Castle Rock teen’s death called tragic, not criminal

Manner of death ruled homicide, but no charges filed after investigation

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The death of a Castle Rock teenager was ruled a homicide by the Douglas County Coroner’s Office, but investigators opted against filing charges in a case they call a “heartbreaking tragedy.”

A months-long investigation followed the death last summer of Christopher Couillard, a Castle View High School student. An autopsy report concluded he died after being restrained for exhibiting signs of an agitated state known as “excited delirium.”

Couillard, 15, was found dead Aug. 3 in the family home in Keene Ranch. Chris Couillard and his older brother, Andrew Couillard, then 17, were home while their parents, Laura and Ernie Couillard, were on a vacation at the family cabin in Canada. The boys hosted a party their mother said went “horribly wrong.”

The case was sealed for months as investigators unraveled that night’s events, which included the older brother calling authorities to report Christopher Couillard was unresponsive.

While Laura Couillard was aware Christopher had struggled with marijuana, she was convinced he did not die of a drug overdose. Her maternal instincts were confirmed as details of the night’s events emerged.

The night of Aug. 3, 2011

According to the autopsy report, which was concluded Nov. 18, during the course of the evening Christopher Couillard showed signs of excited delirium. That state can include violent agitation, hallucinations, hyperactivity and increased strength.

In Christopher Couillard’s case, his excited delirium the night of his death included aggressive behavior, repeated phrases, redness in his arms comparable to hypothermia, pupils the size of pinholes and vomiting, Laura Couillard said. His behavior prompted others present at the party to restrain him in an effort to prevent him from hurting himself or someone else, she said.

When his friends and his brother last checked on him that evening, Christopher Couillard was still breathing. The next time they looked in on him, about an hour later, he was no longer responding, Laura Couillard said.

According to the autopsy conducted by forensic pathologist Michael A. Burson, unexpected deaths related to restraint for excited delirium do occur and “unfortunately are not well understood.” Burson opines that “mechanical asphyxiation was the proximate cause” of Christopher Couillard’s death.

Toxicology tests by the coroner’s office indicated the only illicit substance in Christopher Couillard’s system at the time of his death was marijuana.

“He didn’t need to die,” Laura Couillard said. “This has just been so painful. He didn’t die of a drug overdose but he did die because of drugs. Chris wouldn’t have died if he hadn’t been restrained. But because he was in excited delirium, he was oxygen deprived.

“So the basic message is if your friend is in excited delirium, if he is showing signs of aggression and repeating patterns of words — over 20 times of the same thing over and over — he does not need to be restrained, he needs medical attention,” she said. “The kids could not have known that. They restrained him to protect him. I could say it’s been the worst five months of my life.”

Understanding ‘homicide’

The autopsy concluded that the manner of Christopher Couillard’s death was homicide.

The word “homicide,” however, is not synonymous with “murder,” nor does it necessarily mean a crime was committed.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office uses the dictionary definition of homicide as “the killing of one human being by another,” said Sgt. Ron Hanavan, sheriff’s office public information officer. In order to be charged and ultimately convicted of a crime in Colorado, it must meet a culpable mental status, Hanavan said. Every crime has a different element or culpable mental status that must be met by the “reasonable person” test, he said.

The sheriff’s office investigated Couillard’s death and decided there was no evidence that anyone intentionally, recklessly or negligently caused the death of Chris Couillard.

No charges were filed with the district attorney’s office and no arrests were made by the sheriff’s office. The case was closed Dec. 2.

“These investigations are very trying for all personnel involved, especially when it involves such a young person,” Hanavan said. “This is a heartbreaking tragedy that has touched the lives of many and our heartfelt sympathy is with the entire Couillard family and friends.”