Officials say it was suicide. But the parents are skeptical.
So questions linger almost four years after Alexander John Heitman, 29, of Knoxville, was found dead in Cocke County after being reported missing by Oak Ridge Schools. Heitman reportedly died on Tranquility Ridge Drive outside Newport on July 25, 2011. Officials said it was suicide, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
But Heitman’s parents, Don and Annette Heitman of Adams, Wisconsin, find it hard to believe. They aren’t the only ones. Some current and former Oak Ridge residents, including City Council member Trina Baughn, are also skeptical of the official cause of death.
Heitman’s widow, Kristie Heitman, is not. In February, she released a suicide note that she believes Alex, who was the supervisor of business and support services for Oak Ridge Schools, wrote the day before he died.
Neither is Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes. In March, he said the case is closed, and there is no reason to continue pursuing it. Investigators found no evidence that anyone else was involved, Fontes said.
But Don and Annette continue to seek answers. They started a website in October 2013 and used it to raise questions about the case. They’ve also asked for the death investigation to be re-opened, hired attorney Hugh Ward to help them, and won the support of Baughn and others. They’ve also asked the FBI to investigate.
The Heitmans are skeptical that their son wrote the suicide note released in February by Kristie, their former daughter-in-law. They asked a Knoxville company to authenticate it.
In late May, the Heitmans and their attorney announced that a digital analysis showed that the author of the note cannot be determined and that the document had been edited four times after Alex Heitman died and as recently as April 28. They asked Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi and Anderson County District Attorney General Dave Clark for an official analysis.
But Ward, their attorney, stopped short of saying that the text of the note, titled “The love of my life,” might have been changed.
“I’m not suggesting anything,” Ward said in a telephone interview. “I just made available to the authorities what (analyst) Bill Dean found. Everybody’s going to have to make their own conclusions.”
The analysis by Dean does not make any claims about whether any text has been altered. But some readers have interpreted his analysis to mean that the note, which was last saved by the user account Alexander Heitman, has been “doctored” or distorted.
Ward said Dean was careful in how he reported what he found and “not go into speculating or conjecture.”
“That’s what he and I want to be careful of,” Ward said.
Dean, who did not return a phone call seeking comment, is director of security assessments at Sword and Shield Enterprise Security Inc. in Knoxville, according to his LinkedIn profile. He is considered an expert by others.
His analysis of Alex Heitman’s suicide note, which was voluntarily released to the Oak Ridge Police Department in February, is outlined in a two-page memo that Don and Annette Heitman sent to the media in May. The memo was included with copies of letters sent to Akagi and Clark.
“Mr. and Mrs. Heitman would welcome an official analysis of the document and thereafter an authoritative statement of its doubtful nature so as to afford the press an opportunity to correct its misinformed reporting,” Ward wrote to Akagi and Clark.
Ward and Don and Annette Heitman called the media reporting on the suicide note “fallacious.” The Heitmans said the media erroneously reported that the alleged note was written by their son, and they have no reason to believe it was.
“The various stories about the note itself (when it was actually discovered, where it was found, what it supposedly stated) changed multiple times,” the Heitmans said in an email to Oak Ridge Today. “The authorship and intent of the document was attributed to our son without basis. The burden of proof rests with those who have made these claims. Thus, we were compelled to question its legitimacy and therefore had it forensically analyzed.”
“No one can vouch for the authenticity of this document and yet the press reported it as a ‘suicide note’ written by Mr. Heitman,” Ward said. “The press reported it, and they left it at that.”
He said the forensic analysis challenges those statements.
“Now we know from an expert that there’s no way to know who wrote it, and it’s been edited four times,” Ward said.
But Kristie Heitman, a former teacher at Woodland Elementary School in Oak Ridge, said she did not change anything in the Microsoft Word document.
“What would I have to gain by altering it?” she said in a telephone interview this month.
Kristie Heitman, who now teaches in Wisconsin, said she saved the note every time she opened it, and that could show as a modification, even though she made no changes.
“Every time I opened it, I saved it,” she said. She said she does not want to lose the document.
“When it is time, I intend to show this to my son, and I want it in its original form,” Kristie said.
Kristie said a computer specialist told her that the document would register as “modified” when she saves it. She said she copied and pasted part of the note when she sent Don and Annette Heitman their portion of the single-page, multi-part note in October 2013, and that could also show as an edit.
