Ryan Presutti was coming home for his birthday.
The decorated Marine veteran had stocked his Ford F-150 pickup with road-trip supplies — Gatorade, chips, treats for his bulldog, Bubba — in preparation for the 13-hour slog from north Alabama to his childhood home in suburban Philadelphia.
It was the summer of 2016.
“Happy and so excited” was how a close friend described Presutti’s mood. He talked about his old haunts in Chester County and how much he was looking forward to seeing his parents in Kennett Square.
On the day he was to leave, July 17, 2016 — his 37th birthday — his parents couldn’t reach him by phone.
“We tried to get in touch with him, endlessly, all day,” recalled his mother, Maryellen Presutti. “I never heard back from him.”
The following night around 11 p.m. she got the call. Her only son had been found dead in his trailer. A gunshot wound to his head.
Four days later, the Limestone County coroner ruled Presutti’s death a suicide. An autopsy was never performed.
Presutti, a machine gunner who’d served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, was flown back to Pennsylvania and buried with military honors at Washington Crossing National Cemetery in Bucks County.
It didn’t make sense, his friends and family said to each other. This was not like Ryan.
A year later, the coroner would quietly change the manner of death. He crossed out suicide and checked the box next to “undetermined.”
From the beginning, questions
Suicide can be hard to accept for those left behind, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. But the death of Ryan Presutti raised troubling questions from the outset, and in recent months, new evidence has emerged challenging the conclusions reached by the coroner and the sheriff’s office in Limestone County.
Those close to Presutti — both in Alabama and Pennsylvania — immediately doubted that he’d shot himself. They still do today.
Not only did Presutti not appear to be suicidal, or even depressed, but he had been outspoken against suicide and had once helped save a fellow veteran in Virginia who was considering taking his own life. Parents, Presutti used to say, should never have to bury their own child.
“There have been so many red flags throughout this whole thing,” said Presutti’s father, Vic, seated at his kitchen table this month in Kennett Square. “We know this wasn’t suicide.”
The gun used in Presutti’s death was a .45 caliber Kimber that had been owned by a police officer in another Alabama county. A private investigator hired by the Presutti family said the officer told him he couldn’t remember what he’d done with it, even though it was worth about $1,500.
The Limestone County Sheriff’s Office had initially balked at turning the firearm over to the family.
“Nobody knew where the damn gun was when I called down there,” said the investigator, William Trump, a former New Jersey State Police detective who has been working the case since 2019.
When the sheriff’s office finally turned the gun over last year, Trump said, a forensics consultant concluded that it appeared to have been wiped down and lubricated. No fingerprints.
“It was cleaned spotless,” Vic Presutti said.
That agency, Forensics Pieces, in Pensacola, Fla., also reported that the sheriff’s investigators and coroner likely mistook the entry wound in Presutti’s head for the exit wound. His body, according to its analysis, appeared to have been moved following the shooting, and the location of the gun was “not consistent with the location expected from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
“The entire case demands additional investigation,” Forensic Pieces president Jan Johnson, a former analyst for the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement, wrote last August in a report for the Presuttis.
Then there were the actions after Presutti’s death by Jeremy Cameron and his girlfriend, Shavonna Sue Barton. It was Cameron, a friend of Presutti’s before they had a falling out, who said he found his body and called police. He lived in a house just yards away from Presutti’s trailer and owned the property.,
“There’s something more here than meets the eye,” Trump said.
Cameron has been seen wearing Presutti’s clothes and in possession of his valuables, including a U.S. Marines watch his parents had given him, according to a friend of Presutti’s.
Reached this week, Cameron declined to discuss Presutti’s death.
“I ain’t got nothing to say about that,” he said, then hung up the phone.
Called by Sept. 11
After graduating from Albright College in 2002 with a degree in special education, Presutti had a job offer from the Reading school district. Instead, the former all-conference football player and wrestler at Unionville High School decided to enlist in the Marines.
“I said, ‘You can’t go now!'” his mother recalled. That spring, the U.S. was battling militants from al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“Yeah, mom. All the more reason,” was his response.
At the Marines graduation ceremony at Parris Island, Presutti was company honor graduate for Platoon 3014. He fought overseas as a lance corporal in the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, Bravo Company.
About three years before his death, Presutti moved to Alabama to be with a woman he’d met while visiting friends there. The relationship didn’t last, but he stayed.
“He said he liked it down here. He liked the area,” said Jimmy Collins, who lives in Curry, Ala., about 90 minutes south of where Presutti had lived, and served with him for the four years they were in the Marines.
The pace of life is a little slower in rural Alabama, the air a little softer. In Limestone County, which borders Tennessee, you can escape the strip malls and fast-food joints in 20 minutes and lose yourself on long country roads with green crops running to the tree line on either side. There’s room to breathe.
Presutti had his demons, some brought back from the wars. PTSD. Occasional drug use. He worked for a while as a manager at a strip club, where he’d crossed paths with some unsavory characters. He was also kindhearted, generous and loyal.
