Despite Coroner’s Overdose Finding, Ambiguity Yet Shrouds Shuey’s Cause Of Death

Since shortly after Robert Shuey’s April 26 death, there has been persistent mystery as to how, exactly, he died, and by whose hand.
It was widely anticipated that the eventual release of the documentation of the autopsy carried out eight days after he died would clear up a good portion of the confusion, if not all of it.
Now, more than three months later, the coroner’s office’s findings have been made public. Nevertheless, despite the official cause of death pronounced in that document being acute fentanyl toxicity, it is still unclear as whether he was shot and suffered a fatal wound to his head, as has been widely rumored from the start, whether he was shot in the head but did not expire from that injury, whether a profusely bleeding hole at the base of his skull was not, in fact, a bullet entry or exit wound, or whether the presence of the powerful synthetic opiate present in his system was the sole factor that precipitated his death.
The information now available in the document known officially as an autopsy protocol, its accompanying toxicology report and attached investigator’s notations confirm much of the general narrative relating to Shuey’s final hours and minutes that has made the rounds since April, with some clarification as to further exact detail. Some of the previous narrative was inexact or wrong. For example, it was circulated, and previously reported in the Sentinel that Shuey was found dead inside his Blue Jay home, which was locked from the inside, on the morning of April 27. In fact, Shuey was discovered there in the evening of April 26.
Previous reports were that Shuey was shot point blank in the face. More recently, it was intimated that Shuey was shot at close range in the back of the head. Throughout that time, there was a contradictory report that Shuey had expired from a fentanyl overdose, which occurred either accidentally or deliberately as a suicide.
Even as the autopsy protocol sheds light on those previously shadowy versions of what occurred or may have occurred, it yet stands, despite its recitation of scientific fact, as a document of remarkable ambiguity. Still unresolved, in any satisfactory manner, is exactly how 30-year-old Robert Allen Shuey died.
Both the coroner investigation report and the autopsy protocol show acute fentanyl toxicity as the cause of death. On April 27, Jeff Lewison, a supervisor in the San Bernardino County Coroner’s Office, which is a division of the sheriff’s department, completed what was labeled as the “coroner supplement report” relating to Shuey’s death. Lewison, who arrived at Shuey’s residence at 11:57 p.m. on April 26, compiled the report based upon information provided to him while he was there by the first member of the sheriff’s office to arrive on the scene of the death, Deputy William Chad Zerbe, as well as by Dorian Stefan, who had discovered Shuey deceased earlier that evening.
At 9:12 p.m. on April 26, 2021, Lewison was called by Zerbe, who had previously been dispatched to the death scene, and was informed about Shuey’s death.
Lewison’s report states, “On Monday, 04/26/2021, at 2112 hours [9:12 p.m.], San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Deputy W. Zerbe called to report the home death of Robert Shuey, age 30. I was assigned this coroner call, number 83, at 2244 hours [10:44 p.m.]. On Monday, 04/26/2021, at 2251 hours [10:51 p.m.], I spoke to Deputy Zerbe by telephone. The following is a summary of his statement. On Monday, 04/26/2021, at 2033 hours [8;33 p.m.], [the] San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department got a call for service from Dorian Stefan. She arrived at the residence located at 27115 Highway 189 in Blue Jay, as Shuey’s truck had been out front all day, which was unusual. The house was blacked out and the dog was home. She looked in the window and saw Shuey on the floor from the glow of the pilot light of the heater. She knocked on the door, knocked on the windows, and he did not answer. She used her key to make entry into the home. She saw him on the floor, and he had purple discoloration. She called 911. Stefan was Shuey’s three-year-old daughter’s babysitter. The little girl stated, ‘My daddy’s been shot.’ The little girl told deputies later that a boy came in and shot her daddy in the nose. She did not hear any loud bang. Earlier in the day, sometime in the morning, Shuey told his daughter to go into the bedroom and hide (according to the daughter). Later, the ‘boy’ arrived and the little girl initially stated she heard a boy’s voice and then later said she heard a girl’s voice. After Stefan called 911, deputies arrived and Deputy W. Zerbe confirmed the death at 2100 hours [9 p.m.]. Shuey had a history of drug use but there was no obvious paraphernalia in the house. Deputy Zerbe had notified Gary Shuey, Shuey’s father, of the death. Gary stated that Shuey had used methamphetamine, Xanax, and fentanyl in the past. He believed he was currently using fentanyl and had been for the past six months.”
