Parents seek answers in death of ETSU student
This article was originally published in the August 24, 2003 issue of the Kingsport Times-News, and is reprinted here with permission.
By BECKY CAMPBELL
JOHNSON CITY - Jim and Mary Nottingham may never know exactly how their son Robbie died.
And neither may any official investigative office, according to a retired criminal investigator who conducted an independent review of the police probe.
James Robert "Robbie" Nottingham, 22, was found dead in the early morning hours of March 21, lying face down in a pool of blood on the sidewalk outside his East Tennessee State University apartment at Buccaneer Ridge.
The death has been classified in various official documents as a suicide, accidental death or of undetermined cause.
"I just want to know what happened to my son," Jim Nottingham said recently, near the point of tears.
"I am not going away. I know they think I'm just going to go away, that they'll just ride this out and I'll go away. I am not going away. They can get used to it. Until we get the truth out."
ETSU's official statement to the Times-News on the case is that it is not closed and won't be until the final autopsy report is complete - a process that could take a year or more given the continuing backlog of autopsies at the Quillen College of Medicine.
"I have no idea when the autopsy would be finished. There's a backlog that goes to a year or more," said Ed Kelly, ETSU legal counsel.
"We didn't classify (his death). He either fell or something off of the roof," Kelly said.
ETSU Public Safety Chief Jack Cotrel said the death is not classified, but there was no foul play associated with it.
A.M. "Buster" Brown, the independent investigator who reviewed the case file for the Nottinghams, said he has worked on the Nottingham case several weeks and believes there is more to it than the ETSU police have found.
A longtime friend of P.T. Nottingham - Jim Nottingham's father and Robbie Nottingham's grandfather - Brown was asked to evaluate the ETSU investigation and documents.
"I have arrived at the conclusion that the death of James Robert 'Robbie' Nottingham was not fully and properly investigated by the ETSU Campus Police according to accepted standard police practices," Brown wrote in his report.
Brown cites what he sees as a number of shortcomings in the investigation including police officers' failure to retrieve the entrance gate surveillance tape. The tape is recorded over every 24 hours.
According to Brown, the tape would show anyone leaving the apartment parking lot about the time of Nottingham's death.
Other inadequacies in the investigation, according to Brown, include:
- Delay in securing the scene with crime scene tape.
- The medical examiner's report indicates Nottingham's roommate said Robbie had been depressed, but in two written statements of the roommate there is no mention of Robbie being depressed.
- Although officials suspected suicide, police did not interview family, friends or co-workers to ask if they had seen any suicide indicators exhibited by Robbie.
- Several potential witnesses were allowed to fill out their own statement sheet on what they knew about the incident rather than police taking those statements.
- One ETSU officer stated he interviewed a female who said she didn't know Nottingham. The same female told a private investigator she had visited Nottingham's apartment in the weeks prior to his death.
- A crime scene sketch states Robbie's body was "approximately" 8 feet 10 inches from the foyer opening, indicating exact measurements may not have been taken prior to the body being removed.
ETSU's Kelly, told of the independent review by the Times-News, said he wonders about Brown's credentials.
"I wonder how many witnesses he interviewed. I wonder how much access he had to the file and what his credentials are for making those findings," Kelly said.
According to his resume, Brown's law enforcement career spanned more than 40 years during which time he worked as a police officer in Cincinnati, a criminal investigator at three law enforcement agencies - Walker County, Texas; Sullivan County; and the U.S. Treasury Department, where he investigated alcohol and firearms violations.
He retired in 1994 from Walters State Community College, where he was the division chair and associate professor of criminal justice.
Brown also served as the director of the regional police academy at Walters State.
In making his assessment, Brown said he read all statements given to the Nottinghams by ETSU; interviewed 21 people involved in the case; reviewed a private investigator's report, the death certificate and preliminary autopsy report; and visited the scene.
Brown's report only reinforces for the Nottingham family their position that Robbie didn't kill himself.
They're so convinced there is someone who knows more about Robbie's death that they have offered a substantial monetary reward for information in the case.
The reward, originally set at $25,000, was raised last week to $50,000.
Jim Nottingham said he believes ETSU Public Safety jumped to the conclusion that his son committed suicide.
"As soon as I got out of the car that night, they started asking me why my son would commit suicide," Nottingham said.
"I said, 'No way'" he said.
District Attorney General Joe Crumley said his first involvement in the case came nearly a week after Robbie's death.
"When I first got involved in the case, the TBI called and said I would be getting a call to request their assistance," Crumley said.
Crumley said he was told if the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had been called on earlier, they might have been able to do something.
"Something like that is hugely done on the front end," Crumley said.
"I didn't have a reason to make a formal request because nobody even talked to me until almost a week after the death," he said.
By that time, Crumley said university officials and the TBI were not commenting publicly on the death.
"I sort of felt left out to dry at a time when I was the only one talking to the media. The university wasn't talking to the media, the TBI wasn't talking to the media, and I was the only one out there and I had absolutely no evidence whatsoever to do anything with. I still don't," he said.
Nottingham said when he read published reports that Crumley had consulted TBI officials who said they saw no reason to enter the probe, he made a plea to the TBI himself.
In a response from TBI Assistant Director David Jennings, Nottingham learned the TBI did not have jurisdiction in the case because "there must be a written request from the district attorney general."
Crumley said he has tried to assist the Nottinghams, but "the bottom line is I have yet to see a single piece of evidence that would indicate a crime."
"I had one of my investigators helping," Crumley said. "He's worked extensively with the Nottinghams. They've asked him to look at a number of things. The last time I talked to Mr. Nottingham, I thought we were on pretty good terms."
Crumley said he believes his assistance should have been requested early on.
"By all rights it should have been (requested) the night it happened, or at the latest the next day. But nobody said a thing to me for almost a week.
"I first heard about it from the TBI. I talked to ETSU. I sat down with them and went over everything they had. I've just never seen evidence of a crime.
"Do I wish the security tape had been saved? Of course I do. But I don't know what else anybody could have done under the circumstances," Crumley said.
"I don't feel like it was mishandled. I would like to have had the security tape, but other than that I don't know of anything that was mishandled, and that was inadvertent. I don't think they did anything intentional with the tape," he said.
"I think early on people got the idea that (ETSU) Public Safety was a bunch of security cops, and they're not. They are professionally trained law enforcement," Crumley said.
Even so, Brown said experience is important when investigating a suspicious death.
Since Nottingham's death, there has been another death on the ETSU campus.
The TBI was called in to help investigate.
"The woman had a long history of physical problems, and there was no question whatsoever," Cotrel said.
"The TBI came in and worked with us, and we covered all of the bases, but this was a natural-causes situation, and that was confirmed by autopsy."
The woman was not a student but was staying in married student housing assisting a handicapped student, he said.
Calling in the TBI is apparently a new policy in campus death cases.
"We just decided that we would in any future cases involving a death on campus, we would call (TBI) in so there wouldn't be any questions asked," Cotrel said.
As for Crumley's view of the case, it's still open.
"Until the autopsy comes in, I still have the file next to my desk. As far as I'm concerned, it's ongoing," he said.
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