An Equivocal Death: Homicide or Suicide?

By Vernon J. Geberth, M.S., M.P.S.
Former Commander, Bronx Homicide, NYPD

©2000 Vernon J. Geberth, Practical Homicide Investigation
Law and Order Magazine, July 2000, Vol. 48 No. 7

Return to Research Materials




“Equivocal death investigations are those inquiries that are open to interpretation.  There may be two or more meanings and the case may present as either a homicide or a suicide depending upon the circumstances.  The facts are purposefully vague or misleading as in the case of a "staged crime scene."  Or, the death is suspicious or questionable based upon what is presented to the authorities.  The deaths may resemble homicides or suicides, accidents or naturals.  They are open to interpretation pending further information of the facts, the victimology and the circumstances of the event.”[1]




On Wednesday, March 4, 1998 at approximately 0810 Hours, the body of Captain Gordon Hess was found in a ravine on a military base.   Captain Gordon Hess, a white male, 38 years old was a National Guard Company Commander on Active Reserve duty at Fort Knox, Kentucky. A search party had been assigned to locate the missing captain, who had been reported missing by his company commander.  While the team was searching the ravine, they came upon his body. The Captain was laying face down in the creek, which contained about an inch of bloody water. The soldiers rolled the body over so that Captain Hess’s head and shoulders were out of the water and up on the bank.  The Captain’s face was purple, and the body appeared stiff.  There was blood on Captain Hess’s PT gray sweat top over his chest area and a small hole through Captain Hess’s PT sweat top about center mass around the breastbone area.  The soldiers lifted the body out of the ravine and placed it on the bank and covered Captain Hess’s head and upper chest with his field jacket.  According to the witnesses report no one else touched the body.   Captain Hess’s arms were clenched up towards his chest and that his body was lying straight out in the bottom of the ravine. There were a total of four soldiers. Not one ever saw a knife or any weapon at the scene.  However, the Army later provided crime scene photos showing a Leatherman knife at the scene, which was covered with a large oak leaf.




An autopsy was performed on Thursday, March 5, 1998 by Doctor Peter W. Schilke, Major, USAF, MC Deputy Medical Examiner.  The cause of death was Multiple stab wounds of the chest and neck.  The manner of death was SUICIDE.


Dr. Schilke listed six (6) injuries to the neck consisting of stab and incised wounds, which in his opinion were superficial with no injury to vital structures of the neck.


Dr. Schilke also listed twenty (20) wounds to the chest.


Two stab wounds to the right chest, one of which extended three inches downward with superficial incision of the right lobe of the liver. Dr. Schilke also listed eighteen (18) stab wounds to the left chest and left of the anterior midline. There were two (2) stab wounds of the heart, which penetrated the anterior left ventricle of the heart and four (4) which penetrated the left upper lobe of the lungs.[2] 


According to the reports, which the consultant reviewed, Dr. Schilke’s determination of SUICIDE was based on the following:  The cutting wounds of the neck as superficial; The stabbing wounds into the chest as depicting hesitation marks.  He noted the lack of defensive wounds to the arms or hands of the victim and the fact that the victim’s wallet containing cash was found at the crime scene.


He also noted the knife described as a Leatherman tool was the instrument that was used to inflict the injuries and this knife was found proximate to the body.  He also stated that there was no evidence of a struggle at the scene.


The Family Notification


On March 4, 1998 U.S. Army representatives informed Mrs. Doreen Hess that her husband had been killed and that the case was being investigated as a Homicide by the USACIDC.


On March 10, 1998 an Army representative made a public announcement that the death of Captain Hess was determined to be a Suicide.


Doreen, her family and friends were in total shock since they were led to believe that the Army was conducting an active murder investigation.  Gordon Hess was a Jamestown, New York firefighter. He was a well-respected member of his community.  The entire City of Jamestown was shocked by the announcement of suicide and there was a public outcry.  Family, friends, fellow guardsmen, fellow firefighters, former co-workers, former classmates, former teachers and coaches and anyone who knew Gordon Hess stated that he would never commit suicide nor do anything to hurt his family.  The general consensus of opinion was that the determination of Suicide was ridiculous.




According to sources present during the early stags of the investigation, the crime scene was completely compromised and contaminated by the additional emergency service personnel  who responded  to the scene as well as various  Army Commanders who were present.  Military Police responded and attempted to establish a crime scene, but the initial responders and others who had been present had already contaminated the scene with their boot and footprints.  In fact, in one photograph there is a coffee container sitting on a rock next to where the body was placed.  Within two days the US Army command ordered two tons of dirt to be dumped on the crime scene by front loader.  This was ostensibly done to prevent the spread of any biohazard from Captain Gordon Hess’s blood.  This action completely destroyed the opportunity to reconstruct the crime scene or perform any soil evaluations for comparison to Captain Hess’s boots and clothing to any possible suspects.  I had never heard of such a procedure as dumping two tons of dirt over a crime scene to prevent biohazards from airborne pathogens such as blood.. 




