Otto Warmbier, the American student who died days after being released from North Korea in a coma, displayed no obvious signs of torture despite assertions by his parents and President Donald Trump, an Ohio medical examiner said Wednesday.
The coroner said the 22-year-old Jewish student, who had been sentenced to 15 years hard labor while visiting the reclusive country, had suffered brain damage caused by the lack of oxygen to the brain.
Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco could not say what caused the injury and said the cause of death may never be known.
“We don’t know what happened to him, and this is the bottom line,” she said.
The revelations came a day after Warmbier’s parents and Trump accused the reclusive regime of torturing the young man, who had been convicted of trying to steal a propaganda poster from a Pyongyang hotel.
“They kidnapped Otto, they tortured him, they intentionally injured him. They are not victims, they are terrorists,” Fred Warmbier said on the program “Fox and Friends.”The parents, in a series of TV interviews Tuesday, said their son showed signs of torture, including teeth that appeared to have been “rearranged,” and hands and feet that were disfigured.
After the airing of the interview, Trump for the first time accused North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s regime of torturing Warmbier.
Trump called the parents’ interview with Fox “great” and said: “Otto was tortured beyond belief by North Korea.”
But Sammarco, who examined Warmbier’s body after his death in June, said there was no clear evidence of physical torture — including no recently broken bones or damaged teeth.
“We’re never going to know, unless the people who were there come forward and say, ‘This is what happened to Otto,’” she said.
Sammarco said Warmbier’s body, including his skin, was in surprisingly good condition for someone who had reportedly been bedridden for more than a year, indicating he received regular care. Her office’s report said his body appeared “well-nourished.”
He died in Cincinnati in June 2017, less than a week after his return to the US. Sammarco said Warmbier was put on “comfort care” measures, such as removing a feeding tube.
The parents on Tuesday, for the first time, described the condition his family found him in when they went aboard an air ambulance that arrived June 13 in Cincinnati. His father said he was making an “involuntary, inhuman sound,” “staring blankly into space jerking violently,” and was blind and deaf with his head shaved.
The coroner’s report dated September 11 shows the cause of death for the University of Virginia student as complications from brain-damaging oxygen deprivation through “an unknown insult more than a year prior to death.” The medical term for his condition was called “chronic anoxic/ischemic encephalopathy.” The manner of death was listed as “undetermined.”University of Cincinnati Health doctors said in June that Warmbier was in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” and had suffered a “severe neurological injury” of uncertain cause.
While Warmbier’s family declined an autopsy, Sammarco said her office used extensive medical scanning and imaging for a “virtual autopsy” and that nothing more would have been gained by doing an autopsy so long after his brain damage occurred.
Warmbier’s body displayed only a few small scars, all but one of which could be traced to medical instruments, she said, adding that the Warmbiers’ TV interviews had prompted her to publicly reveal her findings.
“They’re grieving parents. I can’t really make comments on their perceptions,” she added.
Warmbier’s father didn’t respond immediately Wednesday to requests for comment.
Three Americans accused of various crimes against the state are behind bars in the North, which is engaged in a tense standoff with the Trump administration over its banned missile and nuclear weapons programs.
North Korea has denied mistreating Warmbier, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016 for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster two months earlier.
North Korea has claimed Warmbier fell into a coma that resulted from botulism and a sleeping pill.
Sammarco said she agreed with UC Health system doctors who treated Warmbier and said they found no evidence of botulism.