[back] The Crimes of Mena: Military "Suicides"
[Part 1] The Crimes of Mena: Military "Suicides"
Part 2, 3, 4
The Philadelphia Inquirer
The suicide files: Death in the military
A reprint of a series published in the
from December 19 to December 22, 1993 [INLINE]
By David Zucchino staff writer
First of four parts...
grief and shock: that's what 40 families felt when they were told
their relatives in the military died of self-inflicted wounds. their
pain deepened, though, when their search for answers hit a wall of
secrecy.-----the facts contradict death rulings ---on a late winter
evening in march of 1992, military policeman chad langford radioed the
security center at a sprawling army arsenal in alabama that he was
stopping to assist a stranded motorist. seconds later, the radio went
an mp dispatched to investigate found langfords patrol car, its hazard
lights flashing and its engine running, on a remote gravel road
outlined in pale moonlight. next to the car, the mp said later, he saw
" a lot of blood."
on the road beneath the car's open front door lay spec. 4 chad
langford, dying in the dark of a gun shot to his right temple.
langford's blood-stained mp cap was stuffed in his mouth. his
handcuffs dangled from his left wrist. the lanyard cord from his
holster was wrapped around his ankles, and his car radio cable was
knotted around his neck. ---and langford's .45-caliber service pistol,
which had been fired twice, lay under his left shoulder.two days
later-despite the bizarre death scene and before the completion of lab
tests-a military pathologist issued a ruling: ---twenty year old chad
langford had committed suicide
in tiny elk creek, calif., langford's father was stunned by the news.
just 10 days earlier, jim langford said, chad had told him his life
had been threatened while he was on an undercover drug investigation.
months later, langford's grief and shock turned to outrage. an army
report said chad staged his own death to make it appear that he had
but the report also said something else: the army could not determine
whether chad's fingerprints were on the gun, or whether he had fired a
gun at all. and unidentified fingerprints were found on his radio, mp
armband and handcuffs.
"i think they got this boy wrapped up in a drug investigation that got
him killed, and now they don't want to take responsibility for it,"
langford said last month, "i think they're covering up something big
across the nation, dozens of grieving families have endured similar
ordeals. like jim langford they say the military has erected a wall of
secrecy and deception around the deaths of servicemen on bases and
ships here and overseas.
forty families have told the inquirer that they were misled by the
military and given false or contradictory information about the
reported suicides or accidental, self-inflicted deaths of their sons,
husbands or brothers.
in may, the inquirer reported on the accounts of 14 families who
disputed military rulings of suicide or accidental, self-inflicting
since then, 26 more families have told similar stories to the
newspaper. a seven month inquirer review of documents in the 40 cases,
obtained since may through freedom of information act requests, has
found a pattern of perfunctory and incomplete investigations.
last month, congress mandated a pentagon review of the military's
procedures for investigation self-inflicted deaths. despite that, many
of the families fear they will never know how their sons died. they
have demanded independent investigations.
spokesmen for all three military investigative services defend their
work as thorough and professional and dispute complaints that they are
prone to decide prematurely on suicide. they said distraught families
are reluctant to accept suicide rulings.
the enquirer review found that investigators lost or destroyed
important evidence, mishandled death weapons, failed to perform
routine forensic tests or to follow up leads, misquoted witnesses, and
filed misleading reports.
in some cases, the review found evidence to support the contentions of
some families that their loved ones were murdered. four retired
military investigators who reviewed 19 of the cases for the inquirer
said evidence did not fully support rulings of self-inflicted deaths.
they said military commanders, eager to avoid what one expert called
"black marks on their record," often press for quick resolution of
cases involving violent death.
" i'm stunned," james w. keefe, an army criminal investigator and
supervisor for 20 years, said after reviewing files in three of the
cases. "if my agents had handed me these kinds of investigations,
they'd have another suicide - mine".
gene wheaton, who spent 17 years supervising army and air force
criminal investigations, said the four investigations he reviewed were
superficial and contained faulty assumptions.
"i was absolutely astonished, " said wheaton, who also investigated
the death of a marine for the marines family. "if i hadn't read these
cases myself, i wouldn't have believed it".
wheaton added: " i can't understand how these reports got through the
chain of command."
frederick r. mcdaniel a former army criminal investigator and retired
kansas city police captain who reviewed three cases for the inquirer
and three others for family members, said investigators seemed to give
undue emphasis to evidence that supported their assumptions of
suicide. he said he detected no conspiracy to cover up murders - only
poor investigative practices.
" i see utter incompetence combined with laziness and lack of
experience," he said. "nobody goes to any trouble to do a proper
ronald f. decker, of lederach, pa., private investigator who spent 12
years as an air force criminal investigator, reviewed nine of the
these people make up their minds on suicide long before they should, "
decker said. "then they work like heck to prove a suicide and totally
disregard any other leads pointing to accident or homicide."
ted l. gunderson, the former head of the fbi office in los angeles who
was hired by a california family to investigate the purported suicide
of their marine son, said: "it's called cover-up. they cover their
the inquirer review found that in most cases. investigators assumed
suicide almost from the moment the victims were found dead. the
investigative files suggest in some cases that agents tailored reports
to support a ruling of suicide and down played evidence to the
those rulings were passed along to the families, who later discovered
what they regarded as evidence suggesting homicide or accidental
shootings. they say their questions were met by silence or denials.
