Advertisement

Puzzling Death : Marine Shooting Grows Into Family’s Anguished Obsession

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marine Corps Capt. Jeffrey Digman was found dead, shot in the head in his Temecula home.

The Marine Corps called it suicide. But Digman’s parents refuse to accept that.

His death has grown into an obsession, a mission on which they have spent two years and $75,000 hiring experts. The couple talk about bullet trajectories and blood spatters. Upstairs, in their immaculate Cypress home, they have created in their son’s childhood bedroom a replica of the death scene.

Their examination of the case, along with the puzzling contradictions raised by the forensic experts they hired, have convinced them their son was murdered. But Marine Corps officials maintain that the young captain shot himself with his own .44 Magnum revolver--although Washington military officials still have not reached a final conclusion.

Advertisement

“If this is a simple suicide, then why are we here almost two years later and no one will make a firm determination as to how he died?” said William Digman, a 65-year-old retired engineer. “If he died by suicide, fine, but show us how it happened. If it was homicide, tell us. If it was an accident, explain how it happened. We just want to know.”

Their refusal to accept the military’s version of events is bolstered by the coroner who pronounced Jeffrey Digman’s death a suicide, but told The Times that the case is riddled with puzzles.

“There were a lot of unanswered questions and circumstances we couldn’t account for,” said Rick Bogan, a deputy coroner with the Riverside County Coroner’s Office, who examined Digman’s body on Jan. 22, 1989, the night of his death. “We had to conclude that it probably was suicide.”

In fact, six months after Digman’s death, officials with the coroner’s office asked the Naval Investigative Service to step in before the coroner’s office officially closed the case in January, 1990.

Advertisement

Asked why, under those circumstances, Bogan did not call the cause of death “undetermined,” he explained: “It wasn’t just me. . . . Based on everything we gathered, it seemed more strongly probable that it was suicide. . . . We are not trying to cover anything up. We just haven’t uncovered anything.”

When contacted later by The Times, Bogan declined to discuss the Digman case--saying he was under instructions from his supervisors.

Other experts, hired by the Digmans, agree that some questions might never be answered.

“You’ve got three possibilities: It’s homicide, suicide, or that the case is so screwed up, you are never going to figure out what it is--which is what this case may be,” said Dr. Vincent J. DiMaio, a chief medical examiner in San Antonio who was a consultant on the case.

Officials with San Diego’s Marine Corps Recruit Depot, where Digman used to work, and a Naval Investigative Service spokesman would not comment on the case. NIS spokesman Mike Bourke said he was instructed by Washington officials not to discuss Digman’s death.

The Digman case illustrates some of the frustrations families face when military men and women are killed or found dead during peacetime.

“If there’s a death, by accident or suicide, a representative of the service tells you what happened, and they are vague,” said Joe McCann, president of Concerned Americans For Military Improvements, a watchdog organization. “In the Marine Corps, most of the time they tend to stick to standard stories: ‘We are looking into it, and we’ll tell you later.’ You’ve got to keep on pressing and pressing. Sometimes you have to accept what they give you.”

For two years, the Digmans have tried to extract answers to painful questions, gotten bogged down by military red tape and been haunted by painful memories. Losing a child is difficult enough, they say, but losing a child and feeling uncertain about what happened is far worse. And worst is the possibility that they may never know what happened in Jeffrey Digman’s bedroom in the house at June Court.

Advertisement

“I didn’t haul that boy to the orthodontist and Little League to have him in the grave at 30. They are just not going to throw him away. They just are not going to throw him away,” said Donna Digman, his stepmother, who runs an oil pump parts company in Ontario. “He may look like a big, strong man, but in my heart, he is just a little boy.”

To help unravel the events of Jan. 22, the Digmans re-created what had been their son’s bedroom in his Temecula home. The mock-up has been placed in the room Jeffrey Digman had used as a child. Using measurements, the furniture has been placed in the exact position it held in the 30-year-old captain’s home. The bloodstain on the brass bed is still there; the door torn from the secretary has not been fixed. A string is attached to the ceiling to show where the bullet hole was relative to the bed and the lifeless body.

With the mock-up, the couple handily show why they don’t believe their son’s death was suicide--because they say, the path of the bullet and the body just don’t jibe. Experts hired by the Digmans concur. They say that the young captain was shot and placed on the bed.

“It’s definitely not a suicide,” said Ted Gunderson, who retired from the FBI after 28 years. Gunderson had been a special-agent-in-charge in Los Angeles before becoming a private detective.

Gunderson and several forensic experts hired by the family point to several questionable circumstances:

* Digman was left-handed, yet he was shot above his right ear.

* The weapon found at the scene was a .44 Magnum revolver, yet the wound itself was relatively small, inconsistent with that kind of powerful gun.

* Though it is rare for a left-handed person to use his less dexterous hand to pull the trigger, in most cases, to steady his aim, he would put the gun up against his head. This would create a large, star-shaped, contact wound. The first coroner’s report described the wound as “near contact” and said it was not star shaped.

Advertisement

* For the trajectory of the bullet to line up with Digman’s body, he would have been forced into an awkward position. If he had been sitting on the bed, the path of the bullet would have been about 10 inches above his head--missing his head, Gunderson said. For Digman’s body to line up with the bullet’s trajectory, he would have had to be leaning well over and then would have fallen to the floor--not backward onto the bed.

* While Digman was lying in a pool of blood with both hands by his sides, there was also a blood smear on the sheets well above his head. Experts cannot figure out how it got there.

* The blood spatter on the wall behind Digman is inconsistent with the bullet’s trajectory, Gunderson said.

* Digman also had a cut on his right cheekbone, and bruises on his right elbow and left middle finger.

* A safe was missing from Digman’s secretary, which had the hinges torn off its door, his parents said.

Many of the questions posed by these circumstances may never get answered. The bullet itself went through Digman’s head and was never found. The mattress was disposed of immediately after Digman’s death and not examined so it is not known whether a bullet might have lodged there. In fact, experts do not know with certainty that the gun found by Digman’s feet was the one used in his death.

“The problem is that when you look at this case, there were a number of little factors that are bothersome. It’s not a contact wound and most suicides are. He’s left-handed, well, sometimes they shoot themselves on the right--it’s not common,” said Dr. DiMaio, who is also an author of a textbook on gunshot wounds. “This is one case where you can explain every little thing, but after a while, they begin to pile up. I can explain everything but when you’ve got six or eight, you have got to say we have a problem.”

Some experts, including DiMaio, say the first autopsy was inadequate for such a complicated case. Others say they feel information is missing.

“There are several things that are puzzling from a hard, technical standpoint. I am quite disturbed by the fact that the gunshot wound is in the right temple and the captain was left-handed--this doesn’t make it physically impossible but it is something rarely seen,” said Dr. Cyril Wecht, a clinical professor of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and a former president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

“People don’t stand on their heads and engage in gymnastic contortions when they shoot themselves. . . . It’s my sense that not everything has been divulged.”

Still other experts go further and have developed theories about what happened to Digman.

Those experts, including Gunderson, believe Digman was murdered.

“Jeffrey Digman struggled with someone, was either accidentally or purposefully shot, and was placed on the bed,” said a report by Stephan A. Schliebe, a criminalist with the California Laboratory of Forensic Science in Tustin.

At the request of the Riverside County coroner’s office, the Naval Investigative Service launched its inquiry in July, 1989--six months after Digman’s death and after the furniture had been removed from his room. In a letter dated Oct. 25, 1989, NIS asked the Digmans for permission to conduct a second autopsy.

“This additional autopsy will, hopefully, provide answers to questions that you have, and also assist this Agency in conducting this criminal investigation,” wrote Special Agent-in-Charge M.L. Barrett.

But now the case appears to have lost momentum. Dr. Richard Froede, the chief medical examiner of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C., is awaiting additional information before he reviews Digman’s case. Froede said he had only recently received a report of the second autopsy, conducted last January, but had not received the Naval Investigative Services’ report on the case, which NIS officially closed in June.

“I have no comment until I see everything,” said Froede, who acknowledged that the case was “taking longer than usual.”

In a copy of the second autopsy, obtained by The Times, Dr. B.L. Peterson concluded that Digman’s death was a suicide. The report, dated Jan. 18, 1990, of the autopsy conducted at Balboa Naval Hospital will be reviewed by Froede.

Earlier this month, the Digmans sued the Navy, Marine Corps and Digman’s supervising officer Maj. Douglas K. Wood in U.S. District Court for wrongful death, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy to falsify an official government investigation. The Digmans have asked for reimbursement of attorney fees, as well as $5 million in damages for loss of companionship, love and family stability, and $25 million in punitive damages to insure that proper training and accountability are established to prevent cases of suicide in the Navy and Marine Corps.

“Jeffrey is either a victim of neglect of the Marine Corps or a victim of someone shooting him,” William Digman said. “I don’t care what it costs or how long it takes. . . . The truth is there somewhere and we will find it.”

Jeffrey Digman’s life was as enigmatic as his death. A double-portrait of Digman emerges from the numerous pages of investigators’ materials, including those from a private detective as well as those from the Marine Corps.

While he served as a substance abuse control officer, who counseled others on drugs and alcohol, he himself was found dead with a blood alcohol level of .24. (California law forbids anyone to drive who tests with a .08 level or higher.) The young captain, who rarely pounded down drinks publicly, drank heavily in his own bedroom, said friends. While touted as a young man with a bright future, he was also nicknamed “Dr. Gloom.”

In evaluation reports, Digman is described as conscientious, honest, hard-working, intelligent, sincere, loyal, resourceful, and tireless. Only three months before his death, his supervisor Maj. Wood, commanding officer of Support Company (which has since been deactivated) at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, wrote that his executive officer Digman “has proven to be highly effective in all his responsibilities,” adding that “he has a bright future in the Marine Corps and he is someone who I would seek to work with again.”

Digman, who sported a buzz cut from the age of 4, had been a Marine almost nine years at the time of his death. After graduating from Cypress High School, Digman attended San Jose State University. For years, Digman was a devoted runner, usually jogging 10 miles a day. A painstakingly meticulous man, he kept his maroon 1964 Mustang and bright red 1983 Camaro polished and in perfect working shape--though he did not drive much, preferring to ride as a passenger. Though quiet, some friends say he seemed happy.

Some men who served in Digman’s company at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot said he was an inspiring and caring leader. When first told that Digman had killed himself, Gunnery Sgt. Larry Crutchfield said he was shocked.

“I said, ‘why?’ ” Crutchfield said. “Capt. Digman was extremely well-liked.”

The surprise was shared by many. Not only because it was Digman, who seemed to have so much going for him, but because suicide is not the Marine way, Crutchfield said.

“We learn never to give up no matter how hard the going gets. It’s the way we are designed--if you will,” he said. “Suicide goes against every little fiber in a Marine.”

But a darker side of Digman also surfaces. Frequently, Digman drank himself to sleep, said girlfriend Jema Riddle, a 34-year-old San Diego resident. “What worried me was he was drinking too much,” she said.

Painfully shy, Digman was very quiet in social situations, according to Riddle and investigative reports. He liked to leave work, run, watch television, and go to sleep at about 9 p.m. Digman lied and told Riddle and several others that he had graduated from Stanford University.

After he and Wood purchased a house together in June, 1987, Digman “exhibited obsessive possessiveness toward his house and possessions,” according to an advance copy of the Judge Advocate General’s report. His penchant for neatness was so strong, several friends told investigators, that he didn’t like them to put glasses on his coffee table.

In sworn testimony, Wood told NIS investigators that his housemate potentially needed professional help because “he was going through life with too much stress.” According to the Judge Advocate General’s report, dated Aug. 8, 1989, Wood “worried about ruining Capt. Digman’s career if he turned him in for substance abuse or that, even if he did turn him in, it would cause Capt. Digman to commit suicide.”

But reached by telephone, Wood told the Times that Digman did not have a drinking problem nor did he appear suicidal or depressed. “There wasn’t any time I felt he was suicidal,” Wood said. “I am not a doctor.”

On the day that Digman was found dead, Wood had returned with his girlfriend, Shari Miller, from Las Vegas. Digman had been assigned recently to Puerto Rico and had come to California for a one-week visit. Digman left Puerto Rico in January, 1989, telling friends that he was angry with Wood, co-owner of the Temecula house. He purchased a round-trip ticket and told his girlfriend there to have his dress uniform cleaned because he had an inspection upon his return.

According to Digman’s parents, most of the furnishings and belongings in the house belonged to their son. Miller told investigators that she shared Digman’s room with Wood, “under the impression that they had Digman’s permission.”

Upon his return, Digman, however, was “overly concerned” about the use of his belongings and his house, she had told investigators. Though they invited Digman to join them on their trip to Las Vegas, he declined. During his stay, he spent time with Riddle and another girlfriend.

He told these women that he was expecting Wood to give him a ride to the airport on Sunday Jan. 22 so he could return to Puerto Rico, according to reports. When Wood returned to the house Sunday evening, he noticed that the garage door was unlocked and a light was on in the house, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department report.

Wood told the sheriff’s deputies that he had felt there was “something wrong,” so he went to his neighbor’s house and asked Cleades D. Chaney to come with him and Miller into his home. Chaney’s wife also walked over. The two women stayed in the foyer. Wood went to the dark kitchen, Chaney walked to the lit bedroom, where he found Digman’s body on the bed. There were five empty beer bottles in the room.

For the Digmans, the moment their son’s blood spewed out onto the white sheet was the beginning of a personal hell. Today, they twist with the uncertainty of not knowing what happened.

“It’s not knowing why and how. If it’s suicide, I can’t change that. I cannot change the truth. If it’s suicide--so be it. But somebody is going to have to show me it was. I’ll believe it,” Bill Digman said, as his wife left the room crying.

“There is no explanation for why he is not on the beach today, there’s none.”


Advertisement