“If there was anything he could do to make someone smile, he would pull out all the stops,” said Recie Renee Luttrull, a close friend of Presutti’s who lives in Alabama. “If he knew he could help you, you might as well give it up, because he was going to help you.”
After Ryan’s death, his mother received a call from a woman who was crying. She said Ryan made a bed frame for her daughter, who is blind, and described him as the kindest man she’d ever met. He’d taken up carpentry as a hobby after moving to Alabama and had built benches for an area veterans group and others.
“None of it makes sense,” said Collins, who kept in touch with Presutti after they left the military. “It wasn’t like he sat around depressed. He was ready to roll when things weren’t dealt his way. He moved on. He was like a phoenix. He was reborn. That was his personality. It was like, ‘OK, there’s a fork in the road. I’m taking a left. Let’s go.'”
Days before he died, Luttrull had helped him clean and organize his trailer ahead of a planned move. She said he wanted to get away from Cameron and the drug activity on the property, hoping to find more time to relax and focus on building furniture.
“We had already packed and secured everything so it wouldn’t fall off during the move and get broken,” she said. “Everyone knows he wouldn’t kill himself.”
‘I go with what they tell me’
In July 2017, a year after Ryan died, Maryellen Presutti reached out to Mike West, the longtime coroner in Limestone County who had ruled the death a suicide. She wanted to know how he reached that conclusion. He said he would pull the report.
“Whatever he was reading, he was saying, ‘This can’t be right. This can’t be right.’ Those were his words over and over again,” Presutti said. “As soon as I said Ryan was right handed is when he said he was going to change the death certificate.”
In a phone interview last week, West denied saying that. He said he initially ruled, without an autopsy, that the death was a suicide because that’s what the sheriff’s office believed had happened.
“I go with what they tell me,” West said. “They tell me it’s consistent with suicide, so that’s what I put.”
Asked why he later changed the manner of death to undetermined, West said he “did that for the family.”
“I can put whatever I want to on the death certificate, but the investigation is unchanged,” West said, adding that he still believes Presutti shot himself.
After the new death certificate was signed, Luttrull relayed the news to Cameron’s girlfriend, Barton. Her reaction was concerning.
“When I told her that,” Luttrull said last week, “her eyes about fell out of her head.”
At the time, a previous private investigator hired by the Presutti family had been calling Barton, seeking information about the Marine’s death.
“A few minutes later, she went outside and got on the phone,” Luttrull said of Barton. “She was standing by the window and she said, ‘Jeremy, we got a problem. That investigator keeps calling me and he wants to talk to me and I don’t know what to say. What’s my story? What am I supposed to say? She was stuttering all over the place. She said, ‘We got to get our stories straight.'”
Luttrull has provided this account in a signed written statement to Trump, the family’s current private investigator. Trump tracked Barton down in December 2019 and tried to get her to talk about Ryan’s death. He said she seemed like she had something she wanted to say.
“She put her head down, then raised it up,” Trump said of Barton, “and she said, ‘Can I think about it?'”
He didn’t hear from her again.
‘We’re not Columbo’
Seated behind his desk last week, Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely slipped some Copenhagen tobacco into his bottom lip as he and his chief investigator, Capt. Lance Royals, reviewed the Presutti case at The Inquirer’s request.
The sheriff’s German Shepherd, Shadow, growled at a reporter before hopping on the couch. She’s protective, he explained, but won’t bite — at least, not without good cause.
Blakely, 70, is Alabama’s longest serving sheriff. Like West, the coroner and a close friend of his, Blakely was first elected in 1982. He runs a yearly rodeo that is billed as the “Greatest Show on Dirt East of the Mississippi.”
In 2019, Blakely was indicted by a grand jury on a slew of theft and ethics charges, and his trial begins next month. He brushes the allegations aside as the work of a disgruntled employee and said he looks forward to clearing his name and possibly running for reelection next year.
As for Presutti, Blakely maintains that the evidence still points to a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“We’re not magicians and we’re not Columbo, but we take our jobs seriously and call it as we see it,” Blakely said.
Royals said the case file shows that a small amount of methamphetamine was found in Presutti’s trailer. The toxicology report showed he had also consumed the drug. He said the scene did not appear to have been tampered with.
It remains unclear, however, why an autopsy was never ordered.
“I thought there was an autopsy done, wasn’t there?” Blakely asked Royals.
“There’s just the toxicology,” Royals responded as he leafed through the file.
Blakely and Royals could not explain why the gun that fired the fatal shot would have been wiped of fingerprints or cleaned, as the Presutti family claims.
“As far as I know, it wasn’t sent off for any reason, so I don’t know why it might have turned out like that,” Royals said. He said it was kept in a locked evidence room to which only he has a key.
“No way in hell it would have been cleaned here,” Blakely added.
“He had his demons. But no way. He didn’t do it.”
Luttrull, Presutti’s friend, said she went to the sheriff’s office shortly after his death in 2016 and tried to convince them that it was highly unlikely he’d shot himself and that they needed to do an autopsy. She said she was turned away by a staffer there who told Luttrull she was being irate.