Mr. Charles De Angelo, the lawyer representing the family, immediately stopped the funeral service and contacted  Dr. Sung-ook Baik, M.D. a Forensic Pathologist from Buffalo, New York to conduct a second autopsy.  On March 10, 1998, Dr. Baik conducted a second autopsy on Hess’s body at the Lind Funeral Home in Jamestown, N.Y.   Dr. Baik’s autopsy findings were as follows:  Multiple stab wounds in the neck, left chest, right chest involving the heart, the Left lung, the liver, and the Left 2nd rib with Hemopericardium and Left Hemothorax.  Dr. Baik’s opinion was that the Cause of Death was multiple stab wounds in the right chest, left chest and neck.  Dr. Baik classified the death as Homicide.[3]     




On March 12, 1998 The Department of the Army issued a casualty report.  The report indicated that Captain Hess was deceased in a Non hostile type as of March 4, 1998 at Fort Knox, Kentucky.  The Cause and Circumstances section listed as follows: 

“Self-Inflicted: Result of heart failure caused by self-inflicted stab wounds.” [4]




Mr. Charles S. DeAngelo, Esq. provided the Hess family with his expertise and professional services.  As family counsel, he commenced an independent action and legal inquiry into the death of Captain Hess through Freedom of Information.  Mr. De Angelo formally contacted the U.S. Army and CID Command and requested copies of their investigative reports and crime scene photographs for an independent review.  He was informed that the case was still under active investigation, therefore, the materials could not be released.  He then petitioned for release any documents or information that the family would be entitled to obtain.  Finally in late May, 1998, the AFIP released a copy of the autopsy examination to Mrs. Doreen Hess


Mr. Charles De Angelo began his independent action by developing a “Draft Book” to support the family’s position that Captain Gordon Hess would not and could not have committed suicide.


It was the military’s position that Captain Hess was distraught over a failed simulation exercise and therefore was depressed and despondent.  The “Draft Book” provided documentation to controvert the military’s conclusion of depression and the subsequent suicide. The major concern of the family and counsel was the number of wounds that were allegedly self-inflicted.


I advised Mr. De Angelo that I had personally been involved with a number of suicide investigations where victims had self-inflicted multiple stab wounds.  I also informed him that the number of wounds inflicted could not be the basis for a determination of suicide or homicide.  I furthermore advised him that an in-depth investigation into the victimology of the deceased, circumstances of the event and dynamics surrounding these circumstances, as well as all of the investigative reports, crime scene and autopsy photographs would be required to effectively assess and evaluate the death of Captain Gordon Hess. I agreed to provide a preliminary review of the materials he had gathered in an effort to present an independent analysis and assessment of the facts surrounding the death of Gordon Hess.  NOTE: Mr. De Angelo further advised me that if I were in agreement with the facts of the case that supported the Army’s conclusion of a suicide, he wanted me to advise him so that he could prepare the family to cope with this tragedy.  Therefore, my evaluation was undertaken without prejudice or predisposition of outcome.




The author was retained as a consultant in August, 1998.  I immediately requested copies of all investigative reports, interviews of Army personnel, crime scene and autopsy photographs and all materials related to the CID investigation as well as the “Draft Book” for my investigation.  My review of the materials provided by counsel afforded me an opportunity to assess the victimology of Gordon Hess. 




I recommended an independent review of the AFIP autopsy report and Dr. Baik’s medicolegal examination be conducted by Dr. Dominick J. Di Maio, a highly respected and world renowned Forensic Pathologist.  Dr. Di Maio was the former Chief Medical Examiner for the City of New York, whose credentials are impeccable.  Dr. Di Maio agreed to review the autopsy reports and provide medicolegal services.




The “Draft Book” was an excellently prepared resource containing a number of exhibits, including the AFIP autopsy report and The Army’s preliminary investigative reports and Dr. Baik’s medicolegal analysis.  In addition, I reviewed a number of letters and statements of  coworkers, fellow firefighters and National Guardsmen, who had been with Gordon Hess at Ft. Knox. 


I had a complete copy of the victim’s National Guard evaluations, awards and letters of commendation.  I discovered that the victim, a firefighter and a trained EMT, had distinguished himself in a number of life-threatening events. 


Captain Gordon Hess, according to all accounts, was an officer and a gentleman in the New York National Guard who had excelled in Officer’s Candidate School.  The Officer’s Candidate program is designed to induce stress in an individual to ascertain whether or not one could handle the stress of combat.  This would be an important consideration in developing a “Suicide Profile” in considering whether or not an individual could possibly be a candidate for suicide.  CID based their conclusion of suicide on a “Fratricide” incident  during a simulation center exercise. 




During the simulation Captain Hess was advised that his troops were a number of kilometers to the right.  According to Army interviews, Captain Hess saw a number of “dots” on the screen that appeared to be enemy troops approaching his position.  Captain Hess, during the (SIMTAC) simulation, which would best be described as a military video game, gave the order to fire on the “dots” that were approaching his position.  These “dots” turned out to be his fellow soldiers.  The CID investigators concluded that this error caused Captain Hess to become distraught and depressed.  This was CID’s rationale and basis for a conclusion of suicide.


Another Captain who was interviewed reported that there was tension between Hess’s Unit and Task Force 101.  The tension stemmed from a lack of familiarity between the units.  The tension peaked over the “Fratricide” incident.  Captain Hess’ Unit “destroyed” a significant potion of the 101st Calvary.  However, neither Hess nor his unit seemed to dwell on it.  Captain Hess was a competitive person and reportedly unhappy over the fratricide incident.  According to his best friend, Captain Hess was displeased but not depressed.


I interviewed National Guard (LDO Line of Duty Officer) Major David Zysk.  He informed me that there was another SIMTAC exercise that followed the one that Captain Hess had failed.  He passed the exercise with no problem.  Subsequently, it was learned that the source of the fratricide incident was a land navigation error on the part of the other TF 101 units.  Captain Hess’s Company was in the correct place but was being overruled by Battalion Headquarters.  Captain Hess had not failed.  He had actually been given the wrong information.




