Trial of former Los Angeles Angels employee Eric Kay over role in pitcher Tyler Skaggs' death begins in Texas

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Both sides in the United States vs. Eric Kay trial that began Tuesday said jurors will see a number of major league players who received opioids from Kay in the Los Angeles Angels' home clubhouse.

Kay, the team's former communications director, faces felony charges of distributing opioids and causing the opioid-related death of Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs in 2019 while on a road trip to Texas.

During the defense team's opening statement, attorney Reagan Wynn indicated that the defense will name former All-Star pitcher Matt Harvey as a potential drug source for Skaggs. While laying out the defense's version of events, Wynn told the jury that Kay saw Skaggs snort lines of crushed pills the night he died, two blue and one pink, and asked Skaggs where the pink pill had come from.

"Tyler Skaggs told him, 'Those are Percocets I got from Harvey,'" Wynn said. The government did not name Harvey during its opening statement, but said a player will testify that he had previously given Skaggs pink pills but denied that he did so before the fatal road trip. Harvey is expected to testify as a government witness later this week. Harvey's agent, Scott Boras, said he was unable to comment.

No Percocet was found in Skaggs' system, but the government identified one of the drugs found in Skaggs' room as the prescription opioid.

Wynn also said that Kay, an admitted opioid addict, obtained pills on occasion from the umpires clubhouse attendant at Angel Stadium, Hector Vazquez. Vazquez could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

With Vazquez's alleged involvement and the prospect of multiple players admitting drug abuse, the case is evocative of Major League Baseball's 1985 drug scandal that saw 11 major league players suspended for cocaine use and remains one of the game's darker episodes.

The government laid out a portrait of Kay as a drug dealer who was the only opioid source for multiple players, and that he recklessly gave Skaggs a pill laced with the deadly synthetic drug fentanyl, causing his death. During her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Beran said Kay was also the only person who could have given Skaggs drugs, and that evidence will show Kay provided him with pills not long before he died.

"Eric Kay and Tyler Skaggs were not 'outside of work' friends," she said. "Eric Kay was Tyler Skaggs' drug dealer. That was their relationship."

Before the day ended, the government presented its first witness, former Angels and current Dodgers pitcher Andrew Heaney, who laid out typical travel procedures for a road trip, along with descriptions of who had access to players at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. He also discussed the increasingly frantic messages Skaggs' wife, Carli, sent Heaney and his wife on July 1, 2019, as she was unable to reach Skaggs before his body was discovered in his team hotel room. (Carli Skaggs is expected to testify as a government witness, as well.) When asked if he knew that Skaggs was an opioid user, Heaney said "no." Court was adjourned before the defense could begin cross-examination, which it will do Wednesday morning.

Kay repeated his "not guilty" plea when he was arraigned in front of the jury, and watched the day's events with little reaction as his sister, his mother and four of her friends looked on from the gallery.

The defense's case boils down to three key arguments: First, that there is no way to prove that the oxycodone or fentanyl in Skaggs' system killed him -- he did not die of an overdose; he asphyxiated on his vomit. He also had ingested grain alcohol that night. Second, that even if the pills did cause Skaggs' death, there is no way to prove that Kay gave him the pills in question. And third, that even if Kay did provide Skaggs the pills he took the day he died, there is no way to prove that the transaction took place in Texas.

One crucial point that the defense will go after is the government's contention that "but for the fentanyl" in Skaggs' system, he would not have died. That finding was not in the original autopsy report, which ruled that Skaggs' death was accidental. When the government indicted Kay last year, it said that determination was made later, but did not offer specifics.

Prosecutors also signaled they are prepared for a defense team attack against the man who did the autopsy, former Tarrant County Medical Examiner Marc Krouse. Krouse was fired last year after an investigation found he had made significant errors on other autopsies. There has been no accusation that he made any mistakes while examining Skaggs.

During voir dire, the process by which attorneys question potential jurors, and in the opening statement, the government took pains to point out that the autopsy and the toxicology reports are separate and distinct procedures. Krouse conducted the autopsy report, but a toxicologist determined what was in Skaggs' system when he died.

After the jury was dismissed, Assistant U.S. Attorney Errin Martin asked the judge about limiting the defense's ability to go after Krouse, but Judge Terry R. Means said the defense would be able to question Krouse's abilities as an expert witness when relevant.

The trial is expected to last roughly two weeks.