Nearly five months after law enforcement recovered the body of Harsha Maddula from Wilmette Harbor, the Evanston Police Department formally concluded his death was accidental in nature on Monday, Feb. 25. After receiving the written Cook County medical examiner’s report in early February investigators reviewed the case’s details and made the determination, though the manner in which the death occurred remains unknown.
“The manner, in this particular case, is undetermined from a medical standpoint," EPD Commander Jay Parrott said. "However, from the police investigation, the department feels that, based on all the evidence from examination of the scene and toxicological reports, the most probable indicator of Harsha’s manner of death was accidental with the consumption of alcohol as a contributing factor."
As earlier reported in The Daily Northwestern, the Cook County medical examiner’s office determined through toxicology tests that Maddula’s blood alcohol level had been approximately 1.5 times the legal limit, leaving Maddula “presumed intoxicated” at time of death, according to Parrott.
Maddula, a McCormick sophomore, was last seen on Saturday, Sept. 22 at an off-campus party. Despite Wildcat Welcome Week, the University community organized search parties and press conferences in the hope of finding him. Five days later, Wilmette police recovered Maddula’s body from between two boats in Wilmette Harbor, approximately two miles from where friends had last seen him. Medical examiners formally concluded the next day that the sophomore had drowned in the harbor the night he went missing. The recovery occurred hours before a pre-planned vigil at the Rock began. Burgwell Howard, assistant vice president of student engagement, made the announcement.
In light of the case’s conclusion, EPD made additional information about the months-long investigation behind Maddula’s death public, including the use of voice stress analysis on Maddula’s friends and the information that Maddula was found with his pants zipper undone.
“It’s possible that he had gone to relieve himself. It’s also possible that he didn’t. It’s just another possibility that attributes to the level of intoxication that he may have had. There is also the possibility that he went to urinate while he was walking to the harbor and forgot to zip up,” Parrott said. “There is no way of officially knowing what he was doing, but it’s just a possibility.”
Parrott also said that bruising on Maddula’s head had been ruled out as foul play by the medical examiner.
“There was contact where his head might have bumped up against a pier support or wall or boat in the harbor, but it was not a severe force.” Parrott said. “No harm was committed on Harsha. There is no reflection of any physical force.” Maddula was found still in possession of his iPhone, WildCard and a significant amount in cash.
Despite the department’s conclusion, Parrott said significant new information could reopen the case.
“If there is something that appears to be relevant and factual to this case, then we would be looking at it to make a more refined manner of death classification,” Parrott said. “But in terms of the investigation itself, without new information or something we don’t already know, the case will stand closed.”
WLS Chicago’s I-Team broadcast Monday night that the circumstances surrounding Maddula’s death had similarities to other drownings in the Midwest, though Parrott said this “smiley face theory” does not have “particular relevance” to Harsha’s case at this time.
“Nothing has been proven to show any link or establish any solid connection. The only connection that has been shown at this point is that of drownings occurring in some cases with smiley face drawings discovered nearby,” Parrott said.
Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president of student affairs, released a statement on behalf of the University on Tuesday afternoon to all undergraduate email accounts.
“On behalf of Northwestern University, I offer our deepest sympathies to his family and friends. As President [Morton] Schapiro said last fall when we learned of Harsha's death, the loss of one member of our community affects us all,” the statement read.
Telles-Irvin also addressed alcohol as a contributing factor in Maddula’s death.
“We are saddened by the fact that alcohol may have been a factor in Harsha's death,” the statement read. “The University continuously assesses how to address this problem, which is not unique to Northwestern, and as part of that effort, funds academic research into substance abuse and related problems on college and university campuses.”