Anthropologists and undergraduate researchers from UCSB are now sharing more details regarding the discovery of the remains of Jack Cantin, a 17-year-old boy who vanished after the devastating Montecito debris flow in 2018.
Back in February 2020, a team of UCSB anthropologists and undergraduate researchers began scouring a 110-acre plot near the site of the 2018 Montecito debris flow in search of clues regarding Jack’s whereabouts. When the devastating debris flow swept through Montecito on Jan. 9, 2018, Jack vanished after his home was destroyed in the disaster.
He and his father, David Cantin, were among the 23 victims who died.
According to Dr. Danielle Kurin, a UCSB anthropology professor and lead researcher in this case, Kim Cantin, the mother of Jack, approached UCSB in 2020 to request help in searching for the remains of her son. Dr. Kurin, alongside a number of undergraduate researchers, got to work surveying the area near Hot Springs Road where the Cantin family lived before the disaster.
“Our goal was a practical one — try and locate the remains,” Dr. Kurin told the News-Press Tuesday. “But more broadly, (our goal) was — can we say what happened to Jack? We wanted to provide as much certainty as possible.”
The researchers spent 18 months collecting pieces of broken glass, kitchen tile, brick fragments and soil samples from the site of the debris flow, aiming to find the location of Jack’s remains and uncover answers about what happened on the night of the disaster. Using a special kind of laser, the researchers analyzed thousands of soil samples in search of a trace of bone residue, Dr. Kurin said.
After more than a year and a half of searching, the researchers discovered what they are 90% confident are Jack’s remains over Memorial Day weekend this year, KEYT-TV reported last week. While the exact location of Jack’s remains is not being revealed, Ms. Cantin told the Santa Barbara station that it was within 1,000 yards of the family’s old home.
When Jack was found, Dr. Kurin said the remains were surrounded by loads of toxic debris, but because of the phosphorus in the decomposed bones, flowers grew in the area where his remains were found.
“Jack was telling us where he was by creating life where there shouldn’t be,” Dr. Kurin said.
Reflecting on the 18-month search, Dr. Kurin credited the “creativity and resourcefulness” of the UCSB undergraduates who participated in the search. She said their function is to serve the public, and she “can’t imagine a better way for people to use their education than to serve and use those skills for a purpose.”
“I think (the student researchers) saw themselves in Jack and were humbled and honored by the resistance, resilience and hope of Mrs. Cantin,” Dr. Kurin said.
Danielle Heiser, a recent UCSB graduate who participated as a forensic research assistant in the search for Jack’s remains, participated in the case since it began in February 2020. In addition to her interest in forensics, Ms. Heiser said she was drawn to the case by the devastating lack of closure Jack’s family had after losing their son.
“The thing that drew me (to this case) was how heartbreaking it was that Jack’s loved ones had to wait so long for some form of closure,” Ms. Heiser told the News-Press. “So I just wanted to be a part of it and help put an end to such a long, tragic, painful wait.”
“I’m just happy that we were able to bring Jack’s loved ones some closure,” she added.
Jack was one of two people still missing from the debris flow, the other victim being 2-year-old Lydia Sutthithepa. Dr. Kurin said that at this point, the researchers believe Lydia’s remains are “one with the earth” and will likely not be found.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office will keep this case open until they can verify the evidence in the report from the UCSB Anthropology Department. As of Tuesday, the case was still open, according to Raquel Zick, the sheriff’s office public information officer.