The consultant conducted personal and telephone interviews with Mrs. Doreen Hess and other members of the National Guard, who had been interviewed by CID agents. I also interviewed his best friend of ten years, John Burris, a New York State Trooper.  John Burris was a Lieutenant in the National Guard and served in the same unit as Gordon Hess as the Company’s Executive Officer.  John Burris was also one of the last people to see Gordon Hess alive. Lieutenant Burris told me that he was with Captain Hess twenty (20) hours a day over the ten days they were together at Ft. Knox. During this time they had numerous conversations. Captain Hess had made both long and short-term plans.  In fact, Lt. Burris stated that he and Captain Hess had discussed putting in a Pellot wood in his house when they returned to New York.  Lt. Burris had installed a Pellot wood stove in his house and would be able to assist Hess in the project.




Captain Hess was on a two-week assignment at Ft. Knox, Kentucky.   He had seventy-two hours left before going home.  The evening before he disappeared he was with his best friend of ten years, Lieutenant John Burris, the Company’s Executive Officer.  Upon completing their duties they went to an on-base fast-food restaurant.  On the way back to their barracks, they stopped at a “Clothing Sales” store on base.  While at the “Clothing Sales” store, Captain Hess purchased a leather knife to replace the one he had lost the last time he was on maneuvers.  He  also purchased a 437-page book about army tank battles, entitled; “Panzer Battles.”


When they returned to the barracks area, Burris and Hess played a game of pick-up basketball with a couple of guardsmen.  The game was cut short when one of the guardsmen suffered a groin muscle pull.  Captain Hess accompanied the guardsmen to the hospital.   While at the hospital, both Captain Hess and Lieutenant Burris called home and spoke to their respective wives. When they came back to the barracks they picked up a couple a cappuccinos and a six-pack of beer at the Mini-PX.  They joined a couple of other members of the unit at the enlisted barracks and talked for a while, as they drank their cappuccinos.


Captain Hess had two beers, and Burris had one.  They gave the other three away.   When they went to bed Captain Hess was reading a training manual.  According to Lieutenant Burris, he last saw Captain Hess the morning of March 3rd at about 4:45 A.M. when Captain Hess, who bunked above him awakened him when he got out of bunk above him. Captain Hess was up early before reveille sounded at 5:00 A.M. Burris stated that he saw Captain Hess wearing his PT gear, sweat pants and hooded sweatshirt with “ARMY” stenciled on the front.  He also saw Captain Hess at his locker as he took his wallet out.  Lieutenant Burris told me that at the time he thought that Captain Hess was going to the bathroom.   Another Captain, who was interviewed stated that he heard an alarm go off in the Officer’s Barracks at about 4:45 A.M.  He observed Captain Hess jump off his bunk and awaken Lt. Burris.  He saw Captain Hess comb his hair, put his shaving kit on his bunk put out his uniform of the day and walk away.  He thought that Captain Hess was going to the bathroom, which was at the other end of the barracks. Three other soldiers, who were interviewed, saw Captain Hess enter the enlisted men’s barracks heading toward an area where 30-gallon coffee urns were usually filled.  However, the coffee hadn’t been made yet that day.  It was believed that when Captain Hess saw there was no coffee in the urns he decided to go up to the Mess Hall or Mini-PX store (which is open 24-hours a day) to get his coffee.


When Captain Hess failed to arrive at his duty station his company began looking for him.  At 4:00 P.M. Captain Hess was officially listed as missing.  The Military Police, Kentucky State Police and the military command were advised to conduct a search.  Search teams of approximately 100 personnel were employed to conduct the search.  The search went on until 10:00 P.M.  It continued the next morning on March 4th when Captain Hess’s body was found in a ravine by one of the search teams.  Lt. Burris was told that Gordon Hess’s body had been found.  However, he stated that he was told that Captain Hess had suffered a heart attack.  He was later told that Captain Hess had been stabbed.




A National Guard Major David Zysk, who was reportedly investigating the death of Captain Hess from the national Guard’s perspective approached Mr. De Angelo and offered his assistance in the Family’s investigation.  The consultant spoke to Major Zysk by telephone and arranged to meet with him on Saturday, August 29, 1998.


At that time, Major Zysk provided me with copies of the crime scene and autopsy photographs along with some investigative reports.  However, I was not allowed to retain any copies.


Major Zysk informed me that he was not accepting the CID conclusion and that the sequence of wounds simply did not make any sense to him.  Major Zysk advised me that he had traveled to Fort Knox and had met with CID investigators and Dr. Schilke.  He stated that the crime scene photographs did not reflect any weapon at the scene.  The pathologist, Dr. Schilke, had also informed Zysk that there was approximately 30 ml of brown fluid in Captain Hess’s stomach  consistent with coffee.  However, Gordon Hess’s stomach contents were not analyzed.  If it was coffee where did Gordon Hess get the coffee?


Major Zysk remarked that the Army pathologist did not really catalog the wounds very well. Major Zysk also informed me that Army CID did not have a photo of the Leatherman knife found at the scene.  The Army pathologist, Dr. Schilke believed that the Leatherman knife, which was found at the crime scene, was consistent with the wounds inflicted on Captain Hess.


Major Zysk further informed me that CID had never matched up the holes through Gordon Hess’s clothing with the wounds on his body.  Dr. Schilke stated to Major Zysk that the fatal wounds were the two to the heart and that the four wounds to the left lung contributed to Captain Hess’s death.  (Later on after the consultants received the autopsy photographs from the military, we noted five (5) probes in the lung indicating five penetrating wounds NOT four as cataloged in the original autopsy report.) Dr. Schilke also stated that an injury or wound on Captain Hess’s index finger was pre-existing or inconsequential and was not a stab wound.  Dr. Schilke never explained the five tan 1/8” postmortem abrasions to the forehead or the three 1/8” abrasions around Captain Hess’s left eye.


