Cause of Grove man's death in doubt
BY CARY ASPINWALL World Staff Writer & ZIVA BRANSTETTER World Enterprise Editor
Sunday, April 22, 2012
4/30/12 at 10:44 PM
Documents: Read the autopsy. / Read the report by Dr. Distefano. / Read the incident report filed by the sheriff's office.
GROVE - Phillip Porter was found dead in January in his small motor home northwest of Sailboat Bridge, his throat slashed one-inch deep, four inches across, severing his jugular vein.
No suicide note was left in the vehicle smeared with blood, and his family says the 56-year-old had no history of depression.
A death certificate issued to Phillip Porter's family in February lists his manner of death as suicide, but Delaware County officials and the state Medical Examiner's Office are re-examining the case after protests from the family and inquiries by the Tulsa World.
Porter's former wife, Donna Porter, hired a board-certified forensic pathologist and former medical examiner, Ronald Distefano, to conduct an independent exam on Phillip Porter's body. The report concludes that the wounds were "more likely than not, inflicted by someone else."
Donna Porter said Delaware County Sheriff Rick Littlefield and others in his office were unresponsive and at times insensitive to her requests for information.
"It was pretty obvious he did not do this because of the cuts," said Donna Porter, who also has training in pathology and forensics.
A toxicology report found no drugs in his system. The only drugs found at the scene were prescription cholesterol and blood pressure medications, according to police reports.
An incident report by the Delaware County Sheriff's Office dated Jan. 12 said Porter's body was found in his RV by a friend, Larry Blair. The report offers no evidence of suicidal behavior other than reports from someone who said he "was having problems with a girlfriend."
Later, the report states Porter had asked some friends and family for a gun.
A section of Porter's autopsy report states: "Reports following law enforcement scene investigation are that this was likely a suicide."
A knife was found in or near the RV's kitchen sink, not next to the couch where Porter's body was found, kneeling with his upper body on the couch. A Delaware County deputy reported the knife had "something red on it" and gathered it for evidence.
Blood was found all around Porter's body at the scene, but it turned out the steak knife police took from the scene had no blood on it, lab analysis later found.
Officials did not perform a full autopsy on Porter until two weeks after his death. That occurred after his family questioned why Delaware County wasn't investigating his death as a possible homicide.
The Medical Examiner's report now states: "These wounds are consistent with but not specific for self-infliction. The presence of other superficial sharp force wounds on the right cheek, the right forearm, and the left hand and the left hand near the wrist is atypical for suicide. Additionally, the sharp instrument used was never definitely identified within the residence."
The opinion references older scars on Porter's arm that could have been self-inflicted but says his death "cannot currently be determined" as a suicide or homicide.
Amy Elliott, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said the office is re-evaluating the case due to new information about Porter's death.
"If there are additional medical findings on this cause, we will absolutely change the cause and manner of death," Elliott said.
If foul play was involved, investigators now have a four-month-old crime scene that could have been contaminated.
Littlefield said his office considers Porter's death to be "still under investigation" and has asked the OSBI to step in. Inquiries to his office by Donna Porter, "raised some legitimate questions," he said.
"There are some unanswered questions, and we want to be sure," Littlefield said.
Jessica Brown, spokeswoman for the OSBI, confirmed that Littlefield contacted her office April 12 and asked OSBI to "meet with them and advise them on their investigation."
"They asked us to look at their case files and see if there's anything they might have missed," Brown said.
Agents have not yet met with the Delaware County Sheriff's Office because the bureau is understaffed in that region because of budget cutbacks, Brown said.
Littlefield said he couldn't answer questions about the forensic evidence in the case because he "didn't have the ME's report until recently."
As to what information led sheriff's detectives to suspect Porter's death was a suicide, Littlefield said: "I don't know. I was not there. We have our detectives who were there, and the ME has to put something on the death certificate initially.
"We've got a very good detective unit here," Littlefield said. "I would tell you our lead detective is very confident that it's a suicide, still. But there are some questions that need to be asked. We just want to be sure it's the right call."
Donna Porter, who lives in Louisiana, said she learned of her former husband's death from her son via text message.
"We assumed it was a natural causes because he had open heart surgery" a few years ago, she said.
On the day following Porter's death, Donna Porter said she received a call from the Medical Examiner's Office.
"They informed me they had a preliminary for me and he had died of sharp force trauma to the neck and it was self-inflicted. I said, 'Could you repeat that for me? You are telling me he cut his own throat?' She said, 'Yes, that's correct. Nobody had told you that?' "
Donna Porter said she had not been informed by anyone that her former husband's death was a possible suicide.
