Who is responsible for Tyler Skaggs’ death? Here’s what we know

At 2:35 on the afternoon of June 30, 2019, less than 24 hours before his drug-related death, Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs allegedly received a text message from the team’s director of communications, Eric Kay.

“[How] many?” Kay wrote.

For years, according to federal prosecutors and reportedly Kay himself, Kay had provided the 27-year-old lefty with oxycodone pills. Here, hours before the team departed on a road trip to Texas, investigators believe that Skaggs requested more.

"Just a few like 5,” Skaggs texted.

“Word,” Kay responded.

Whether Kay, a longtime Angels employee, fulfilled Skaggs’ request that day could go a long way in the legal battle over responsibility for his death.

The following day, detectives found Skaggs’ body in a Texas hotel room. Two-plus years later, circumstances surrounding the tragedy remain in dispute. Kay was indicted on charges that he distributed to Skaggs the drugs that killed him. Kay has pleaded not guilty, and, after multiple delays, is scheduled to stand trial on Nov. 8. He, the Angels, and another former employee have also been sued by Skaggs’ parents and widow, who blame them for Skaggs’ death.

And it’s there, in civil court, where culpability could ultimately be decided, sometime in 2022 or beyond. But as the criminal case lumbers toward a potentially explosive trial, evidence is trickling out. Prosecutors, in a recent court filing, revealed that they plan to present testimony from “approximately” five Major League Baseball players who also allegedly received drugs from Kay. Separately, prosecutors chastised the Angels for failing to comply with a subpoena and turn over potentially revelatory documents, raising further questions about what Angels executives knew and when. The Angels’ resistance, says Texas attorney Jennifer Stogner, “tells me that they did know a lot more.”

The November trial will center Kay, and will be relatively narrow in scope. But it could uncover evidence that implicates the Angels, current and former employees, and/or others in the civil case.

Yahoo Sports reviewed court documents and publicized evidence, and spoke with lawyers in Texas and California, to present a 360-degree view of the case. Here’s what we know.

ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 12: Los Angeles Angels placed their jerseys on the mound in honor of Tyler Skaggs as the Los Angeles Angels throw a combined no-hitter and defat the Seattle Mariners 13-0 during a MLB baseball game at Anaheim Stadium on Friday, July 12, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Los Angeles Angels placed their jerseys on the mound in honor of Tyler Skaggs after throwing a combined no-hitter shortly after his death in 2019. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

What caused Skaggs’ death?

The Tarrant County (Texas) Medical Examiner determined in 2019 that Skaggs choked on his own vomit after ingesting a toxic combination of three substances: alcohol; oxycodone, an opioid painkiller that is illegal to use without a prescription; and fentanyl, a cheaper, more potent and dangerous synthetic opioid often found in counterfeit oxycodone.

Kay, who was allegedly in Skaggs’ hotel room late that night, reportedly told investigators that he saw Skaggs snort three lines of crushed opioids.

Is Skaggs responsible for his own death?

Defense attorneys will likely argue that Skaggs chose, of his own volition, to ingest alcohol and opioids; that he was, as Kay’s attorney, Michael Molfetta, told the Los Angeles Times in 2019, “an addict who overdosed”; and that he is therefore responsible for his own death.

Lawyers who spoke with Yahoo Sports anticipate that argument, and Molfetta has hinted at it. “Attempts to blame any one person for another person’s addiction are extremely naïve,” he said in 2019. Two years later, after the Skaggs family filed their lawsuits, Molfetta told ESPN, in part: “If you live in a glass house, I wouldn't throw a stone."

But addicts are not always or fully responsible for their own addictions. The Skaggs family, via their lawyer, Rusty Hardin, will likely argue that Skaggs’ abuse of opioids was an addiction “created by the team,” as Jim Orr, a Texas attorney, said. Orr compared the Skaggs case to cigarette smoking litigation: “Plaintiffs prevailed in cases against the tobacco companies even though they were smoking knowing it would cause cancer,” Orr explained. “They argued that, ‘I had no choice, I was addicted, I tried, I tried to stop, I couldn't.’”

