Contra Costa County Coroner Identifies Three Who Died After Church Thanksgiving Meal

Autopsies for all three show "intestinal abnormalities," the coroner said.

antioch hall
NBC Bay Area

The Contra Costa County Coroner on Wednesday identified the three people who died last week after a Thanksgiving meal sponsored by a church at the American Legion Hall.

The names of the three are: 43-year-old Christopher Cappetti, 59-year-old Chooi Keng Cheah and 69-year-old Jane Evans.

Autopsies for all three show "intestinal abnormalities," the coroner said in a news release. Forensic pathologists are trying to determine the exact cause of death.

The three died on Friday after a Thanksgiving meal for about 800 people at the American Legion Hall. The annual dinner was sponsored by the Golden Hills Community Church in Brentwood.

Health officials on Wednesday identified two additional people who fell ill after eating food from the event, but have since recovered. There are now a total of 19 people known to have fallen ill, authorities said.

Senior Pastor Larry Adams said the parish has been serving holiday meals for decades and was deeply saddened by the tragic turn at a charitable event that turned accidentally deadly.

"No one's ever gotten sick in more than 30 years," he said, adding that he's still not sure if they were sickened by food eaten at the Thanksgiving event. 

Last week's deaths were "more than heartbreaking," Adams said. But in the aftermath, he said, his concern is "not us or our reputation. It's people."

The three people who died came to the event from two assisted living facilities, Minerva’s Place and Minerva’s Place IV, according to the Department of Social Services. No one would speak to a reporter at one of the facilities, but health inspectors were seen walking into one of the residences.

Seattle-based food expert attorney William Marler said he suspects, from what he’s heard and read, that the most likely culprit is a bacteria called Clostridium perfringens, which is often mistaken for the 24-hour flu. The majority of outbreaks are associated with undercooked meats, often cooked in large quantities and which sit out for long periods of time. It’s rarely fatal, but it can be.

“It’s not unusual for just a few people to get sick out of hundreds,” Marler said in an email to NBC Bay Area. “They may have been the only ones that ate the tainted portion or perhaps had underlying health issues that made them more vulnerable.”

Marler said it reminds him of a case in Iowa years ago where only a few people got sick and one died during a Thanksgiving dinner for the elderly.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 Americans — or 48 million — gets sick every year from food-borne illnesses, commonly referred to as food poisoning.

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