By Scott Lewis
I’ve picked up some fascinating and challenging cases in the few months that I’ve been working as a private investigator.
A few days ago, I got a heartbreaking call for help.
It was from a grieving mother who lost her son a year ago this month. She could barely get though a single sentence without crying.
She needed answers.
Every case I take, by law, is confidential. But this woman is allowing me to tell her story without using her name, because she is desperate.
The bottom line on this case; if you should be unfortunate enough to have a loved one die under questionable circumstances, just pray it doesn’t happen in a state like Pennsylvania. Chances are you’ll never find out what happened.
And that is this woman’s dilemma.
Last January, her 27-year-old-son was returning home on a Greyhound bus from Washington D.C. where he had visited his nephew. For some reason he got off the bus at an unscheduled stop in Bedford, Pennsylvania, a remote, rural area. The temperature was 4 degrees, and there was a bitter wind chill.
The next morning her son’s body was found beneath a silo on an old farm converted into a historical museum. The death was ruled a suicide. Police told the woman her son had climbed up a ladder to the top of a 40-foot silo and jumped to his death. He died from blunt force trauma and hypothermia.
But this grieving mother says what she has been told doesn’t quite add up. She wonders if there was foul play or negligence involved in her son’s death.
When she called me looking for help she had so many questions. Why did he get off the bus? What happened on the bus that caused him to leave? Did they drop him off in a safe area as they are supposed to? When authorities returned her son’s belongings, why was one of his shoes missing? And why would he commit suicide? He had suffered from mild depression in the past, she says, but he seemed to be happy and was doing well when he went on his trip.
And the most troubling question of all: why won’t the police give her records that would answer her questions and give her closure?
The woman retained a lawyer who filed official requests for all of the police records and the autopsy report. He got back a single piece of paper; one page ruling the death a suicide; one piece of paper that answered none of her questions.
Then the grieving mom called me asking if I could use my private investigator skills to get her some information on what happened. She said suicide would be hard to accept, but not knowing any of the facts or circumstances is far worse.
“He was my only child, my best friend and I have no family, just him,” she said. “I just want them to please give me a report on what happened to my child so it will give me closure. I cry every single day.”
I told her I would see what I could do. I started digging, and what I discovered troubled me. The State of Pennsylvania has some of the most restrictive open records law in the nation. They will not release any investigative reports or police reports, even when it’s a closed case; not even to the family of someone who dies. In Michigan, and most other states, all of this material would be open to the public.
I called another private investigator in Pennsylvania, and he confirmed that police reports are off limits in Pennsylvania. He said the law clearly says police agencies do not have to release the records.
“You’d have a better chance of finding gold in a coal mine,” he told me.
They don’t have to release the records by law, the P.I. told me, but they can release them if they want to. At his suggestion, I drafted an open records request, and told the grieving mom mail it to an address for the Pennsylvania State Police that I provided her with, along with a personal, heart-felt letter. The hope is that the person who receives it will have some compassion and just give her the records.
We are still waiting for a response.
In the meantime I tracked down the county coroner, a man names Sam Gordon. I followed the same routine; faxed him an open records request with a letter from me explaining how many questions this woman has and how much she is hurting. By law, all he was obligated to do was send me the same one page report he had sent to the attorney earlier.
The next morning the phone rang. It was Sam Gordon.
I got lucky, a man with a heart. Finally some answers. Not all of the answers, but some.
Gordon told me everything he knew about the case and the investigation. He said that there was no autopsy done, only some x-rays and toxicology tests. He said there was no reason for an autopsy because the death was an obvious suicide, no question about it.
Gordon explained that there were footsteps leading up to the silo and up the ladder to the top of the silo. He said the man hit a telephone wire on the way down and dropped it to the ground.
Gordon filled in more blanks. He said the driver put the 27-year-old man off the bus because there was some sort of disturbance. He said the man was acting “peculiar” when he stepped off the bus. And, he said, he had marijuana in his system.
According to a local newspaper account of the incident, it is Greyhound’s policy to release a passenger between stops only in a “safe” area and to notify the police. The driver did call the police. The police said they sent a car out looking for the man but couldn’t find him.
So we have some answers, but still many questions. How can it be considered safe to drop a passenger on the turnpike in four-degree weather, in the middle or nowhere? What happened to his other shoe? What happened on the bus that caused the woman’s son to be put off? Police have a recording of the bus driver’s call, but they won’t release it.
We still have one more card to play. I’m sending the man’s cell phone out for a forensic exam. Maybe the phone will yield some clues as to what happened on the bus.
And we have the mom’s open records request with her letter pleading for compassion. We found a coroner with a heart. Maybe the cop who gets her letter will show some compassion too.
Now we wait, and hope for more answers.
It only seems fair, and right that the police let the information go. The grieving mom says it makes no sense to her that they won’t.
“No mother should have to wonder what happened to her child,” she said.
Veteran TV investigative reporter Scott Lewis is now in private practice. Scott Lewis Private Investigations is a premier, full service agency serving the state of Michigan. If you need private investigation services, contact Scott at 1-855-411-Lewis (5394), email him at email@example.com or check out his website at www.scottlewispi.com.