Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Civilian Police and Non-combat Death Investigations, Part Two

What Would Dr. Quincy Do?
The first TV series about the use of forensics to solve crimes by scientific methods was Quincy, M.E, which aired from 1976 – 1983.  It was a huge hit.  Jack Klugman played the crusading forensic pathologist, who had a tendency to perseverate (and make idealistic speeches) when working on finding cause of death.  The police were usually a few ticks behind in the investigations.  They tended to jump to false conclusions.  It was Quincy’s job to use the available technology to prove or disprove the theories of the police as to cause of death.  The public was persuaded that this was the proper and prevalent practice in the United States whenever someone died of suspicious or unknown causes.  Dr. Quincy was the symbol of integrity and justice.
Currently, the general popularity of the new TV series like CSI, NCIS, Crossing Jordan, Body of Proof, etc. brings gory pseudo realistic forensics into the homes of the American Public.  Again, these are very big television programs which lead us all to believe that whiz bang technology can pinpoint cause of death as well as circumstances and place of death.  We all believe, from watching these series, that each and every suspicious death that occurs in the US is thoroughly investigated with the very newest technology.
We are SO wrong about that.  In most of the cases I’ll talk about here nothing as basic as fingerprints were taken from the crime scenes, let alone other types of forensic evidence.  The recent PBS Frontline program, Postmortem showed that most elected rural coroners in the US are not forensic pathologists or doctors of any kind and that facilities for the examination and storage of bodies is often non-existent.
Our current fascination with forensics in the US is ironic in that large political factions of our country have expressed a distrust and a rejection of science.  I can only wonder if this is the basis for the dichotomy between our entertainment choices and the reality of crime detection in the US.
Stephen Killian
MSSR Stephen Killian was in the Navy.  His 1999 death occurred, ironically, in the home of the original CSI series:  Las Vegas, Nevada.  He was in the Navy, so you’d think that NCIS, the Naval Criminal Investigation Service, would also be involved in his death investigation.  That proved not to be true.
NCIS is the primary law enforcement and counter-intelligence arm of the US Department of the Navy.  “Types of crimes investigated by NCIS include rape, child physical and sexual abuse, burglary and robbery, theft of government and personal property, and homicide. NCIS also has responsibility for investigating any non-combat death involving a naval service member where the cause of death cannot be medically attributable to disease or natural causes. “ 
Furthermore, according to their website:  “NCIS special agents, intelligence analysts and security specialists routinely work with local, state, federal and foreign law enforcement to address criminal incidents, identify and mitigate threats to U.S. and forces and assets, and pursue joint proactive operations.”

 If you’ve ever watched the TV series, you may believe that NCIS has access to advanced technology comparable to that showcased in the CSI series.  Yet, in reality, neither the Las Vegas police nor NCIS did much in the way of investigation.

In fact, in the three cases I’ll profile in this part of my discussion of Civilian Police and Non-combat Death Investigations, you will see that NCIS plays a decidedly secondary role in the death investigations of two members of the US Navy and one member of the US Marine Corps.  They each died outside of their assigned military bases, and were, therefore considered the responsibility of civilian police where investigation was concerned.
In Stephen’s case, according to his mother, Sonya, the civilian police did a cursory investigation of his death by hanging, immediately labeling it a suicide, despite some very suspicious circumstances.   There was no spectacular CSI investigation and no “Dr. Quincy” to insist on proper assessment of the body to make sure that Stephen wasn’t murdered.

