The Mystery Deepens

Hours after the bizarre death last December of the City of Phoenix's chief financial officer, city officials blamed a brain parasite contracted in Mexico for his bizarre demise.

Now, nine months of extensive testing have eliminated the possibility that such a parasite caused Kevin Keogh, 55, to crawl out the window of his moving Mercedes-Benz SL 500 and onto its roof before jumping off the passenger side and hitting a tree, the Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner tells me.

"The parasite was ruled out through gross autopsy, the x-rays that were done and the micro-slides that were done of tissues of the brain," says deputy medical examiner Dorothy O'Connell. "The parasite would have shown up in one of those three areas or more. The parasite didn't show up in any of them."

The lack of evidence of a brain parasite combined with police reports and my review of Keogh's daily calendar and other city records point to a pressure-cooker work environment in the upper echelons of Phoenix City Hall as the far more likely catalyst in Keogh's suicide.

The bizarre incident occurred on Wednesday afternoon, December 8, when the CFO's car was traveling east on Camelback Road at about 45 mph. Witnesses told Scottsdale police that Keogh, after crawling onto the roof of the Benz, extended his arms outward for a second or two and then leaped off. He hit the tree, and his body rolled along the edge of the thoroughfare. His driverless car continued down the road until it collided with another vehicle. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Miraculously, nobody else was injured.

Daily newspaper accounts of the incident quoted city officials as saying Keogh's widow, Karlene, maintained that a parasite contracted during a 2002 trip to Mexico had affected Keogh's brain and other parts of his body.

According to a report in the Arizona Republic, City Manager Frank Fairbanks said Keogh's widow believed his apparent suicide was "related to the impacts of this disease on his central nervous system."

Talk about Montezuma's revenge; the parasite explanation triggered a flurry of national newspaper stories and accounts on the Internet about the dangers of contracting exotic diseases when traveling to Mexico.

But more important, the parasite excuse deflected attention from other possible factors in Keogh's death, including overwhelming job stress.

Now that the medical examiner has torpedoed this always-unlikely explanation, city officials and Keogh's widow are refusing to comment. Fairbanks, assistant city manger Sheryl Sculley, who was Keogh's supervisor, and Mayor Phil Gordon did not return my telephone calls.

Said Val Weaver, who identified herself as Karlene Keogh's friend, "We are not talking to reporters. Karlene is still grieving her husband and does not wish to speak at this time."

There are many mysterious circumstances surrounding this incident.

For one, Karlene Keogh never mentioned a parasite as the possible cause of Keogh's bizarre behavior when she was interviewed immediately after his death by Scottsdale police. In fact, she told police that Keogh was "in good health and the only medications in the house were allergy medicines" and sleeping aids.

Police found an October 2004 prescription for five milligrams of Valium inside Keogh's car. The medical examiner's toxicology report revealed no drugs or alcohol in Keogh's body and only detected a normal amount of a cold medicine.

What his widow did tell police was that her husband of four years had been under severe stress at work.

"Karlene said Kevin [was] very depressed," according to a police report summarizing an interview with Karlene Keogh and two detectives. "She said he was trying to get help, and she felt that he was just exhausted from working too much.

"Over the past week he [had] been having trouble remembering things such as duties at his job and details surrounding his position. Over the past week he had trouble eating and sleeping, and approximately a month ago he stopped exercising and just talked of being tired and exhausted.

"He had never talked of suicide, he had never talked of hurting himself and never talked of hurting anyone else. The only thing [his widow] was able to articulate was his recent depression due to troubles at this job.

"His direct supervisor [Sculley] had not been treating him well and [on December 3] he had a very bad day at work and came home, and they talked about getting him help. [Karlene Keogh] stated he had gone to work on [December 7] but he was having difficulties at work and his boss had been on him so had left work early. She called in sick for him [December 8]."

Police also interviewed a family friend, Steve Pittendrigh, who related a similar story about the job stress Keogh was under: "Steve stated that Karlene told him that Kevin was acting paranoid, and the city was asking him to leave. . . . Karlene told Steve that Kevin [had] only been acting this way for [a] week."

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty