THOMAS TRAYLOR MURDER – ANOTHER MILITARY TRAGEDY
By Charolette Traylor
On December 6th, a week after Thanksgiving 1998, AOC Thomas Richard Traylor, USN, age 36, was found dead, in rural Inyokern, CA, from a gunshot wound to the chest. The cause of death was listed as suicide. He had been missing for two days. Traylor was a Navy Aviation Ordinance Chief on active duty stationed at the Weapons Testing Squadron, Naval Station, China Lake, CA.
On that morning of Dec 6th, Traylor’s neighbors, Larry Seymour & Joanie Hanson, found Traylor. They became alarmed when Traylor’s vehicle set on a dirt road for two days, only a quarter of a mile from Traylor’s home. They drove to the scene and found Traylor dead sitting behind the steering wheel of his vehicle. They immediately returned home and called the authorities.
The Inyokern County Fire Department was the first to arrive on the scene. Next was the County Reserve Deputy Roger Clark and Reserve County Coroner Ron Lunsford. The Liberty Ambulance Service arrived but did not transport. The remains went to the Kern County Morgue, Bakersfield, CA.
Mrs. Traylor had been in San Francisco for a couple of months making arrangements to place an elderly aunt into a rest home. She last spoke to Traylor on Thursday evening, Dec 03, 1998, around 6:00 P.M. from (SF). At that time Traylor was on his way out to a squadron get-together and promised to call her the following morning – which would be then Friday, Dec 04, 1998. When Mrs. Traylor did not receive the promised phone call from her husband the following morning she immediately contacted Traylor’s Gunner, CWO2 Vince Howell, at the Weapons Testing Squadron and was told Traylor had not been heard from or seen since the previous day which had been Thursday.
Mrs. Traylor continued to try and contact Traylor by phone through Saturday. Alarmed because this was not Traylor’s pattern of behavior by not calling his work, Mrs. Traylor drove home to Inyokern. When she left SF on Sunday, Dec 06, at 9:30 A.M. she gave specific instructions to contact her by cell phone immediately if her husband was located. After seven hours of driving she arrived home at 4:30 P.M. Mrs. Traylor’s neighbor, Joanie Hanson then went to the Traylor home and informed Mrs. Traylor she was a “widow.”
Around 5:30 P.M. Deputy N. Dancy and Deputy J. Dancy arrived at the Traylor home – they had had a shift change at the Sheriff’s Dept and had no details on Traylor’s death. In shock, Mrs. Traylor called the Coroner’s Office, Bakersfield, CA and spoke to the Homicide Officer Glenn Johnson, who informed Mrs. Traylor her husband had committed suicide. Mrs. Traylor protested and told Homicide Officer Johnson her husband had never been suicidal and that Traylor detested anyone who considered such a cowardly act!
The China Lake Weapons Testing Squadron personnel arrived after Mrs. Traylor’s son-in-law, CAPT T. Glick, USMC, Cherry Point, NC called the China Lake Command – they were LCDR Severson, CDR J. L. Budnick, MMCM(SS)B. Stone, and The Gunner, CWO2 V. Howell. They had no further information on the death.
China Lake is located in a remote area, 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles, CA, between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Death Valley, away from the public eye. Traylor was attached to VX-31, Hanger-3, at China Lake. Traylor supervised the Avionics/Armament Division of the Naval Weapons Testing Squadron and overlooking the Explosive Safety Inspections. He was instrumental in the squadron’s preparedness for the rigorous maintenance, and loading/downloading of conventional weapons on FA-18s. Traylor’s technical knowledge of missile and bomb launching well qualified him in the training of weapons personnel and he often made trips to Point Mugu, CA and Puerto Rico, Cuba. He was extremely conscientious in the sensitive information surrounding his work. The China Lake Bombing Range covers 20,000 square miles of restricted air space where the famous Sidewinder and Tomahawk missiles were developed.
Traylor was written-up by his command for been absent from work that Friday, Dec 04, 1998.
