An adventurous spirit, Angelo Crippa often foraged for wild mushrooms in the hills above Santa Barbara. But the 82-year-old's lifelong hobby turned tragic when he mistakenly picked the wrong ones in a wooded park near Arroyo Burro Beach, sauteing them with a steak for what would be his last meal.
Crippa died a week ago at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, seven days after he ate a heaping plate of the deadly Amanita ocreata mushrooms, said his wife, Joan Crippa.
Known as "death angel" for its snow-white appearance, the fungus has deadly toxins that worked their way through Crippa's system, sickening him and eventually causing his liver to fail.
Family members had often warned Crippa against indulging in his passion for hunting wild mushrooms, an activity he learned from his Italian immigrant parents, his wife said.
"You couldn't tell him anything because he'd been so lucky for 82 years," she said.
This year's relatively wet winter has produced a bumper crop of mushrooms, both edible and toxic, health experts say.
Illness caused by eating poisonous mushrooms is not unusual. In California last year, 895 people were sickened by mushrooms, health officials say. Of those, five had major health problems, such as liver failure leading to coma, liver transplant or renal failure requiring dialysis. One died. Most cases result in mild symptoms such as dehydration, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps, according to officials at the California Poison Control System.
White with a sprinkling of brown over the cap, death angel and its cousin Amanita phalloides, known as "death cap," are found in California's coastal areas year-round but are most common in fall, late winter and spring.
Dr. Mark Horton, the state public health chief, said Crippa's death is a reminder that amateur collectors should never eat mushrooms they have gathered without having them thoroughly checked. "His tragic death underscores that wild mushrooms should be carefully examined and determined edible by a mushroom expert," he said.
Mushroom hunting has gained popularity over the years with clubs springing up all over the country, said Bob Cummings, a biology professor at Santa Barbara City College who specializes in mushrooms. Many clubs are careful to make sure members are properly educated on the differences between poisonous and nonpoisonous varieties.
Problems occur when collectors use a book -- or worse, another amateur's guidance -- in deciding what can and cannot be eaten, Cummings said. "For every edible mushroom, there's a poisonous look-alike," he said. "But in the Amanita group, it is literally playing with death."
Cummings talked to Crippa in the hospital and determined from his description that the mushrooms he picked are similar in appearance to an edible variety. Crippa told Cummings he looked up the mushroom in a reference book.
"He said he looked in his book and they looked like the kind they eat in Europe," he said.
Joan Crippa came home on Feb. 26, the day her husband gathered the mushrooms, to find him sauteing them with butter in a pan.
"He really ate a lot of them," she said. "He said they were the best mushrooms he had ever eaten."
Crippa said her husband of 26 years didn't offer her any.
"I only eat mushrooms from Trader Joe's or Vons, so he knew better than to ask me," she said.
Her husband started to get sick the next morning, Crippa said. Within two days, he was in the hospital receiving intravenous fluids to combat the toxins. Cottage Hospital made arrangements to transfer him to UCLA Medical Center, which has a special department for treating poison victims, Crippa said. But UCLA didn't have room to take him, she said.
He remained lucid until the day before he died.
"He said he was going to fight this thing," she said. "Then he just took a steep decline."
The family agreed to talk about their experience in the hope that it might save someone else from making the same mistake, she said. The retired electronics engineer, known for his spirit and stubborn character, leaves behind five adult children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, his wife said.
"It's easy to get into trouble," she said. "The important thing is to be very careful."