The focus will then shift to how Skaggs’ addiction developed, who enabled or exacerbated it, and who could or should have intervened to prevent his death.

ANAHEIM, CA - MAY 7: Los Angeles Angels Director, Communications, Eric Kay, right, with Media Relations Representative Adam Chodzko prior to a baseball game against the New York Yankees on Wednesday, May 7, 2014 at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Eric Kay, right, was the Angels' director of communications and is accused of supplying the drugs that led to Tyler Skaggs' death. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

Eric Kay’s alleged drug distribution to Angels players

One of those people, according to federal prosecutors, was Kay. It’s unclear when Skaggs began abusing opioids — Kay reportedly told DEA agents that he began obtaining drugs for Skaggs in 2015, the same year Skaggs underwent Tommy John surgery. It is clear, according to the government, that “beginning in at least 2017, Kay was obtaining and distributing controlled substances, including oxycodone,” to Angels players.

In an Aug. 20, 2021, court filing, prosecutors outlined evidence that they said exposes Kay’s scheme: He obtained oxycodone on the black market, then “often coordinated the distribution [to Angels players] through text messages or through conversations involving [Skaggs].” Skaggs would pay Kay for the drugs — often hundreds of dollars, according to Venmo transaction histories dating back to October 2016 — and both would use them.

In fact, the government alleges “that it was Kay who was the players’ singular source for oxycodone pills,” though it’s unclear how they’ve ruled out other potential sources.

Did Kay provide the drugs that killed Skaggs?

The government has accused Kay of providing Skaggs with pills that were responsible for his death. A pivotal aspect of the trial will be whether that specific link is provable “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the burden of proof in all criminal cases.

Kay reportedly told federal agents that he bought six oxycodone pills, and gave three of them to Skaggs one or two days before the team’s June 30 road trip to Texas. But, Kay reportedly said, Skaggs often used the pills almost immediately upon receipt.

Records obtained from Skaggs’ phone revealed the June 30 text messages between Skaggs and Kay that investigators believe pertained to drugs. They also revealed a separate set of messages nine hours later, after the team arrived at its Southlake, Texas hotel, in which Skaggs gave Kay his room number and told him to “come by.”

“K,” Kay responded.

In a recent filing, prosecutors wrote that “the government anticipates the evidence will show that Kay obtained the pills [that Skaggs ingested the night he died] while at Angel Stadium on June 30.” Kay, however, reportedly told investigators that he was unable to fulfill Skaggs’ request for oxycodone that day; and that the pills Skaggs used that night likely weren’t from him.

In court documents, prosecutors have not yet drawn a direct, unimpeachable line from Kay to the substances that Skaggs snorted, but they’ve said they plan to do that at trial. For now, in court documents, they’ve been connecting dots. The Aug. 20 filing included communications between Kay and drug dealers that revealed Kay’s awareness of the possibility that pills he was buying might be laced with fentanyl. In March 2019, he told a dealer nicknamed Sharky: “No fet. Sh*t is scary.” In April 2019, he told another dealer: “A lot of bunk sh*t out there. Can I taste one [pill] first [before buying]?”

“Naw trust these fire,” the dealer told him. “I been hearing a lot about those nasty ones that either burn or taste like perfume. Trust me these are the best ones [right now].”

“Ok no fentanyl right?” Kay responded.

“Idk [I don’t know],” the dealer wrote. “I think most of them are bro.”

After another brief exchange, in which the dealer told Kay that “these [pills] are the stronger ones,” Kay wrote: “Ok cool. Where u wanna meet?”

The pills that Kay would buy and distribute, prosecutors say, were blue with markings of “M” and “30.” So was one of the pills in Skaggs’ hotel room on the day of his death. Investigators found five pink pills and one blue pill. The pink pills, subsequent tests showed, were oxycodone — and, according to DEA agent Geoffrey Lindenberg, were not provided by Kay. Fentanyl was found in the blue pill, as well as in white residue on the hotel room floor.

