1994's MOST BIZARRE SUICIDE
At the 1994 annual awards dinner given by the American Association for
Forensic Science, AAFS President Don Harper Mills astounded his audience in
San Diego with the legal complications of a bizarre death. Here is the story.
"On 23 March 1994, the medical examiner viewed the body of Ronald Opus and
concluded that he died from a shotgun wound of the head. The decedent had
jumped from the top of a ten-story building intending to commit suicide (he
left a note indicating his despondency). As he fell past the ninth floor, his
life was interrupted by a shotgun blast through a window, which killed
him instantly. Neither the shooter nor the decedent was aware that a safety
net had been erected at the eighth floor level to protect some window washers
and that Opus would not have been able to complete his suicide anyway because
"Ordinarily," Dr. Mills continued, "a person who sets out to commit suicide
ultimately succeeds, even though the mechanism might not be what he intended.
That Opus was shot on the way to certain death nine stories below probably
would not have changed his mode of death from suicide to homicide. But the
fact that his suicidal intent would not have been successful caused the
medical examiner to feel that he had homicide on his hands.
"The room on the ninth floor whence the shotgun blast emanated was occupied
by an elderly man and his wife. They were arguing and he was threatening her
with the shotgun. He was so upset that, when he pulled the trigger, he
completely missed his wife and the pellets went through the a window, striking
"When one intends to kill subject A but kills subject B in the attempt, one
is guilty of the murder of subject B. When onfronted with this charge, the
old man and his wife were both adamant that neither knew that the shotgun was
loaded. The old man said it was his long-standing habit to threaten his wife
with the unloaded shotgun. He had no intention to murder her - therefore, the
killing of Opus appeared to be an accident. That is, the gun had been
"The continuing investigation turned up a witness who saw the old
couple's son loading the shotgun approximately six weeks prior to the fatal
It transpired that the old lady had cut off her son's financial support and
the son, knowing the propensity of his father to use the shotgun
threateningly, loaded the gun with the expectation that his father would shoot
his mother. The case now becomes one of murder on the part of the son for the
death of Ronald Opus.
There was an exquisite twist. "Further investigation revealed that the son
[Ronald Opus] had become increasingly despondent over the failure of his
attempt to engineer his mother's murder. This led him to jump off the
ten-story building on March 23, only to be killed by a shotgun blast through a
ninth story window.
"The medical examiner closed the case as a suicide."