Traylor was buried on December 10, 1998, Mrs. Traylor spent the remainder of December 98 with her parents in Missoula, MT.
In January 1999, when Mrs. Traylor returned to Inyokern she went to the Sheriff’s Branch Office, Ridgecrest, CA, and learned her husband’s case had been closed. Not accepting her husband’s death as a suicide she started her own investigation as follows.
When Mrs. Traylor took her case to Traylor’s Squadron Commanding Officer, Commander R. Rutherford he stated “Well, you and your husband were having marital problems, you were separated and he killed himself”. This was a shock to Mrs. Traylor she expected the Commanding Officer to support her in a further investigation.
Prior to Mrs. Traylor going to SF she had been counseling with a Mr. Richard Rohrlick, the China Lake Base counselor, concerning her husband’s increased drinking; she also spoke to her husband’s Gunner concerning this same matter.
Mrs. Traylor last visited her husband at Inyokern on Nov 19,1998, two weeks earlier, to celebrate their wedding anniversary. At that time Traylor seemed jumpy and paranoid in public (which was not like him) and then cried when she left to return to SF.
She spoke to her husband weekly and it was during one of the last conversations he told her “he didn’t think he was going to live long,” when the remark alarmed her he changed the subject.
Below is a list of things Mrs. Traylor noted at her home on her arrival on that fatal Sunday, Dec 06, 1998:
- Traylor’s uniform for work was folded and lying on the bed in preparation to wear Friday, Dec 04, 1998.
- On the couch was clean unfolded laundry.
- Traylor had his stair-master in front of the TV for exercising in preparation of his annual physical.
- The master bathroom window was open, the screen lying on the lawn, and a towel lain over the windowsill. Someone had broken into the house by crawled through the window.
- Traylor had just purchased a $350.00 pipe corral for his horses and was assembling it in the yard.
- All the small animals at the Traylor home were locked in the house the two days Traylor was missing: three cats, two dogs, and outside were three horses, starving. Traylor would never have left his beloved animals without first making arrangements for their care and feeding.
- Back tracking Traylor’s days leading up to his death:
- Dec 02-Wed: Neighbor, Joanie Hanson noticed Traylor was outdoors cleaning the horse corral and later with his friend, The Gunner outside working on Traylor’s motorcycle.
- Dec 03-Thur: At 3:00 P.M. Traylor left his work on base to kept his appointment with Richard Rohrlick, the base counselor, to discuss rehabilitation for himself.
- At 9:00 P.M. Traylor was seen by a female bartender, Mickey at Tommy T’s, a local sports bar in Ridgecrest. Later it was verified there had been a military get-together on that evening Dec 03, 98, the last night Traylor spoke to his wife and was seen alive.
- TRAYLOR’S Planned Schedule for 4,5,6 Dec 1998:
- DEC04-Fri: Traylor had a Squadron promotion ceremony to conduct.
- DEC05-Sat: Traylor was to attend a farewell party for his First Class John Barfield, Traylor never missed a party but he was a no show.
- DEC06-Sun: Traylor had committed himself to drive to San Diego, CA to move shipmate, Todd Roger and wife who were transferring to China Lake, a 3-1/2 hour drive one-way.
- Traylor’s Military Identification card had been on him when he was found and the Officer-of-the-Day, at Weapons Test Squadron, LT Neviou and AO2 Hall were notified, but Mrs. Traylor was never called.
A resident of Inyokern saw Traylor’s truck sitting on the dirt road near the Traylor home on Friday and Saturday, Dec 04, 05, 1998.
A neighbor told Mrs. Traylor how her husband had been parking his vehicle in the desert in the evenings for a couple of weeks before his death. From where Traylor parked he had a clear view of his home without being seen himself.
Traylor’s AO1 “Shorty” Wellington and AME3 Gerry Sims claimed to have driven to the Traylor home on Saturday, Dec 05, 1998, searching for Traylor but did not see Traylor’s vehicle sitting near the Traylor home.