The other key question, then, is which of the pills killed Skaggs. An autopsy concluded that the combination of those two substances and alcohol were the cause of death. Lindenberg later wrote that, “but for the fentanyl in Skaggs’ system, Skaggs would not have died,” and the Skaggs family’s lawsuit claimed that “experts have concluded [that fentanyl] is what caused his death.” While it’s unclear who made that determination, the government has said in court filings that it consulted a medical toxicologist whose expertise includes determining the role illicit substances played in a person's death. Prominent California attorney Wylie Aitken says that prosecutors will “have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the particular drug they can connect to [Kay] was a substantial factor in the death.”

The upshot here, attorneys say, is that Kay will likely be found guilty in the criminal case on the first of two counts — “conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance.” That, Aitken says, “is the easier part of the case.” But the second count — “distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death and serious bodily injury” — isn’t as straightforward.

It’s in the civil case, where the burden of proof is “more likely than not,” that the dot-connecting will be most relevant. That’s where a jury will apportion blame — to Skaggs, to Kay, and perhaps to the Angels.

Were the Angels responsible?

The Angels face two central claims. One is that they, as Kay’s employer, were responsible for his actions and therefore vicariously liable. The Angels, attorneys explain, will likely argue that Kay was acting outside the scope of his employment; that drug distribution was not in his job description, and that he should therefore be treated as an individual, not as an agent of the team.

The stronger claim, attorneys say, is what the family’s lawsuit spells out in more detail: that “the Angels knew or should have known that Kay was supplying illicit drugs to not only Tyler, but at least five other Angels’ players.” If a jury determines either that high-ranking Angels employees were aware of Skaggs’ opioid abuse and failed to report it or help him seek treatment, or that they should have been aware and were negligent in their supervision and retention of Kay, then the Angels could be liable.

This is where evidence anticipated at Kay’s trial could be critical. Federal prosecutors allege that Kay often coordinated drug deals while at work, sometimes using his Angels email account or messaging services connected to it. He asked at least one dealer to meet him at Angel Stadium. He offered memorabilia to obtain pills. Investigators later found traces of oxycodone and “indications of fentanyl” on items in Kay’s desk, which the government, in its recent court filing, frames as evidence that “Kay was obtaining and storing pills with him at Angel Stadium.”

At the very least, the Angels allegedly knew about Kay’s own drug abuse, because on April 21, 2019, he overdosed. According to prosecutors, a coworker observed him behaving erratically and transported him home from Angel Stadium. Later, Tim Mead — Kay’s supervisor, then the Angels’ vice president of communications — joined Kay’s mother and wife in the hospital while Kay was recovering. Kay sought treatment for drug abuse twice that year, including after the April overdose, when he stayed in a rehab program for approximately one month, according to prosecutors.

Kay, now 46, joined the Angels way back in 1996. A few years after his father died in 1998, he began abusing opioids, his mother told ESPN. Attorneys see Kay’s history, up to and through his 2019 overdose, as basis for a claim that the Angels, by retaining and failing to properly supervise Kay, were negligent.

“The Angels knew about his problems with drug abuse and addiction,” the Skaggs family’s lawsuit states. “The Angels knew that Kay had gone to rehab several times during his employment with the Angels and that he had overdosed at least once. Despite all of this, Kay had complete access to players, day and night both off the field and on the field, who the Angels knew, or should have known, were trying to play through the pains and injuries associated with the long baseball season.”

SANTA MONICA, CA - JULY 22: Debbie Hetman, second from left, mother of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs enters a memorial service for Skaggs at St. Monica Catholic Church in Santa Monica, CA on Monday, July 22, 2019. Skaggs, 27, was found unresponsive in his hotel room in Texas on July 1, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
Debbie Hetman, second from left, mother of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs enters a memorial service for Skaggs at St. Monica Catholic Church in Santa Monica, CA on Monday, July 22, 2019. Skaggs, 27, was found unresponsive in his hotel room in Texas on July 1, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

What did the Angels know?