Lewison’s report continues, “I responded from the Central Coroner Division at 2307 hours [11:07 p.m.] and arrived at 2357 hours [11:57 p.m.]. While awaiting the response from the San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department Overdose Response Team, I performed a body examination and located what appeared to be a gunshot exit wound in the back of the head. San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Division was notified.”
According to Lewison, “The scene consisted of a single-story, single-family home in the mountain community of Blue Jay. The front entrance was on the center of the north side of the home. The body of a white male adult was supine on the floor in the geographic middle of the home. The head was oriented west and faced upright. The gas wall heater was immediately to the right of the male’s hip. The heater was on. In the bathroom in the center of the south side of the home, there was a small screw top vial filled with white bar pills with ‘Y21’ imprinted on them. There were approximately 6-1/2 pills remaining.”
Lewison’s report continued, “On Tuesday, 04/27/2021, at approximately 0015 hours [12:15 a.m.], I spoke to Stefan on scene. The following is a summary of that interview. Stefan has known Shuey since they were 15 or 16 years old. He had a history of methamphetamine use, but she believed he quit using methamphetamine several years before. He did not use tobacco, but he did smoke marijuana. He consumed alcohol socially, but in the past had drunk heavily to the point where he would black out nearly every time he drank. Stefan was not aware of any mental or medical health issues that Shuey had. He had been stabbed several years prior. I began the examination at 0130 hours [1:30 a.m.]. The body was that of a white male adult that appeared to be the described age of 30 years old. He had short blond hair, green eyes, was approximately 76 inches, and weighed approximately 180 pounds. He had a clean-shaven face. The body was supine on a carpeted floor. The head was oriented west and faced upright. The right arm extended slightly out from the shoulder approximately 45 degrees from the side of the torso. The right forearm was resting against the front of the gas heater. The left arm was extended out from the shoulder approximately 45 degrees from the side of the torso. The left elbow was bent and the left hand with a closed fist was resting on the front of the upper left shoulder. The right leg was extended slightly forward of the hips. The left leg was extended slightly out from the hip with the knee bent approximately 90 degrees. The body was clothed in a pair of blue briefs. The upper and lower natural teeth were present. The upper and lower frenula were intact. There were two broken teeth in the mouth that appeared to have been there for an extended period of time. There was a white foam exuding from the mouth. There was a reddish-brown fluid in the mouth. Bloody purge exuded from the nose. The nails were intact and there was no indication of injury or defensive wounds. The top of the left foot had a large bony bump. There was a linear scar approximately 4 inches in length on the outside of the left shoulder. There was a diagonal scar on the left flank. There was a linear surgical scar on the left flank. There were Tardieu spots on the left flank near the armpit. There was a healing abrasion on the inside of the right ankle.”
Tardieu spots are observed in the tissues of people who have been asphyxiated.
Lewison’s report further states, “There were no therapeutic devices.”
Lewison provided an inventory of Shuey’s visible tattoos. “‘Crestline’ was on the outside of the left ankle,” Lewison reported. “A clock with a knife in it was on the front of the left chest. A skull with four aces was on the inside of the upper left arm. A skull was on the outside of the upper left arm. A large indistinguishable design the size of a dinner plate was on the center of the back.”
Lewison thereafter provided a description of visible evidence of trauma to Shuey’s body.
“There was a circular defect on the back-left side of the head approximately one inch above the hairline,” the report states. “The underlying surface was slightly raised. Blood exuded from the wound. There was an abrasion on the left knee.”
According to Lewison, at that point, “The body was cool to the touch. Rigor mortis was present and was difficult to break. Lividity was present in the posterior of the entire body. It was also present on the anterior of the right arm. It blanched with significant pressure.”
According to Lewison, after the arrival of homicide investigators, “San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Crime Scene Specialist S. Mathis performed a gunshot residue test.”
Lewis reported that “The examination concluded at 0135 hours [1:35 a.m.]. I took 52 photographs of the body and scene. Toe tag #01836 was affixed to the great right toe by transport personnel. The body was placed in a yellow coroner body bag and secured with pouch lock #5140972. After the examination, the body was transported to the San Bernardino County Morgue facility by All Caring Solutions transport. The transport of the body was delayed due to the necessity of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Division response.
