Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Picking up Patterns in Military “Investigations” of Non-combat Deaths: Part 5

In our group of 30 - 40 families, five of the non-combat deaths involved hanging. The two cases not mentioned as yet are those of MSSR Stephen Killian and Pfc. Jayson Coffman. Their tragic stories appear on our website,

You can click on the hyperlinks to read their stories, written by their grief-stricken mothers.

In the case of Stephen Killian, who was found hanged in Las Vegas, NV, it is ironic that in the home of the popular CIS, the civilian authorities refused to investigate because he was in the Navy. The also popular NCIS refused to investigate because he was found in a city distant from his base! If we are to believe from these television series that sensitive whiz-bang forensic technology is available to these giant entities, one wonders why the deaths of military personnel are not worthy of careful investigation to determine whether foul play was involved.

There is a large body of forensic information available to pathologists and coroners which has to do directly with the determination of hanging as a cause of death. Most of the families of these victims have done extensive research using these sources. It is possible to determine with certainty when a victim has been hung after death or a suicide has been staged.

Still, the families’ attempts to get answers are quashed.

Judy and Jeronimo Griego, parents of Ben Griego, wrote: “They showed us his room where they claimed he died. The CID wanted to close the case immediately, but because we had been given the copy of the DVD, and we were asking questions, the investigation was continued. Also our correspondence with the elected officials helped us in continuing the investigation.”

When they found missing pages in the investigation reports, they were told that they’d have to request them separately as the CID representative “didn’t know what had happened to them.”

Both Stephen and Jayson were labeled AWOL (absent without leave) when they were noticed to be missing. Jayson was found very close to his Army base, but the investigation was not particularly well done. His mother did not hear the details surrounding his death from official sources. This seems to be a common thread in all of these cases.

I often wonder why there is such poor investigation and the attempt to keep information from families. In most of these cases, the families have managed to determine that some of the “facts” they were told about the circumstances or crime scene, were not true.

Securing of Investigation Reports, Autopsy Reports, Crime Scene Photos, and the like are very hard for families. Most often, repeated requests and the intervention of Congressmen are the only way that families have been able to check the “facts” that they have been told.

In most of the cases I’ve discussed in this series, the young men were found with feet touching the ground. The Griegos wrote: “The closet bar was approximately 5’2” (high) and Ben was 6’ (tall).”

Their families had had recent contact with them; and they had been given no indication of problems serious enough to have caused them to commit suicide. In several of the cases there had been a phone call very close to the time of death. In a couple of the cases, the young man was due to be discharged shortly before death. In the majority of cases, forensic evidence was handled carelessly or destroyed before it could be analyzed.

Since hanging is neither a sure or painless method of suicide, it seems logical to assume that there is a likelihood of murder in all cases, which should have been ruled out by investigation.

Serious questions of logic and motivation go unaddressed in these cases. Discrepancies are ignored. In some cases, there is inaccurate information as simple as physical description, which appear in autopsy reports.

The military authorities are eager to close the cases and are not particularly curious about the possibility of murder by other military personnel. Do they feel that what goes on in the military should be kept as internal secrets? Is there no fear that murderers at large in the military would branch out to kill other military members, including officers?

Sometimes, the families are treated with disdain, even when notification of death is made. In the case of Nicholas Davis, his mother felt she was notified in a timely manner, but a relative overheard a police officer speaking to someone on the phone and as a result, she was the last of her immediate family to be informed of his death. The family was told that Nick’s death was “self-inflicted” before any investigation was done.

Kim Slapak said that the CID questioned her about Nick’s home life in order to draw possible reasons that he would be predisposed to suicide. This was a common thread in several of the cases. However, reports that groups of individuals had made threats against some of the victims doesn’t seem to have been investigated.

In Benjamin Griego’s case, his parents actually heard rumors of his death at an area Walmart long before they were formally notified!

During Ben’s videotaped “formal class on integrity”, he expressed some words which should be noted by the Military Services when dealing with families. Click on the arrow below on the short video clip to hear what he had to say.

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