The clink of shotgun pellets on the metal embalming table was the first sign of something nefarious.
A day earlier, a state medical examiner and a detective concluded that 71-year-old Fred Lookabill had died of natural causes.
It wasn’t until the Anson County funeral home embalmed his body that the truth emerged: Lookabill had been killed.
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The handling of Lookabill’s 2007 case provides more evidence that the North Carolina medical examiner system is prone to error. A recent Observer series found that medical examiners often skip basic investigative steps, casting doubt on the accuracy of thousands of rulings in suspicious deaths.
Lookabill’s niece, Macie Ross, was so troubled by the mistakes in her uncle’s case that she wrote to the heads of several state agencies.
“It is hard enough to hear that your loved one died of natural causes, but it is a tragedy to learn two days later that he was shot in the back with a shotgun … and that the personnel at the funeral home are the ones that found the cause of death,” Ross wrote in her letter to state Attorney General Roy Cooper.
Lookabill rarely acted like a man over 70, family members say.
Medication controlled his high blood pressure. He kept a full schedule, chopping firewood, gardening and working nights as a security guard.
But on the night of April 1, 2007, he failed to show up for work. That wasn’t like him, family members say.
The next morning, a concerned co-worker stopped by Lookabill’s century-old farmhouse in Wadesboro, about 60 miles southeast of Charlotte. She found his lifeless body on the ground, next to the front steps. Authorities took his body to Anson Community Hospital.
Family members say they had no reason to believe anything suspicious had occurred. A detective told them that Lookabill had apparently died of a heart attack. The detective had noticed a wound on Lookabill’s back but thought it had happened when his body struck a concrete planter.
Unaware that the front steps of Lookabill’s house were a crime scene, friends and family members thoroughly cleaned the area so they could receive visitors after the funeral.
A nurse named Maureen Lear – who worked at the hospital and also served as a medical examiner on the side – looked at the corpse, saw nothing suspicious and agreed to release it to Leavitt Funeral Home in Wadesboro, Ross said.
Funeral director Jeremy Burr said he was embalming the body when he heard the shotgun pellets hit the table. Rolling the body over, he saw what appeared to be a shotgun wound in the upper back.
The body was sent to the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s Office in Charlotte. There, an autopsy found clear signs of a close-range gunshot wound to Lookabill’s back. The cause of death: homicide.
About a week later, the Anson Sheriff’s Office investigated a break-in at Lookabill’s home. Someone had broken into a safe and had stolen jewelry and valuable coins. A man named Terry Wilson Hildreth was later convicted of larceny. Hildreth had a previous criminal record, including a 2005 assault conviction.
Investigators questioned Hildreth but never charged him or anyone else in Lookabill’s death. The case remains open.
County Sheriff Tommy Allen said that in his nearly three decades as sheriff, he does not recall another case in which his officers missed the cause of death in a homicide. But he acknowledged that mistakes happen.
“We just miss something once in a while,” he said.
A need for training
In a letter to the state nursing board after Lookabill’s death, Ross wrote that she hoped “no other person has died and been buried and someone ‘got away with murder’ because the deceased’s body was not thoroughly investigated.”
(Ross wrote to the nursing board because Lear, the medical examiner who initially looked at Lookabill’s body, is a registered nurse.)
Nursing board manager Kathy Chastain wrote back to say that a review of the case found that Lear helped a detective examine Lookabill’s wound.
“She admitted she lifted the shirt up to look at the area but did not remove his shirt,” Chastain wrote.
Lear, who began her work as a medical examiner in 2003, still serves in that role, a state spokesman said. Reached at Anson Community Hospital, Lear declined to comment.
Kevin Howell, a spokesman for the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said the case illustrates “a longstanding need for additional training.”
Medical examiners are called in when the stakes are highest: suspicious, violent, accidental and unattended deaths.
But the Observer’s investigation found that medical examiners don’t go to death scenes in 90 percent of the cases they investigate. In one of every nine deaths, they violate a state requirement to examine the bodies.
The state doesn’t require examiners to get training and rarely disciplines them when they break the rules. The newspaper found three other instances in which medical examiners missed or misread key evidence in what later turned out to be cases of murder or manslaughter.
Gov. Pat McCrory has asked lawmakers for an additional $2 million to improve the system. Part of the money would go toward improving training.
McCrory also called for an increase in the fee paid to local medical examiners, from $100 per investigation to $250. Several top lawmakers have agreed that the current $100 fee provides little incentive to conduct thorough investigations.
‘No peace at all’
Today, unanswered questions haunt Lookabill’s family members.
Gayle Hildreth, his daughter, wonders whether investigators might have found clues at the crime scene if friends and family members had realized they shouldn’t clean up the area.
She thinks often of her father, a hard-working man who loved playing with his grandchildren, shopping at flea markets and visiting family. And she continually wonders who killed him – and why.
“We’ve got no peace at all,” she said.
She’d like to see someone punished for the crime. But more than that, she said, “I’d like an apology – an explanation.”
“I’m a Christian,” she said. “But I can’t forgive who I don’t know.”
Staff researcher Maria David contributed.