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Castro Man’s Death Ruled Accidental

by Seth Hemmelgarn
Monday Nov 4, 2013
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James Cunningham with his dog, Jett
James Cunningham with his dog, Jett  (Source:Gregg Gleasner)

The San Francisco Medical Examiner’s office has determined the death of a popular Castro district man who was found unconscious on a neighborhood sidewalk in May was accidental, according to its recently completed report on the case.

Some people had feared James Cunningham, 55, had been the victim of a robbery and assault, and his death had been investigated by the San Francisco Police Department’s homicide unit.

The medical examiner’s report says Cunningham died after he fell and sustained skull fractures and other injuries. His wallet was found in his home, and his sister said he’d never had a cellphone.

In an interview this week, Cunningham’s sister Maureen Cunningham said of the medical examiner’s conclusion that he died after an accidental fall, "I’m willing to accept that may have happened. They literally have no evidence to the contrary."

She added that her parents have also read the file.

"They seem to consider it closed, and it’s not something that we plan to pursue further," said Cunningham, who’s 57 and lives in San Jose.

According to the medical examiner’s report, which was completed this month, Cunningham, who’d been walking his dog, was found unresponsive in front of 174 Hartford Street at about 2 a.m. May 28. The site is near his home in the 100 block of Caselli Avenue.

Emergency services responding to the scene found him "smelling of alcohol" with trauma to his head and "minor bleeding," the file says. He was taken to San Francisco General Hospital and was pronounced dead June 3.

Cunningham’s injuries included bruising to the brain and skull fractures. He also had bruises on his chest and left arm and had heart disease, according to the document. According to the toxicology report, there was alcohol in Cunningham’s urine.

Cunningham said she didn’t know her brother to drink.

"I think he had an occasional beer, but we have never seen any evidence of any excessive drinking." She said she’d seen some empty beer cans in his apartment after he was found.

She added, "He’d just come back from a trip" and it appeared he’d "enjoyed a beer or two and decided to take the dog out."

Cunningham also noted the area where he was found is "fairly steep," and said, "our view is somehow he tripped or fell and hit the wrong thing and did some damage he could not recover from."

The medical examiner’s report indicates that a man who called 911 had attempted to help Cunningham about an hour before paramedics found him, but Cunningham’s dog, a "very protective" black Labrador mix named Jett, bit him.

"Police went to the area around 18th and Collingwood to try to find the fallen man, but were not successful," the document says. The intersection is about two blocks away from where Cunningham was finally found. Jett was at his side when paramedics arrived.

Shortly after he died, many people recalled Cunningham’s diverse interests in everything from astrology to music, and one friend said he was "a sweet, gentle man."

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