BOLIVIA—To District Attorney Jon David, a fatal self-inflicted gunshot wound to the back of the head is not an impossibility.
But it’s not common, either, as it’s the case in less than 3 percent of self-inflicted gunshot wounds, which is one of several reasons David changed a 1999 designation of suicide as the cause of death of Davina Buff Jones.
Jones, a 33-year-old Bald Head Island police officer, was shot and killed while patrolling the Brunswick County island town in 1999.
“By our action today, I’m officially changing the designation by the District Attorney’s Office in the death of Davina Buff Jones to undetermined,” David said. “I do that because a process was put into place that called into question an earlier decision by this agency.”
Jones died from a single gunshot wound to the back of her head in October 1999. Six weeks later, then-DA Rex Gore ruled Jones’ death as a suicide.
“I can say with confidence today that we don’t know exactly what happened…We are able to say conclusively that the earlier determination of suicide is not appropriate in light of what we now know. And we’re also expressing a desire, moving forward, to invite anyone who has knowledge about this case to come forward,” David said.
Some form of investigation into Jones’ death has continued, even after the suicide ruling, David said, “for quite a bit of time—years, in fact.”
Jones’ family appealed to the N.C. Industrial Commission, which in 2005, “concluded that serious questions existed concerning the suicide determination and made the decision to award death benefits to next of kin,” David said.
Since death benefits are not awarded to families of police officers who died by suicide, “I made the decision to re-examine the case,” David said.
The N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office and the Bald Head Island Police Department continued investigations into Jones’ death after the initial cause of death was determined, David said.
“They reviewed the entire findings from the industrial commission, including the hearings that were held and the detailed opinions rendered by the agency,” David said. “They have conducted limited re-interviews of some of the witnesses in this case. They have visited Bald Head Island where this incident occurred. They performed re-enactments of various death scene scenarios.”
In May 2011, David announced his intention to reopen the case.
“In order to re-examine the case, I arranged for an outside review to be conducted by investigators not originally connected to the case,” David said.
David enlisted the experience of four retired FBI special agents living in Brunswick County to volunteer to re-examine the evidence and essentially audit previous investigative findings.
“This, first and foremost, has not been a re-investigation as much as a review or re-examination,” David said. “Although these men are retired FBI agents, these men do not work for the FBI and this is not an official FBI investigation. Instead, they are basically reviewing the work of others and helping give me insight, as District Attorney, as to what transpired and what the road ahead looks like.”
At no point during the retired agents’ re-examination of evidence did they find any misconduct of the DA’s office or investigators originally assigned to the case, David said.
“The evidence in this case supports two divergent theories about the cause of death,” David said. “That is, Officer Jones was either murdered or died of a self-inflicted gunshot. Currently, there are seasoned investigators whose opinions I value and respect on both side of this debate.
“Yet it is in this divergence that the appropriate determination becomes manifest. Given the well-documented uncertainty, which surrounds this case, justice demands that the cause of the death be classified as undetermined by this agency. The file shall remain open and any new leads will be pursued.”
Caroline Curran is the managing editor of Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @Cgcurran