1994’s Most Bizarre Suicide
At the 1994 annual awards dinner given by the American Association for Forensic Science, AAFS President Don Harper Mills astounded his audience in San Diego with the legal complications of a bizarre death. Here is the story.
On 23 March 1994, the medical examiner viewed the body of Ronald Opus and concluded that he died from a shotgun wound of the head. The decedent had jumped from the top of a ten-story building intending to commit suicide (he left a note indicating his despondency). As he fell past the ninth floor, his life was interrupted by a shotgun blast through a window, which killed him instantly. Neither the shooter nor the decedent was aware that a safety net had been erected at the eighth floor level to protect some window washers and that Opus would not have been able to complete his suicide anyway because of this.
Ordinarily, a person who sets out to commit suicide ultimately succeeds, even though the mechanism might not be what he intended.
That Opus was shot on the way to certain death nine stories below probably would not have changed his mode of death from suicide to homicide. But the fact that his suicidal intent would not have been successful caused the medical examiner to feel that he had homicide on his hands.
The room on the ninth floor whence the shotgun blast emanated was occupied by an elderly man and his wife. They were arguing and he was threatening her with the shotgun. He was so upset that, when he pulled the trigger, he completely missed his wife and the pellets went through the window striking Opus.
When one intends to kill subject A but kills subject B in the attempt, one is guilty of the murder of subject B. When confronted with this charge, the old man and his wife were both adamant that neither knew that the shotgun was loaded. The old man said it was his long-standing habit to threaten his wife with the unloaded shotgun. He had no intention to murder her; therefore, the killing of Opus appeared to be an accident. That is, the gun had been accidentally loaded.
The continuing investigation turned up a witness who saw the old couple’s son loading the shotgun approximately six weeks prior to the fatal incident. It transpired that the old lady had cut off her son’s financial support and the son, knowing the propensity of his father to use the shotgun threateningly, loaded the gun with the expectation that his father would shoot his mother.
The case now becomes one of murder on the part of the son for the death of Ronald Opus.
There was an exquisite twist.
Further investigation revealed that the son [Ronald Opus] had become increasingly despondent over the failure of his attempt to engineer his mother’s murder. This led him to jump off the ten-story building on March 23, only to be killed by a shotgun blast through a ninth story window.
The medical examiner closed the case as a suicide.
BUT THE STORY IS NOT TRUE!
There really is a Don Harper Mills, and he really was president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. He really did relate the story in a speech at a banquet in 1987. However, it was not a true event, Mills made it up as an illustrative anecdote “to show how different legal consequences can follow each twist in a homicide inquiry”. It soon began to circulate on the Internet as a factual story and attained the status of urban legend. It first appeared on the Internet in August 1994 and has been widely circulated since, on the web pages, in emails, and even print publications. They often include Mills’s name and place it at a 1994 event, or attribute it to a supposed Associated Press report of the banquet. Mills himselfs says he is not surprised, calling it “a fabulous story.”
The story has even been adapted for various media, most notably the Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia (1999) in which the protagonist is reimagined as “Sydney Barringer”.