Obama family chef dies while paddleboarding in Edgartown pond

Tafari Campbell, a ‘beloved’ part of the Obama family, was pulled from the water Monday morning.

Campbell went missing Sunday evening while paddle boarding on Edgartown Great Pond, prompting a multi-agency response including the U.S. Coast Guard, Massachusetts Environmental and State police, and local emergency personnel. —Abigail Rosen

The body of a 45-year-old Virginia man was recovered from Edgartown Great Pond Monday morning, following an exhaustive multiagency search after he was reported missing while paddleboarding.

The deceased has been identified as Virginia native Tafari Campbell; husband, father of two, and personal chef to the Obama family. 

He is survived by his wife, Sherise Campbell, and two sons — twins Xavier and Savin.

Campbell had been visiting the Vineyard with the Obamas at their Katama estate prior to his death. 

Although they were on-Island at the time of the incident, the former president and first lady were not at the residence at the time the 911 call was made, official sources told The Times. 

At the time of his tragic passing, Campbell, a former sous-chef at the White House, had been employed directly by the Obamas after accepting an offer to work for the family as President Barack Obama readied to leave office, the family said in a joint statement Monday evening.

“He’s been part of our lives ever since,” Barack and Michelle Obama said. “Our hearts are broken that he’s gone … [He] was a beloved part of our family.”

The former first family described Campbell as “a warm, fun, extraordinarily kind person who made all of our lives a little brighter,” and who’s always been “creative and passionate about food, and its ability to bring people together.”

“Today we join everyone who knew and loved Tafari — especially his wife Sherise and their twin boys, Xavier and Savin — in grieving the loss of a truly wonderful man.”

Around 7:45 pm Sunday, local police and fire personnel responded to a call from the former president’s Turkeyland Cove Road residence, reporting a possible drowning of an African American male who was seen struggling in the water.

A witness to the incident, whose name has not yet been released, reportedly told responding officials that once submerged, Campbell failed to resurface. He was last seen wearing all black, without a life preserver. 

Campbell’s paddleboard and hat were recovered Sunday evening.

With assistance from Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and West Tisbury emergency responders, Edgartown fire and police personnel conducted door-to-door searches and combed the pond’s shoreline on foot into the night Sunday evening.

Divers from Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury fire departments conducted searches past dark; surface water searches of the nearly 900-acre pond continued throughout the night into the next morning. 

From a unified command post set up at Wilson’s Landing in Edgartown, the Dukes County Sheriff’s Office provided assistance with on-scene communications in coordination with the U.S. Coast Guard and Massachusetts State Police air assets. 

Search and rescue helicopters and local and State Police dive teams were onsite Sunday evening and Monday morning; the Massachusetts State Police and the U.S. Coast Guard provided aerial support, and deployed an underwater recovery unit with assistance from Massachusetts Environmental Police to assist local dive teams.

Also assisting were the Metro Law Enforcement Council, and the Scituate and Quincy Police.

Campbell’s body was located using side-scan sonar from a boat Monday morning. The remains were recovered shortly before 10 am, from eight-foot-deep waters approximately 100 feet away from shore.

“We are deeply saddened by the outcome of this event,” Edgartown Fire Chief Alex Shaeffer told The Times in a recent statement. “But grateful for the massive team effort that was supported by our local fire rescue members from across the Island fire departments, working alongside Edgartown law enforcement and with the special assistance from so many outside agencies.”

Tafari Campbell was an Obama family chef. He died in Edgartown this week. Seen here in a White House video, when he was a sous-chef.

According to past news reports, Campbell had helped to create the White House Honey Brown Ale, a beer brewed using honey from onsite beehives. In a video released by the White House in 2013, Campbell and another presidential chef can be seen brewing the first ever White House ale.

Campbell attended culinary school before applying for a job at the White House, a South Florida newspaper, the Sun Sentinel, reported in 2009, where he worked as one of the cooks during George W. Bush’s presidency.

In a recent social media post, Sherise Campbell shared a picture of her husband, who is shown alongside one of his culinary creations. 

“My heart is broken,” she wrote. “My life and our family’s life is forever changed. Please pray for me and our families as I deal with the loss of my husband.” 

Reached by phone, Campbell’s wife told The Times that she won’t be speaking publicly. 

An investigation into the fatality is being conducted by the State Police Detective Unit for the Cape and Islands District and Edgartown Police. 

Attempts to obtain additional information on the incident, including police reports and emergency call audio via a public records request submitted by The Times Monday, were denied by the Massachusetts State Police Tuesday, who cited the pending investigation. 

Eunki Seonwoo contributed to this report.



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