“I couldn’t figure out why he was just shipped back home for a burial,” she said. “I was so angry and frustrated when I left there. It seemed like nobody cared.”
Royals said the investigative file does not mention any contact with Luttrull. He said he was unaware of any subsequent statements she had made about the case.
Asked about Cameron, who is still awaiting trial on the drug distribution charges, Blakely said they have no reason to believe he was involved in Presutti’s death, beyond his discovery of the body.
A flag still flies
Even five years later, Presutti’s family in Chester County and his friends around the country still hold out hope that the death investigation will be reopened.
“This has weighed heavily on me. This is probably the hardest veteran loss I’ve ever had,” said Dustin Russell, a former mortarman in the Marines now living in Texarkana, Texas, who served with Presutti. “I loved the man. He was a good dude. He had his demons. But no way. He didn’t do it.”
In Kennett Square, Ryan Presutti’s bedroom remains largely untouched, a dart board on the wall, along with a Pittsburgh Steelers pennant and his football plaques from Unionville High.
His service medals hang in a shadow box in the dining room. On the front lawn, a red U.S. Marines flag flies year-round.
Each month, Vic and Maryellen Presutti pay $69 rent for a storage facility in Alabama where their son’s trailer is parked. One day, they say, it might yield a clue.
“I’m not here to point fingers at the police,” his mother said. “I just want something done. I just want somebody to do their job.”
When Walter Wilkins roots through his memories, the decades between boyhood and old age, one lasting image of his older brother appears. He sees Paul walking away, up a mountain road in rural Pennsylvania.
Walter, 86, doesn’t remember if that’s the day Paul left Bellwood, Blair County, to go fight in the forgotten war in Korea. He can’t recall if Paul said goodbye to the siblings with whom he shared a shanty and raised hell in those hills. But Walter never saw his brother again, so the memory’s framed, forever, in his mind.
“He was beautiful,” Walter said in at a diner just outside of Buffalo in May. “Just beautiful.”
In 1950, the Army said Paul Wilkins went “missing in action,” and a protracted, ambiguous grief rolled over the Wilkins family like a fog. But the unknown left room for hope. What if Paul jumped ship? What if he avoided bullets and shrapnel, outrunning death and duty to forge some new life far from home?
That was just a dream, Walter said, something to shake the reality that Paul was surely dead. One by one, Walter buried siblings who never saw that fog lift, and a mother, Margaret, who died with a gaping hole in her heart.
“I often wonder if us mothers whose sons are missing and never accounted for, if we’ll ever know for sure what did happen or where they are. I still hope and pray these boys will turn up someday and come home,” Margaret wrote in a letter to the Army on May 5, 1953.
Now, more than 70 years after Paul went missing, Walter and his extended family have a clearer picture of his last days. The Army’s never-ending quest to bring soldiers home, in Paul’s case, was accomplished through both physical labor, including digging through foxholes and excavating coffins, and modern advancements in science.
A grave would be dug in Bellwood.
“My brother’s coming home,” Walter said.
From Bellwood to Korea to Hawaii
Paul Wilkins enlisted in the U.S. Army on June 8, 1948, in Altoona after graduating from Bellwood-Antis High School. He was 17. After training at Fort Dix, N.J., he shipped off to Japan in 1949. Paul was a rifleman in Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. In early July of 1950, when the first battles of the Korean War were erupting along the border between the Republic of Korea (South) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North), Paul, a private first class at the time, was called into action.
Paul’s division, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, was tasked with defending South Korea from a North Korean offensive. Most of the fighting took place near Choch’iwan, South Korea, and, according to an Army memorandum, the enemy had “superior forces,” breaking Paul’s division into smaller groups and eventually overrunning them.
“He was not seen after this action,” the Army wrote.
Paul was listed as missing in action on July 11, 1950. He was 19.
“I wish to emphasize that every effort is exerted continuously to clear up the status of our personnel. Under battle conditions this is a difficult task as you must readily realize,” Army Maj. Gen. Edward Witsell wrote in a letter to Margaret in November 1950. “Permit me to extend to you my heartfelt sympathy during this period of uncertainty.”
In the few short months between Paul’s disappearance and that letter, Margaret lost a second son, Cpl. Joseph Wilkins, to injuries while serving in Korea. Joseph, a World War II veteran, was 24. Walter, upon learning of his brothers’ deaths, wanted to join the Army, too. He wanted revenge. But he was just 15 and his mother wouldn’t sign the waiver needed to enlist.
“I never really got a chance to know either one of them,” Walter said.
The Army declared a presumptive finding of death for Paul on Dec. 31, 1953, and urged Margaret Wilkins to find “sustaining comfort” in the realization that her son made a “supreme sacrifice.” The Army posthumously promoted Paul from private first class to corporal.
