By Tony Ortega
We were stunned when Debrah Kitchings said it: in the 26 years since she investigated the odd death of Mary Florence “Flo” Barnett for the Los Angeles County Coroner, she has not once been asked by a reporter about what she remembers of the case.
Only once in that time, she says, was she ever asked about it at all.
“I think her daughter or a relative sent a letter, an inquiry, I think,” Kitchings says.
Today, Kitchings is retired and lives in Riverside County, California, but in 1985, she was an investigator with the LA Department of Coroner when, on the night of September 8, she was called to Dominguez Valley Hospital in Compton to conduct a gunshot residue test on the hands of the dead woman.
Despite the passage of time, Kitchings remembers the case well. And she suspects that there’s a reason I’m interested in this one death out of the many she handled over her career.
“It has something to do with Scientology, right?”
Indeed, it does. Over the years, interest in the death of Flo Barnett has endured because of her connection to the Church of Scientology — Barnett’s daughter, Michelle “Shelly” Barnett, in 1981 married David Miscavige, who today is the supreme leader of the worldwide religion. Flo was Miscavige’s mother-in-law, and Shelly herself has not been seen in public with her husband since 2006. But that’s a story we’ll be going into on another day.
There is another reason why Flo Barnett’s death is still a matter of interest on the Internet, I told Kitchings.
Quite a few of us, I explained to her, wonder how Barnett managed to shoot herself three times in the chest and once in the head — with a long rifle — in what the County Medical Examiner ruled was a suicide.
“It is very unusual,” Kitchings told me Monday night when we talked by telephone.
We spent some time going over her report of the incident, a document that can be found online. She wanted to confirm the facts in her report with what she remembered: that she didn’t respond to the scene of the incident, but was called by Sheriff’s Office personnel to the hospital, where Barnett had already been pronounced dead.
Kitchings wanted me to understand why that made a difference. Normally, if death is pronounced at a hospital, it’s not a pressing case, and student workers in the Coroner’s office would go down in the next couple of days to retrieve the body. Instead, in this case, Kitchings was personally called down to the hospital the same night Barnett’s body was taken there.
“The detective must have had some concern. We respond because they have a question,” she said.
That concern was pretty obvious, and something Kitchings put in her report that night: “Detectives felt, at the time of this report, the decedent may be the victim of a homicide due to the number of times she was shot. However, they were still interviewing at the time of this report.”
After performing an autopsy, however, medical examiner Joan Shipley decided that Barnett’s death was a suicide: “The case is that of a 52-year-old woman who died as the result of multiple gunshot wounds which were self-inflicted,” reads Shipley’s report, which came out more than a month after the incident. I asked Kitchings how an autopsy determined that cause.
“I’ll tell you how. It doesn’t mean it was a suicide, but I’ll tell you how they came to that conclusion,” Kitchings answered. “It’s real easy to get away with murder anyway. It’s only as good as the investigator.”
She explained that a medical examiner like Shipley could describe wounds and other conditions of a corpse, but she couldn’t tell by looking how a wound came to happen.
She gave me a hypothetical example of a man with a gunshot wound to the head. “A doctor has no clue whether the man shot his head off, which is a suicide; or died playing Russian Roulette, which is an accident; or if somebody shot him, which is homicide. The doctor cannot tell you whether it was accidental or on purpose. They have to rely on the investigator. So it depends on several things.”
She pointed out that there was no question that what killed Barnett was the shot to the head: “The gunshot wound of the head was immediately fatal and occurred following the 3 gunshot wounds to the chest,” reads the autopsy report.
But the detective would also perform what Kitchings calls a “psychological autopsy,” interviewing people at the scene — such as Barnett’s husband, James Miller, who found his wife’s body and was initially treated as a possible suspect.
“Here you’ve got what appears to be a homicide. But you run into these other factors,” she said. “The hesitation marks on the wrists, for example. Were they fresh or were they healing?”
That was another odd detail in the case: Barnett not only had four bullet wounds, her wrists also showed evidence that they had been slashed.
According to the coroner, Barnett’s wrists had likely been sliced days before: “The wounds are consistent with those of several days’ age but are extremely superficial and may be more acute,” the autopsy report reads, suggesting a possible suicide attempt a few days prior to Barnett’s actual death.
On the other hand, Kitchings says, there were the multiple gunshots.
“Of course it’s unusual to have that many gunshots. And with a rifle? Totally bizarre. But if you think that case is bad, you should hear about this other one, Crystal Spencer,” Kitchings said, referring to a 1988 death. After telling me some things about that case, she came back to the matter at hand.
“It is very unusual and the sheriff’s detective thought it was important,” she said, referring again to her being called down to the hospital that night. “That’s a good detective and that tells me a lot right there. The detective was smart enough to say, ‘Come now.’ And believe me, that was a time we were incredibly busy. The gang problem was never worse than in those years.”
That the Coroner’s Office ultimately ruled it a suicide, however, said more about the detective and his investigation than it did about the autopsy.
“The doctor must have been convinced that it was a suicide based on what the detective told her. The doctor has no clue, and cannot tell you how or why.”
And relying on a homicide detective bureau was not any kind of assurance that the correct conclusion would be reached.
“If it was the LAPD, I’d tell you it was automatically bad. But it was the Sheriff’s Office. And Havercroft, he was good,” she says when I tell her the name of the detective on the reports.
“I didn’t hear anything more in that case, so the doctor relied on the detective. If it was iffy, they would have gone with homicide. But they must have done enough interviews with the husband to convince them that it was a suicide,” she said. “It does sound very suspicious to me. It does. But it was out of my hands.”
I thanked Kitchings for being so helpful, and for not only telling me what she remembered of the case, but for taking the time to explain how a cause of death would be determined.
It was now crystal clear: I needed to track down retired LA Sheriff’s Office detective Bob Havercroft and ask him how he had come to the conclusion that a small, frail woman could kill herself with four rifle shots.
Yesterday, I managed to get him on the phone. Having retired to Oregon, Havercroft was traveling in Southern California, enjoying the warm weather.
I told him why I was calling, and hoped that he remembered the Flo Barnett case out of the many he must have investigated.
“I remember that one,” he said. “This one was very, very, very unusual. But it was a suicide.”
But how, I asked, could Barnett have managed to shoot herself four times?
“Very easily,” Havercroft answered.
“We reconstructed the scene. My lieutenant was there. It was fairly simple to do. The way she was positioned on her bed, the way the rifle was in her hand. I think we even recovered a bullet from next door — this was a trailer park,” he said.
“It was obvious what she was doing, which was typical of some women. She was trying to shoot herself in the chest, and in a critical area. There was a gunshot wound to a breast,” he said.
“When we finished the investigation I was absolutely convinced it was a suicide. There was no question,” he said, adding that he remembered a suicide note being found. In fact, two notes were found.
“I have never heard another word about this case since it was investigated. And I worked another 10, 11 years after that,” Havercroft said.
Again, he acknowledged that the situation was extremely unusual, and that on its surface, it seemed to suggest a different conclusion.
“Hey, I can tell you my patrol deputy who was there was ready to take the husband to jail for murder. I had to cool him off. I walked him through it,” he said, and explained that eventually, his deputy came to the same conclusion.
“There’s no question,” he added. “It’s never a murder until it’s a murder. We never got beyond suicide. It was easy to reconstruct with the body and the position of the gun and so on. There was no cover-up. It was a suicide. It was not a murder,” he said. “It was one of those very, very interesting cases.”
Interesting, to be sure. And one wonders why Barnett was so determined to kill herself that she endured what she did.