The manner in which Columbus shooting victim Cary A. Owsley died has been ruled as undetermined by a court-hired pathologist.
But there is no evidence to suggest that Owsley’s death was a homicide, within reasonable medical certainty, concluded Dr. Scott Wagner of Fort Wayne. His ruling from a March 12 autopsy was released Tuesday.
Owsley’s April 7, 2013, death had been ruled a suicide by Bartholomew County Coroner Larry Fisher after an investigation by the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department. No autopsy was conducted on Owsley at the time.
Owsley’s sister, Cheryl Jackson, disputed that ruling, saying Owsley’s family wanted to learn from medical experts whether evidence would show that he was the victim of foul play.
Wagner’s ruling said Owsley’s death appears to be either suicide or accidental.
“Gunshot particles deep in the (chest) wound suggest a contact wound and, therefore, suicide,” Wagner wrote in his postmortem examination final report to Bartholomew Circuit Court Judge Stephen Heimann.
Due to decomposition and other factors that altered the size of the entrance wound during the examination, “accident cannot be completely ruled out,” Wagner wrote.
The shirt Owsley was wearing at the time of his death was a missing key piece of evidence, Wagner stated.
“There is no evidence this death is a homicide, within reasonable medical certainty,” Wagner wrote in his report.
A Michigan pathologist hired by Jackson, Dr. Werner Spitz, agreed that Owsley’s manner of death was undetermined but said it appeared to be the result of suicide or a homicide.
Bartholomew Circuit Court Judge Stephen Heimann said he will revisit the Owsley case in about six months to determine if it can be closed, once all financial matters are concluded.
The Cary A. Owsley autopsy report showed Owsley had diazepam, caffeine and naproxen in his body at the time of his death.
Diazepam is used to treat anxiety disorders, alcohol withdrawal symptoms or muscle spasms. Diazepam is sometimes used with other medications to treat seizures.
Naproxen is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug. It is often used to relieve pain, tenderness, swelling and stiffness caused by different forms of arthritis. Nonprescription naproxen may be used to relieve fever and pain from headaches, muscle aches, arthritis and backaches.
Source: National Institute of Health
Spitz said his report is basically the same as Wagner’s, but he doesn’t believe an accidental shooting was a possible manner of death.
Accidental shootings typically occur at distances that are not at close range, Spitz said.
Examination of Owsley’s body suggested the gun was pressed against the skin, because of gun powder in the wound and muzzle flare, Spitz said.
Determining a manner of death involves more than just the autopsy, Spitz said.
“You have the findings of the autopsy, and if they don’t contradict, then circumstantial evidence would dominate. With what is in hand, it certainly suggests the possibility of a homicide,” Spitz said.
Spitz said his report was given to Jackson’s attorney and should be available today.
Since Spitz was Jackson’s private pathologist, Heimann said he didn’t see how he could require that Spitz submit those findings to the court.
The two pathologists involved in the autopsy are of the highest skill level, Jackson said. But she believes a botched investigation by the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department and Fisher prevented the pathologists from having some evidence to examine which could have altered their rulings.
Wagner’s report said key pieces of evidence were not available for examination, namely the shirt and entrance wound — altered by postmortem preparation and decomposition.
Sister: Unanswered questions
“My brother was killed by someone else. I have never believed anything differently,” Jackson said.
She said her brother would have needed to have been a magician to create such a complicated scene of death.
“I believe if (the sheriff’s department and Fisher) fully investigated on the day my brother died, we would have known what happened to him. We as a family will spend the rest of our lives not knowing who killed him,” Jackson said.
The results of the autopsy are not the end of her brother’s story, she said. She will spend the rest of her life telling people how officials in Columbus botched the investigation, she said.
Fisher said he agrees with Wagner’s findings in the Owsley autopsy.
“I ruled it a suicide, and I will stick with that,” he said.
Fisher said he did not seek an autopsy in the Owsley shooting death because circumstances of the death and the scene of the investigation provided the information he needed.
He declined to explain what specific evidence led him to the conclusion of suicide, saying that had been sealed by the court.
“Just everything fell right into place,” Fisher said. “Everything pointed to that (suicide) in the beginning.”
However, “they decided they didn’t want to agree with me,” he said of Jackson’s request for the autopsy.
No criminal investigation
During Tuesday’s hearing, Heimann read part of a letter submitted to the court from the FBI written after federal agents discussed the Owsley case with the Indiana State Police.
In the letter, the FBI stated after the initial determination of suicide that “circumstances did not warrant any further investigation,” the judge said.
“If either the FBI or the State Police saw something worth investigating there, they would have investigated,” Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash said after the hearing.
Heimann said he came to a similar conclusion as the FBI after reading Wagner’s report Tuesday.
“Given all information, I don’t see any need to pass this (autopsy report) on for further criminal investigation,” Heimann said.
Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark E. Gorbett said it has been and continues to be “our firm and sincere believe that Mr. Owsley’s death, while regrettable, was the result of a self-inflicted gunshot. Nothing was discovered during the investigation, nor subsequent to the investigation, that has given us any reason to revise this judgement.”