As Witsell had said to Margaret in 1950, however, the Army didn’t like leaving soldiers unaccounted for. According to a lengthy report compiled for the Wilkins family, a team of five soldiers from the 392nd Quartermaster Company searched through the Choch’iwan region two years after the battles there, excavating 368 foxholes and fighting positions. They recovered 13 sets of remains, none of them Paul.
Through the years, the Army kept in touch with Margaret, asking her for dental records or whether he had any fractures. They sent her photographs of rings and other jewelry, to see if any of it belonged to her son.
“He had really nice teeth,” Margaret wrote back.
Paul, it turned out, had already been found, shortly after the July 1950 battle. He was referred to as “Unknown X-113″ and buried at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Taejon, South Korea, then moved to a mortuary in Japan where anthropologists still failed to identify him. In 1956, Paul and hundreds of other Korean War casualties were reinterred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu. That same year, Paul was declared non-recoverable.
In 1984, Walter’s son, Craig Wilkins, honeymooned in Hawaii and visited the courts of the missing at the Punchbowl. He saw his Uncle Paul’s name, etched on a wall there, one of 8,210 Americans missing from the Korean War. No one knew he was buried nearby.
Her aunt gave her a gift before being sent to die. She returned to Auschwitz to relive their ‘last sweet thing.’
“It was the first name we saw,” Craig said in May at his home in Akron, N.Y.
Paul remained in Hawaii for decades more, known only as “Unknown X-113.″ Margaret died in 1974.
A small act, but a powerful one
Old caskets buried for a half-century aren’t easy to open, and Jennie Jin has seen hundreds of them come through the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. She leads the Korean War Identification Project.
Some caskets are rusted shut, she said, and call for a chainsaw. When they are opened, there’s almost always a green Army blanket and skeletonized remains underneath. The bones are usually in good condition, she said.
Jin said the work, identifying unknown soldiers, is sacred and she doesn’t let her team lose sight of that.
“I printed out the pictures of guys we helped identify, and they are on the wall here. It’s a very small act, but it’s a powerful one,” Jin said in a video interview from Hawaii in April. “I always remind them that this is not a study sample. These are once-living individuals.”
In July 2018, historians and anthropologists with the DPAA, with the encouragement of missing veterans’ families, proposed a bold plan to help name those unidentified who were buried in the Punchbowl. That meant disinterring 652 sets of remains, including 53 recovered from Taejon. The disinterment was split up into seven phases. X-113 was disinterred on July 1, 2019.
“We are exhuming about eight caskets, every other week,” Jin said.
The bodies were often heavily treated with chemical preservatives, destroying most of the organic matter needed for DNA testing. Jin, who earned her doctorate in anthropology from Penn State, said her team uses a multipronged approach, however, to narrow down the pool of potential IDs. After World War II, every soldier who enlisted was X-rayed, Jin said, out of concern for tuberculosis, and her team is able X-ray the bones they exhume and compare clavicles.
Given where and when X-113 was found, Jin said they were able to narrow the potential IDs to 46.
Walter, Craig, and Paul’s now-late brother, Ben, all submitted DNA samples via a simple swab from the mouth. DNA samples were taken from X-113′s teeth.
Anthropologists who studied Paul’s bones determined he died from a “blast event.” Multiple bones were fractured, including ribs, vertebrae, his right scapula, and his right clavicle.
Time, Jin said, is their biggest enemy. Siblings of World War II and Korean War veterans are getting older. Her own grandfather, alive today at 94, fought in the Korean War for South Korea.
“We know how important it is to make those IDs for the living relatives,” she said, “for people who still remember this person.”
More than 7,000 remain unidentified.
Back at Bellwood
American flags were everywhere in Bellwood on June 26. They hung above the flowers on the front porches of bungalows and classic American Foursquares that line streets there.
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Flags unfurled on backyard poles, stretched across alleyway fences and truck bumpers. There was one by the Bellwood-Antis High School football field, where Walter wreaked havoc for the Blue Devils.
Across the street, at the Logan Valley Cemetery, local Boy Scouts had staked hundreds of bright, new flags by veterans’ graves. Smaller flags were affixed to the back of Harley-Davidson motorcycles parked in a row on one of the cemetery’s lanes.
A few dozen bikers in leather vests each held a flag, too. They stood at attention while a black Lincoln hearse passed between them. Just before 11 a.m., an Army honor guard quietly removed the steel casket inside.
A flag was draped across it, with one single dog tag hung from the casket handle: “Wilkins. Paul W.”
“I am the resurrection and the life,” George W. Bailey Sr., a retired pastor, said as the sun first hit that flag.
Walter sat in a wheelchair by the casket. He almost didn’t make it back to Bellwood, as medical issues, including a broken bone in his back, made the five-hour drive south from Akron difficult. His sister, Virginia, suffers from dementia and could not attend.
Those health concerns prevented Walter from seeing his brother’s remains land at Pittsburgh International Airport days earlier. But Craig took hundreds of pictures on the tarmac as the flight from Honolulu touched down just before 3:30 p.m. Police and first responders stood at attention. Above them, a United Airlines employee stood alone by an open door, saluting.
The same honor guard was there to guide the long, white box from the plane’s cargo hold and into an airport funeral cart with the words “Never forgotten” etched onto it.
Back in Bellwood, it was a family reunion of sorts: cousins, children from a previous relationship, grandchildren, and old friends, all gathering there to greet Walter. Strangers had come too, setting up chairs on the outskirts of the cemetery.
Occasionally, Walter cried, but he also cracked a mischievous smile recalling a childhood in this Rockwellian town of 1,751.
Often, the adventures had a somber mission, like stealing coal from railroad box cars to heat their “shack.”
“Never got caught,” he said.
It was the dire financial situation in Bellwood that Walter believes pushed Paul to enlist. He left for Western New York himself in 1953, moving to Akron, a small town much like Bellwood, about 25 miles northeast of Buffalo. But Walter always kept a little of his Bellwood days in his blood, taking up skydiving and driving his 1946 Indian Scout motorcycle much too fast.
Craig, a musician, played acoustic guitar by his uncle’s casket, his booming voice singing, “Not just a name on a wall” by the Statler Brothers.
“We are so thankful and so blessed because this is closure,” he told the mourners before singing.
A bugler played “Taps” and the honor guard fired off a salute, the crack of their rifles echoing off Brush Mountain in the distance. Then two members of the honor guard slowly removed the flag, folding it tightly, 13 times, into a triangle. One of them knelt before Walter and placed it in his arms, and he sobbed for a second or two, the weight of that flag something no scale could measure.
Later, when everyone had left, Paul was lowered into a grave, beside his mother.
At a small gathering afterward at the United Veterans building on Main Street, Walter sipped on some Yuenglings and reminisced. A large mural of American wars and conflicts spread across a wall behind him. Around the corner, in the bar, a faded newspaper memorial for Paul and Joseph Wilkins was pinned up behind a glass case.
“Missing July 11, 1950,” was printed beneath Paul’s smiling face.
“Now he’s home,” Walter said. “Finally back home.”
Joshua and Sandra Greenberg were settled in for the evening when the call came from Philadelphia:
“Something terrible has happened to Ellie.”
Their only child, Ellen Greenberg, was dead.
In an instant on that night in 2011, the Greenbergs’ world turned “Weird. Strange. Black,” Sandra said.
Little did they know that it would only get more so.
Ellen, a 27-year-old elementary schoolteacher, had been discovered seated on the kitchen floor inside her locked Manayunk apartment with a serrated knife plunged four inches into her chest.
A strainer filled with blueberries and an orange, appearing freshly sliced, rested on the counter. Two clean knives were in the sink.
And 20 stab wounds, with 10 alone to the back of Ellen’s neck, covered her body.
Police on scene treated Ellen’s death as a suicide. But the next day, the Medical Examiner’s Office determined it was a homicide. Then, after detectives dug up more information, they dug in their feet and the ME’s Office made a rare flip-flop, changing the manner of Ellen’s death to suicide.
The Greenbergs found their emotions whipsawed as Philadelphia officials disagreed about what happened in that corner of the small and otherwise undisturbed kitchen. Josh, 68, a periodontist, and Sandra, 62, a dental hygienist, felt a world away at their home in Harrisburg.
But as they gradually came to learn the extent of their daughter’s injuries and the peculiarities of the scene, they began asking: “What the hell is going on here?”
And so they started a quest that no parent should ever have to undertake: to find out how their daughter died. To that end, they’ve enlisted the help of respected forensic experts, including Pittsburgh forensic pathologist Cyril H. Wecht and Connecticut forensic scientist Henry Lee.
“It doesn’t add up,” Sandra said. “… We just want to know the truth.”
A trip to the gym, then tragedy
On the day Ellen died — Jan 26, 2011 — a nor’easter blanketed the city with snow. Juniata Park Academy, where Ellen taught first grade, was dismissed early, and she returned to the Venice Lofts apartment she shared with her fiance, Samuel Goldberg, then 28.
Goldberg, a TV producer, and Ellen were together in their sixth-floor apartment until about 4:45 p.m. when he went to use the gym in the complex. He returned a half hour or so later to find himself locked out; the apartment’s swing bar lock was engaged from the inside, he told police.
He banged on the door but got no response. So he tried to reach Ellen using his phone.
Goldberg sent her increasingly frustrated texts over 22 minutes, according to the ME’s investigation report:
“open the door”
“what r u doin”
“im getting pissed”
“you better have an excuse”
“what the f—-“
“u have no idea”
Goldberg went to the lobby and spoke with Phil Hanton, 67, the lone security guard that night. He pressed Hanton to help break the lock. It was against policy, the guard told him.
He forced open the door himself, then called 911. It was 6:33 p.m.
Goldberg was “instructed to start CPR until he noticed a knife in her chest, then was instructed to stop.”
Ellen Greenberg was pronounced dead on scene at 6:40.
Inside the apartment, police found no signs of an intruder or that Ellen tried to flee. Her body was in the kitchen, just inside the front door, with her head, neck, and shoulders propped up against corner cabinets and her legs splayed in front of her. In her left hand was a nearly pristine white towel.
Looking at her hands and arms, police did not see any wounds that might be expected if she’d tried to fight off an attack by someone wielding a knife.
There was no blood spilled beyond the kitchen. The knife was tested later and showed only Ellen’s DNA.
The Venice Lofts had surveillance cameras at the main entrance, but none in the hallway leading up to the apartment.
Neighbors would tell police that aside from Goldberg banging on the door, there had been no sounds of a disturbance.
The couple’s sixth-floor unit had a narrow balcony. The day’s snow there was undisturbed.
“Everything that happened pretty much happened right where she was,” Homicide Sgt. Tim Cooney would later say. “The rest of the apartment was pretty unremarkable.”
Cooney said Ellen’s death was treated as a suicide that night for several reasons. The apartment door had been locked until broken in by Goldberg. He had remained on scene and was cooperative. There were no signs of an intruder. And the lack of defensive wounds also factored heavily in police’s determination.
Investigators looked at Ellen’s laptop computers and found nothing indicative of suicide, the investigation report said. She didn’t leave behind a note.
An autopsy, now homicide
The day after Ellen’s death, in a grim brick building in University City, Assistant Philadelphia Medical Examiner Marlon Osbourne began Ellen’s autopsy at the city morgue.
He labeled her stab wounds with letters, beginning with A. He stopped at T.
He noted eight wounds to her chest. They ranged from punctures just .2 centimeters deep to the 4-inch final plunge of the still-embedded knife.
She had a 2-inch stab wound to her stomach and a 2.5-inch-long gash across her scalp.
There were 10 wounds — from nicks to two about 3 inches deep — on the back of Ellen’s neck.
And there were 11 bruises “in various stages of resolution” on Ellen’s right arm, abdomen, and right leg.
At the end of the autopsy, Osbourne weighed all his observations and reached a manner of death: homicide.
Josh and Sandra Greenberg were preparing for their daughter’s funeral when they learned of the ruling through friends who’d seen it in news reports.
At the packed service in the Beth El Temple in Harrisburg, Josh eulogized his daughter, then shared the news. You may have heard that Ellen killed herself, he told the mourners, but her death has just been ruled a homicide.
The room was silent.
A marked change
With the ME’s ruling, Ellen’s death became the concern of the Philadelphia Homicide Unit.
Investigators reviewed Goldberg’s key fob records and security videos to see if everything matched what Ellen’s fiance had told them. Police said it did. The videos also showed no signs of unauthorized access of entrances by anyone around the time of Ellen’s death, police said.
On Jan. 29, 2011, a police spokesperson said that despite the homicide ruling, authorities were “leaning” toward suicide in Ellen’s case and looking into “mental issues” she might have had.
A month or two before her death, Ellen had begun to display a marked change in demeanor.
Her parents watched as their bubbly and outgoing daughter suddenly became unsettled and anxious. When they asked what was wrong, she would only say she was stressed about her job.
“I was trying to go full circle, everything I could think of to find out what she was so concerned about,” her mother would later say. “I just thought she felt overwhelmed.”
Debbie Schwab, one of Ellen’s best friends, was struck that Ellen went from being “one of the happiest people I knew” to “filled with anxiety.”
“She kept saying it was because of school. She was very vague about everything,” Schwab said. “If I asked her anything, there would be a long silence. She didn’t want to talk about it.”
“If I asked her anything there would be a long silence. She didn’t want to talk about it.”
Amy Schwartz taught school with Ellen at Juniata Park. While Ellen had some tough kids in her class, Schwartz said, she seemed no more stressed than other teachers.
Around this time, Ellen asked her parents if she could move back home to Harrisburg. They thought it odd, given her impending marriage in August, but their daughter assured them it had nothing to do with Goldberg, her fiance.
“At no time did she complain about anybody or anything except that she wanted to come home,” Josh Greenberg would later say.
Concerned, they urged her to see a psychiatrist, Ellen Berman of Merion. Ellen had three appointments with Berman. Ellen felt overwhelmed at work, but “there was never any feeling of suicidal thoughts” and she had “nothing but good things to say” about her fiance, the psychiatrist would later tell investigators.
“Berman even noted a smile when she spoke of him,” the ME’s report said. “Berman recalls asking about abuse, the decedent denied any verbal or physical confrontations.”
She described Ellen as having “severe anxiety” and prescribed her the antianxiety drug Klonopin and Ambien, a sleep aid. Both list suicidal thoughts and behavior as possible side effects. They were the only drugs found in Ellen’s system when she died.
Berman last saw Ellen on Jan. 19. Three days later, Ellen had her last communication with many of her loved ones when save-the-date cards for her wedding arrived in their mailboxes.
It was four days before her death.
A new quest
Cooney, the homicide sergeant who supervised the investigation, Detective John McNamee, and other assigned detectives believed the information they developed strengthened the case that Ellen had killed herself. She was anxious. She was found in a locked apartment with no evidence of a struggle. No other person’s DNA was on the knife. Detectives believed the shallow punctures on her body were “test or hesitation” wounds made as Ellen considered stabbing herself to death. She had no marks on her body that indicated she fought with an attacker.
In an effort to resolve the dispute over manner of death, McNamee said he suggested hiring an outside neuropathologist to review a portion of Ellen’s spinal cord to determine if it was damaged by any of the wounds to the back of her neck.
If it was, it would have rendered her incapacitated and unable to inflict the subsequent wounds on herself, including the final plunge to her chest.
According to McNamee, the neuropathologist who conducted the exam told police that the spinal cord sheath was hit but the cord was not severed. Ellen most likely went numb, thus allowing her to stab herself repeatedly.
After initially ruling Ellen’s death a homicide, on March 7 the ME’s Office reversed itself and changed the manner of Ellen’s death to suicide, siding with police investigators.
“We couldn’t prove anything else,” McNamee said. “We were just letting things go where it went, and that’s where it went.”
The Greenbergs were devastated. “I was in so much shock,” Sandra Greenberg said.
They were also upset about how they found out: through media reports.
After months of emotional back and forth, the Greenbergs decided to launch their own quest for answers. They purchased Ellen’s autopsy report, photos of her body from the autopsy, photos of her body at the scene, and the ME’s investigation report from the scene.
At the advice of a friend, the Greenbergs sent those materials for review to Wecht, the Pittsburgh forensic pathologist who famously challenged the single-bullet theory of the John F. Kennedy assassination.
Wecht had specific concerns about the number and location of the stab wounds and, particularly, those to the back of Ellen’s neck.
“I don’t understand how they wrote this off as a suicide,” he would later say.
Cyril H. Wecht, forensic pathologist”content_elements”
“I don’t understand how they wrote this off as a suicide.”
Wecht’s January 2012 report labeled it “strongly suspicious of homicide.”
But Wecht had the disadvantage of not having the detectives’ files to review.
Armed with Wecht’s report and wanting more answers, the Greenbergs retained a private attorney who had a reputation for taking on the police, civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner.
Krasner believed “substantial questions remain unanswered” in Ellen’s death, according to a February 2012 draft retainer agreement he penned for the Greenbergs. In May 2012, he convened a meeting for the Greenbergs with police officials and representatives from the District Attorney’s Office in an effort to get the investigation reopened. But nothing would come of it, the Greenbergs said.
So, through their current lawyer who is representing them at no cost — former state Attorney General Walter Cohen — they filed a public records request to get the police case file. After being turned down, Cohen continued to press, and police allowed them to view it without making copies or taking photographs. The Greenbergs said they were uncertain what to look for.
Meanwhile, they continued to get experts to join their quest.
One was Tom Brennan, a retired 25-year state police veteran and former chief of the Dauphin County Detectives, who is working Ellen’s case for free.
After studying the death-scene photos and medical examiner’s documents, Brennan, a member of Philadelphia’s well-known crime-solving club, the Vidocq Society, said the lack of defensive wounds on Ellen didn’t necessarily support suicide. He has seen many stabbing victims without defensive wounds.
“It’s referred to as a blitz attack,” he would later explain. “Where the victim is attacked that quickly that they’re unable to defend themselves.”
Something else nagged at Brennan. Images of Ellen at the scene show a stream of dried blood running horizontally across her cheek, from the side of her nose toward her left ear. But her body was slumped upright when found.
Police theorized that she stabbed herself while standing and slid seated to the floor — and that her body was never moved. But, Brennan asks, how to explain the horizontal stream of blood on her cheek?
The blood flow baffles Guy D’Andrea as well. Once a Philadelphia homicide prosecutor, he is now in private practice. While still in the DA’s Office, D’Andrea reviewed Ellen’s entire case file in 2015 at the request of an acquaintance who’d heard about the puzzling case.
The blood path “defies gravity,” D’Andrea said. “You don’t need to be a pathologist to have an appreciation for that. Either she moved herself or someone moved her.\”
And then there is the question of whether any of the 10 stab wounds to Ellen’s neck damaged her spinal cord.
Just a single line about the spinal cord exam appears in Ellen’s autopsy report: “Note: Neuropathologist Dr. Lucy Rouke [sic] examined the spinal cord and concluded there is no defect of the spinal cord.”
The reference was to Lucy Rorke-Adams, a renowned neuropathologist who retired from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 2015.
When D’Andrea, the former homicide prosecutor, looked through Ellen’s file, he said he couldn’t find a neuropathology report. So he requested a copy from police and the ME’s Office but was told it couldn’t be found or didn’t exist. An invoice couldn’t be found, either.
Rorke-Adams, in an email, confirmed she did contract work for the ME’s Office in 2011. Without a report or a bill for her services, “I would conclude that I did not see the specimen in question although there is a remote possibility that it was shown to me,” she wrote. “However, I have no recollection of such a case.”