The possibility that opening and closing a document by saving it could produce a revision, even if the text is not changed, was confirmed by a specialist that Oak Ridge Today talked to this month. The specialist wasn’t able to offer an opinion of Dean’s analysis for this story on the record, but the person did say on background that opening and then saving a document could show as a modification, depending upon the operating system and software.
Given the central question in this case—did Alex Heitman commit suicide, or was someone else involved in his death?—Oak Ridge Today contacted several institutions to seek an independent, third-party opinion on the Sword and Shield analysis, but we were not able to find an expert willing or able to talk, or with expertise in the field. Among the institutions we contacted were the Computer Science Department at the University of Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Secret Service, Knoxville Police Department, and a faculty member at Arizona State University.
As a test, though, we opened a Pages document (Apple’s version of Word) on an Apple desktop computer and saved the document without making any changes. The document information showed that the document was modified at the time we saved it, even though we hadn’t changed it. Several Oak Ridge Today readers have described having similar experiences on their computers.
Ward said he wasn’t able to answer some questions, such as whether it is possible for document metadata to show that a document has been edited or revised even if the user just opened the document and then saved it.
“I’m not a computer guy,” he said. “I honestly don’t know how that works.”
Baughn, who had questions about the note even before the Sword and Shield report, said the analysis suggests the document has been changed.
“Apparently that note’s not legitimate,” she said.
Baughn said Sword and Shield analyzed much more than the basic properties of the document.
“I’m relying on the experts,” she said.
After the analysis, Don and Annette called the note “erroneous.” They questioned the authenticity of several properties of the document, including the date it was reported to be written, its content, and its author.
“We’ve been advised by our attorney that this document would not hold up as admissible in a court of law as to its authorship and authenticity,” the parents said.
Some have suggested the best way to analyze the document is to have the original file and the computer used to write it. Kristie Heitman said she won’t turn over the laptop’s hard drive to Ward because it has other private information on it.
Alex’s death has been regularly discussed in Oak Ridge since his parents started their website and asked for help. They have reached out to the media, resulting in stories from Nashville to Madison, Wisconsin, to London. Some current and former residents have taken a keen interest in the case, and a few have offered assistance, sometimes conducting their own unofficial investigations. Some have suggested a national news program ought to look into Alex’s death.
The local involvement, ongoing questions, and news stories have helped turn what might normally be a private family matter into an intensely public one. It’s been frequently debated on social media and resulted in some suspicion of a few current and former officials.
But a number of claims made in the case, including that local officials have been uncooperative, are disputed.
Law enforcement representatives interviewed by Oak Ridge Today have expressed no skepticism about the official cause of death. They say the facts clearly point to suicide.
They also say they’ve seen no evidence of a conspiracy that might offer an alternative explanation for Heitman’s death.
Kristie Heitman said the suicide note was found on Alex’s laptop after his death during a search for tax-related information on his computer. She said Alex was looking for jobs the day before he died, and he was the only one on that computer that day. The document was created at about 3 p.m. July 24, 2011. Dean (the analyst) and Kristie Heitman agree on the date of creation.
The note had several parts addressed to different family members. One was addressed to Kristie and another to their unborn child. Another was addressed to parents and other family members.
In the note, Alex Heitman told his parents they did everything right.
“I was just depressed and nothing I did helped cure this feeling,” he said.
Kristie Heitman, who believes her husband committed suicide, shared the last portion of the note with her former in-laws in October 2013.
“Attached is your family’s part of Alex’s suicide note,” she said in an email to Annette Heitman. “There really is never a ‘right’ time to share, but it needs to be.
“It was found buried under a ton of files that Alex opened up on the laptop. It appeared he did not want me to find it. For what reason, I have no idea.”
Annette and Don have been skeptical of the official cause of death since a few months after Alex died. Annette forwarded Oak Ridge Today a copy of her response to Kristie.
“Thank you for the letter,” Annette said. “You have the right to believe what you choose. We too have learned so much and will continue to move forward to whatever the truth is behind his death.”
Kristie Heitman released the full note earlier this year, on February 23, the same day that Don and Annette were featured in a story produced by a Madison, Wisconsin, television station. In that story, the parents continued to raise questions about Alex’s death.
So did Baughn. In that TV story, she said most of the information collected so far “points to something much bigger than a suicide.”
Kristie Heitman, who hadn’t been publicly involved in the case until this year, was aware of that pending story, and she said she sent the note to Akagi, the Oak Ridge police chief, “so the truth could be known.”
