Friends describe Robbie Nottingham as 'happy-go-lucky'
This article was originally published in the August 24, 2003 issue of the Kingsport Times-News, and is reprinted here with permission.
By J.H. OSBORNE
JOHNSON CITY - Within hours of Robbie Nottingham's death last March on the East Tennessee State University campus, ETSU officials were saying it was suicide.
It's what they told his parents, Jim and Mary Nottingham, when they arrived on the scene and asked what had happened.
Jim and Mary say they knew, just as quickly, that their son didn't take his own life - especially based on the reasons campus police offered for their conclusion that he did.
He hadn't been depressed, the Nottinghams said, and he hadn't had a girlfriend - or therefore, girlfriend trouble - recently.
Dr. Gretel Stephens chose suicide as "type of death"; listed "suicide" as "probable cause of death"; and checked suicide as "manner of death" on a form dated March 21, 2003 - the day Robbie's body was found.
Stephens is a forensic pathologist at ETSU's Quillen College of Medicine. Her office conducts autopsies for several counties in Northeast Tennessee. She is also a Washington County medical examiner - responding to death scenes.
In Nottingham's death, those roles overlapped.
Her "narrative summary of circumstances surrounding death" - written as the medical examiner - reads, in part: "Decedent was found lying on the sidewalk in front of his apartment building. Decedent was wearing boxer shorts. Decedent had massive trauma to his head. The decedent's roommate stated the decedent had been depressed lately."
David Knopp, a fraternity brother and fellow ROTC member, had been Robbie's roommate since December.
Nowhere in written statements does Knopp describe Robbie as depressed.
In fact, most of Robbie's contemporaries - those, at least, whose statements were obtained and documented by police and private investigators - say quite the contrary.
"He looked fine ... did not look suicidal or anything,'' wrote Shane Harpham, one of the last people to see him alive. "Just a guy on his porch."
Harpham lived in the same building.
Matthew Burgess is president of Pi Kappa Alpha, the fraternity Robbie was accepted into earlier in the school year.
"I find it hard to believe that he would do something like this on purpose,'' Burgess wrote in a written statement dated the day Robbie died. "He always seemed to take life at stride."
Burgess described Robbie as "a fairly positive, happy-go-lucky kind of person" who was "always excited to be at the (fraternity) house and participated in events whenever he could."
Another "Pike" - as members of the fraternity are commonly called - described Robbie as "easygoing and someone that looked forward to the future" in a written statement that same day.
"Robbie ... was friendly, dependable and worthy of being considered in the top of his pledge class,'' Pi Kappa Alpha Past President Keith Armstrong wrote. "Robbie never gave the impression or indication that he would inflict personal harm to himself."
Knopp's girlfriend, Suzanne Jaree Fugate, wrote that Robbie "really kept to himself." She last saw him alive about a week before his death, and "he seemed just fine, just his normal self."
Dustin Owens, one of a group of people he watched television with an hour or so before his death, described laughter and "a good time" when talking about that time with Robbie.
Eric Hutchins, another in that group, wrote that Robbie "was in good spirits," joking, laughing and talking to everybody there.
Justin Manis, who had known Robbie for several years, told a private investigator hired by the Nottinghams that Robbie left him a voice mail message at 11:09 p.m. the night he died. Manis said Robbie sounded normal.
Vanessa Sykes was also in the group Robbie visited with that night.
The private investigator's report notes that Sykes knew Robbie for about five years, and she "thinks there is no way that Robbie would commit suicide."
Brian Gage was Robbie's roommate for about a year before Knopp.
The private investigator's report states Gage described Robbie as a "lonely person," and a sensitive person who was close to his parents, and "Gage does not believe (Robbie) would kill himself."
Roy Blakeburn, listed by the medical examiner as the last person to see Robbie alive, is also a Pike.
Blakeburn and some friends saw Robbie on his third-floor balcony as they were leaving the complex to go to an off-campus nightspot. They asked Robbie to join them. He said he had to get to bed because he had ROTC early in the morning.
The private investigator's report states Blakeburn described Nottingham, during that brief, post-midnight conversation, as "normal Robbie."
Knopp did not see Robbie that night. Their paths in and out of the apartment did not cross, Knopp said, other than hearing water running or a door closing.
In his first written statement, Knopp did say "little things really set (Robbie) off - especially if he screwed something up. But for the most part he stays pretty happy and upbeat."
Robbie stopped and bought milk on his way from home in Kingsport to the apartment at ETSU. He set his alarm clock. He apparently took a shower.
He didn't leave a note. The investigations found nothing to indicate he had communicated thoughts of suicide to anyone.
That would be highly unusual if his death were a suicide, according to a former director of the Regional Police Academy. A.M. "Buster" Brown retired from that post at Walters State Community College in 1994.
He is a Kingsport native, with a career history that includes work as a criminal investigator, sheriff's deputy, jailer and college professor.
He is also the author of a study used by police to identify potential suicides.
Brown reviewed ETSU's handling of the case at the request of P.T. Nottingham, Robbie's grandfather.
Ninety percent of suicides communicate their intent to someone, Brown said in a summary of his final report to the Nottinghams.
There was no note or message that night from Robbie Nottingham.
There was milk in the refrigerator. There was an alarm clock waiting to sound. There were friends and neighbors whose last memories of Robbie Nottingham included a happy-go-lucky guy who was joking and talking to everyone he saw that evening.
And there were questions - questions the Nottingham family is afraid will never be answered now because of what they see as a failure to properly investigate their son's death.
One thing that has stuck with Jim and Mary Nottingham is what they saw as a rush by ETSU officials.
They say ETSU employees were bleaching and hosing down the sidewalk at 5 a.m.
"Maybe they did think it was suicide,'' Jim Nottingham said. "But I promise you it wasn't. We just want a second opinion."
Robbie's death, his father said, brought about a metamorphosis in his family.
"As soon as you hear you have death in your family, at that instant, that family is gone,'' he said. "You start on a brand-new family. You start all over. Everything changes."
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