There were a total of four soldiers, who recovered the body were interviewed by Major Zysk.  None had seen a knife or weapon at the scene.  The photographs that major Zysk provided the consultant did not show any weapon or knife in the crime scene.


Major Zysk also determined that Captain Hess did not use the running track, which is within the vicinity of the ravine but instead used the streets to jog.  Furthermore, according to Major Zysk, Captain Hess was extremely sensitive to the cold.  He wouldn’t have been dressed the way he was found unless he planned on coming right back.  It was particularly cold the day that Captain Hess disappeared.  Major Zysk verified that Captain Hess’s shaving supplies were taken out, as was his uniform of the day.  In addition, Captain Hess wouldn’t have left his locker unsecured. Major Zysk indicated to the consultant that the CID investigation did not make any sense and does not appear to be a coherent theory in this case.  The consultant recommended that Major Zysk have the New York State Medical Examiner’s Office review the AFIP autopsy.  I advised him that since Captain Hess was on Active Duty for the New York National Guard when he died the NYS Medical Examiner’s Office would be available as a resource for consultation and review.




On September 1, 1998 the consultant and Dr. Dominick J. Di Maio met with the military representatives in Newburgh, N.Y.  The military representatives were Chief Operations Officer Steve Chancellor, U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, Ft. Campbell District, Kentucky, Special Agent Barry Mattis, Special-Agent-In-Charge, and Special Agent Keith Obst .


During this meeting the Army representatives allowed us to view their crime scene photos, their autopsy photographs and some of their reports as they discussed their investigation.  However, they refused to release their photographs or any of their reports to the consultants or the family.  The result was that the assessment of the death of Captain Hess was limited to the information and materials available for review at the conference. 


It was the opinion of the Army CID investigators that Captain Hess, whom they described as very competitive, was unhappy over a fratricide incident in which Captain Hess’s Unit destroyed a significant portion of the 101st Calvary.  Their opinion was that Captain Hess was so distraught over this SIMTAC exercise that he was “moping” around the barracks and couldn’t sleep that evening.  The CID interviews of personnel apparently follow the premise that Captain Hess was epressed and shaken by his failure in the exercise.  Specifically one report that the consultant reviewed indicated that Doreen Hess told CID investigators that her husband sounded frustrated during their telephone conversation and “sighed very heavily” on the phone while they were talking.  However, in a subsequent interview the consultant had with Doreen Hess she stated that this statement was taken out of context.  The consultant also noted that in other interviews of military personnel I was advised that their statements had also been taken out of context. 


It was apparent from the official interviews, which we finally received from the military, that early on in the investigation the agents were predisposed to a suicide theory. 


During our meeting, the consultant and Dr. Di Maio suggested to the CID investigators that a more reasonable disposition would be to classify the death as UNDETERMINED since neither side could establish with any degree of medical certainty whether the death was a Homicide or a Suicide.




The preliminary assessment of the death of Gordon Hess was limited to a review of the crime scene and autopsy photographs provided in the meetings and the formal discussions we participated in with the CID agents.  We were prohibited any access to their investigative reports or access to any laboratory findings.  However, the military provided the consultants with enough information for us to agree that the finding of suicide was patently wrong.  Dr. Di Maio submitted a preliminary report to counsel on October 31, 1998.  He concluded in his expert opinion, with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the AFIP pathologists have presented insufficient medical evidence to state with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that Gordon Hess’s death was due to suicide.   The consultant also submitted a preliminary report dated October 31, 1998.  I made specific reference to the lack of hesitation wounds coupled with the lethality of the injuries suffered by Captain Hess.   In fact,  I had never seen this many self-inflicted stab wounds in a suicide without the presence of hesitation wounds in the absence of drugs, alcohol or psychosis.   I specifically pointed out that there are three important considerations, which must be taken into account before one classifies a death event as suicide.


1.      The presence of the weapon or the means of death at the scene.

2.      The injuries or wounds are obviously self-inflicted or could have been inflicted by the victim.

3.      The existence of a MOTIVE or INTENT on the part of the victim to take his or her own life.


The Leatherman tool could have been the weapon.  However, we were informed that the victim’s blood wasn’t present on the weapon.  Dr. Di Maio and the consultant did not believe that Captain Hess could have lethally stabbed himself that many times in the heart or lung.  The consultant’s review of Captain Gordon Hess’s victimology certainly did not reveal a suicide profile.


We concluded that the death of Captain Gordon Hess was more consistent with Homicide than Suicide.”  However, both consultants reserved the right to amend their opinion in the event additional evidentiary materials or information became available.





On October 22, 1998, Dr. Barbara Wolf provided Major Zysk with her findings subsequent to a review of the below materials.