Lewison noted that “Dorian Stefan initially identified the body to sheriff’s deputies. Due to the nature of the examination, fingerprints were requested to be obtained at autopsy.”
According to Lewison, “Deputy Zerbe notified Gary Shuey, Shuey’s father, on Monday, 04/26/2021, at approximately 2151 hours [9:51 p.m.].”
An autopsy was performed on Shuey’s body on May 4 between 9 a.m. and 9:45 a.m. by Brian Hutchins, a forensic pathologist, assisted by Andrea Meacham. Present were Kevin Riberich, Ian Gosswiller, and A. Martinez, all of the San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department.
The nomenclature on the autopsy is given variously as A0954-2 1 H U or A-0954-21,
The bottom line of the autopsy was that a “30-year-old male [was] found dead in [his] residence,” that he died of “acute fentanyl toxicity,” that “Prescription drugs [were] found at the scene” and that Shuey had a “reported history of drug abuse.” The “postmortem toxicology” revealed that Shuey had “fentanyl 3.6 ng/mL and norfentanyl 0.41 ng/mL in [his] femoral blood.” The findings were that there were on Shuey’s body “no traumatic injuries [and] no penetrating injuries.” The cause of death was listed as “acute fentanyl toxicity, [occurring within] minutes.” The manner of death, the report said, was an “accident.”
Despite the conclusion that Shuey had suffered no traumatic injuries, under the category of external examination, the autopsy protocol states matter-of-factly, “The head is covered by short blonde hair. Facial hair is cleanly shaven. There are no petechial hemorrhages in the conjunctivae of the lids or sclerae. There is congestion seen in the eyes. Upper and lower teeth are present. There are no injuries in the lips or oral mucosa. Upper and lower extremities show no edema. The external genitalia are without trauma or lesions. There are multiple healed surgical scars noted in the following areas: right shoulder, left shoulder, right elbow, left elbow, left flank, and left upper back. There is a small abrasion noted on the left knee. There is focal abrasion noted on the posterior surface of the right forearm. There is small abrasion noted in the medial aspect of the right foot. There is a small puncture noted on the left occipital scalp/base of the neck.”
With regard to the internal examination of Shuey’s head, Hutchins stated, “There is no hemorrhage in the scalp. There are no fractures of the calvarium or base of the skull. There is no epidural, subdural, or subarachnoid hemorrhage. The brain is 1500 grams. The cerebral hemispheres are symmetrical. A normal convolutionary pattern is observed. Upon sectioning of the brain, there is no hemorrhage or lesions seen within the cerebrum, brainstem, or cerebellum. The vessels at the base of the brain have a normal pattern of distribution. The cranial nerves are present.”
With regard to Shuey’s neck, Hutchins wrote, “There is no edema of the larynx. The hyoid bone and larynx are without fractures. There is no hemorrhage in the throat organs or strap muscles. There are no prevertebral fascial hemorrhages. The tongue is unremarkable.”
Included in the coroner’s examination report was a toxicology report completed by NMS Labs in Horsham, Pennsylvania on May 31, 2021. According to that analysis of Shuey’s femoral blood, reported by the lab’s certifying scientist, Erik Flail, there were 3.6 nanograms of fentanyl per milliliter of Shuey’s blood and 0.41 nanograms of norfentanyl per milliliter of his blood.
Investigating with Deputy Zerbe the circumstances surrounding Shuey in the immediate aftermath of the discovery of his body was Sheriff’s Detective M. Del Rio.
Lewison held off on making his conclusion as to the cause of death until June 4, at which point he offered his concurrence that the cause of death was acute fentanyl toxicity.
The investigative summary of the case included in the coroner’s report states, “On Monday, 04/26/2021, at 2033 hours [8:33 p.m.], Dorian Stefan called 911 after finding her friend, Robert Shuey, age 30, unresponsive in his home. Deputy W. Zerbe arrived and confirmed the death at 2100 hours [9 p.m.]. Shuey had foam cone, and Xanax pills without an obvious prescription were located in the home. During the body examination, a small defect was observed in the back of the head consistent with a small caliber gunshot wound. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Division is investigating.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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