FORT WORTH —
On the first full day of testimony in the trial of Eric Kay, a former Angels employee charged with giving pitcher Tyler Skaggs the drugs that led to his death, Debbie Hetman testified that her son admitted he had an issue with Percocet nearly six years before he was found dead in a suburban Dallas hotel room in July 2019.
Hetman spent 50 minutes on the witness stand in US District Court on Wednesday. Shortly into her testimony she said Skaggs informed the family of his problem after the 2013 season and went to a family physician to seek help. Percocet, an opioid, is a mixture of oxycodone and acetaminophen.
Hetman testified that Skaggs was prescribed medication to “wean off” the drug, but Skaggs chose not to take it. Instead, she said, he quit “cold turkey.”
“It was probably the most painful thing he’d been through,” Hetman said.
Hetman said her son’s condition improved, but she also tested the addiction remained enough of a concern that Skaggs wasn’t prescribed opioids after underdoing Tommy John surgery in August 2014.
Hetman said she and Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed the surgery, met to tell Skaggs he wouldn’t be prescribed “anything stronger” than Tylenol 3, a pain reliever with acetaminophen and codeine — another opioid.
She was later asked if she had noticed any signs of drug issues with Skaggs in 2018 or 2019. She said no.
A few hours earlier Wednesday, Andrew Heaney, one of Skaggs’ best friends on the Angels, reiterated during cross-examination that he didn’t know Skaggs abused drugs. He did say: “It’s safe to say at least a few” major leaguers sought opioid painkillers from people outside of team doctors.
Skaggs was found dead in Room 469 at the Hilton Dallas/Southlake Town Square on the afternoon of July 1, 2019, two weeks before his 28th birthday.
“It was the worst day of my life,” Hetman said.
The death put Major League Baseball in the middle of the country’s opioid crisis.
In response, five months after Skaggs’ death, MLB and its players’ union agreed to add opioid testing to the drug policy for major leagues and not punish marijuana use in the major or minor leagues. The change was implemented for the 2020 season.
Several former Angels could take the witness stand during the trial, which is expected to last two weeks. Player drug use beyond Skaggs is expected to surface.
The subject was already broached in court during opening statements Tuesday. First, it was noted that Kay allegedly provided pills to players other than Skaggs. Defense attorney Reagan Wynn then said Kay saw Skaggs using other drugs in his room the night he died. According to Kay, Skaggs said he acquired Percocet from former Angels pitcher Matt Harvey.
An investigation by the Southlake Police Dept. and Drug Enforcement Administration led to Kay, who worked in the Angels’ communications department for 25 years. He was charged with two felony counts: supplying Skaggs counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl that resulted in his death and conspiring since at least 2017 to “conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute fentanyl and oxycodone.”
To obtain a conviction, the government will have to convince the 12-person jury that Skaggs choked on his own vomit after ingesting drugs Kay provided and that the alleged crimes occurred in Texas.
Kay, 47, pleaded not guilty. Wynn described him in his opening statement Tuesday as a drug addict who checked himself into an outpatient rehabilitation program in April 2019. He also conceded that Kay initially lied to police about visiting Skaggs’ room the night of his death.
Angels traveling secretary Tom Taylor testified Wednesday he was eating lunch at a barbecue restaurant with Kay on July 1 when he received texts from Skaggs’ wife, Carli, and Heaney saying they couldn’t get in touch with Skaggs hours before the Angels were scheduled to begin a series against the Texas Rangers.
Taylor said he then asked Charles Knight, a former Angels security official, to meet him in the hotel lobby for a welfare check of Skaggs’ room. Knight testified that a hotel staffer opened the door and he entered to discover Skaggs dead.
Knight said Skaggs was “cold to the touch.” Photos presented to the jury showed Skaggs’ body face down on a bed shirtless. His feet hung off the bed. A pool of blood has settled under his discolored face. His cellphone was positioned between his right arm and head. The pillows, just above his body, appeared untouched.
Thomas Roberson, a Southlake Police Dept. detective who processed the scene, tested that his initial observation was Skaggs fell over on to the bed. A few feet away, Roberson said he discovered white powdery residue on the desk and the carpet underneath.
Hetman watched the proceedings unfold from the courtroom’s gallery, seated next to her husband Daniel Ramos. She left the witness standing soon after choking up describing her anger after her son’s death to assistant US attorney Lindsey Beran.
“I was angry because I knew my son loved life,” Hetman said.
“He was a great son,” she said, fighting back tears.