Shannon Santimore said this much was clear: Her husband never meant to kill himself.
Both a police investigation and a Buncombe County medical examiner’s review concluded that Clay Santimore’s death was an accident. Friends who witnessed the shooting agreed.
Yet the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled the death a suicide and dismissed Shannon Santimore’s requests to change its decision.
Santimore hired a lawyer.
“I needed to find the answers for my children and be able to tell them without any doubt that their dad did not leave them on purpose,” she said.
In late 2012, after waging a three-day court fight, Santimore finally got those answers. A judge ruled that her husband’s death was an accident.
Had she been less persistent, the state’s faulty ruling would have cost her family $1.2 million in lost insurance payments.
“It was a big relief,” Santimore said. “Now my children will be going to college as planned.”
A devastating day
Just before his death, Clay Santimore had been enjoying one of the happiest periods of his life, his wife said.
A 39-year-old financial adviser, he was excelling at his job and had just received a promotion and bonus. He doted on his 7-year-old son and twin baby girls. He’d never mentioned any thoughts about hurting or killing himself, a family doctor said.
“We were at a point in life I felt we’d been working toward for a long time,” said his wife, now 40.
That changed on Jan. 13, 2012.
Clay Santimore had traveled from his Massachusetts home to Asheville that day to visit Kevin Gorman, a longtime friend. The two had been enjoying drinks and conversation at Gorman’s home when Scott Cole, a friend of Gorman’s, came over. Cole brought two handguns because Gorman had expressed interest in buying them.
According to court records, Cole removed the magazine from a Glock handgun and dry fired it. Then, Cole put the magazine back in the gun and placed it on a counter. Clay Santimore, who had never fired a gun, picked up the Glock.
What happened next, Administrative Law Judge Randall May concluded, was “consistent with (Santimore’s) personality as a prankster.”
He pulled and released the gun’s slide – as he had seen Cole do when the gun wasn’t loaded – unintentionally arming the Glock. Then he put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
“There was no evidence to indicate that Clayton (Santimore) knew that the gun was loaded ” the judge concluded.
Refusing to take closer look
The homicide detective who investigated the case concluded that the shooting was accidental – and that alcohol and Clay Santimore’s “unfamiliarity with firearms” played a role.
The local medical examiner – Dr. Sharon Sweede – also called it an accident. She marked the case as “pending” until the autopsy was completed.
Dr. Jonathan Privette, an associate chief medical examiner for the state, arrived at a far different conclusion: suicide.
Shannon Santimore called Privette and Dr. Deborah Radisch, the state’s chief medical examiner, urging them to take a deeper look. They refused, she said.
Privette came to his conclusion before inquiring about the findings of the sheriff’s office and the local medical examiner, the judge found.
What’s more, Privette relied on an incorrect definition of suicide – one that did not take into consideration whether the victim intended to kill himself, the judge said.
Privette declined to be interviewed. In an email to the Observer, he wrote: “Based on my investigation, and even considering the subsequent administrative hearing, my opinion about the manner of death remains unchanged.”
He has since left the state medical examiner’s office and now works as a pathologist at the Mecklenburg County medical examiner’s office.
Protecting husband’s legacy
At the court hearing, Radisch testified on Privette’s behalf, saying that it was the convention of her office to consider cases suicide whenever people died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the mouth – whether the victim realized the gun was loaded or not.
The judge saw things differently. For a case to be ruled suicide, he wrote, the victim “ must have the intent to take his own life.”
The National Association of Medical Examiners, which sets standards for death investigations, agrees. Suicides, it says, are the “ result of an intentional, self-inflicted act committed to do self harm or cause the death of one’s self.”
The judge’s criticisms didn’t end there. He concluded that Privette arrived at an incorrect conclusion largely because he “failed to investigate and scrutinize all the evidence available.”
Only later did Shannon Santimore learn the financial implications of the judge’s ruling.
Her husband’s life insurance company had paid her $300,000 – the payout in cases of suicide, according to Charles Ellis, her attorney. But because the death was found to be an accident, she was entitled to far more – a total of $1.5 million.
Following the judge’s ruling, the insurance company paid without question, Ellis said.
Santimore said the money allowed her to stay home with her young children until they enter school, just as she had planned to do before her husband died.
But what drove her, she said, was something more fundamental: her duty to protect her husband’s legacy.
“He didn’t choose to leave us,” she said.