It took $1,200 of Charlie Brookshire’s own money to change the ruling about how he died.
Brookshire, a burly 5-foot-11 part-time reserve officer for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, was shot and killed in a small Asheville-area home in 2007. He was 37.
After a quick investigation, the state ruled Brookshire’s death a suicide. Relatives thought he was murdered and fought the ruling, which left them unable to collect on all of Brookshire’s life insurance policies. One policy could have paid off his mortgage.
North Carolina often relies on untrained medical examiners who base cause-of-death determinations on limited information.
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In Brookshire’s case, Dr. John Henderson, the local medical examiner, called the death a suicide a day after Brookshire was shot in September 2007, reports show. Henderson didn’t go to the scene, interview family members or request an autopsy – the most reliable way to determine a cause of death. He also didn’t interview an eyewitness.
“He (Henderson) just wrote it off, and that was that,” said Brookshire’s older sister, Sandy Brookshire.
Henderson died the following year at the age of 85.
In Buncombe County, home to Asheville, medical examiners requested autopsies in about 24 percent of cases from 2001 to mid-2013, data show. By comparison, the state performs autopsies in about 40 percent of cases and neighboring Yancey County does them in 71 percent.
Yvonne Cobourn, a former Asheville police detective turned private investigator, said medical examiners often decide whether to order an autopsy after a quick telephone conversation with officers at the scene.
That’s troubling, she said.
“He may be talking to a patrol officer who has zero training in death investigations,” Cobourn said.
It also doesn’t sit well with Charlie Brookshire’s siblings, who paid $1,200 for a private autopsy with money from their brother’s estate.
Sandy said she wished the medical examiner had gone to the death scene and interviewed those close to her brother – including a woman who witnessed his death. The woman was arguing with Brookshire at the time, a medical examiner report states.
Detectives who investigated the case did not suspect foul play.
But following the autopsy, Dr. John Butts, then the state’s chief medical examiner, changed the manner of death to “undetermined.” He concluded that even if Brookshire pulled the trigger, he may have thought the gun was unloaded.
The change allowed family members to collect about $60,000 from insurance. The money was only a fraction of what they would have received had the medical examiner never ruled it a suicide, Sandy said.
She said the medical examiner’s initial ruling, for example, prevented an insurance company from paying off Brookshire’s mortgage.
Relatives say Brookshire, who loved Duke University and the Dallas Cowboys, seemed happy in the weeks before his death.
Today, more than six years later, the case still haunts family members, who are concerned someone may have gotten away with murder.
“I don’t want revenge,” Sandy said. “I just want justice.”
Ames Alexander contributed