AO2 Phil Kamp’s wife, Brenda stated that Traylor started to act strange, no longer would he let anyone drive him home after he had had to much to drink; instead Traylor would leave the social gatherings when no one was aware, this was just prior to his death.
During Mrs. Traylor’s investigating she was told her husband often expressed his love for her and looked forward to her return from SF at Christmas permanently; and how he expected a visit then from their first grandchild.
Mrs. Traylor had to harass the Naval Crime Investigator Service’s (NCIS) for their results, it was a duplicate of the Sheriff’s Report. NCIS reasoning behind the lack of a JAG investigation was because Traylor was found off the base and it was Kern County’s responsibility to investigate. The Navy was tossing the case back to the County.
After six-months of waiting Mrs. Traylor received Coroner D. Brown’s report. The report was vague and assumptions were made about the Traylor’s separation supporting suicide. No internal autopsy had been performed to validate the gun and shells found in Traylor vehicle with him were the weapons that killed him. There were no X-rays. No tape recording of the external autopsy or diagram. No resin testing of the hands – proving Traylor held the gun. Last, no time of death was established through eye testing or did the report state if rigor had set-in yet, how long had Traylor been dead? A Toxicology Test was done showing an alcohol level of 0.28 but no urine test to back it.
In June 1999, Mrs. Traylor met with Kern County Coroner M. Kaiser at Bakersfield, in protest of the suicide theory and present the true facts. Coroner Kaiser agreed there was not enough evidence to justify a suicide. She changed the death certificate to “undetermined” and amended the Coroner’s Report – still the case was not reopened by the county.
Mrs. Traylor was not able to obtain an appointment with the China Lake Base Commanding Officer CAPT C. H. Johnston, to present the new death certificate and to again request a reinvestigation. Nor would the California Congressman William Thomas pursue the case. The FBI stated they saw no crime committed.
Traylor’s best friend, “The Gunner” avoided Mrs. Traylor for a year after the death. When she was finally able to corner him he told her “All you want to do is talk about Traylor, I want to believe it was a suicide,” and avoided Mrs. Traylor from then on.
The Summer of 1999, Mrs. Traylor drove her husband’s vehicle to the base gas station and while inside paying she noticed CDR Budnick, the Squadron Test Pilot, standing frozen in shock staring at Traylor’s vehicle like he’d just seen a ghost until he saw Mrs. Traylor and regained his composure.
In November 1999, Mrs. Traylor obtained the photographs of the scene of death from the County Technical Laboratory. The photos revealed the following:
- Traylor is shown sitting behind the steering wheel of his vehicle with his cap on his head and his glasses in his right hand.
- A shotgun is pointing at Traylor from the floorboard of the passenger’s side of the vehicle with the barrel propped against the side of the console, a card, and a “Bud Light” beer can.
- Blood is shown running straight down Traylor’s right-thigh verifying he died where he was found.
- Mrs. Traylor can verify the blood location and pattern in the vehicle, because on Monday, Dec 07, 1998, the day after Traylor was found Mrs. Traylor reclaimed her husband’s vehicle. The vehicle has not been impounded in a police lot but towed to a business garage in Inyokern on Dec 06.
- Blood was found on the front of the console and the cup-holders in that area – the console divided the bucket-seats. Blood was found near the gas peddle and the seat part of the driver’s buck-seat and blood dripped to the floorboard. But, the largest splattering of blood is on the drive-shaft.
- A box of shells (birdshot) was on the passenger seat with opened mail.
- When Mrs. Traylor presented these photos to Kern County Homicide Officer Johnson for answers and a reinvestigation he became angry and escorted her out of his office.
- After AO1 Wellington viewed the photos he stated “the Squadron never thought Traylor committed suicide”. Unfortunately, the Squadron couldn’t help – they had been given a “Gag Order” not to speak to Mrs. Traylor; they feared for their own lives if they talked.
The investigation was shut down because the Navy had Kern County close the case immediately without an investigation through their “Good Old Boys Connect”, call the death a suicide and lay blame on the wife.