There is also evidence that top Angels employees not only “should have known,” but did know. Kay reportedly told investigators that he first told Mead about Skaggs’ opioid use in 2017; and that Tom Taylor, the team’s traveling secretary, was aware as well. Kay’s mother and wife also told ESPN that while they and Mead were visiting Kay in the hospital after his April 2019 overdose, Skaggs texted Kay seeking drugs. Kay’s mother, Sandy, said she relayed the texts to Mead and told him and the team to intervene.

Mead and his attorney have denied that Mead had any knowledge of Skaggs’ use or Kay’s distribution. Taylor, in a 2019 statement to the L.A. Times, said that, “Before Tyler’s death, Eric Kay never told me anything about Tyler or any player seeking narcotics, or about Eric providing narcotics to any player.” The Angels, via a spokeswoman, have repeatedly denied knowledge. They said that their own investigation, conducted by a former federal prosecutor that they hired, “confirmed that no one in management was aware, or informed, of any employee providing opioids to any player, nor that Tyler was using opioids.”

People close to Skaggs, but outside the Angels organization, also told Bleacher Report in 2020 that they were unaware of Skaggs’ drug use. But Lindenberg, the DEA agent, wrote in a July 2020 affidavit that, “during the course of the investigation, I learned that several individuals who were associated with Kay and [Skaggs] knew that Kay provided pills to [Skaggs].”

Attorneys expect details to crystallize in court.

Why are the Angels refusing to comply with subpoena?

The latest back-and-forth in the criminal case is a dispute over what evidence the Angels must turn over to the government. Prosecutors served the Angels with a subpoena in late July, and demanded “any and all documents, records, reports, and information made, commissioned, or obtained by Angels Baseball, LP regarding the distribution of drugs by any Angels Baseball, LP employees or contractors or otherwise within the organization.” In a motion filed last week, prosecutors accused the Angels of dancing around the subpoena and then refusing to comply with it.

The Angels, for their part, said in a response that they have “produced thousands of pages of documents and an entire computer hard drive to the government in response to at least five subpoenas and requests for information.” They also asserted attorney-client privilege. But the government argued that the assertion of privilege is “overbroad,” and wrote that the Angels have objected for months to the “discoverability” of the “documents that remain in dispute.” If a federal judge sides with prosecutors, the Angels will be forced to cough them up.

But their resistance alone is significant, said Stogner, the Texas lawyer. “Because if you're not willing to cooperate with the criminal investigation ... then you knew more than you've let on,” she said. “Rarely will defendants fight you on producing documents if they don't have anything to hide.”

And the documents, Stogner said, will be crucial in the civil case. “People lie all the time. They lie under oath,” she said. “But the documents don't. And the emails don't. And the text messages don't. It is what they were thinking at the time, when they had no idea there was going to be a civil or criminal lawsuit years after the fact. So regardless of what they testify to, regardless of what their statements are to the media, at the end of the day, the written communication — the emails, the text messages, the WhatsApp messages, or Facebook DMs, or whatever method of communication they were using — those will show what their state of mind was at the time.”

How — and where — will responsibility be apportioned?

Responsibility will ultimately be adjudicated in civil court — likely via settlement or jury trial. One key question is: Where?

Hardin, in June, filed two nearly identical lawsuits, one on behalf of Skaggs’ parents in Texas, where the death occurred; and the other on behalf of Skaggs’ widow in California, where all involved lived, and where much of the relevant activity took place.

Eventually, attorneys said, courts will determine whether California law or Texas law will apply. That decision could be important, because in Texas, if a victim is found more than 50% responsible for their own death, their family can’t recover any damages. In California, they can.

In other words, if a Texas jury were to conclude that the Angels were 20% responsible, Kay was 20% responsible, and Skaggs was 60% responsible, Skaggs’ family would lose the case and recover nothing. But if a California jury were to come to that same conclusion, a complicated California law would entitle Skaggs’ family to both economic and non-economic damages.

Every attorney interviewed for this story said that they expect California law to apply, because, as Orr said, it’s “the state with the most significant relationships to the case.” That decision could be worth millions of dollars to the Skaggs family, most of it stemming from the loss of his future earnings, but some of it stemming from so-called general damages — the family’s “loss of care, comfort, society and love.”