Wagner’s autopsy report was released in Bartholomew Circuit Court immediately after a hearing requested by Jackson, who sought assurances that Spitz had the same information provided to Wagner.
While he conceded Tuesday that both pathologists had the same information, Jackson’s attorney Trent McCain also said Jackson still believes someone in the sheriff’s department edited investigative files on her brother’s death before they were sent to the court.
However, no specific examples of suspected missing files were cited by the Merrillville attorney during the hearing.
Gorbett said early on that he took steps to discipline three of the five officers who initially arrived at the Owsley scene.
“The report today confirms the initial actions of the officers at the scene did not materially alter the ultimate conclusion that Mr. Owsley died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” Gorbett said.
Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash acknowledged that three deputies were disciplined for breaking protocols during the initial death investigation.
They were Deputy E. DeWayne Janes, ex-husband of Lisa Owsley, the victim’s wife; Sgt. Dean Johnson; and Detective Christie Nunemaker.
“But not following protocol does not turn evidence of a suicide into something else,” Nash said.
Witness testimony and online records indicate Owsley gave several people warnings that he was going to take his own life, the prosecutor said.
“This is not a guy who did this out of the blue,” Nash said. “One thing I hope we learn from all this is when someone says they are going to kill themselves, we need to take them very seriously.”
The attorney for Lisa Owsley, who was home with Cary Owsley at the time of the shooting, said his client hopes the matter is over.
“We hope this is the time when everybody stops accusing other people of doing things,” attorney Mark McNeely said. “We do not intend to pursue anything else at this point.”
Gorbett said, from the outset, he has kept an open mind with regard to the investigation and the concerns of Jackson and the family.
“Certainly every effort has been made to determine the facts about this death, and her request for a post-mortem examination was approved without objection from my office,” Gorbett said. “There is no evidence a crime has been committed. It is our sincere hope that family members are now able to find healing and closure.”
Assistant Managing Editors Kirk Johannesen and Julie McClure contributed to this report.
Timeline of events
April 7: Cary Owsley, 49, is found dead in the Columbus home he shared with his wife, Lisa Owsley, 50. County Coroner Larry Fisher and the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department consider the death a suicide.
May 9: After Owsley’s sister, Cheryl Jackson, questions how the Sheriff’s Department handled the death investigation, an Indiana State Police specialist, Sgt. Tom Baxter of the criminal investigation division, makes several recommendations for how the sheriff could gather more evidence “to bring additional clarity to this case.”
June 15: Jackson and other supporters conduct a graveside rally in Columbus seeking approval to exhume Owsley’s body to do more forensic testing.
July 26: Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett suspends three sheriff’s deputies for five to 10 days each without pay for errors in judgment in connection with the Owsley case.
July 30: Jackson files suit in Bartholomew Circuit Court to exhume her brother’s body and have an autopsy conducted on his embalmed remains.
Nov. 20: Jackson wins a settlement of her suit in court, allowing Cary Owsley’s body to be exhumed from Garland Brook Cemetery so an autopsy can be done sometime early in 2014.
Dec. 13: Bartholomew Circuit Judge Stephen Heimann announces that the court has chosen Dr. Scott Wagner, a forensic pathologist from Fort Wayne, as its expert to conduct the autopsy.
Jan. 2: Jackson informs the court that she has hired Dr. Werner Spitz of St. Clair Shores, Michigan, to assist Wagner with the autopsy.
Jan. 3: Lisa Owsley, the dead man’s widow, informs the court that she will not hire a forensic pathologist to join two other specialists who will examine the body of her late husband.
Jan. 27: Trent McCain, an attorney for Cheryl Jackson, deposits $14,500 in a Bartholomew County account, the first installment to pay for the costs of removing the body of her brother and having an autopsy performed.
Jan. 29: McCain makes the second installment of $2,990 for the exhumation and autopsy costs.
February: Judge Heimann issues court orders and amendments that outline final preparations before exhumation of Owsley’s body, and the autopsy is performed. Participants in the exhumation and autopsy are ordered to sign confidentiality agreements, barring them from divulging when the body will be removed from the grave or where the autopsy will take place.
March 12: The body of Cary Owsley is exhumed from Garland Brook Cemetery about 9 a.m. and taken to a private location for the autopsy, which was completed by the early evening. Autopsy results expected in four to six weeks, roughly April 9 to 23.
March 13: Cary Owsley’s body is returned to the cemetery and reburied.
April 30: Judge Heimann issues an update and says autopsy results
for Cary Owsley are expected
to be released the week of
May 12. Heimann said the forensic pathologist retained by the court to conduct the autopsy is waiting for laboratory results before completing the autopsy.
Tuesday: Autopsy results are
released by court-appointed pathologist Scott Wagner, who
ruled the manner of Owsley’s
death to be undetermined following an April 7, 2013, gunshot wound to the chest. Wagner’s ruling was based on key pieces of evidence being unavailable.
Sources: Staff research