in case after case, families described how their mourning was followed
first by skepticism, then by disbelief, and finally by bitterness and
a profound sense of betrayal:
the naval criminal investigative service (nics) tried to convince john
david sabow that his brother, col. james sabow, shot himself to death
in his back yard in california in 1991. civilian forensics experts
hired by john sabow, a neurosurgeon, concluded the colonel had been
murdered and his body arranged to simulate a suicide. sabow has filed
a suit accusing the military of covering up the death, which he says
is related to alleged drug trafficking at his brother's base.
the army's criminal investigation command (cid) tried to convince
sidney and carlos wright that their son, army spec 4 terry wright,
shot himself in the head with a rifle in october 1991. wright wore
gloves too thick to fit through the rifles trigger housing. agents
threw away evidence, and no fingerprints were taken from wright's gun
or car. and the agent who supervised the investigation now says he had
serious doubts about the suicide ruling.
the air force office of special investigations (osi) tried to convince
royal and linda shults that their son, airman allen shults, hanged
himself with a sheet strung from a hydraulic door opener in july 1992,
even though shults was taller than the level of the opener.
investigators did not pursue evidence suggesting that other people
were in shults' room the night of his death. and autopsy photos showed
marks on shults' neck that a medical examiner says were not caused by
the ncis tried to convince bill and donna digman that their son,
marine capt. jeffrey digman , shot himself in the head in january
1989, even though he would have had to contort himself up-side down to
produce the bullet trajectory.
the family's forensics experts found injuries on digmans cheek, elbow
and finger consistent with a struggle .
the bullet entered into the right side of the head of the left handed
and the forensic expert said some one probably shot digman and
rearranged his body.
the ncis tried to convince mary gallagher that her son, seaman
apprentice todd gallagher, fell to his death from a philadelphia
rooftop in june 1992. two civilian doctors and two military emergency
medical technicians said they thought gallagher's severe head injuries
were caused by a beating, not a fall. gallagher's shipmates told the
ncis that he had a drunken argument with sailors from a rival ship
hours before he died.
the ncis tried to convince catherine jakovic, that her son, marine
cpl. scott jakovic, accidentally shot himself in the head while on
guard duty in october 1991. later, the navy charged a fellow marine in
connection with the shooting. when that marine was acquitted in
military court, the navy reverted to its original ruling that jakovic
had shot himself - but while playing russian roulette.
the ncis tried to convince linda halligan that her son, sgt. marc
repetti, a teetotaler marine with no history of mental illness,
suddenly shot himself in the head in february 1992 after watching tv,
sharing a pizza, and joking with his men while on security duty. the
ncis ruled the death a suicide, despite finding no fingerprints on the
gun that killed repetti and " no apparent motive for suicide."
the inquirer's review of these and other cases included an examination
of thousands of pages of military investigative , forensic and autopsy
reports obtained under the freedom of information act. it al so
included more than 100 interviews with family members and friends,
people who found the dead men's bodies, and with experts in military
investigations, suicides and forensics.
the former military investigators said a suicide ruling avoids the
need to gather evidence against a suspect and prove a murder case in
court. a suicide ruling clears a case quickly, they said.
civilian medical examiners and police are directly accountable to
elected officials, and their suicides normally are not released for
months and are heavily censored.
the former military investigators said some commanders may be
reluctant to acknowledge murders on their ships or bases, or
allegations of drug or weapons trafficking. local commanders are the
first supervisors to approve investigative reports and have the most
direct say over their content.
"they don't want any black marks on their record, especially a
possible homicide by a member of the armed forces," said decker, the
former air force investigator.
attempts at image control by military investigators have led to recent
public relations disasters for the pentagon - the tailhook sex
scandal, the bungled uss iowa investigation, and tainted prosecutions
of u.s. marines accused of spying in moscow.
a tailhook report by the pentagon's inspector general said navy
commanders "erred when they allowed their concern for the navy as an
institution to obscure the need to determine accountability for the
with commanders under pressure to clear cases, there is little
incentive to let deaths remain in the "undetermined" category, the
former investigators said.
" they want these cases closed," decker said. "an unsolved homicide is
a terrible thing to have on the books. so they close them out as
suicide. who's going to complain about an extra suicide or two -
except maybe the families."
he added: "you've got cases of a supervisor telling an agent to close
out a case before the lab tests are even in."
the former military investigators said the military violated its own
investigative procedures by pursuing suicide theories without first
ruling out murder or accidental death. they said agents in many of the
cases they reviewed seemed inexperienced.
for instance, in several cases agents did not interrogate servicemen
who reported finding purported gunshot suicide victims to determine
whether they had a role in the deaths. an army investigative manual
says of accidental shootings: "the report is often made by the person
who fired the gun."
the ex-investigators also said military agents are not subjected to
the same standards of scrutiny as civilian homicide detectives, whose
conclusions are routinely challenged by prosecutors, judges, defense
lawyers and citizens' groups.
"they're responsible to nobody but themselves," mcdaniel said. "they
operate in a closed world."
there is little adversarial or face-to-face questioning of
investigators in military deaths that are ruled self-inflicted, the
ex-investigators said. case reports are reviewed on paper by
commanders, other investigators and forensic experts at various levels
within the military, officials said.
in some cases, wheaton said, "if they don't have a clear-cut case of
murder and a suspect, they just write it off as a suicide. then they
have to twist the facts later, after the families start asking
nadine gilmore, who disputes a navy ruling of suicide in the hanging
death of her son in january, said: "it's easier for them to sweep it
under the rug by calling it suicide than to do a professional
since 1979, the military has ruled that 1,460 deaths were homicides.
more than twice as many deaths - 3,375 - were ruled self-inflicted,
according to pentagon statistics. between october 1992 and june , the
number of deaths ruled self-inflicted was more than triple the number
ruled homicides - 194 to 62.
pentagon figures show that self-inflicted deaths are the third-leading
cause of death in the peacetime military, after accidents and illness.
since 1979, the air force has reported 886 self-inflicted deaths and
204 homicides. the respective numbers for the navy were 849
self-inflicted deaths and 400 homicides: for the army 1,265 and 657:
and for the marine corps 375 and 199.
in the united states as a whole, there are roughly eight homicides for
every 10 suicides in a typical year.
the families contend that a suicide ruling is a convenient catch-all
used to explain deaths in which the physical evidence is inconclusive
"blame the dead - they can't complain," said the mother of one
serviceman whose death was ruled suicide.
officials for the three military investigative agencies defended their
investigations as thorough and professional. they said the have
answered families questions in detail, have reviewed contested cases,
and have provided all information allowed by law.
"the family members who have expressed their concerns and this
organization have more in common than not," robert j. finan 3d,
assistant director to the ncis, said in a written reply to questions
from the inquirer.
" we are united in our desire to resolve these cases totally,
factually and expeditiously."
finan added: "we understand their concern and welcome professional
an ncis spokesman, cmdr. kevin mukri, denied allegations that military
agents tailor evidence to fit a suicide ruling to clear cases.
"we do not take shortcuts just to get a case over with," mukri said.
"mistakes are one thing, but rushing through a case just to get it
closed is another. i challenge anyone to prove that.....there is no
career benefit for an agent to go easy on a case."
military authorities point out that the official manner of death is
determined by a medical examiner or pathologist, working with evidence
presented by investigators.
kenneth a miller , a spokesman for the army's cid command , said the
agency had reviewed families complaints in many cases, but found no
evidence to warrant changing findings of suicide or self-inflicted
"we recognize that the grief of a deceased soldier"s family may be
compounded by a finding of suicide," miller said in a written reply to
questions from the inquirer. "however, we are professionally obligated
to report the conclusion supported by evidence."
miller added: "reinvestigation must be based on more than simple,
unsupported speculation, such as a claim that 'something must have
been overlooked', or mere denial of the case's facts."
maj. james g. pasierb, director of public affairs for air force ose,
said his agency's investigations are as professional and thorough as
the fbi's or any big city police department's.
"as a daddy, my heart goes out to these people." pasierb said of the
40 families. "it's very difficult to believe a son would do something
so drastic as suicide......but we have answered all inquiries into
these cases and supplied a great deal of information" that supports
findings of self-inflicted deaths.
officials at all three agencies said families were so distraught that
they refused to consider the possibility of suicide or an accidental,
experts who study suicides say families of victims whose deaths are
ruled self-inflicted often deny that their relatives had taken their
"a suicide is a very stigmatized death. there is a natural reluctance
to accept it", said ronald w. maris, a university of south carolina
psychologist and author of assessment and prediction of suicide.
"in any suicide, family members are biased," maris said. "they feel
guilt, they don't want to blame their child. it's easier to blame the
cmdr. mukri, the ncis spokesman, said "these families are sincere, but
it may be impossible to satisfy them."
in the hours before he died, chad langford seemed a man routinely
going about his 'duties' and job.
two women told investigators that langford called them during the late
afternoon and early evening of march 12, 1992, and chatted amiably.
one woman said she spoke with langford just before 8 p.m.--- or
minutes before the time investigators said langford shot himself.
the woman said "she did not detect fear in spc langford's voice and
that he seemed to be talking normally," said a report by the army's
according to the report, the woman said she and langford arranged to
meet at 1 p.m., when his shift was to end.
another woman, a college student, told investigators that langford had
called that afternoon and asked her to drop by the mp station to visit
him that night. she said she called langford later and said she
wouldn't be able to do so.
an mp who rode on patrol with langford until 6 p.m. that day told
investigators that langford "seemed to be in a good mood and even
seemed to joke around."
another soldier told investigators langford called him an hour before
he died to chat briefly and ask how he was doing.
even so, the cid concluded that langford had staged his death. it
based that conclusion in part on a post-mortem evaluation of
langford's mental health by an army psychologist who interviewed his
friends, co-workers, and family members.
the psychologist speculated that langford killed himself because of
girl friend problems and "emotional instability." a cid report quoted
a fellow soldier as saying that days before his death, langford had
laughed and told him:"i am going to die."
the psychologist concluded: "it seems that spc langford was determined
to kill himself in a fashion that would suggest he had been murdered
in the line of duty."
an inquirer review of the cid report investigative files found
evidence that raised questions about the suicide ruling:
* residue tests of langford's hands were inconclusive as to whether he
had fired a gun.
* no blood or brain tissue was found on the pistol --- even though
suicide experts say such "blowback" is normally found on guns used by
people who shoot themselves in the head.
* while investigators determined that the shell casings found near
langford's body were fired from the pistol, they did not try to
determine whether that gun fired the bullet that killed him.
* the pistol was found beneath the left shoulder of langford, who was
a right handed shooter.
* the civilian death certificate, instead of listing langford's death
as a suicide, put it in the category of "undetermined cause."
in addition, buttons torn from langford's shirt were found on the
front seat of his patrol car. the cid report speculated that they were
ripped off by emergency personnel. witnesses told cid that langford
was treated on the road, not inside the car.
langford's radio, armband and mp badge were found in the middle of the
road a short distance from his body. the cid report speculated that
langford put them there and then drove to the death scene , where he
sat down next to his car and shot himself. it noted that the armband
had been carefully unpinned , rather than ripped , from langford's
as for the two bullets fired from the gun, the report speculated that
langford fired the first shot to make it appear that someone had fired
at him and missed.
keefe, the former cid investigator who reviewed the report for the
inquirer, said the evidence does not support a suicide ruling.
" it smells bad, " keefe said of the report.
keefe, a private investigator in new york, said the report indicated
that investigators quickly assumed that langford had killed himself,
then sought evidence to support that theory.
"it appears that the cause of death and the manner of death were a
foregone conclusion," keefe said, "this is highly irregular."
the cid report gives little indication that investigators attempted to
identify or pursue a suspect, although gates at redstone arsenal were
ordered closed just after the shooting.
an mp sent to look for langford told the cid that just after the
shooting, he had stopped a civilian in a white car leaving the area
where langford was found, but the mp said he let the man go without
getting his name or license number.
lab tests later concluded that white paint flecks found on langford's
pistol did not match the white paint from his chevrolet lumina patrol
another mp told investigators he had stopped a soldier in a car
leaving the same area shortly after the shooting. he said he let him
go after the soldier said he was out to "cool off" after a fight with
the mp said he took the soldier's id card and left it at a base mp
station. but the soldier was allowed to retrieve the id card the next
day without anyone making a record of his name, according to the cid
"i can't believe these people are in law enforcement," jim langford
langford said his son had told him "i'm a dead man" if the people he
was investigating during an undercover drug assignment found out who
a girlfriend of langford's told the cid that he had shown her a
threatening note that had "some kind of gang-related symbols on it."
the cid report said no such notes were found in langford's barracks
the report also said investigators checked with military and civilian
police and found no record that langford was involved in undercover
the report did quote three fellow soldiers as saying langford had
tried and failed to enlist them in a scheme to rob a px payroll
escort. the soldiers said the plan, which they said they told langford
was "a stupid idea," never got past the talking stage.
they said langford proposed having one of them shoot him while he was
wearing a bullet proof vest--to make it appear that he had put up
unsatisfied with the cid investigation , jim langford said , he went
to alabama in november 1992 and posted a $25,000 reward for
information leading to a murder conviction.
he said a huntsville alabama man told him that a local drug dealer had
paid to have a military man killed.
when he passed on the man's claim to the cid, langford said, the
agency reopened the case. but in may, he said, the cid told him the
new probe had come to the same conclusion: suicide.
miller, the cid spokesman, said the agency could not discuss specific
cases. he said all cid death investigations are thorough and
professional, and undergo rigorous review within the army.
langford said he will continue to press for answers, but holds out
"i'd have better luck beating my head against a wall," he said.
two months after the inquirer report on the first 14 cases, 36 members
of congress asked the pentagon's inspector general to set up a special
board to review them. the inspector general's office is reviewing four
of the cases, an agency official said, but has declined to set up a
board of inquiry.
"the strong evidence compiled by families of the deceased shows a
pattern of either blatant neglect or apathy by military
investigators," said u.s. rep. frank pallone, jr. (d.,new jersey), who
represents two of the forty families.
in november, congress passed a bill, co-sponsored by pallone,
requiring the defense department to review its procedures for
investigating self-inflicted deaths of servicemen and to report to
congress by next july.
the measure also created a mechanism for families to present the
inspector general with evidence of a "material deficiency" in a death
investigation. regulations outlining the procedure have not yet been
"the concerns of these constituents simply cannot be dismissed as
delusions stemming from 'denial' about their sons' deaths," said a
letter to the pentagon signed in august by a partisan group of 11
senators. "there are hard questions with each case that should be
answered in an organized and thorough manner through a board of
in 13 of the 40 cases reviewed by the inquirer, the servicemen died
within weeks of complaining about conditions in the military, arguing
or fighting with fellow servicemen, or after they had been
investigated for crimes or violations of military policy.
in 10 of the cases, family members said the victim had told them of
stumbling across drug trafficking or weapons smuggling aboard ships or
on bases. six others according to the military, accidentally or
intentionally shot themselves while playing russian roulette or toying
with their guns.
the deaths in the remaining cases came during seemingly routine
periods in the victims' lives. most occurred since 1990.
the military's refusal to re-open the cases has resulted in anguish
for scores of ordinary americans, many from families with long
histories of military service. for them, the deaths of their loved
ones have borne out the observation of french premier georges
clemenceau that military justice is to justice what military music is
"these people exist within a cult of arrogance," said john sabow,
brother of the late col. sabow. "they are insensitive to human
suffering. they fight anything that could damage the reputation of
through it all, the families say, their grief has been compounded by
what they describe as the military's callous treatment and penchant
for secrecy. some say they pressured the military for up to a year
before receiving investigative reports. most filed freedom of
information act requests, only to receive reports with sections
"it's really pathetic what they think you'll believe," linda shults, a
schoolteacher in atchison, kansas, said of the air force report on the
death of her son, allen. "they think you'll swallow anything just
because the military says it's so."
after her son's death last year, linda halligan said, she flew from
her home in middletown, new jersey to camp pendleton, california to
inspect the building where marine sgt. marc repetti died. marine
commanders there refused to discuss the case, she said, telling her
only that it was "under investigation".
"people who are grieving don't need more grief from the military,"
halligan said. "you get a call about the worst thing that could ever
happen to a mother --- and they don't tell you a thing. i have a right
to know. i'm his mother."
on the day he died, staff sgt. marc repetti began his morning the way
he usually did. according to his family, he brought his wife , stacy,
some hot tea in bed and ran his cold hands down her warm back----a
little joke between them. then repetti kissed and hugged his wife and
went off to work.
that evening-----feb. 17, 1992----- repetti reported for guard duty at
camp pendleton. later, his fellow marines described an utterly routine
repetti, 27 shared a pizza and told his friends to save him a few
slices for breakfast. he bummed some coffee. he watched the winter
olympics on tv. he bragged about his rottweiler dogs. he kidded
around. he discussed future training sessions.
then, sometime after midnight, according to the ncis, repetti went to
the second floor bathroom and shot himself in the head with his 9mm
an ncis investigation found no hint that repetti was depressed.
indeed, the investigative report describes a model marine, a
high-achieving nco up for promotion, a former drill instructor admired
by his men for his fairness and toughness. the report details a stable
marriage, no money or job problems, no history of mental or physical
problems, no use of alcohol, no suicide note.
"no apparent motive for suicide," the report concluded.
even so, the ncis ruled on july 9,1992, that repetti's death was a
suicide --- although ballistics, gunshot residue and blood and tissue
tests were not completed until aug.6.
halligan didn't buy the suicide theory almost from the moment a navy
officer came to her front door in middletown, new jersey, to break the
news. after she flew to camp pendleton to question marine commanders,
she was even more convinced her son did not kill himself.
"there's no doubt in my mind my son was murdered," halligan said.
three of repetti's fellow marines had doubts about his death. they
told the ncis that they didn't believe he killed himself.
the marine who found repetti's body said: "he never gave any
indication he was contemplating suicide." this marine said repetti had
told him to relieve him at 2 a.m. the approximate time he said he
discovered repetti's body.
another marine told ncis that he "had reason to believe there was foul
play." he said repetti "stepped on a lot of dicks."
the same marine speculated that repetti had been lured upstairs to the
bathroom by someone he knew. he told the ncis that repetti left his
keys and log book in his office --- something he did only when he
intended to come right back. the log contained routine notations, an
unusual attention to detail for a man minutes from suicide.
the ncis report contains other inconsistencies:
* investigators said they were unable to find any fingerprints on
repetti's gun or ammo clip. "how does someone shoot himself without
leaving fingerprints on the gun?" halligan asked. repetti was not
* repetti was right-handed, but the autopsy found that the bullet
entered slightly to the left side of his forehead, traveled downward
and exited the right rear. suicide experts say that is an unusual way
for a right-handed person to commit suicide.
* the ncis said repetti was found with his right hand on the gun butt
and his left hand on the gun barrel. ex-military investigators who
reviewed the files said the weapon's recoil should have caused it to
fly outward and away from repetti's hand.
* there were six or seven marines on guard duty inside the building
where repetti was found in the quiet, early morning hours. none
reported hearing a shot, the ncis said.
* the autopsy report said there were no blood spatters on repetti's
hands from the effect of a close contact gunshot wound. such
"blowback" spatters are common in self-inflicted gunshot wounds,
according to gunshot experts. the report also noted unexplained small,
circular abrasions on repetti's left hand and wrist.
"this investigation was very poor," said decker, the former air force
investigator. "the suggestion of foul play was never followed up."
decker added:"this case leaves me with the impression that the nis
supervisors were more intent upon managing agents' caseloads and
statistics, rather than taking the time to search out the truth."
a gunshot residue test, which detects tiny amounts of gunpowder,
concluded that repetti either fired a gun or had his hands "in close
proximity" to a gun that was fired. the suicide ruling was made 10
days after the shooting, or five months before the residue test was
a military manual for investigators says a positive residue test is
not conclusive proof of suicide.
"residue can be present on a victim's hands because they were close to
the muzzle blast of a shot fired by someone else," the manual says.
the autopsy report concluded that there were no injuries to suggest
that repetti had struggled with an attacker. and it said the head
wound was of "near contact type" and contained powder burns ---- all
consistent with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
halligan said the military refused for more that a year to tell her
how her son died. after 14 months and a freedom of information act
request, she said, she finally received the ncis and autopsy reports.
reading them only made her more convinced her son did not kill
"my son was a proud marine--- so proud his buttons would bust," she
said. "he would want me to prove he didn't do this to himself. that's
all i can do for him now."
in case after case, the dead servicemen exhibited few, if any, of the
most common risk-factors that suicide experts associate with
some studies, for instance, show a high correlation between suicide
and recent visits to a doctor or a mental-health professional. other
studies conclude that suicide victims often are physically or mentally
ill, abuse narcotics, suffer from brain injury or disease, give away
possessions, or have made previous attempts.
virtually none of the dead servicemen fit into those categories,
although in several cases military psychologist speculated afterwards
that the men had been clinically depressed.
almost none of the victims was isolated or had withdrawn from
friends---- other common risk factors in suicides. and only one case
involved a gunshot wound to the mouth, which experts say is one of the
four "classical" sites in gunshot suicides.
often, suicide victims exhibit several telling symptoms, but in these
deaths that was not the case.
there were six cases in which the military said the victim was legally
drunk at the time of death. alcohol abuse is a high risk factor in
suicides, according to experts.
five of the victims left suicide notes, although the authenticity of
each note was challenged by the families. handwriting analyses of two
notes proved inconclusive in determining whether the dead men had
written them, according to military files. various studies have found
that notes are left in 12 to 25 percent of completed suicides.
the servicemen, most of them in their 20s did not fit the profile for
the typical american suicide: a middle-aged or elderly white man who
kills himself, usually after experiencing health or mental problems.
the suicide rate for military men is roughly half that of civilian
men, according to a 1987 pentagon study based on 1980 statistics.
in virtually all 40 cases, the victims were described by families,
friends, and co-workers as positive, upbeat and otherwise normal
before their deaths. in some cases, the servicemen spoke happily to
family or friends within hours of their deaths to discuss plans for
future events. others had just completed such prosaic tasks as
laundry, paying bills or having their cars repaired.
according to the families, the men did not express the most common
emotions noted in most suicide cases --- hopelessness, futility and
experts say it is unusual for suicide victims to exhibit no signs of
depression before killing themselves. a significant change in "life
status" or a traumatic event such as a death or romantic breakup often
precedes a suicide, they say. few of the military victims experienced
some experts say it is unusual for suicide victims to continue to
carry out routine tasks or make plans for the immediate future in the
hours before killing themselves.
"if somebody is making specific plans for the future just before their
death, that is a strong indicator against suicide." said ronald s.
ebert, a forensic psychologist who teaches at harvard medical school.
although some experts say making such specific plans prior to suicide
is unusual, others say some people intent on suicide do continue with
day -to-day life.
" your life goes on until the moment you kill yourself. you can kill
yourself on saturday and have plans to play tennis on sunday." said
maris , the psychologist.
experts also say friends and family members sometimes fail to detect
signs of depression of suicidal intent in loved ones. they say, too,
that people intent on suicide often will mask their intentions--- a
"veil of deception." one psychologist called it.
and, according to experts, military men are less likely than civilians
to seek help or reveal emotional frailty or inadequacy in a macho
culture that views such admissions as signs of weakness.
even so, these experts say, it is highly unlikely that any one suicide
victim --- much less dozens --- would conceal all outward signs of
depression, or would not have been treated for psychological problems.
"it's extremely puzzling to me that men in so many cases did not seek
medical help before committing suicide, said aaron timothy beck, a
professor of psychiatry at the university of pennsylvania.
"in such a large number of cases, it would be remarkable not to have
some indicator" of depression or despondency, ebert said. "people
don't just commit suicide for no reason.
in several cases, dead servicemen had been under scrutiny by military
investigative agencies shortly before they died.
army sgt. timothy miller, for example, was facing a court martial for
allegedly persuing a fellow soldier named terry stephenson to have
oral sex with him. the army ruled that miller shot and killed himself
three hours after murdering stephenson at ft. irwin, california, in
the soldier who reported finding miller's body told investigators the
.44 caliber hand gun found next to miller was on safety and would have
been virtually impossible for miller to shoot himself in the head and
then put the gun on safety.
lab tests concluded that miller had fired a weapon, but that
stephenson had a memo in the cid investigative report says agent
accidently switched the names and control numbers on the two men's
gunshot residue swabs submitted to the lab.
a military doctor who treated miller noted in his report: patient was
shot in the head by another service member. the cid says a military
special response team had surrounded millers barracks when he was shot
but fired no shots.
the cid report quotes a soldier as saying another soldier had
threatened to kill stephenson , who witnesses said shouted that
soldiers name seconds before he was shot.
and, although the cid report says no prints were found near miller's
body, scene photos show what appears to be a print outlined in blood -
and marked reference by a metal ruler.
millers brother ed miller, of bath, pa. said the army has not provided
any planations these and other inconsistences
the cid report stated it could not determine if miller was shot by the
.44-caliber handgun found next to his body. army records show that
miller had turned in the gun to the base armory three months earlier,
as ordered because he was facing a court martial.
the report said armory officials admit they had falsified records
showing that the gun was locked in a storage box.
every time i raise a question, they come up with new explanations,
said miller who calls himself "one mad brother" after two years of
dealing with the army.
brian urbin had never seen his best friend so upset. kenneth louthian.
visiting home town in indiana while on leave from the uss virginia in
november 1991, pouring out a harrowing tale of life aboard ship.
according to urbin, petty officer louthain told him he had walked into
a drug conspiracy aboard the virginia. louthain described the dealer
as a sailor who carried a briefcase loaded with illegal drugs.
"kenny said the guy told him if he said anything about what he saw,
he'd kill him urbin recalled. " and kenny told me: "if anything
happens to me, don't believe what navy says."
eleven months later, on oct. 3, 1992, kenneth louthain was found dead
aboard virginia while the guided missile cruiser was off the coast of
jamaica. the ncis says louthain doubled a phone receiver cord around
his neck, hung the receiver back on a wall mounted phone, then somehow
hanged his 185-pound body until he died.
an ncis report said louthain most likely died as a result of a
"suicidal gesture prompted by "self-destructive behavior, he concluded
that he strangled himself in a drunken rage, but probably did not
intend to kill himself.
the report quoted sailors as saying loulain had deliberately cut his
own left arm hours before he died. several shipmates said louthain had
admitted to them in the room that he had sliced his body with minor
cuts to relax him or cleanse his spirit," especially when frustrated
the report also said investigators found no evidence of drug dealing
aboard ship. it shows the sailor named by urbin denied that he sold or
the whole story didn't add up to louthian's parents, donnie and carole
louthian from logansport, ind.
kenny had just asked his sister to have his new truck serviced, they
said. he was excited about coming home for christmas in six weeks, and
had plans to see a girlfriend and go hunting with his father. the day
before he died, he bought souvenirs in jamaica for his sister.
according to ncis report, kenny was drunk when he died. but the navy
broke the vials containing his blood samples and was unable to
determine a blood-alcohol level.
then there was the matter of wall mounted phone in the shipboard
office where louthain was found.
some witnesses drew sketches for the ncis showing the receiver hung up
on the wall, with the phone line wrapped around louthain's neck.
another drew a sketch showing the receiver dangling from the wall base
and a separate wire around louthain's neck.
some witnesses said the coiled receiver cord was wrapped twice around
louthain's neck. another witness said there might have been two cords.
a forensic expert interviewed by the ncis at the armed forces
institute of pathology said: "it is clear from the autopsy photographs
that two cords were wrapped around louthain's neck."
no electrical cord was found, according to the ncis report. the
autopsy photos show straight lines across louthain's neck-not
irregular lines that the tightly coiled phone cord would be expected
two navy investigators said in the report that they twice tried to
replicate the hanging by wrapping a replacement phone cord around one
investigator's neck and pulling on it gently as he lay down. each
time, they said, the receiver popped out of the wall base.
the ncis report does not resolve the discrepancy. the phone was not
tested for fingerprints, according to the navy reports.
nor does the report consider the possibility that someone surprised
louthain from behind, strangled him with a wire, then closed the door
and let his body slump against it.
some evidence could suggest a struggle: louthain's shirt was hiked up
on his back. his left arm was tucked behind his back. his right hand
was balled into a fist. one witness reported hearing shouts from the
room in the early morning hours. and an autopsy report noted
unexplained red marks on louthain's arms, a possible indication that
he was restrained,
after studying the three-inch thick navy reports, donnie and carole
louthain insist their son was murdered.
"instead of investigating his death properly, "donnie louthain said,
"the navy set out from the start to prove a suicide theory."
the ncis report noted that louthain had had confrontation with several
enlisted men and officers in the months before his death. his parents
said he had complained about harassment from superiors.
in a letter to his parents shortly before he died, kenny wrote: "i
can't help but wonder where the next 'knife' is coming from."
one sunday in january 1989, lucy garcia drove to the airport in san
juan, puerto rico, to pick up her boyfriend.
marine capt. jeffrey digman had asked her to meet him as he returned
from homeleave in california. she recalls making sure she left early
enough to meet his plane on time, for jeffrey was meticulous. he had
given her precise flight information and asked her to have his dress
blue uniform cleaned for an inspection the next day.
jeffrey digman never arrived. he was lying dead on his bed in
temecula, calif., that evening, shot through the head with a revolver.
the riverside county (calif.) sheriff's office and navy investigators
later said that digman - so drunk that his blood alcohol level was
twice the legal limit - had committed suicide.
the case was quickly closed, even though investigators did not find
the fatal bullet, could not determine if the .44 magnum handgun found
next to digman's body had killed him, and had not tested digman's
hands to determine whether he had fired a weapon.
in addition, the left-handed captain was shot on the right side of his
head, and the wound was not the star-shaped type normally associated
with self-inflicted gunshots. even a year later, after a second
autopsy revealed injuries suggesting a struggle, the agencies held to
their suicide ruling.
to lucy garcia- and to kigman's parents - jeffrey's actions in the
days and hours before his death hardly seemed those of a man planning
to take his life.
when she spoke to him on the phone a few days before he died, garcia
said in an interview, digman "seemed totally normal, his usual self,
talking about the things we were going to do when he got back."
about 50 minutes before he died, a friend said, digman told her by
phone that he was awaiting a ride to the airport. gema pfeiffer said
in an interview that digman, 30, "sounded completely normal, not
although digman sometimes drank heavily, pfeiffer said, she could not
tell over the phone whether he was drunk.
william digman, a retired engineer, and donna digman, a real estate
agent, refused to believe their gung-ho marine son took his life. they
said they have spent almost $100,000 trying to prove he was murdered.
the digmans say they are determined to remove the stain of suicide
from their son's legacy. but in doing so , they have had to confront
painful reminders of his violent death just a few miles from their
home in cypress, calif.
first, they had to endure the exhumation of jeffrey's body a year
later so that a second autopsy could be performed by navy doctors.
then , in a bedroom of the home where jeffrey grew up dreaming of
becoming a marine, the dugmans built an elaborate mockup of his death
scene. they moved in his furniture and belongings and placed them in
precisely the same positions as in the bedroom where he died.
in the mockup, down the hall from their bedroom, jeffrey's death was
replayed endlessly. "it got to where i couldn't stand the sight of
that bed, "donna digman said., "but it was so important in showing
what happened, we just learned to put up with it. we owe it to
on the ceiling, bill digman said, he marked a spot coinciding with the
hole left in the ceiling of jeffrey's home by the bullet that passed
through his skull and out the roof. then he ran a string from the mark
to the edge of the bed upon which jeffrey's body was found.
the trajectory indicated by the string proved to him, digman said,
that his son did not kill himself.
"he would've had to practically lean over and stand on his head to
shoot himself." digman said. " and he would have fallen over on the
floor, not on the bed."
it was then, the digmans said, that they decided to find their own
experts to investigate the entire case.
they hired a private investigator to interview people whom the navy
and sheriff had not questioned. they hired three of the country's top
forensic pathologists to review autopsy records. they paid an expert
in blood spatter patterns and a crime scene analyst to pore over
autopsy and death scene photos.
those photos, combined with a second mockup the digmans set up in the
actual bedroom where their son died in temecula, helped convince their
experts that digman did not die the way authorities said.
"there is more hard evidence against a determination of suicide than
for it, " pathologist cyril w. wecht, a former president of the
american academy of forensic sciences, said in an interview. he
characterized both investigations as "not as complete or detailed as
they should have been."
wecht added: "there is a lot of good, solid evidence that shows it
would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a suicide
to have occurred in the manner that was described" by authorities.
a report by stephan a. schliebe, a crime scene expert at the
california laboratory of forensic science, was less equivocal:
"jeffrey digman struggled with someone, was either accidentally or
purposely shot, and was then placed on the bed."
the death scene photos showed that jeffrey's thumbs, which were
pointed up at his side, were blue, that didn't make sense, the
digman's experts told them. the blue color was caused by lividity, or
the settling of blood, they explained - but only if the thumbs had
been pointed downward and away from the body.
according to wecht, the lividity and position of the thumbs strongly
suggested that someone rearranged jeffrey's hands after he died.
the digmans also saw that the photos showed blood running straight
down from his ear. their experts concluded jeffrey had remained
upright for five to seven seconds after he was shot.
but because such a severe wound would have caused him to collapse
instantly, the experts concluded that someone either prevented digman
from falling or held him upright while laying him on the bed.
the photos also showed a fresh abrasion on digman's right
cheek-dismissed by the riverside county coroner's report as a "small"
injury that did not suggest foul play. after the body was exhumed, a
navy autopsy in 1990 found previously undocumented injuries to
digman's elbow and finger.
even so, the navy said digmand had committed suicide.
the digman's experts disagreed.
"these injuries indicate that some kind of an altercation took place
prior to jeffrey digman's death," schliebe concluded.
the digmans had also noticed a blood stain on the sheet several inches
above their son's head. their experts concluded that the blood was not
spatter from the gunshot but had been smeared there by another
source-possibly a second person who had jeffrey's blood on his or her
none of these contradictions was noted in either investigation. in
fact, the autopsy report prepared the day jeffrey died-when the
investigation was just hours old-concluded: "no signs of foul play".
ted l. gunderson, the former head of the fbi office in los angeles,
was hired by the digmans to reinvestigate the case.
"it was a joke-absolutely ridiculous." gunderson said of the joint
civilian and navy investigation.
the digmans took their accumulated evidence to the armed forces
institute of pathology in washington, a defense department agency. in
february 1991 - two years after jeffrey digman died-a medical examiner
at the institute, richard froede, wrote that "after careful
examination and much thought," he had reclassified the death from
suicide to "undetermined."
even so, the sheriffs office and the ncia refused to change their
rulings. the digmans continued to pressure both agencies while writing
letters to congressmen, military commanders and local officials.
last year, the california state department of justice agreed to
reinvestigate the case. michael prodan, the investigator in charge of
the review, said he has studied existing evidence and sought new
prodan declined to discuss specifics of the case, but he said his
office would send a copy of its final report to riverside county
"i understand the trauma these kinds of cases cause the families,"
prodan said this month. "it's very painful for them not to have
answer. we hope we can find them."
deputy mark lohman of the riverside county sheriffs office said the
department's investigation was thorough and proper.
"if we are presented with new evidence-and i emphasize new-that might
lead us in a different direction, we'd pursue it" he said.
officials at the coroner's office did not respond to requests for
comment. in a 1992 letter to digman's congressman, the coroners office
" the coroner has classified the death as suicide based upon the
evidence available and supported by consultations and physical
examinations by a forensic specialist."
the letter added: "until any supportive real evidence is produced, the
office the coroner maintains the position that captain digman's death
is a suicide."
bill digman scoffs at the coroner's explanation, and accuses the navy
of endorsing and compounding assumptions and errors by civilian
like dozens of other parents of dead servicemen, digman says, he has
seen all too clearly how easy it is to dismiss a complex and difficult
death case as a simple suicide.
"with a suicide there is essentially no investigation, no suspects, no
questions asked and no questions to be answered," he said, "and that
is exactly what happened-until we launched our own investigation."
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