Note: This story was last updated at 2:08 a.m. Feb. 28.
The cause of his death has been questioned for months, but information released Friday said a former Oak Ridge Schools employee found dead in Cocke County in July 2011 wrote a suicide note the day before he died.
Alex Heitman, 29, was the supervisor of business and support services for Oak Ridge Schools. Cocke County authorities said he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on July 25, 2011. The death was ruled a suicide.
But Heitman’s parents, Don and Annette Heitman, have been questioning since at least October 2013 whether their son’s death, which they call mysterious, was actually a suicide. They’ve been supported by a few residents and former residents and Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn.
On Monday, a television station in Madison, Wisconsin, broadcast a story on Heitman’s death and his parent’s quest to find answers. In that story, Don Heitman said “we just don’t have the answers to prove that it was (suicide).” In that same story, Baughn said the information collected so far “points to something much bigger than a suicide.”
But Heitman’s widow, Kristie Heitman, told the TV station that she believes her late husband committed suicide, and she found what appears to be a suicide note on his computer after he died.
On Monday, the day of the TV story, Kristie Heitman sent a copy of that note to Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi “so the truth could be known,” the police chief said in a report released by the City of Oak Ridge on Friday.
The suicide note, which includes personal messages to family members, was written July 24, 2011, the day before Alex Heitman died. Heitman said he was depressed, and he hadn’t found anything to cure that feeling.
It wasn’t clear if Don and Annette Heitman or Baughn had previously seen the note, or if it would change their assessment. Oak Ridge Today was not able to reach the Heitmans via email or Baughn by phone on Friday evening.
Kristie Heitman’s mother also sent Akagi a copy of a receipt that showed Heitman had bought two boxes of ammunition with a credit card at a Knoxville Walmart at about 7:47 a.m. July 25, 2011. A second receipt showed Heitman had purchased sleeping pills using a debit card at a Walgreens store at 8:05 a.m. that day.
Kristie Heitman, who now appears to go by the name Kristie Kasperski, said Alex had also tried to rent out their home at one point and to rent their vehicles to strangers because he needed to generate money and was afraid he might lose his job.
“She advised this was evidence of him showing his panic and mental state,” Akagi said in the report released Friday.
It wasn’t immediately clear Friday afternoon if the release of the suicide note and the receipt showing Heitman’s purchase of shotgun shells on the day of his death will end months of speculation and suspicion on social media and occasional stories in media outlets as far away as London.
It’s also not clear that those who are skeptical of the official cause of death have coalesced around a single alternative explanation for how Heitman might have died. A blog devoted to the topic appears to reflect that uncertainty; it’s titled in the form of a question: “What Happened to Alex Heitman?”
The blog was set up by Don and Annette Heitman, who live in Adams, Wisconsin. They have asked the FBI to look into their son’s death, and they’ve asked Cocke County authorities to re-open the death investigation. Using Baughn as a Tennessee proxy, they’ve also requested records from Oak Ridge Schools, and they’ve retained local attorney Hugh Ward to help them.
The Heitmans say that nearly every official record associated with their son’s death contains errors, some of great significance. They also say that officials from multiple jurisdictions have been uncooperative with them in their quest for answers. And, among other issues, the Heitmans have raised questions about whether Alex might have “trusted the wrong person or identified someone that did not want to be identified.”
Supporters say the parents have been “stonewalled.” Among other things, they’ve expressed exasperation with what they suggest is a reluctance by East Tennessee officials to answer questions or release documents related to the case.
Kristie Heitman appears to have had a different experience, at least in Oak Ridge. She thanked Akagi for helping her and apologized that “this is such a mess.”
The Newport Plain Talk in Cocke County reported in June that the District Attorney’s office saw no reason to re-open the death investigation. William Brownlow Marsh, assistant district attorney general in Newport, said 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).”
In the report released by the city on Friday, Akagi said Anderson County District Attorney General Dave Clark also does not plan to re-open any investigation of this incident “as it was never classified as a criminal investigation.”
In response to requests, the Oak Ridge school system released a report last year that questioned some spending by Heitman between July 1, 2010, and July 25, 2011. But it’s not clear how serious those issues were, or if Heitman might have been able to offer an explanation.
Heitman’s parents have pressed for more information on the documentation that supports that report’s findings.
Don and Annette Heitman said their son had been cooperating with an investigation involving an alleged fraudulent check-cashing scheme perpetrated on the Oak Ridge school system bank account. But it’s not clear if any of the people involved in that alleged scheme were Oak Ridge Schools employees (Oak Ridge Today has received a report that they weren’t), or how many of the accused were convicted or pleaded guilty.
Alex Heitman had been employed with the Oak Ridge school system for two years. His wife was eight months pregnant at the time of his death and an Oak Ridge elementary school teacher.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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