1.      The post-mortem examination performed by Dr. Peter Schilke.

2.      The autopsy photographs.

3.      The Report of Casualty of the Department of the Army.

4.      A statement given by Dr. Schilke.


Dr. Wolf’s Opinion

“It is my opinion, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty and in agreement with the opinion of Dr. Schilke, that the cause of Captain Hess’s death was multiple stab and incised wounds to the neck and chest.  However, it is further my opinion, based upon the materials available for review, that the manner of death is not suicidal.  This opinion is based upon several observations.  Most notably, there were multiple stab wounds to various surfaces of the body, which had a haphazard orientation, indicating that movement occurred during the course of the delivery of these wounds.  Furthermore, the photographs show the presence of abrasions at one end of several of the stab wounds indicating that the knife penetrated to the handle.  Additionally, the report indicates that multiple wounds penetrated vital structures and were therefore potentially fatal wounds.  Although it is not uncommon for multiple self-inflicted sharp force injuries to be seen in a suicidal deaths, such cases are not associated with multiple deep, potentially fatal injuries, but with multiple superficial injuries and a single fatal injury…It is therefore my opinion that the manner of death of Captain Hess’s death is homicidal.[5]




On Veteran’s Day, November 11, 1998 Mrs. Doreen Hess and her family through their counsel, Mr. Charles De Angelo, announced the findings of their experts who clearly disagreed with the USACIDC investigation.  Although hampered by the military’s refusal to turn over all of their investigative documents, each of the experts agreed that the death of Captain Gordon Hess was most likely a Homicide.  In November, 1998 Congressman Amo Houghton Jr. intervened on behalf of the family. 




Shortly after the press release in November, the consultant received a telephone call from a confidential source in the Ft. Knox area.  He stated that he had information indicative of foul play involving the death of Captain Gordon Hess.  He based his suspicions on the following information, which he supplied to counsel representing the family.


1.      He was informed that the initial responding units felt that the death was a homicide.

2.      A source close to the investigation informed him that within two hours into the case CID agents were ready to declare the incident a suicide.

3.      The MACOM commander was, according to the source, the person who decided how to classify the case.

4.      There was a trail of blood leading from the bluff above the creek down to the body, which also indicated that foul play was involved.

5.      Reportedly, there wasn’t any weapon found initially but later a Leatherman’s tool was discovered and thought to be the weapon used.

6.      Reportedly, the local law enforcement community felt that foul play was involved.

7.      Word among local law enforcement was that the crime scene wasn’t handled very well because of the number of people, not initially involved in the investigation, allowed to come into the scene and cause cross contamination. One of the reasons why impression evidence wasn’t obtained was due to the number of unauthorized persons in the scene.

8.      It was also disclosed to the source that not everyone who could have been a potential witness was interviewed.[6]




On December 29, 1998, a Corrected Final Report was issued by the Department of the Army.  This report indicated that Captain Hess, Gordon  was deceased in a Nonhostile type as of March 4, 1998 at Fort Knox, KY.   The Cause and Circumstances section was amended as follows: Undetermined: Result of heart failure caused by stab wounds.


Congressman Amo Houghton, had appealed to Defense Secretary Cohen to look into the case for the family and his constituents in the Jamestown area.  Congressman Houghton was notified of the changed death certificate in a letter from Major General Bruce K. Scott.


I advised counsel that it was my opinion that The Army only reissued the “corrected” DD 13 with a classification of UNDETERMINED to appease the Congressman.  I further predicted that the classification would be changed back to SUICIDE based on the USACIDC investigation, which would probably be based upon a “Psychological Autopsy.




In January, 1999, I met with Arthur S. Chancellor, Operations Officer U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command.  This meeting took place while I was conducting an Advanced Practical Homicide Investigation® course in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Mr. Arthur Chancellor and five other U.S. Army representatives were registered for this course of instruction, which also included a One-Day presentation by Dr. Di Maio. On Thursday, January 21st Mr. Chancellor and the consultant had a meeting.  We discussed the Gordon Hess death investigation. 


Mr. Chancellor was aware of our preliminary findings, which he admitted he had obtained from Major Zysk.  Mr. Chancellor shared some reports of his investigation, which he indicated I might want to consider before submitting my Final Report.  He also provided me with another opportunity to review the crime scene and autopsy photographs.  He specifically brought my attention to a report prepared by Ross Gardner, who is one of two authors of Bloodstain Pattern Analysis: an Introduction to Crime Scene Reconstruction.  This textbook is within my “Practical Aspects of Criminal and Forensic Investigations” Series in CRC Press, LLC.  Mr. Chancellor pointed out that I had prepared the Forward for this textbook.


Mr. Gardner is a Command Sergeant Major and Special Agent with the United States Army Criminal Investigation Command.  I was given an opportunity to review Mr. Gardner’s report and his interpretation of the bloodstain patterns of the clothing worn by Captain Gordon Hess when he was killed in March, 1998. 


However, I noticed that his report had not been prepared until December of 1998.  Captain Hess’s body had been discovered face down in a creek with approximately an inch of bloody water in it.  The person who made the discovery reported that there was blood in the water at both ends of the body.  Practically speaking, how can one render an opinion relative to blood splatter on clothing, which was in the water?  The clothing was obviously wet and dripping when it was removed from Captain Hess’s body.   More importantly,


1.      How does one decide that the wounds are self-inflicted versus homicidal wounds?

2.      Where was this clothing from March, 1998 to December, 1998?

3.      How was this evidence stored?

4.      What tests had been conducted on the clothing?


Although I support the work of Mr. Gardner and his colleague Tom Bevel, I do not believe that such a conclusion can be made with any degree of medical certainty. 


My professional opinion of blood splatter evidence is that it is a body of knowledge subject to the individual examiner’s interpretation and, therefore, wholly inconclusive in its application to this particular case.  Especially when one considers that a USACICD expert, whose impartiality is questionable to say the least, conducted this analysis well after the event.




Mr. Chancellor also provided me with a copy of a report authored by Karlsson, et al entitled, Patterns in Sharp Force Fatalities-A Comprehensive Forensic Medical Study: Part 2. Suicidal Sharp Force Injury in the Stockholm Area 1972-1984. [7]  which was based on a study of 89 cases of sharp force Suicides in the Stockholm area of Sweden from 1972 to 1984.  In this study 71 of the 89 cases examined had hesitation wounds.  In 18 of the cases there were no hesitation wounds. 


Apparently, Mr. Chancellor wanted to impress the consultant that there could very well be multiple sharp force injuries in suicide without the presence of hesitation wounds.  In my preliminary and final reports I had made an issue of the lack of hesitation wounds on Gordon Hess’s body. In fact, I had opined that I had never seen this many self-inflicted stab wounds in a suicide without the presence of hesitation wounds in the absence of drugs, alcohol or psychosis.   When I read the Karlsson report, I learned that the population of study was comprised of 89 subjects.  A psychiatric diagnosis had been established in 22 of the cases, Drugs in 22 cases and alcohol in 27 cases.  Toxicology had been negative for the presence any drugs or alcohol from Gordon Hess.  In my opinion Gordon Hess certainly wasn’t psychotic nor did our investigation uncover any history of psychiatric problems.  More importantly, within this report, which the military thought might bolster their hypothesis of suicide was some very interesting findings. Specifically, there was no case of more than one wound piercing the left ventricle of the heart.  I quote, “According to our series more than one stab wound piercing the left cardiac ventricle is uncommon in sharp force suicide.  This may be due to an immediately incapacitating effect of one such injury, which precludes further self-destructive activity.”[8]   When I read this report, I immediately recognized its significance as an additional supporting document that Captain Hess had not committed suicide.  Captain Hess had received two penetrating stab wounds into the left ventricle of his heart in addition to FIVE not four stab wounds of the left lungs and the stab wound to his liver.


At the conclusion of our meeting, Mr. Chancellor and I agreed that we disagree in the final analysis of the death of Gordon Hess.  I then informed him that in the opinion of all of the consultants this death would have better been classified as UNDETERMIND and was more consistent with Homicide than Suicide.  However, Mr. Chancellor and The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command steadfastly maintained that the death was a Suicide.


The “Fratricide Incident” became the centerpiece in their hypothesis. The CID investigation’s final determination of death was based upon a “psychological autopsy” that suggested that Captain Gordon Hess suffered from a psychosis or a psychotic break. 




On February 26, 1999, Michael Gelles, Psy. D. a Chief Psychologist for Naval Investigative Services submitted his clinical investigative review of the facts of the Gordon Hess case.[9]


Dr. Gelles stated he had made several attempts to contact family members as well as their attorney, but they failed to respond the inquiries.  He then stated, ‘Based on my review of the family interview conducted by the investigators, and my review of the numerous letters and testimonials provided to the investigators by the family, I feel that the family’s decision not to cooperate in the psychological autopsy will minimally impact my opinion.”[10]
In the report he notes the physical autopsy and comments that the wounds to the neck were reported to show hesitation.  He also stated that the majority of the chest wounds did not penetrate the chest cavity. 
The consultants disagree with his analysis.  The wounds to the neck, although not lethal were in fact stab wounds, some of which penetrated one inch deep into the strap muscles.  These wounds are neither superficial nor hesitation type of wound structures.


Dr. Gelles then stated that the majority of the chest wounds did not penetrate the chest cavity.  He then listed the one puncture of the liver, five puncture wounds which penetrated the left lung and two which penetrated the heart.  * (It should be noted that there were in fact five (5) stab wounds into the upper left lobe of the lung not four (4) as described in the autopsy report. This information became available when the consultants were finally afforded the autopsy photographs.)  More importantly, it should be noted that two stab wounds of the right chest and 14 of the 18 penetrating wounds into the left chest did in fact penetrate the chest cavity.


The consultants agree that the wounds that penetrated the left lung and the ventricle of the heart were definitely lethal wounds. 


Dr. Gelles concluded that Captain Hess was a “perfectionist” and opined that Gordon Hess was competitive and struggled to be number one while he begrudgingly tolerated being second best. Dr. Gelles then stated “I suspect that his affiliation and participation in the National Guard was probably one the most cherished and valued endeavors in his life… becoming an officer and Company Commander was likely the most significant achievement in his life.  The Army and his position and status was a significant part of his identity…”[11]


Dr. Gelles continued in his report that he did not believe that Capt. Hess suffered from any significant medical or psychiatric malady nor did he believe that Capt. Hess experienced any suicidal ideations or self-destructive thoughts.  I quote, “However, it appeared that Capt. Hess had difficulty tolerating self perceived failure in the audience of all those he sought and received affirmation, validation and respect.”  Dr. Gelles then renders his opinion

“…there appears to have been a tragic series of events… that led to a rapid regression and loss of control for Captain Hess… His status and role as a military officer and commander was critical to his identity…His image of himself as a leader and commander shattered”[12]

Dr. Gelles concludes with the following statement. “…There is some evidence in this case to suggest that Captain Hess was agitated and distressed, unable to tolerate the stress of continued training, in combination with his own self perceived failings.  He subsequently self-inflicted numerous lethal and non-lethal stab wounds using his Leatherman tool to his neck and torso resulting in death, either to relieve his stress or punish himself.”[13]




USACID commissioned a private consultant to review their investigation.  This report became part of CID Final Report.  The consultant, who was a former Military Policeman is a forensic consultant with a Fellowship in Forensic Medicine from the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, and Ph. D. Candidate, Department of Sociology.


He concluded, “Based on a review of the aforementioned documents with photographs and a review of the listed references, I am of the opinion that Gordon Hess committed suicide by numerous self-inflicted incised and stab wounds.”[14]


His analysis is basically an appraisal and endorsement of the CID investigation.  He relies heavily on the Bloodstain Pattern Analysis report by Gardner and the presence of the Leatherman tool at the scene with Hess’s blood on it as well as the sharp instrument defects of the victim’s clothing being consistent with the Leatherman tool.  His description of the injuries is that most are superficial and then cites photographs from both the Geberth and Di Maio textbooks.  The consultants disagree with his analysis and comparisons.  He then constructed an Equivocal Death Analysis (Psychological Autopsy) which he calls his observations of a strained emotional state of Gordon Hess.  He states, interestingly, that Gordon Hess “always strived for perfection, settling for nothing less.”  These are the same words used in the CID reports.




I advised counsel that Army CID would probably rely on a “Psychological Autopsy” to justify their conclusion of Suicide. At this point in the analysis I could not find anything that would fit any “Suicide Profile” that I was familiar with.  More importantly, the “Fratricide” incident, which the military was clearly relying upon to establish a motive for Captain Hess to take his life did not appear to be that serious an issue with anyone involved in the exercise or any of the personnel I had interviewed.


It was my belief that the USACIDC Final Report would most likely rely on the AFIP autopsy results and the statements of personnel, who indicated that Captain Hess was frustrated and depressed over the failed SIMTAC exercise which resulted in a fratricide incident.   I had learned that only one individual in approximately 130 persons interviewed had stated that Captain Hess might possibly be suicidal.  When I interviewed this individual, who was a Captain in The National Guard, he told me he was just “talking-off-the-top-of-his-head.”  He had neither personal knowledge of the victim nor any grounds on which to base his statement.


However, the CID investigators relied heavily on this single witness statement to support their conclusion of suicide.  The individual also advised me that CID took his statement out of context.  I also interviewed the other interviewee, who was quoted in the CID reports regarding Captain Hess’ frustration with the SIMTAC exercises.  He also told me that his statement was taken out of context and never said that Captain Hess was suicidal.


The consultant stated that one of the major areas of dispute continued to be the medicolegal interpretation of the wounds and injuries suffered by Captain Gordon Hess as viewed by the AFIP and as analyzed and assessed by our forensic pathologists.  The medical question was whether or not a person could have caused such multiple deep potentially fatal injuries in a suicide, with lack of any hesitation wounds or injuries.  The configuration of these wounds as well as the haphazard orientation of these wounds coupled with the perforation of the victims clothing were additional factors taken into consideration.   


The consultant proposed that we furnish a general consensus of medical opinion from additional forensic pathologists for the final report of the analysis of the death of Gordon Hess.  The additional medical experts, who are well renowned and respected in the domain of forensic pathology, reviewed our findings and concurred with our preliminary analysis.  They submitted their reports and findings for inclusion within the final report.


DR. LESLIE LUKASH'S OPINION - Chief Medical Examiner Nassau County, N.Y.


The following is a synopsis of Dr. Lukash's report.  In his report he states, "Several things about this case speak against it being classified as a suicide.


1.      There are no hesitation wounds in the area of the chest stab wounds (These are usually seen in suicides.)

2.      Thee is an incised injury to the right arm (which may be a defensive type injury)

3.      The number of wounds (26) is rather large for a suicide (particularly with 7 deep wounds.)

4.      The Leatherman tool shown in the photograph has a 2 1/2 inch non-locking blade.  The wound tracks on the deceased penetrated to a depth of three inches and perforated bone which requires a lot of force.

5.      One of the stab wounds has a "Y" shaped configuration.  This implies a relative motion between the assailant and the victim on a twisting of the knife or a superimposing of 2 stab wounds (which is inconsistent with a suicide).

6.      The stab wounds perforate the clothing (it is common in suicides for the stab wounds not to perforate the clothing)

7.      The knife found at the scene had no blood or fingerprints on it.


(NOTE:  This information was given in error by CID to the consultants. Later it was determined that the knife did in fact have the victim's blood on it (The knife was laying in bloody water) but there were no fingerprints upon the instrument.)


It is my opinion that the manner of death of the deceased is inconsistent with a suicide and more consistent with an undetermined manner of death.  I do reserve final opinion until I review a copy of the original autopsy report, the original autopsy photos, and the original police investigation. Submitted and signed February 19, 1999.[15]


DR. HALBERT E. FILLINGER Forensic Pathologist, Coroner Montgomery County, PA


The following is a synopsis of Dr. Fillinger's report.  In his report he states, Gordon Hess met his death as the result of a number of stab wounds to the anterior trunk and it would appear that the cause of death is not a matter of dispute. The manner of death, however, is an entirely different situation.  The multiplicity of stab wounds speaks rather strongly against most profiles of suicides that I am familiar with, none-the-less, I don't think that it is absolutely excluded.  The location and the number of the wounds, all of rather similar appearance and configuration, would be much more likely to have been produced by a homicidal attack, rather than the mindset of a suicide.


I think if I had to rule this case on the information supplied, which in my opinion is rather inadequate to make a final determination, I would rule this case as "undetermined (H)" indicating that while I am unable to draw a conclusion as to the manner of death, the preponderance of the evidence points towards a homicide."  Submitted and signed March 10, 1999.[16]




Dr. Dominick J. DiMaio submitted his 10-page final report to counsel in January, 1999. In this final report, Dr. Di Maio provided an indepth description of each of the 26 injuries suffered by Captain Hess and refutes the findings of the AFIP.  He takes issue with Dr. Schilke's description of the neck wounds as superficial stating, "In my fifty years of experience as a medical examiner and consultant, I have never seen a similar case of suicidal incised wounds of the neck."[17]


Dr. Di Maio sated that the wounds that Dr. Schilke described as superficial are neither superficial nor hesitation type incised wounds.  After describing each of the stab wounds, Dr. Di Maio concludes,  "The stab wound tracks that commingled and penetrated the left lung and ventricle were definitely lethal wounds.  The wounds of the right lower anterior chest were potential lethal wounds.  The order in which the above stab wounds and the others were inflicted is purely speculative.  However, what is not speculative is that these wounds are not suicidal wounds.  These wounds are consistent with Homicidal Wounds." [18] Dr. Di Maio also referred to the history of the deceased based upon personal interviews and materials provided by counsel.  He concludes that Gordon Hess does not match any suicide profile.  In summation, Dr Di Maio states, "In conclusion: the cause of death is obvious.  It is my expert opinion, that the manner of death is Homicidal, by unknown person."[19]




In my final report I stated, "There were multiple stabbing wounds into Gordon Hess’s chest without the presence of any hesitation wounds.  The Army pathologist’s toxicology report was negative relative to the presence of drugs or alcohol.  There is no psychiatric history or psychosis on the part of Captain Gordon Hess.  In the absence of these factors such a series of wounds would be inconsistent with suicide.  The multiple stabbing and incised wounds into Gordon Hess’s neck indicated more than one direction of cutting which is inconsistent with self-inflicted wounds. The chest wounds, which penetrated the chest and abdominal cavities, resulted in two penetrating stab wounds of the heart, which pierced the anterior left ventricle of the heart and five which penetrated the left upper lobe of the lungs. These are lethal wounds and not consistent with suicide. In addition, there were two stab wounds to the right lower chest one of which was a superficial incision of the right lobe of the liver. Many of these wounds had a haphazard orientation more commonly seen in homicidal assault where the victim is moving and changing position during the stabbing.  Furthermore, the Leatherman tool has 2 ½ inch long non-locking blade. How would the victim have been able to plunge this knife repeatedly into his body to the depth of three inches and in some instances even hit bone, without the blade folding in?  Seven of the wounds were not only deep but had in fact penetrated into vital organs. The triangular or “Y”-shaped wound is particularly interesting because this type of injury is most often found in homicidal stabbing.  All of the stabbing injuries into the chest were through Gordon Hess’s clothing.  In my experience, most suicides lift their clothing to expose the area of assault.  Furthermore, “What was the sequence of the wounds?”  I would suggest that the hole through the fabric of Gordon Hess’s sweatshirt, which was his outermost garment, was possibly the first wound. This wound probably rendered him incapacitated.  The wounds into his chest and neck were subsequent to this fatal wound.  Captain Hess was an EMT.  He certainly would have been aware of the most lethal areas of the body to penetrate and would not need to have inflicted all of these extra injuries.  The clustered injuries into Gordon Hess’s chest as well as the attack to his neck are more consistent with homicidal “rage” type wound structures. 


In my opinion these injuries and wounds are not obviously self-inflicted. I do not believe that Gordon Hess would have been able to inflict such devastating injuries to himself without leaving  hesitation type marks.   In fact, in my 34-years of law enforcement experience particularly in the area of homicide and forensic investigations, I have never seen this many self-inflicted stab wounds without some evidence of hesitation marks on the victim. In the absence of drugs, intoxication or psychosis a death like that of Gordon Hess would more properly be classified as homicide."




There is a general consensus of medical opinion as well as investigative concurrence among the experts who reviewed this case that Captain Gordon Hess’s death is highly suspicious and not consistent with the Military’s finding of Suicide.


"We work for God."®


[1] Geberth, V.J. Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques. Third Edition.  CRC Press, LLC Boca Raton, Florida. p.20.

[2] Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, Washington, D.C. 20306-6000 ME#98-006 AFIP# 2623130

[3] Pathological Examination Dr. Sung-ook Baik, M.D. March 10, 1998

[4] Department of the Army. Report of Casualty Report 98-00080 March 12, 1998.

[5] Medicolegal Analysis by Dr. Wolf. October 22, 1998.

[6] Confidential Report to Counsel, November 22, 1998.

[7] Karlsson, T., Ormstad, K., and Rajs, J. “Patterns in Sharp Force Fatalities-A Comprehensive, Forensic Medical Study; Part 2. Suicidal Sharp Force Injury in the Stockholm Area 1972-1984. Journal of Forensic Sciences JFSCA, Vol. 33, No.2 March 1988, pp. 448-461

[8] Ibid. p.460.

[9] Psychological Autopsy Report. Department of the Navy. Naval Criminal Investigative Service.  Prepared February 26, 1999 by Dr. Michael G. Gelles, Psy. D.

[10] Ibid., p.1

[11] Ibid., p.4

[12] Ibid., p.6-7

[13] Ibid.,p.9

[14] Forensic Consultation Report JMA-98-0192 January 19, 1999.  James M. Adcock, p.2

[15] Medicolegal Analysis Report. Dr. Leslie Lukash, M.D. Forensic Pathologist Chief Medical Examiner, Nassau County, New York 2/19/99

[16] Medicolegal Analysis Report. Dr. Halbert E. Fillinger, M.D. Forensic Pathologist Coroner, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania

[17] Final Consultative Report Dr. Dominick J. Di Maio, M.D. Consultant Forensic Medicine and Pathology Former Chief Medical Examiner New York City Medical Examiner's Office.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.