Eric Kay, the former communications director for the Los Angeles Angels, has been found guilty of distributing a controlled substance (fentanyl) that caused the death of Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs. Kay was indicted on the felony counts in October 2020, and there was finally a verdict.
Tyler Skaggs was found dead in his hotel room on July 1st, 2019 before the Angels were set to play the Texas Rangers. His wife, Carli, had been unable to contact him, so she called Angels personnel. Team security officials were the ones to eventually find Skaggs in his hotel room. His death sent shock waves through the team and fan base. In the first home game after Skaggs’ death, the entire team donned his number (45) for a pregame ceremony, his Mother threw the first pitch, and the Angels threw a no-hitter that night. They painted 45 by the pitcher’s mound and preserved his locker. Fans built a shrine to Skaggs outside Angels stadium, complete with candles. It felt almost unbelievable. He was only 27 when he died, newly married, and had so much life ahead of him. The cause of Skaggs’s death was unknown initially, and speculation ran rampant. The reason, however, was soon discovered. The police report stated that they had found counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl in Skaggs’s hotel room. The medical examiner’s office found that Skaggs had oxycodone, fentanyl, and alcohol in his system when he died. According to the medical examiner, his cause of death was “alcohol, fentanyl, and oxycodone with terminal aspiration of gastric contents.” In layman’s terms, he choked to death on his own vomit. It was a tragic death and a death that could have been prevented.
Kay was the communications director for the Angels and worked within the organization for more than 15 years. It was discovered that Kay had been distributing oxycodone to players since 2017. ESPN reported that the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) had agents interview Kay. In that questioning, he told the agents that in 2015 he worked out a deal with Skaggs in which Skaggs would pay Kay to obtain oxycodone pills for both of them from a dealer. Kay would meet up with dealers he found online, using his work email address. He often met with these dealers at Angels stadium and sometimes offered to exchange memorabilia for drugs. Kay also overdosed on opioids while at work in 2019, shortly before Skagg’s death. Despite this, The Angel’s internal investigation in 2019 revealed that the organization remained unaware that Kay was distributing opioids to players. Ahead of the trial, the prosecution claimed that The Angels were withholding documents regarding “illegal drug-dealing in their organization.” The judge ruled in favor of the Angels, so no other documents were turned over to the prosecution.
The trial was slated to start in December 2020 but was delayed by multiple factors. There were 79 potential witnesses set to testify for the prosecution, seven of whom were former Angels players. Those players offered explosive testimony, with Matt Harvey, C.J. Cron, Mike Morin, Cam Bedrosian, and Blake Parker testifying that Kay gave them oxycodone pills between late 2016 and early 2017. This testimony came on the tail of former DEA agent Mike Ferry revealing a series of Venmo transactions totaling $1,700 from former Angels pitcher Garrett Richards to Kay. Harvey also admitted giving Percocets to Skaggs in the days before his death. He admitted to giving Skaggs pills because Skaggs had also given him drugs on multiple occasions. However, he did not supply the medication that caused Skaggs death and testified that while he didn’t see Kay give Skaggs the pills, he knew Kay to be the supplier. Cron testified that Kay was his only supplier of pain pills and that he received pain pills from Kay about eight times. Morin told the jury that he received pills from Kay five or six times and that exchanges happened in his clubhouse locker. Both Cron and Morin confirmed that Skaggs introduced both of them to Kay as a source for pills. Bedrosian also had received drugs from Kay and spoke to the court about his fear after hearing of Skaggs death, knowing they had the same supplier. Parker admitted that in 2018 he bought pills from Kay, but that he only took half of a pill before trying to return them because they caused numbness in his hands and stopped buying from Kay upon learning about Kay’s own addiction troubles.
Other former players, Andrelton Simmons and Trevor Cahill testified to Skaggs’s behavior the day of his death. Cahill said that he remembered seeing Skaggs drinking a beer on the plane and discussing plans to go out that night when they were at the hotel. Simmons recalled a similar conversation about plans to go out. Cahill clarified in his testimony that he was unaware of Skaggs’s drug habit.
The prosecution then showed transactions on the online site “OfferUp,” which Kay used to sell pills. The communications on OfferUp corresponded directly with the times those players received pills during Spring Training. The prosecution also established that Skaggs had told teammates he was without pills between April and May 2019. That was the same time when Kay was in drug rehabilitation; the timeline proved that Kay was Skaggs’s primary source for oxycodone and that the pills could not have been from anyone but Kay.
Angels senior communications director Adam Chodzko testified that Kay told him while in a car ride that Kay was present in Skaggs’s hotel room on the night of his death and that he had seen three lines of some kind of drug in Skaggs’s room.
