Since her brother drowned nearly two years ago, Wendy Tuggle Carpenter has been fighting to prove that he didn’t want to die.
Carpenter refused to believe sheriff’s deputies who concluded that George Jeffrey Tuggle intentionally drove his pickup truck into a Rockingham County pond. She rejected findings from the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which initially thought the death was a suicide.
So she made phone calls, sent emails and traveled back and forth between North Carolina and her home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
“It was the last thing I could do to help him,” said Carpenter, a paralegal who grew up with her siblings in Stoneville, about 35 miles north of Greensboro. “We were born 18 months apart. I knew everything about him.”
Last month, as part of an ongoing legal fight, Carpenter finally got the answer she wanted. A judge ruled that her brother’s death was an accident.
In a written opinion, N.C. Administrative Law Judge Randall May harshly criticized the investigations conducted by the state medical examiner’s office and the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office. May found that the medical examiner’s office relied too heavily on information from law enforcement, a practice experts say can lead to faulty death rulings.
“There was no evidence of even one of the predisposing factors for suicide; and the evidence that was available established by reasonable medical probability that the manner of death was likely accident,” May wrote. “The quality of the investigation .... was rushed, poor, minimal, inappropriate and not thorough.”
May wrote that the medical examiner’s office failed to consider “more plausible possibilities” that Tuggle and his truck entered the pond accidentally, possibly as a result of distracted driving or simply getting his truck stuck while fishing.
The judge also noted that Tuggle’s body was found between the front of the truck and the shoreline, suggesting that he was overcome while trying to swim to safety.
The state has filed an appeal, arguing that May’s decision is not supported by evidence and is “arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion.”
But State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, said the case reflects how North Carolina’s system for investigating suspicious and violent deaths remains dysfunctional three years after lawmakers vowed to fix it.
Leading medical examiner systems hire full-time, trained death investigators to gather information from police, but conduct separate, independent probes into deaths. That includes interviewing witnesses, talking to family members and compiling a social history on the deceased.
North Carolina relies mostly on volunteers such as doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, paid $200 a case to do the work in their spare time. A 2014 Observer investigation found they routinely skip basic investigative steps, raising questions about the accuracy of many rulings.
“Half the time they just read the police report,” said Tarte, who has proposed North Carolina hire full-time death investigators. “That’s just the dumbest thing in the world.”
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the medical examiner’s office, denied an interview request.
Refusing to look again
Before his death, George Tuggle appeared to be enjoying some of the happiest days of his life.
A 41-year-old investigator with the Henry County, Va. sheriff’s office, Tuggle had just received a promotion. He liked to spend time with his two children and golf and fish. He was engaged to be married and had planned a wedding in Jamaica.
On June 17, 2015, however, something went wrong.
Tuggle had traveled to property belonging to a cousin in Stoneville, where he told people he planned to fish. Around noon, he traded text messages with his fiancee, concerned that the pond water might not be deep enough for fishing.
No one ever heard from Tuggle again.
On June 18, 2015, emergency workers recovered from the pond his body, a fishing pole and his 2013 Nissan Titan pickup truck, according to court records. The truck’s airbags never deployed, suggesting the vehicle entered the water at a low rate of speed.
Tuggle, who was not a strong swimmer, had suffered no obvious external or internal injuries. His body was discovered outside the truck.
Leading experts have long warned medical examiners that over-reliance on law enforcement is poor practice because officers look for evidence of crimes, but are not trained to determine the cause of death.
N.C. Associate Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Nabila Haikal performed an autopsy and initially suspected Tuggle killed himself. Haikal ruled the manner of death undetermined after the family complained that the case had not been properly investigated.
“We rely on law enforcement to do what is appropriate for a particular investigation,” Haikal said. “I don’t know who they talked to, but I would leave it to them to decide how to conduct their investigation. I was not actually attempting to conduct an investigation; it’s not part of my role.”
But Judge May found that Rockingham County sheriff’s deputies had failed to conduct a thorough investigation. Deputies refused to review Tuggle’s social media accounts to look for clues or interview family, friends or co-workers, even after they were provided names, addresses and phone numbers.
In a September phone conference, a commander told Wendy Carpenter “that nothing she could say or prove ... would change their opinion that Mr. Tuggle committed suicide,” according to court records. In a meeting with Carpenter about a month later, court documents say that a detective told her, “Wendy, I don’t care how your brother died!”
The Rockingham Sheriff’s office referred questions to an attorney. She declined comment.
A death investigation is critical to families who depend on the rulings to close estates and collect life insurance payments after relatives die. Police need accurate reports to help solve crimes.
In 2014, lawmakers pledged to address flaws in North Carolina’s medical system following a series of Observer reports and the death of 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams of York County in a Boone hotel the previous year.
He died two months after a Washington state couple was found dead in the same room at the hotel. The medical examiner’s office took about six weeks to produce the toxicology tests in the first case, which involved a test that experts said could be completed in less than 20 minutes.
Even after the state medical examiner’s office learned that Shirley Jenkins of Longview, Wash., had a lethal level of carbon monoxide in her blood, authorities did not alert local police or fire investigators until after the poisonous gas killed Jeffrey in the same room.
Legislators doubled the pay for local medical examiners from $100 to $200 per case and for the first time, provided $100,000 a year for mandatory training. They also provided nearly $2.2 million to replace and upgrade the medical examiner’s information system, which contains a database with details about each case the state investigates.
But they did not approve a bill that would have traded roughly 350 part-time medical examiners for a staff of trained, full-time death investigators.
Tarte said the proposal would have cost estimated $80 million over 10 years, a price some lawmakers considered unacceptable.
“Everybody doesn’t agree that it’s a priority,” Tarte said, acknowledging that some lawmakers feel its better to spend resources on the living. “It costs money to do all these things.”
Carpenter said the fight to change the death ruling has left her without the time needed to properly grieve and heal.
The original ruling of undetermined meant the family could not immediately collect a life insurance payout after her brother’s death, she said. For months, Carpenter said, she had to make phone calls and send emails before an insurance company would agree to honor Tuggle’s policy.
If she prevails, the judge’s order would award her about $81,000 to cover legal fees.
“This has been like a made for television movie,” Carpenter said. “If it hadn’t happened to me, I wouldn’t believe it.”
Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027; @FrederickClasen