In a rare bit of kismet during his research, Brennan would make a surprising discovery: A piece of Ellen’s spinal cord is still kept in storage at the ME’s Office.
He contracted with Wayne K. Ross, a forensic pathologist for Lancaster, Dauphin, and Cumberland Counties, to examine the specimen. Ross concluded that one of the stab wounds penetrated Ellen’s cranial cavity and “severed the cranial nerves and brain,” according to his January 2017 report.
“As a result she would experience severe pain … and impaired/loss of consciousness,” Ross wrote.
Connecticut forensic scientist Henry Lee, who testified for the defense at the O.J. Simpson murder trial, also reviewed the ME’s files for the Greenbergs.
In a report he coauthored last year, Lee concluded: “The number and types of wounds and bloodstain patterns observed are consistent with a homicide scene.”
And then there is the question of the locked door, which police said factored heavily in determining Ellen was alone when she died.
But Brennan and D’Andrea both noted that video of several methods for manipulating swing bar locks from the outside are easily found on the internet.
The Inquirer also asked two independent experts to review the ME’s reports, autopsy photos, and scene photos that were provided by the Greenbergs.
Gregory McDonald, dean of the School of Health Sciences at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and chief deputy coroner for Montgomery County, was struck by the many shallow stab wounds to Ellen’s body.
“Those tend not to occur in homicides. They will stab you, not hesitate significantly,” McDonald said of knife-wielding assailants. “The other issue is it wouldn’t have been impossible for her to inflict them upon herself. It’s unlikely, it’s unusual, but it’s not impossible.”
But four of Ellen’s wounds were several inches deep. The depth, number, and required force of those wounds, as well as the gash on Ellen’s head, could be indicative of a homicide, McDonald said. “That is not the typical pattern of someone who commits suicide through a sharp instrument like that,” he said.
Like others, McDonald noted that the stabs went through Ellen’s clothing. “Most people if they inflict the wounds themselves, they pull the clothes up. They don’t go through the clothing,” he said.
Robert D. Keppel, retired chief criminal investigator for the Washington State Attorney General’s Office who investigated Ted Bundy and Green River Killer Gary Ridgway, was struck that the knife was left lodged in Ellen’s body, something he’s never seen in a suicide.
“In this particular case there’s so many different wounds it almost looks like somebody else is doing their thing with her,” he said.
D’Andrea, the former prosecutor who’s reviewed about 100 homicides and has seen the entire file, unlike other experts, believes \”for every piece of evidence someone could point to and say ‘This was a suicide!’ I think someone could reasonably, on the other end, point to evidence, even that same evidence, that would suggest it was a homicide.”
A punch in the stomach
After Krasner’s election as district attorney, the Greenbergs contacted the DA’s Office to see if their old lawyer would reopen Ellen’s case. Krasner referred the matter to the state Attorney General’s Office in February 2018 to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
That was more than a year ago. The Inquirer recently pressed for answers and last week AG spokesperson Joe Grace in a statement said his office had done a “thorough investigation.\”
Grace provided a search history from Ellen’s computer, between Dec. 18, 2010, and Jan. 10, 2011, that was recovered by law enforcement’s Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory (RCFL) and turned over to police on April 1, 2011. It included the search terms suicide methods, quick suicide, and painless suicide. He provided some of Ellen’s text messages, as well.
“I’m starting the med I know u don’t understand but I can’t keep living with feeling this way,” Ellen texted her mom, Sandra, on Jan. 8.
Nine days later, Ellen texted her: “Klonopin helped!! … Thnk god.”
“Soooo happy for you,” her mom wrote back.
“Me too Omg!!!!!!”
The day before Ellen’s death, Sandra texted her, “You need to see a professional. ” Ellen replied: “OK I’m trying just scared a bit for everything.”
According to Grace, “this evidence supports ‘Suicide’ as the manner of death” and the AG has “closed this investigation.”
When asked why the ME’s April 15, 2011, report said nothing indicative of suicide had been found on Ellen’s computer and why D’Andrea saw no RCFL report in the DA’s file, Grace said his office didn’t find the analysis in the DA’s file, so “we cannot say if anyone, police or prosecutor, ever looked at it,\” Grace wrote. His office obtained it last year from the RCFL.
When asked about the neuropathology exam, Grace said: “Dr. Rorke-Adams has no independent recollection of participating in the investigation and we have not found a copy of the report.\” Still, the office believes there’s “ample evidence” it happened based on the line about it in the autopsy report and statements from two detectives.
The Greenbergs have these questions and more. “The fact that Ellen’s computer Googled ‘painless suicide’ and she’s stabbed to death and I have experts that say it’s suspicious of homicide, what am I supposed to say?” her father asked.
They feel Ellen’s case did not get a thorough reinvestigation. They want to get copies of all her files. Grace said his office would not release them.
“I’m disgusted and disappointed and punched in the stomach,” Josh Greenberg said, “but this is not over.”
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