The prosecution’s final stop was the testimony of medical toxicologist Stacey Hail. She confirmed that the fentanyl in those oxycodone pills caused Skaggs’s death. She explained that while oxycodone and alcohol alone could cause the death, the levels of oxycodone in Skaggs’s system at the time of his death were far too low and that the presence of fentanyl is what caused his death. This confirmed that the contaminated pills Kay gave to Skaggs were the cause of death. Proving that the drugs came from Kay and that the pills directly caused Skaggs’s death was instrumental in securing Kay’s conviction.
After the conclusion of the eight-day trial, the jury took only two hours to deliberate. They found Eric Kay guilty on both counts: distributing the controlled substance that caused Tyler Skaggs’s death. Kay will not be sentenced until June 28th, but he faces a minimum of 20 years in prison as a potential punishment for his crimes.
The Skaggs family issued a statement after the guilty verdict was reached; they said, “We are very grateful to the government and the jury for seeing this important case through to the right verdict.” This verdict is not the end of legal actions taken due to Skaggs’s death. His wife, Carli, and Mother, Debbie, and the entire Skaggs family are suing the Angels organization for negligence in California and Texas. Rusty Hardin, the attorney for the family, said in his own statement: “The trial showed Eric Kay’s drug trafficking was known to numerous people in the Angels organization, and it resulted in the tragic and unnecessary death of one of their most popular players. We have no doubt that the Angels knew what Eric Kay was doing, and the team is morally and legally responsible for his conduct. In the upcoming civil cases, we are looking forward to holding the team accountable.” The ramifications of Skaggs’s death are just starting to be felt, and it will spur a reckoning within the Angels organization if not in all of professional baseball.
The Angels also released a statement after the verdict, which stated in part, “On behalf of the entire Angels organization, we are saddened by the devastating heartache that surrounds this tragedy, especially for the Skaggs family. Our compassion goes out to all families and individuals that have been impacted. The players’ testimony was incredibly difficult for our organization to hear, and it is a reminder that too often drug use and addiction are hidden away.” The statement continued to praise Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association for updating their drug policies so that players using opioids can receive help. It did not address their level of knowledge or apologize for the harm their employee caused.
Considering how much of Kay’s operations he conducted at work, under his professional email, and the use of things like Angels memorabilia to pay for drugs, it seems shocking that the organization was unaware. Especially after overdosing and being sent to the hospital and rehab while at work, you would think some of those actions would earn a slight suspicion or investigation, but it never did. However, this is all personal speculation based on common sense. The Angels organization could’ve taken Kay at his word and, even when he overdosed at work, still never came to the concept that he was selling those same opioids to players. It feels like there is something suspicious, a piece being left out when hearing how many people knew about Kay’s activities and how much of his activity he was conducting at his place of employment, but also hearing the Angels claim ignorance. It could be a case of trusting the wrong person, of assuming the best about someone who didn’t deserve that kindness, or it could be, as many allege a cover-up. Hopefully, the Skaggs family’s lawsuits will reveal the extent of the organization’s knowledge and clear up some of these implausibilities and missing pieces.
One thing that has been made clear by this trial is how far the opioid epidemic has reached and how opioid use has become a problem in professional baseball. While many players and agents were shocked when 5 former Angels players: Harvey, Cron, Morin, Bedrosian, and Parker, all testified to buying and using opioids from Kay, it seems like this problem extends past the Angels and into baseball as a whole. Opioid addiction has skyrocketed in America. It makes sense that professional baseball players who push their bodies to the physical brink and often play through injuries would not be untouched by this epidemic. Skaggs’s death was a massive tragedy, but if it created the needed shock waves, what happened to him could force new attention and focus on addiction to prescription painkillers in professional baseball. Once you know there is a problem, you can address it, and Skaggs might save the lives of countless other players who are following a similar path he did.
The death of Tyler Skaggs was a tragedy. It could have been avoided had the pills he took that night, purchased from Eric Kay, not been laced with fentanyl or if the Angels organization got rid of Kay or even tried to help their own player with his addiction. Thankfully there have been some first steps of justice as Kay will be held accountable for causing Skaggs’s death. Hopefully, the accountability will not end there, and the Skaggs family will receive all the answers they need to begin to heal. This verdict is just the beginning of the impact of the tragic passing of Skaggs; we may soon see the actual damage that the opioid epidemic has had on those who play America’s pastime. Hopefully, more of those affected will start to come forward and seek treatment against addiction. Opioids have robbed many Americans of their friends, family, and loved ones. The Skaggs family will be one of the few who receive justice and some solace with the guilty verdict. Kay will likely get 20 or more years in prison, but it will not undo the wrongs he did. It will not return Tyler to his family. But this verdict is a good first step for addressing opioid addiction in athletes and holding those enabling those addictions accountable.
(For more information on Opioid use in Professional Baseball Read Ken Rosenthal’s Article: How prevalent is the use of opioids in Major League Baseball?)