How do I discreetly research a family member's suicide?
December 28, 2007 5:24 PM   Subscribe

Earlier this year, my cousin shot himself. I'd been estranged from him for several years, but we used to be close. How do I go about getting information about his death and about the last few years of his life?

The story I heard from a relative was that he'd been drifting from state to state the last few years, got married a few months before his death, and shot himself while the SWAT team had his house surrounded. I wouldn't trust anyone in that family to tell me the truth about the weather, let alone something so dramatic. There are especially a lot of lies surrounding this particular person; he became the scapegoat for other evils in his family.

I would like to know: how he died (if in fact it was a self-inflicted gunshot - there were family rumors that he was shot by the police). Were there any drugs in his system? What was he up to the last few years? Did he really join the military? Did he ever get his GED or graduate from high school? What happened to the house he inherited from his parents? The last time I remember speaking to him was 2002.

I have searched his local papers online (he was born and died in Louisiana). There were no news stories online about his death (so, probably not shot by the cops), and his obituary was very generic and didn't mention suicide. He had a personal ad online from prior to his marriage, and a couple other blank profiles on various sites. He was not technologically adept and I don't expect to find some secret blog or personal web site.

I do not want anyone in my family (especially his wife, to whom I've never even spoken) to find out that I am looking for information. There are family members who feel he deserved his end (!!!!) and I really don't want any more drama. This has absolutely nothing to do with money, vengeance, or righteousness. I just want to know the unvarnished truth.
posted by desjardins to Human Relations (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Go to a library and ask a librarian to help you do a Lexis/Nexis search (if they have a subscription). This usually yields far better results than your typical local paper online website search. Also the librarian will probably be able to give you lots of other good searching tips, and won't need to know why you're performing the search.
posted by tractorfeed at 5:38 PM on December 28, 2007

Do you know where he was living when he died? Where he was living when he got married? Some towns have a site where you can search the sheriff records - find out if he was arrested close to his death and where he was arrested which could help you narrow down which newspaper you should be searching for information, if cops were called it should show up in the police blotter. if you find the town you can also read local blogs around the time of his death to see if any dramatic stories get brought up there.

Also, find out if his wife has a larger online presence - she or a family member of her's might have said something about it on myspace or something.
posted by nadawi at 5:43 PM on December 28, 2007

With regard to the house he inherited, you can find loads of information through local property assessor websites. His locality likely has one. Where I live, for example, you can actually pull up PDF's of all of the transfer documents for properties. They will show when a property was sold, who sold it, to whom it was sold, and what it sold for.

The school district of his town would likely confirm whether or not he graduated, though would probably not give out any other information.

Each branch of the military service could probably confirm whether or not someone of his name and date of birth ever joined that branch.

With regard to the questions about mode of death and drugs in his system, etc., have you considered hiring a private detective? I would recommend someone who is a former law enforcement officer in the town where he had the standoff with the SWAT team and died --- those private detectives will have close contacts in the local police department and will be able to find out everything you want to know.
posted by jayder at 7:25 PM on December 28, 2007

Re: the obituary... Usually written by the family or the funeral director. I wouldn't expect to find anything you don't already know there - and from what you say, it might not be 100% on the mark.
posted by geekP1ng at 7:45 PM on December 28, 2007

At the very least, you could try contacting the police department in the town where he departed and see if they can tell you anything. If a gun was involved in his death, surely the police would have been involved in some capacity.
posted by dhammond at 8:32 PM on December 28, 2007

If you want to spend some money, hire a private investigator.

If you just want to find out what you can on your own, follow the suggestions above and, in addition, familiarize yourself with your state's Freedom of Information laws. Such things as police reports, autopsy reports in medical examiner cases, etc. are very often public records that are yours for the asking, on payment of a modest per-page copying fee.
posted by megatherium at 8:50 PM on December 28, 2007

Since you know where he died you should get a Death Certificate from that jurisdiction. Start from there. At least you will know the official cause of death. I dealt with a suicide in the family and that is what I did to get the actual cause of death. It is amazing how distorted "family remembrances can be."
posted by JayRwv at 8:54 PM on December 28, 2007

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