Sonya was denied copies of the crime scene photos by the Las Vegas police.   They said that they destroyed investigation files, including the evidence, in July 1999, two months after Stephen died, as they considered the case closed.
Thomas Traylor

AOC Thomas Traylor was a Navy Aviation Ordinance Chief on active duty stationed at the Weapons Testing Squadron, Naval Station, China Lake, CA.   On December 6th 1998, he was found dead, in rural Inyokern, CA, from a gunshot wound to the chest. The cause of death was listed as suicide.
Thomas Traylor was a kind-hearted, soft-spoken career Navy man who joined up in 1983.  He was scheduled to retire in five years.
The Navy pretty much left Traylor’s death investigation to the Kern County, California, police.  The immediate conclusion was suicide.  Motivation was assigned to various rumors concerning his marriage.  This is usually the tack taken by NCIS in any investigations of non-combat deaths:  find a motive to shore up the initial “cause of death” and that’s the end of it.  
Charolette Traylor, who had been away tending to an elderly relative, was not immediately informed of Traylor’s death.  Her pleas for information were ignored for long periods of time.  Like many military family members, she eventually started her own investigation, employing investigators and having a second autopsy done.
If you click on the link to AOC Traylor above and read her account, you will see that private forensics investigators concluded that Traylor could not have shot himself in his vehicle.  There are many intriguing clues which were left at the scene.  The crime scene photos, which are usually difficult for the family to obtain, were key in making forensics findings.
It is truly unfortunate that “Dr. Quincy” wasn’t in Kern County, California to use the forensic clues left behind to do a thorough investigation.  It is also sad that the Navy had so little regard for one of their own.
Kirk Vanderbur
If any case would give cause to skepticism about “official” cause of death, it would be that of Kirk Vanderbur.

2nd Lt. Kirk Charles Vanderbur was found dead February 17, 1992 at a private gun range in Hubert, NC, near Camp Lejeune.  The Sheriff of Onslow County, NC, Ed Brown was the civilian police authority responsible for investigating Kirk’s death.  He is the current Sheriff of Onslow County, North Carolina.

Onslow County has been the setting for other less than straight forward non-combat deaths of Marines, including LCpl. Maria Lauterbach, and LCpl. Jonathan M. Outz, among others.

Kirk had gone to the shooting range on the afternoon of February 16th.  Marines and soldiers who are serious about maintaining their shooting skills practice periodically, so this was not an unusual situation.  It is believed that there were actually two more individuals at the range that afternoon.  The manager was also on duty, but said that she did not see Kirk’s car in the parking lot when she left that evening.  His body wasn’t found until the next day.

Kirk’s parents, Lois and Gene Vanderbur, were told that Kirk accidentally blasted himself in the chest with birdshot, and then crawled 8 ½ to 10 feet to shoot himself in the head right between the eyes with a semiautomatic rifle.  The rifle was in contact with his hand when his body was found, although Lois stated that this weapon had quite a “kick” when fired and would likely have been thrust away from the body if events happened the way the police theorized.  Furthermore, the range provided waist-high tables on which weapons were placed, so she asks how the rifle got on the ground.  Where is Dr. Quincy when you need him?  Surely not in Onslow County, NC.

As the responders loaded Kirk’s body into the ambulance they noticed the abdominal wound and pulled up his sweatshirt, which pulled his internal organs out. Two days later, without even testing Vanderbur’s hands for gunshot residue, Sheriff Ed Brown decided the death was a suicide and the NCIS agreed.

Lois Vanderbur said “I think the sheriff botched the investigation, didn’t do a homicide investigation and I don’t think the Marine Corps cared”.

Gene Vanderbur wrote: “my son was murdered. I concluded this after a long search for information dealing with a conspiracy of combinations of silence, endless and continuous obfuscation by people in authority, denial of access to evidence, data and photographs, obvious lying, neglect in performance of minimum reasonable investigation, misdirection, shameless displays of arrogance, ignorance and/or more malfeasant actions.”

Kirk’s family has requested copies of the crime scene photos taken by NCIS, which were never delivered.

On February 14, 2011, I spoke on the phone with Major Frank Terwilliger of the Onslow Co., NC Sheriff's Department.  He said that they do not share investigation material because "they are not public records."   He said that a private investigator and NCIS investigators "came to the same conclusion" about Kirk's death being a suicide.  He did not want to say any more.

Lois says that the extent of NCIS’ investigation was to question people as to possible motivations for committing suicide.  No one was theorizing that being shot with two separate guns ten feet apart could have been homicide. 

Dr. Quincy would, at least, have used some science to rule out murder before suggesting suicide.

Donna Janeczko

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