So, it wasn’t necessary to notify or even contact Mrs. Traylor for questioning as a suspect of murder. That is why Homicide Officer Johnson so bluntly informed Mrs. Traylor her husband had committed suicide, nine hours after Traylor had been found.
To strengthen their suicide theory, there was a letter found in the vehicle addressed to Traylor asking him to sign a waiver. This was assumed to be leading towards divorce papers in the first Coroner’s Report. The letter actually concerned Mr. Traylor’s release from Mrs. Traylor retirement money. Mrs. Traylor of course, was never questioned about the letter.
Traylor, himself was an extremely private individual and more so about his personal life. The only two people that had information on the Traylor’s marriage were The Gunner, (CWO2 V. Howell), and Mr. Richard Rohrlick, the base counselor. One of these two people gave the background for the theory of suicide.
The vehicle was moved and never sealed-off because again there wasn’t going to be an investigation. The Coroner’s Report lacked vital information, as stated previously. The Sheriff’s Report excluded fingerprints, footprints, or tire prints from the scene. Photos: show Traylor’s hands and arms had no blood or blow-back from skin on them. Traylor didn’t drink Bud Light beer as the photos show from inside the vehicle; and he didn’t take his glasses off and hold them after he shot himself. The photos were staged.
When Traylor made the statement to his wife “he didn’t think he was going to live long” that was a tip-off his life was in danger. He tried to avoid his death by hiding in the desert. But Traylor was ordered to the Thursday night military get-together; here he was gotten drunk, followed, stopped just short of his home, and killed. Traylor’s shotgun was obtained from his home by gaining entrance through the bathroom window – so identification was not necessary. The squadron get-together may have occurred at the Sierra Club, Inyokern, CA a mile from the Traylor home.
The China Lake Base is a highly secured installation due to warfare weapons developed there. Traylor was military property for fifteen years, there should have been a JAG investigation by the Navy.
In 2000, Mrs. Traylor again tried to re-open the case by contacting Kern County and she received a reply from Sheriff Sparks threatening to reverse the cause of death “Undetermined back to suicide” if she continued to pursue the matter.
In Aug 2003, Prof. J. Starrs, Dr. J. Frost, and team from George Washington University, Washington, D.C., performed the internal autopsy on Traylor. It was found that the angle of the shot was from the upper right side of the chest to the lower left side of the media. The angle of the shot was not possible inside the confinement of the cab of the vehicle.
The shot came from outside of the passenger’s side of the vehicle when Traylor leaned over and opened the passenger’s door. The impact forced Traylor’s body back into the area of the console and the drive-shaft of the vehicle where the majority of the blood was located. There was no blood on the dashboard, steering wheel, windshield, driver’s door, or the roof of the vehicle. According to the autopsy Traylor’s heart stopped immediately. Traylor’s body was set back into the seat, glasses placed in his hand and cap put on his head. Some item was removed from Traylor’s right thigh that left a square pattern clear of blood. There was no blood on the beer can or the card that supported the gun pointing at Traylor. Again Mrs. Traylor can verify the location of the blood splatter. Last, Traylor’s wristwatch was not on any of the photos from the scene but returned to Mrs. Traylor with the personal effects.
The whole concept of suicide is an insult to Thomas R. Traylor’s integrity.
Why wasn’t Mrs Traylor notified that Sunday? It wasn’t necessary. Her name and SF phone number were written on an envelope next to the Traylor’s kitchen phone.
Why was it not necessary to identify the shotgun as being owned by Traylor? (The gun had never been registered nor had a hunting license been bought. Traylor had not used any of his number of guns in years nor in the thirteen months he had been at China Lake and his only acquaintances were military. Traylor also owned a handgun – which would have been easier to use in the vehicle).
Traylor grew-up outside of El Paso, TX, enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1983, a Navy career-man retiring in five years. He was a kind-hearted, soft-spoken man with no enemies.
If you have information about this case, or would like to contact Mrs. Traylor, email us and we’ll forward your message to her.