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Suspicion is nothing without proof

On March 2, one day after he was indicted by a federal grand jury for rigging bids for oil and natural gas leases, Aubrey McClendon, 56, former Chesapeake Energy CEO and part owner of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, drove his Chevy Tahoe into a concrete overpass and died in the fiery crash.

On March 2, one day after he was indicted by a federal grand jury for rigging bids for oil and natural gas leases, Aubrey McClendon, 56, former Chesapeake Energy CEO and part owner of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, drove his Chevy Tahoe into a concrete overpass and died in the fiery crash.

According to the Tahoe’s data recorder, the vehicle was traveling at 88 mph with the gas pedal 99 percent depressed until 1½ seconds before impact when McClendon tapped the brake and reduced pressure on the gas pedal from 99 to 25 percent. His speed on impact was 78 mph.

If I had been the medical examiner with jurisdiction over the McClendon case, my first thought would have been that McClendon committed suicide.

The Wall Street Journal called McClendon “one of America’s most charismatic and controversial modern business figures.” He was a wildcatter, a risk-taker and a pioneer in shale rock exploration and hydraulic fracturing or fracking. He’d been ousted from Chesapeake Energy by activist investors in 2013. Once a multibillionaire, he’d suffered severe financial setbacks when oil and gas prices collapsed. Among other assets, he’d been forced to offer his share in the Oklahoma City Thunder as collateral. Such a comedown would severely stress anybody’s psyche, and the timing of the crash in relation to the federal indictment is truly striking.

Oklahoma City Police Capt. Paco Balderrama said that because of McClendon’s status as a civic leader, substantial resources were devoted to the investigation. Two accident investigators and four homicide detectives dug hard but uncovered little.

McClendon left nothing that could be interpreted as a suicide note. He expressed no suicidal thoughts to anyone. He had no alcohol in his system, though toxicology tests detected a small amount of a drug often found in sleep aids. So maybe he fell asleep at the wheel and woke with no time to do more than tap that brake.

“We were unable to find any evidence or information that would lead us to believe it was anything other than a vehicular accident,” Balderrama said. “We may never know 100 percent what happened.”

On June 8, the Oklahoma medical examiner’s office ruled McClendon’s death an accident.

Every experienced medical examiner and every veteran police officer has had cases long on suspicion and short on proof. You get used to it. You do your best and let go of the sorts of cases that, early in your career, drove you nuts and made you feel like a failure. You have to.

“I know who killed those girls,” a grizzled Florida cop once said to me, referring to a years-old unsolved case. “I just can’t nail ’em.” I hadn’t been able to do anything to nail anybody in that murder, either. We both shrugged. C’est la vie.

I would have made the same certification as the Oklahoma medical examiner, even though I suspect that Aubrey McClendon killed himself. Suicide fits the circumstances and data recorder information at least as well as falling asleep.

McClendon was a smart guy. He probably could have figured out that a faked car crash would be a good way to mask a suicide. Perhaps he realized something medical examiners know:

Absence of proof is not proof of absence. On the other hand, suspicion without corroborating evidence is not proof. Suspicion – even suspicion strong enough to convince us that we “know” something – doesn’t cut it in court and doesn’t belong on a death certificate.

Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. Email her at chuser@durangoherald.com.

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