[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.
HOW PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS
BUILT FAULTY INVESTIGATIONS
A PSYCHOLOGICAL AUTOPSY MISTAKENLY PORTRAYED THE USS IOWA BLAST AS A
SUICIDE ATTEMPT. DESPITE HAVING TO PUBLICLY APOLOGIZE, THE NAVY STILL
USES THE CONTROVERSIAL METHOD TO CLOSE THE BOOKS ON SUSPICIOUS DEATHS.
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
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
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,"
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
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
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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