Two years after the suicide of the superintendent of Carrizo Plain National Monument, an inspector general’s report has absolved officials in the federal Bureau of Land Management’s Bakersfield office of any blame for her death.
The heavily redacted report, obtained by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act, chides Marlene Braun’s supervisor, Ron Huntsinger, for failing to adequately resolve personal and professional conflicts.
The investigation found that the “BLM did not take action to resolve long-standing differences” or to defuse interoffice conflict “despite the availability of alternative dispute resolution methods.”
As a result, the report concludes, “a breakdown in trust, communication and cooperation ... adversely affected management of the Carrizo Plains.”
The report also sheds light on the botched emergency response the morning of Braun’s suicide in May 2005, revealing that a medevac helicopter dispatched to the remote ranch was misdirected to a site three miles away. Investigators also found that unnamed officials ordered emergency medical personnel from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to wait for law enforcement before approaching Braun’s residence “because she was known to possess firearms.”
Braun, 46, was still alive when emergency crews reached her, two hours after she sent an e-mail to the Bakersfield office indicating her intentions. Managers in the office dispatched two agency staffers to make the 90-minute drive to check on Braun.
But it was nearly an hour before the BLM alerted the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department to a possible suicide.
Braun killed her two dogs, then herself under a tree in the frontyard of the Goodwin ranch, a lonely section of the 250,000-acre monument.
In her suicide note, as well as a long chronology she prepared of her final year, Braun laid out her fears for the future of Carrizo Plain and told how her life had become “utterly unbearable.” Braun accused Huntsinger, with whom she had clashed for months, of intimidating and bullying her.
The two disagreed about the future of livestock grazing on the monument, with Braun arguing that the practice be phased out in order to preserve native plants and animals. Huntsinger complained that Braun was insubordinate, suspended her once, and was preparing another reprimand at the time of Braun’s death.
Huntsinger left the Bakersfield office not long after Braun’s death and is now the agency’s science coordinator in Washington, D.C. He could not be reached for comment.
Mike Pool, director of the BLM’s California office, said this week, “We have reviewed the inspector general report and respect their views. Although we are unable to comment on the specifics of the report, we can say we have taken steps to strengthen and empower our employees so that they can better resolve conflict in the workplace.”
Although Pool’s office prepared a report on the incident, which was submitted to investigators, that report was not immediately available.
The inspector general’s report was critical of the actions of BLM staffers who removed Braun’s agency-issued desktop and laptop computers without telling law enforcement authorities.
Those BLM employees, whose names were redacted, told investigators that they had permission from sheriff’s deputies to remove the computers, but sheriff’s officials said they did not authorize the removal of anything from the house, according to the report.
To Kathy Hermes, Braun’s childhood friend and her executor, the report failed to resolve many central questions that led up to Braun’s death, especially Huntsinger’s behavior.
“They still lay quite a lot of blame at her door,” said Hermes, a college professor in Connecticut. “They provide no context for why she would be intimidated and afraid, they make it seem like she made it up in her head. I am angry about the way the report twisted the information.”
The investigators apparently did not interview employees of the state Department of Fish and Game or the Nature Conservancy, even though Carrizo Plain is jointly managed by them.