfriend Kasandra Perkins.
On Friday, just more than a year after the incident shook Kansas City and the NFL, Belcher’s body was exhumed at his family’s request at North Babylon Cemetery in Bay Shore, N.Y., according to Dirk Vandever, an attorney who’s working with the Belcher family.
It is believed to be the first exhumation of a former NFL player, which the family hopes will produce answers or at least clues about why Belcher shot Perkins nine times at the home they shared in Kansas City before driving to the Chiefs’ practice facility and shooting himself in the head, leaving their infant daughter orphaned.
The potential discoveries could be enormously important, both in science and football.
“If his brain had been examined (when he died), we’d have a better understanding of why he did what he did,” said Bennet Omalu, who is credited with discovering the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). “We would have a better understanding about concussions and playing football, and we would advance the understanding of the science of all of this.”
Chronic traumatic enceph alopathy is a degenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries. It has been linked to depression, dementia, confusion, memory loss, aggression and even suicide in many former NFL players.
Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has found the disease in 45 of 46 former NFL players it has studied. Until recently, the disease was only diagnosable posthumously. Tony Dorsett and Mark Duper are among the living former players to be diagnosed with the disease.
Belcher played in the NFL for four seasons, all with the Chiefs, and did not have a documented history of concussions when he killed his girlfriend and himself last December.
He had an illustrious career as a player at University of Maine, where he was team co-captain and received conference player of the year and All America honors. He played there through 2008 and graduated with a degree in child development and family relations.
While at UMaine, he was an active member of Male Athletes Against Violence, an organization that urged student athletes to speak out against abusive acts, according to the Bleacher Report.
“When I heard what Jovan did, I thought, ‘That can’t be right,’ ” Sandy Caron, a professor of family relations and human sexuality at Maine and the anti-violence group’s founder, told the Bleacher Report in November.
But friends told Bleacher Report that Belcher had suffered multiple concussions. Other stories emerged that Belcher had become unpredictable and irritable in the months leading up to the murder-suicide and was beginning to drink more – an autopsy showed his blood-alcohol level on the morning of the murder-suicide was more than twice the legal limit in Missouri. These stories matched a lot of what is known about the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Why an examination of Belcher’s brain wasn’t done as part of the autopsy or research shortly after the crime last December is another mystery.
Omalu, who discovered the disease in an autopsy of former Steelers and Chiefs center Mike Webster and is the chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County in California, said that he “would bet one month’s salary that (Belcher) had CTE,” and that the local medical examiner should have performed a test for it.
Dan Ferguson, a spokesman for Jackson County, stressed the medical examiner’s job is to determine cause of death. Removal of an organ or tissue strictly for research, Ferguson said, is not allowed.
Even so, the brain could have been donated for research at a handful of laboratories around the country. Typically, scientists contact families to ask if they’d be willing to donate the deceased’s brain for research. Belcher’s family was not contacted, Vandever confirmed this week.
Contacted by telephone Friday night, Becky Gonzalez, the mother of Kasandra Perkins, said the exhumation was news to her.
“I was unaware of it,” Gonzalez said, “and I’m doubtful it will solve anything.”
Julian Bailes, founder of the Brain Injury Research Institute, said chronic traumatic encephalopathy isn’t normally tied to criminal behavior such as homicide – though there are cases, notably the 2007 double murder-suicide involving former professional wrestler Chris Benoit, where the disease was believed to be a factor.
Waiting more than a year to examine Belcher’s brain could make research more difficult and perhaps even useless, but Omalu said there could be some important scientific findings. Omalu has performed multiple autopsies on bodies buried longer than Belcher’s, and found evidence of Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.
Some NFL players, including Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, have killed themselves with gunshots to the chest, presumably so their brains could be examined.
Belcher shot himself in the head, and the bullet went all the way through. Experts say this does not make an examination impossible. The key is how well the body and brain were preserved.
Belcher’s body was embalmed, and his casket was believed to be buried below the frost line, but it’s far from guaranteed that his brain will be preserved in a way that will allow for an examination.
Bailes stressed that if Belcher’s brain is found to have the disease, it doesn’t necessarily explain the murder-suicide last December. Bailes said there are horrific and criminal acts committed without the presence of the disease.