THE BLOG

When Is a Suicide Not a Suicide?

02/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The voice on the other line was familiar but I'd never heard him sound quite like this.

It was my pal Bernalillo County Sheriff, Darren White, calling me. Darren is a personable guy so we spent a few minutes exchanging pleasantries and asking about each other's families and holidays. But I sensed he had another reason for calling.

Our conversation soon turned serious.

Sheriff White told me about a friend of his named Todd Parkins, a top cop at the Albuquerque Police Department. Sheriff White's voice seemed to crack with emotion as he told me his friend, a 15-year veteran of the A.P.D. and a man destined for high-ranking stardom, had died of a gunshot wound five months earlier.

Lieutenant Todd Parkins was getting ready to go on a horseback hunting trip to the Pecos wilderness with some buddies. His truck was idling outside, his wife, Sue, was making him a sandwich and one of his young sons happened to be home sick that day watching Dad as he packed up to go.

Suddenly, one blast from a 60-year-old keepsake rifle sent 6 buckshot pellets smashing through Parkins's upper left chest and, much more devastating, through vital arteries that pumped blood to his heart and brain. In a short time this 38-year-old loving father, husband and known-prankster to his friends had literally bled-out inside his own chest. Before he died he looked at his panicked wife and asked, "What happened? Please. Call."

I started to express my sympathy but Sheriff White kept talking and through what seemed like clenched teeth he told me, "The autopsy went to a newbie at the Office of the Medical Investigator and her conclusion was suicide." The last word came out with a hiss and an air of disbelief.

Sheriff White told me the Parkins' family was completely distraught over the suicide finding, not just because it would cancel life insurance payouts but because it would leave a stain on an otherwise sterling reputation. And it would hang over the heads of Parkins' two young sons who would be left to wonder why Daddy didn't want to see them grow up.

"There is no one who knew Todd who thinks suicide is even a remote possibility, Diane. Do you know any famous forensic guys who could re-do this autopsy? Do you know Dr. Michael Baden or someone like him?"

I have made lots of contacts along this crime and justice path I've traveled since I first left Albuquerque to pursue my reporting career and, indeed, I told Sheriff White, "I do know Dr. Baden from my days at Court TV." I promised to get in touch with him.

Dr. Michael Baden, in case you don't know, is one the most respected and well known medical examiners in America. For 25 years he worked in the New York Medical Examiner's office. He's been involved as a forensic expert in gobs of high-profile cases like the JFK assassination, the murder trials of Marlon Brando's son, OJ Simpson and Claus Von Bulow. He performed autopsies on the WA Flight 800 victims. And Dr. Baden was there for the re-autopsy of Civil Rights Leader Medgar Evers and the re-examination of the kidnapped Lindberg baby case.

I rustled up Dr. Baden's e-mail address and I quickly heard back: "Dear Diane, I would be pleased to review the autopsy report and police reports to see if I could possibly be of any help." Soon Sheriff White in Albuquerque and Dr. Baden in New York were connected by phone.

Dr. Baden now has the autopsy file compiled in New Mexico at the Office of Medical Investigators by a young woman who, from the looks of her on-line photo, is in her 20's. The OMI website lists her as not yet graduated from the year-long forensic fellowship program. Odd that someone so inexperienced would get the assignment to do such a high-profile autopsy. Sheriff White says her conclusion that a police officer, with experience handling guns, would never accidentally fire one is ludicrous. "People who handle guns get complacent all the time," he said. "It's an occupational hazard."

Dr. Baden also has copies of all the police interviews and the gun inspection report and, perhaps most helpful, a high-tech 3-D computerized scan of the room in which Lt. Parkins was shot. With this Baden can recreate the scene and exactly measure how the gun Todd Parkins' Grandfather bequeathed him suddenly fired, sending out buckshot to rip through his body.

When the Chief of the OMI publicly admits he's not sure what caused the death of this APD veteran officer I say the city owes the Parkins family a second opinion. Dr. Baden, who took this case for free, may conclude it was suicide. But I doubt it.

Diane Dimond's web site is www.DianeDimond.net - e-mail: Diane@DianeDimond.net