[back] The Crimes of Mena: Military "Suicides"

[Part 3] The Crimes of Mena: Military "Suicides"

Part  1, 2, 4

                         The Philadelphia Inquirer
                 The suicide files: Death in the military
                           third of four parts.
   By David Zucchino
   Inquirer staff writer

   Two days before he died, marine lt. Kirk vanderbur called his mother
    back home in iowa and asked her to mail his favorite snacks: homemade
    chocolate chip cookies and rice krispies bars.
    The day before he died, vanderbur mailed a cheery letter addressed to
    his "little squirrelly bro," lars. Kirk, based at camp lejeune, n.c.,
    sent his address for an overseas assignment.
    The next day-feb. 16, 1992- kirk spent a relaxed sunday afternoon
    sailing in north Carolina with a friend who later described him as
    "his normal self" that day.
    A few hours later, Kirk Vanderbur was dead at age 24. His body was
    found on a private shooting range in tiny hubert, n.c., shot not once
    but twice-in the stomach and the head-with two separate weapons found
    lying 10 feet apart.
    Ten months later, a 270-page navy investigative report reached the
    same conclusion a local sherriff had announced two days after the
    extraordinary death: vanderbur had committed suicide.
    The navy report portrayed vanderbur as a tormented young man with
    serious girlfriend and money problems. It said he was torn by feelings
    of "inadequacy and unworthiness" that drove him to suicide.
    That conclusion was not based on physical evidence. It was the result
    of a "psychological autopsy"-a controversial postmortem evaluation
    based on comments from vanderbur's friends, co-workers and family
    members, and a study of his writings.
    The procedure is the same one the Navy relied on in 1989, after an
    explsion aboard the uss Iowa killed 47 sailors. The navy falsely
    accused one of the dead men, gunner's mate clayton hartwig, of
    sabotaging a gun turret as part of a suicide attempt.
    A psychological autopsy prepared for the navy by the fbi portrayed
    hartwig as an antisocial, suicidal loner.
    Nine months after the explosion, a panel of psychologists harshly
    criticized the hartwig analysis as improper and invalid. A
    congressional inquiry said investigators, relying on the analysis,
    made false assumptions and sought only evidence that reinforced their
    preconceived notions about hartwig.
    Scientist later concluded through lab test that the iowa explosion was
    an accident. The navy publicly apologized to hartwi's family.
    Four years after the iowa debacle, the military still uses
    psychological autopsies to buttress rulings of suicide in suspicious
    deaths of serviemen, sespite misgivings by psychologists about their
    In the vanderbur case, a in the iowa case, navy authorities cited the
    psychological autopsy to explain to grieving parents the motivations
    for a son's purported suicide. Yet independent investigators who have
    reviewed the vanderbur investigation say there is no proof he went to
    the range with the intention of killing himself. They say his death
    was most likely an accident.
    Psychological autopsies were used in at least a dozen of 40 cases in
    which families contend that the military mishandled death
    investigations. A review of those cases suggest investigators put
    undue weight on psychological autopsies to shore up findings of
    suicide-the same"excess of certitude" attributed to the iowa
    In many cases, the "reconceptions and prejudices" attributed to the
    iowa investigators have been repeated. Investigators have assumed
    suicide as soon as a body is found, then used psychological autopsies
    prepared months later to justify their conclusions.
    Psychologists say the psychological autopsy, developed in the 1950'S,
    is an imperfect and limited technique with no set standards. They say
    it should be used as one of many tolls in investigations of equivocal
    deaths, not as conclusive evidence of suicide.
    When a psychological autopsy is assembled months later by a military
    psychologist who knows the military has ruled a death a suicide,
    experts say, it is of limited value to a death investigation.
    "my eyebrows are raised," ronald s. Ebert, a forensic psychologist who
    teaches at harvard medical school, said after reviewing the vanderbur
    psychological autopsy. The profile concluded that venderbur carried
    out a plan to kill himself.
    "i'm surprised he can come to that conclusion based on the available
    data," said ebert, who was on the panel that criticized the iowa
    investigation, "there are too many inconsistencies for him to come to
    such a definitive conclusion."
    the vanderbur profile was based on summaries of interviews by military
    investigatiors. Experts say a psychological autopsy is of dubious
    value unless a psychologist personally questions a victim's family,
    friends and co-workers.
    "even under the best conditions, a psychological autopsy is not at all
    that scientific," said ronald w. Maris, a university of south carolina
    psychologist who has written or edited 11 clinical books on suicide. "
    it's subjective. It's an after-the -fact , third-party procedure. It
    can be a highly unreliable technique."
    many of the military's psychological autopsies contain subjective and
    conjectural phrasing. In most cases reviews by the inquirer, military
    psychologists were told a suicide had occurred and then wrote reports
    speculating how and why.
    That is a questionable exercise, experts say. Yet families say the
    military has cited the autopsies to them when they expressed
    skepticism about suicide rulings.
    "you don't assume suicide from the beginning," said aaron t. Beck, a
    professor of psychiatry at the university of pennsylvania and a
    leading expert on suicides. He said homicide, accident, or natural
    death should be ruled out first.
    The iowa psychologists, assembled by congress, said a psychological
    autopsy should not be a substitute for a comprehensive criminal
    "psychological autopsies designed to determine suicidal tendencies and
    behavior are of moderate value and utility," said a summary of the
    Iowa panel's findings, published in the January issue of American
    psychologist magazine. "psychological autopsy is relatively
    indeveloped, with little known about its reliability or validity."
    the summary's authors added: "we urge exceeding caution in deciding to
    use posthumous psychological investigations; many equivocal or
    unsolved death cases may simply have to remain unsolved.
    A congressional critique of the Iowa case said the hartwig
    psychological autopsy "provided something the navy needed-a theory
    that now could be backed with seeming scientific support."
    four former military investigators who reviewed military investigative
    reports for the inquirer said agents were quick to assume suicide -
    usually before forensic and lab tests were completed. They said the
    investigations left too many questions unanswered and in many cases
    relied on psychological autopsies to explain the dead mens' motives.
    One former air force criminal investigator, Ronald f. Decker,
    dismissed the psychological autopsy in one case with two words: "total
    when marine cpt. John maccaskill jr. Was shot to death in a nightclub
    in el Salvador five years ago, nobody dreamed that his grandfather
    might have something to do with it---except a navy psychologist.
    The navy's psychological autopsy concluded that maccaskill had
    committed suicide. The psychologist who wrote it speculated that the
    corporal was " moody," and he based that evaluation on an unusual
    "corporal maccaskill's family had a history of problems with alcohol
    and moodiness," his report said, " corporal macCaskill's father and
    grandfather had both evidenced uncontrolled moodiness that was made
    worse by the consumption of alcohol."
    maccaskill's father, retired new york police officer jack maccaskill,
    said he was outraged when he read the report.
    " that was a low blow," he said. " john's grandfather was treated for
    alcoholism, but what does that have to do with my son committing
    suicide? They're really stretching."
    jack maccaskill and his wife, joanne, have tried since 1988 to prove
    their son did not commit suicide. They accuse the naval criminal
    investigative service (ncis) of bungling the investigation into john's
    The navy since has changed the manner of maccaskill's death from
    suicide to "self-inflicted".
    In another case, an army psychological autopsy created an elaborate
    scenario to explain why spec. 4 chad langford shot himself in the head
    at redstone arsenal, ala., in march 1992.
    An army investigative report tuled suicide despite noting that
    evidence at the death scene was inconclusive and contradictory. It
    warned against a "tendency to speculate."
    the army acknowledged that it could not determine whether landgord had
    fired a gun, or why the gun found uner his body had been fired twice.
    Langford's fingerprints were not found on the weapon, and
    unidentifired fingerprints were found on his armband and handcuffs.
    Without citing andy physical evidence, the psychological autopsy said
    langford "was determined to kill himself in a fashion that would
    suggest he had been murdered in the line of duty."
    the psychologist who wrote the report said langford-who did not drink
    or use drugs and was never treated for psychiatric problems-suffered
    from a "recurrent major depression." he cited "narcissistic and
    obsessive compulsive traits."
    the autopsy was not prepared until three months after langford's death
    had been ruled a suicide. But it was cited in the army report as an
    indication that langford staged his own death scene to make it appear
    that he had been murdered.
    Langford's father, jim langford, contends that his son was murdered
    while on an undercover drug assignment. He called the autopsy
    "psychiatric hogwash".
    James w. Keefe, a former army criminal investigator and supervisor who
    reviewed the langford investigative file, called the psychological
    autopsy "the biggest bunch of bull i've ever read."
    he added: "they assume suicide, then try to build a case for it and
    bend the facts to fit it."
    based on his review of the vanderbur psychological autopsy and
    description of autopsies in other cases, said ebert, the psychologist,
    the military is in danger of repeating the mistakes of the iowa
    "so much," he said, " for our brilliant intervention.
    A congressional report on the iowa disaster warned against any
    psychologist's concluding how or why a death occurred:
    "the independent experts believe it is beyond anyone's professional
    ability to determine from a psychological reconstructive evaluation
    whether or not events have occurred in a particular fashion."
    experience and training are essential to any psychological autopsy,
    said douglas jacobs, a harvard psychiatrist who sat on the town panel.
    "the standards are somewhat loosely defined." jacobs said. "the
    technique is only as good as the technician".
    The ncis said it adjusted its psychological autopsy procedures after
    criticism of the oiwa investigation. The american psychologist summary
    has been incorporated into ncis procedures, an official said.
    According to the ncis, a psychological autopsy is used "selectively,"
    and only if requested by a medical examiner.
    In a statement, robert j. Finan 3D, assistant firector of the ncis,
    said the hartwig analysis was conducted by the fbi for hts agency. He
    said responsibility for any psychological autopsy in the navy "rests
    with the professional conducting the psychological autopsy and not
    with the organization."
    finan added: " a psychological autopsy is an opinion offered by a
    trained, experienced professional."
    officials at the investigative agencies of the army and the air force
    said their agencies had made no changes in their psychological autopsy
    procedures as a result of the iowa case.
    Kenneth a. Miller, a spokesman for the army's criminal investigation
    command (cid), said the agency uses psychological autopsies in both
    confirmed and suspected suicides, and in cases in which the manner of
    death is equivocal.
    "the psychological autopsy provides assistance to an investigation and
    hilps to answer questions on the state of mind of the deceased,"
    miller said in a written statement. "(it) can also help the
    investigator understand the totality of the circumstances surrounding
    the death."
    ebert, the iowa panelist, said the methods of military investigators
    in the iowa case struck him as "incestuous."
    "perhaps incestuous is too strong a word," ebert said "but they carry
    out their investigations within a very closed network."
    civilian psychologists submit their methods to peer review, or to
    cross-examination in cases when courts allow testimony on
    psychological autopsies, ebert said, military psychologists, he said,
    do not have to defend themselves before an independent body.
    "the advantage of the battle of doctors in court is the opportunity
    for debate and opposing points of view," ebert said. "it takes methods
    out from under rocks and into the light of day. That's the distinction
    between the civilian courts and the system in the military."
    finan, of the ncis, said most death cases-including those involving
    psychological autopsies-are reviewed within the military by a group
    that includes a forensic pathologist, a clinical or forensic
    psychologist, and a criminal investigator.
    Families of some dead servicemen complain that psychological autopsies
    contain false assumptions. They accuse the military of making leaps of
    logic-especially in cases in which physical evidence is inconclusive-
    in attempting to divine reasons for deaths ruled suicide.
    Kirk vanderbur left no suicide note. He had no history of depression
    or other psychological problems. His behavior had not been erratic in
    the days before his death. No alcohol or norcartics were found in his
    Despite these factors and the highly unusual means of suicide-two
    wounds from two weapons-the ncis agreed with local authorities that
    vanderbur had committed suicide. The navy's investigative report
    decsribed a most unusual death"
    vandervur first shot himself in the gut with his spa 12-guage shotgun,
    inflicting a painful but not fatal wound.
    Leaving the shotgun-he crawled eight to 10 feet and picked up his
    ruger mini-14 .223-caliber rifle. Then he somehow lifted it to his
    head and pulled the trigger with his thumb.
    Two days later, sheriff ed brown announced that vanderbur had
    committed suicide. Investigators were so certain of the ruling that
    they did not test vanderbur's hands for gunshot residue to determine
    whether he had fired a weapon.
    The psychological autopsy, issued almost a year after the shooting,
    attributed vanderbur's death in part to a recent breakup with his
    But vanderbur's parents said the breakup had occurred three years
    earlier. The girlfriend told the ncis that she and vanderbur had an
    amicable phone conversation the week before his death. She described
    him as normal and happy.
    The girlfriend said vanderbur lift a phone message on her answering
    machine on valentine's day - tow days before he went to the range-
    saying he would call her again over the weekend. He sounded "upbeat,"
    she said.
    Nonetheless, the psychological autopsy speculated that the girlfriend
    "may have recently communicated to him that there was no future."
    the psychologist who wrote the autopsy report did not speak to the
    girlfriend. And referred to the date of vanderbur's death as "the
    sunday before her death." the girlfriend is still alive
    "after reviewing the records and photographs," the report said, "it is
    my opinion that 2LT vanderbur committed suicide."
    the psychologist theorized that vanderbur killed himself because of
    girlfriend and money woes, and because he feared he could not measure
    up as an officer. The investigative report said vanderbur had no money
    problems and "exhibited no indications of personal concerns" prior to
    his death.
    The psychologist wrote that his conclusions were "speculative" and
    "derived from data solicited from secon-hand sources."
    his report said of vanderbur:
    "his entusiasm with guns and his preoccupations with death and
    destruction support the presence of a depressive position and strong
    aggressive drive....i suspect that his image as a marine was a
    significant coping mechanism for avoiding underlying painful feelings
    of inadequacy and unworthiness."
    all psychobabble, says vanderbur's mother, lois vanderbur.
    "my son loved life, "she said, "he had every reason to live."
    vanderbur and her husband, gene, a former marine, didn't buy the
    official explanation. At home in mapleton, iowa, their outrage and
    disbelief grew as they pored over the navy report.
    Kirk was a knowledgeable gun enthusiast, the said. Why would he commit
    suicide with a blast of no.6 birdshot to the abdomen, knowing it would
    not kill him? And why would he kill hi mself at a public range when he
    had a loaded .22 pistol at home?
    "if kirk had committed suicide, he'd have done a much better job of
    it, "lois vanderbur said. "he knew guns too well to make such a mess
    of it."
    the vanderburs asked frederick r. Mcdaniel, a former army criminal
    investigator and retired kansas city police captain, to review their
    son's case. What he read appalled him, he said.
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