"We had all talked to him that week. Phil has never been depressed," Donna Porter said.
She viewed his body on Jan. 15 at Butler Stumpff Funeral Home in Tulsa. Because of her background and training as a pathology assistant, she suspected Delaware County detectives might have missed vital clues.
His neck was cut nearly all of the way around, with a deep cut in the back of the neck at the vertebrae, and there were cuts on his hand and arm, she said.
"I saw a cut on his right cheek that was three inches, four inches long and suicide victims don't cut their face," she said. "There were some defense wounds on his right forearm and a small one on the base of his left palm."
Four days after Phillip Porter's death, Donna Porter went to view the small Dodge motor home where he lived and died. She said blood was smeared down the walls of the vehicle and bloody hand prints were on the refrigerator.
Distefano's report notes it's not possible to determine the manner of death from the examination of the body only and that Porter's wounds could possibly have been self-inflicted.
But the report ends: "With this in mind and based solely on a consideration of this external examination, in my opinion, the wounds on your husband's body were, more likely than not, inflicted by someone else. It is less likely that they are self-inflicted."
Distefano performed his external exam at the funeral home on Jan. 23. Three days later, the Medical Examiner's Office reclaimed Phillip Porter's body and performed a full autopsy, records show.
Donna Porter said she and Phillip Porter were married for eight years and divorced about 20 years ago, living together for several years after the divorce. The couple had two sons, now 28 and 30.
She said her former husband made a living doing jobs including welding, construction, roofing and clearing land. He began living on Social Security and disability payments after an open-heart surgery several years ago, she said.
Phillip Porter "was a wild child back in the day," she said.
"I think that's one of the things/reasons why they wouldn't investigate. Some of the people he hung around with weren't the nicest, when he was younger," she said.
The Delaware County Sheriff's Office had no reason to suspect suicide, Donna Porter said. After her former husband's funeral service, she visited the sheriff's office to talk to Capt. Ron Teel about the investigation.
She said Teel told her that "years of experience" led him to believe the death was a suicide.
However, the neighbor who discovered Phillip Porter's body said he never told authorities Porter had been depressed - and detectives never informed him they suspected the death was a suicide.
Larry Blair found Phillip Porter dead after he and another friend became concerned that they hadn't heard from him in days.
"I stepped in the door and seen him laying face down in a puddle of blood. I walked out and closed the door. Nobody went in there until the cops got there," said Blair, who lives several miles away.
Phillip Porter's body was in a kneeling position, face down with his shoulders and head on the couch. Delaware County sheriff's deputies arrived quickly and interviewed Blair.
Deputies were told Porter had been trying to buy a gun for his sister, who wanted one for protection, Blair said. There was no talk of depression and Blair said he had never known Phillip Porter to act depressed.
"He was happy. He just bought him a trailer house; he was working on it," Blair said.
Blair said since the day Porter's body was found, he has not been interviewed or contacted by Delaware County authorities or any other agency about Porter's death. He said he assumed the death was from natural causes because Delaware County deputies told him and Porter's sister they saw no signs of foul play.
When informed by the World that Delaware County reports initially deemed Phillip Porter's death a suicide, Blair said he was surprised.
Blair has known Phillip Porter for more than 10 years and considered him a friend. Blair said Porter helped care for his animals when Blair's mother was ill.
"I've known Phil for a long time," Blair said. "I want to find out who did it."
Jan. 12, 2012: A neighbor finds Phillip Porter's body in a pool of blood inside his RV in Delaware County.
Jan. 13: A medical examiner views Porter's body and writes a report, noting that law enforcement reports at the scene indicate the death was a suicide. The cause of death is listed as sharp force wounds to the neck and the manner is listed as unknown. His death certificate, dated Jan. 13, lists the manner of death as suicide.
Jan. 23: Licensed pathologist Ronald Distefano examines Porter's body at a funeral home, concluding that the stab wounds "were more likely than not, inflicted by someone else."
Jan. 26: Porter's body is returned to the Medical Examiner's Office for a complete autopsy after concerns raised by the family.
April 9: The Tulsa World requests copies of all law enforcement records and the Medical Examiner's report involving Porter's death.
April 12: Delaware County Sheriff Rick Littlefield contacts the OSBI and asks the agency to meet with his office regarding the investigation into Porter's death.
Original Print Headline: Cause of Grove man's death in doubt
Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477 Ziva Branstetter 918-581-8306
Phillip Porter: An independent forensic pathologist concluded the wounds were "more likely than not, inflicted by someone else."
Phillip Porter was found dead in this motor home near Grove in January. Delaware County authorities ruled it a suicide at first, but his former wife believes foul play could have been involved. CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World