Note: This story was last updated at 11:45 a.m. Dec. 11.
The family of a former Oak Ridge school employee found dead of a shotgun wound in Cocke County more than three years ago wants authorities there to reopen the investigation of their son’s death, a press release said.
The family of Alexander “Alex” J. Heitman has also hired an attorney, retired Assistant U.S. Attorney Hugh B. Ward Jr. of Knoxville law firm Young Williams. Ward has Oak Ridge connections, serving on several local boards and as the city’s administrative hearing officer.
Heitman’s family asked for the death investigation to be re-opened after Cocke County Circuit Court Judge Ben Hooper on Monday ordered Coroner Terry Jarnigan to stay away from crime scenes and dead bodies in Cocke County. The Newport Plain Talk reported that Jarnigan allegedly compromised a corpse he was told would be sent for an autopsy in November.
WBIR-TV in Knoxville reported that Jarnigan resigned Tuesday. The Heitmans said the former county coroner oversaw their son’s crime scene.
But the Heitman family has been skeptical that their son killed himself. They say he had been cooperating with an investigation involving a fraudulent check cashing scheme perpetrated on the school system bank account and involving a number of local meth addicts.
“We had no reason to believe he would commit suicide,” they wrote in an April 8 letter asking the FBI to investigate. “To date, we have not been provided any evidence to support this claim.”
The Heitmans are also seeking a cost estimate to produce documents from the Oak Ridge school system. They’ve sent a letter to Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Bruce Borchers, who was not superintendent at the time, listing the documents of interest, which include copies of several cell phone call histories from March to July 2011, tax return information for two former school administrators, and copies of other memos, notes, e-mails, letters, and disciplinary actions or grievances of a mix of current and former school employees.
Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn will serve as their Tennessee resident proxy, according to a press release from the family. Under Tennessee law, public records have to be made available to state residents, but public officials sometimes assert that they don’t have to be sent to out-of-state residents. It’s not clear if that has happened in this case.
See Ward’s letter to Borchers here: Hugh Ward Letter to Bruce Borchers 12-9-2014
The family has also asked for Heitman’s two shotguns, which were willed to his father but remain in the possession of Cocke County authorities, the release said. A hearing in Cocke County could be scheduled for January 8, 2015, the release said.
Heitman was the supervisor of business and support services for Oak Ridge Schools when he died of a shotgun wound to the head in Cocke County on July 25, 2011.
“The family is seeking information about the events that led up to, and ultimately caused, the death of their son,” the press release said.
It said Alex’s parents, Don and Annette Heitman of Adams, Wisconsin, are frustrated. With the help of a few local residents, including Baughn and former Oak Ridge Board of Education candidate Andy Howe, they have continued to raise questions about Heitman’s death.
“We have exhausted tremendous time and financial resources over the last 3.5 years with little cooperation from local authorities,” the release said. “It is our hope that with Mr. Ward’s help and that of Oak Ridge City Councilwoman Trina Baughn as our Tennessee resident proxy, we will finally obtain the answers we need to find closure and move on from the devastating loss of our beloved son.”
Oak Ridge Board of Education members have declined to comment on the case. Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Bruce Borchers said he hadn’t received the letter requesting the cost estimates to produce documents as of Thursday morning.
In June, the school system did release two boxes full of Heitman’s emails sent and received during the few months before his death in July 2011, and local reporters reviewed those emails.
The school system also released a report written by accounting firm Pugh and Company covering the period July 1, 2010, to July 25, 2011. The report, which looked for any unusual transactions, appeared to mostly include a series of no findings.
But Pugh and Company said it noted a purchase of one iPad for $778 that was not discussed with or approved by Heitman’s supervisor, the director of business and support services.
“We also noted this expenditure was processed by a former accounts payable clerk without the proper approval,” the report said.
It also found $1,137 in unallowable and unapproved charges and expenses from expense claim reimbursements.
“These expenditures were for various professional memberships, continuing education, or publications that were not approved by his supervisor, or approval was obtained by the unauthorized use of the director of business and support services’ signature stamp, as represented to us by management,” the report said.
The report also found $6,403 in personal charges on his school credit card in violation of the school’s credit card policy. Heitman had reimbursed the board $1,985.
“The personal charges consisted of unapproved tuition fees for graduate school classes, continuing education, professional memberships, publications, conferences, travel, and related expenses,” the report said. “We noted that these expenditures were processed by two former accounts payable clerks without his supervisor’s approval, or approval was documented by the unauthorized use of the director of business and support services’ signature stamp, as represented to us by management.”
The report also found that Heitman had submitted professional leave requests for six days that were approved by his supervisor and resulted in him receiving gross pay of $1,724 for continuing education or conferences that he did not attend.
“He submitted falsified leave requests, which, based upon a detailed examination of the charges and expenses described…indicated that either he did not attend, or complete the attendance for the various conference dates listed,” the report said.
The report was initially intended to be used only by the Oak Ridge Board of Education and Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, Division of Municipal Audit. Under normal circumstances, Heitman would presumably have been able to respond to the findings. But the report wasn’t issued until March 13, 2012, more than seven months after his death.
Heitman’s parents have pressed for more information on the documentation that supports the Pugh and Company findings.
“At this point, we see no reason to believe that these findings directly or definitively prove that Alex did anything wrong,” they wrote on a website they’ve started (What Happened to Alex Heitman?). “Most of the charges that were questioned are attributable to his educational expenses (he was a graduate student.) Alex took this job in large part because he had an agreement with (former superintendent) Dr. Tom Bailey that the school system would help pay for his continuing education.”
William Brownlow Marsh, assistant district attorney general in Newport, told the Plain Talk in June that his office reviewed the Cocke County Sheriff’s Department report, and “it appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. That’s what the investigation and autopsy bears out. Most of the file is a public record.”
Marsh also said: “The only new evidence is that he (Alex Heitman) was under investigation for improprieties at work. His wife said he was depressed and worried about (that).”
Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes said the death investigation was led by Detective Robert Caldwell, who has 30 years experience.
“There was no indication, or evidence of any sort, to indicate another person was involved in his (Alex Heitman’s) death,” Fontes told the Plain Talk. “Based on the investigation, it was concluded he (Alex Heitman) was potentially facing charges in Oak Ridge for stealing from the Oak Ridge School System.”
The family said it continues to appeal to the public for assistance and asks anyone who may have information about their son’s death to contact them through their website at http://whathappenedtoalexheitman.blogspot.com/.
More information will be added as it becomes available.