Suicides toughest, hardest cases to solve

By Linda Moody -

GREENVILLE — Medicolegal Death Investigator Joe VanVickle with the Darke County Coroner’s Office said suicides are some of the hardest cases he and others from that office have to deal with.

“We don’t necessarily respond to suicides,” he said. “We go in very open-minded because it is hard to deal with. A lot of times we look at them as a worst case scenario especially in this day and age.”

It is Coroner Dr. Timothy Kathman, MD, who rules on whether it is a case is a suicide or not.

“We investigators present a lot of case information and scene findings and rule out all other scenarios,” Van Vickle said. “Its hard for some families or friends to accept, whether for religious reasons or personal ones. There is a lot of denial but they also can’t believe someone would have done that, whether it’s because of religious beliefs or personal ones. We [the investigators] never under the ‘whys’ and may not understand what’s been going on in a suicide, while, in all other deaths, we answer the whats and hows.”

Not every person who completes suicide leaves a note, he said. In fact, he said a note isn’t always helpful.

“Suicide notes sometimes cloud the investigation,” he said. “It makes it harder for the family and survivors. Less than 30 percent of our cases leave communication. Out of those, they actually cloud the contributing factors, the investigation and the feelings of the survivors. We don’t base suicide on a note only.”

According to him, handwriting analysis is done on the note if there is one. And, investigators don’t always take serious if a note is found on computer or text.

“That’s why we handle it as a worst case scenario,” he said. “We may know it’s not a natural death. There is a fine line between accident/suicide and homicide/suicide. There is a fine line on whether it was an accident or a cry for help. Some are spontaneous and others planned.”

He said the coroner’s office and staff represent the decedent in these cases.

“We, in that representation, have to convince ourselves that it is a suicide,” Van Vickle said. “We spend resources to prove or disprove the actions. Our office is the only one that responds to every questionable, unnatural, un-witnessed public death.”

Van Vickle said if the cause of a death is not found, the death certificate will read “undetermined.”

“We know the cause, but if we can’t satisfy all the investigators — law enforcement and ours — and Dr. Kathman of the contributing factors, no ruling is made,” he said. “When I do a death investigation, I have to satisfy myself. I have to communicate to the family and Dr. Kathman. We have responsibility in our representation to the decedent.”

However, when enough information is complete and the coroner is satisfied that the decedent has died by his/her own hands only will the manner of death be ruled.

“A lot of times it takes months to investigate one case,” he said. “We have to wait on reports to come back.”

Van Vickle said when it comes to suicide, the office does statistical work.

“I find that quite fascinating actually,” he said. “Last year, one fourth of the cases ruled suicide were females. Drugs were involved in three of the cases and firearms were involved in the majority of them.”

Van Vickle said the causes for suicide in the county have included depression and/or a mental health issue, alcohol and drug use, marital problems, health issues and those facing criminal action.

Asked if bullying is a factor he replied, “We have had to look into several situations as bullying, but they are hard cases because there is a lot of hearsay and speculation.”

“There are a lot of cases ruled suicide in the past that we, myself and a detective, have been asked to look into because there are a lot of unanswered questions,” said Van Vickle, who is also a cold case investigator. “We have exhumed bodies.”

Yes, the unfortunate part of the job is dealing with the survivors of the decedents.

“Unfortunately, we have discussions with family, next of kin or friends to find out if they may have seen things or heard things to help us understand what may have happened. That will create a feeling of guilt on themselves for not recognizing signs. Another reason suicides are difficult cases to investigate is that there is a stigma associated where loved ones are involved. Sometimes, friends don’t know how to relate to the family at this time. There are a lot of emotions.”

As for the survivors, he said, there will be questions.

“There is difficulty in understanding, because it is [difficult],” he said. “I am there to help answer questions and represent the decedent and to answer my own questions. I am asking myself the same questions they [the survivors] are going to ask me.”

He explained that yellow tape is put up at the scene of a reported suicide.

“You’ll see a crime scene,” he said. “It is handled as a worst case scenario as true representation of the decedent. We have come across some altered and tampered scenes.”

Suicide is definitely personal for survivors, and they have their needs, too.

One website said, “There is no blueprint after a suicide. We each have our own relationship with the person who died and we all grieve in our own way and at our own pace. When someone grieves in a different way to you, it doesn’t mean that they don’t care – they are just finding their own way to cope. But it can be hard if they behave in a way that you can’t relate to. It can also be difficult to express our own grief around others if they are reacting differently, especially if those people also had a close relationship with the person who died.”

Advice to survivors: “Patience and understanding is helpful and it important that you try and find somewhere you can share your feelings. And remember that there is support available from others from outside friends and family – this can provide a space to ‘be yourself’ without having to worry about how others will react.”

By Linda Moody

This writer may be reached at 937-569-4315. Follow her on Facebook and join the conversation and get updates on Facebook by searching Darke County Sports or Advocate 360. For more features online go to

This writer may be reached at 937-569-4315. Follow her on Facebook and join the conversation and get updates on Facebook by searching Darke County Sports or Advocate 360. For more features online go to