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Former White House chef’s drowning death was accidental, state medical examiner finds

Tafari Campbell, then a White House sous chef, was seen in a screen shot from a video posted online by the Obama administration in 2012.White House

The drowning of a former White House chef last month has been ruled an accident, the state’s medical examiner’s office said Tuesday.

Tafari Campbell, 45, of Dumfries, Va., drowned while paddleboarding in Edgartown Great Pond the night of July 23 while visiting Barack and Michelle Obama at their Martha’s Vineyard home, according to State Police.

Campbell was standing on his paddleboard when he lost his balance and fell off. He struggled to remain afloat before slipping beneath the water. Campbell was not wearing a life jacket and wasn’t secured to his board. Campbell’s body was found in about eight feet of water.


On Tuesday, the state medical examiner said it had determined that Campbell’s death was an accidental drowning, according to information released by Timothy McGuirk, a spokesperson for the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

In a statement last month, the Obamas said they asked Campbell to stay with them after leaving the White House. “He’s been part of our lives ever since, and our hearts are broken that he’s gone,” the Obamas said.

The couple were not home at the time of the drowning and had been at another location on the island, State Police said.

Campbell was survived by his wife, Sherise, and their twin boys, the Obamas said in a statement.

In a social media post shortly after the drowning, Sherise Campbell mourned her husband. “My heart is broken. My life and our family’s life is forever changed.”

A woman who saw Campbell go under the water wasn’t able to help him and told Secret Service members at the scene, according to records provided by the Edgartown Fire Department in response to a public records request.

A rescue swimmer tried to find Campbell but wasn’t able to, the records show.

Authorities first arrived at the Obamas’ home around 7:45 p.m. in response to an emergency call, according to State Police. The 911 call went to the Dukes County Regional Emergency Communications Center, which initiated an emergency search and rescue response, according to State Police.


Responding units from Edgartown set up a staging area and coordinated with a Secret Service agent to interview the woman who saw Campbell go under the water, according to an incident report.

Boat and dive teams were sent into the lake, while a Coast Guard helicopter searched from overhead, the report said. The State Police’s air wing also participated in the search.

“Boats were used to conduct hasty searches of the pond and divers were sent to look for the victim in the immediate area surrounding the datum point while foot searches were conducted around the perimeter of Turkeyland Cove and adjacent areas,” the report said. “Door-to-door searches conducted at the adjacent properties by EPD in case the party had made it to land and needed assistance.”

Crews searched for Campbell for hours that night, according to the report. Crews moved from a rescue to a recovery operation around 11 p.m., the report said.

In the morning, side-scan sonar was used to narrow the search area. Divers found Campbell’s body at 10 a.m., according to the report. His body was recovered roughly 100 feet from shore.

John Hilliard can be reached at