She also sent receipts showing Alex had purchased sleeping pills from a Walgreen’s store and two boxes of shotgun shells from Walmart at about 8 a.m. the day he died.
After Kristie released the full note, Annette Heitman said they wanted to authenticate it because of its “untimely release,” lack of a signature (electronic or otherwise), and the possible modifications made before its release, “as the file properties suggest.” That led to the Sword and Shield analysis.
The Heitmans have raised questions about why Kristie didn’t release the full note earlier, rather than the “few sentences” they said they’d received.
“She claimed it to be a suicide note but refused to allow us to see it, in spite of our requests,” the parents said. “It was supposedly found buried under a ton of files. If it was true, why wasn’t it turned over to authorities at that time along with whatever else they had? We had not seen the document now claimed to be the ‘note’ in its entirety until it was released to ORPD.”
Baughn has also raised questions about the perceived delay in releasing the full note.
“If she believed it was a legitimate note, why did she hold onto it for three years?” Baughn said. “Is that not a crime?”
She said the note was submitted as evidence but not treated that way. The ORPD should have authenticated it, Baughn said.
“If you’re going to say it was suicide, and you hold up this piece of paper, that’s evidence,” she said.
Baughn did emphasize, though, that she has the utmost sympathy for Kristie and doesn’t want to be insensitive or cause any more hurt to any of the family members.
Aware of the questions about the timing, Kristie pointed out that she sent the Heitmans their portion of the note in October 2013, but she said they didn’t believe it because it was typed and it wasn’t the full note, among other things. The only thing new about the full suicide note released in February, Kristie said, is that it included the portions addressed to her and her son.
“I felt that that should be for my son and me, as it was addressed to us,” she said. “It was a very difficult decision to release something so personal. Again, I just want this to stop and for everyone to finally heal.”
Kristie Heitman described the impact of the suspicion that has now turned on her.
“It’s very hurtful because you’re being told by people: Don’t listen to her, she’s lying—when I lived it,” Heitman said. “I’m the person who’s painted out to be not truthful all of a sudden.”
Heitman said she is also worried about the impact the story will one day have on her three-year-old son. Alex is his father.
The note apparently wasn’t considered evidence in Oak Ridge or Anderson County. In a February report, Akagi said the incident was never a criminal investigation in Anderson County, and DA Clark did not consider the suicide note to be investigative material under Tennessee’s rules of criminal procedure.
In March, Clark said the question of whether Kristie would have to turn over the note would be between her and the investigating agency, which was Cocke County.
Kristie said she recently learned about the negative impact the stories have had on Oak Ridge, and it’s heart-breaking.
“I have friends there (in Oak Ridge),” Kristie Heitman said in March. “If by me having to share something so personal and private to make this end not only for me and my son, but for everyone else’s life this impacts, then so be it. I have family and friends that have shared some of the blogs, articles, and posts. It is just plain hurtful to see. It appeared that people did not have all of the information. My hope is that in releasing this information we can all heal and move forward.”
The parents said they have every right to find out what happened to their son.
“We are not to blame for any negative light cast on Oak Ridge or Cocke County,” Don and Annette said. “That blame rests entirely on the shoulders of the authorities who have chosen to impede our efforts when they could have been helpful.”
Questions about official cooperation
The Heitmans have expressed frustration with officials in multiple jurisdictions, where they have submitted extensive public records requests with Baughn’s help. Among other things, they said they’ve been misled or had their pleas for information ignored.
Annette Heitman said the hunt for records has been costly and difficult. If there was nothing to hide, she asked in March, why not sit down with the family and go through records.
“If it’s your child and you’re looking to find out what happens, I think you have the right to those answers,” she said.
Under state law, public records must be made available to Tennessee residents, but they don’t have to be provided to out-of-state residents such as the Heitmans. So Baughn is serving as the parents’ proxy in Tennessee.
Among the records requested from Oak Ridge Schools, former Anderson County Circuit Court Clerk Tyler Mayes, Akagi, Clark, and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, according to documents reviewed by Oak Ridge Today:
- cell phone records of former Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Tom Bailey, former Assistant Superintendent Ken Green, Director of Business and Support Services Karen Gagliano, and Heitman;
- copies of IRS Form W2s for Bailey and Green for all the years they were employed by Oak Ridge Schools;
- documentation supporting the findings in a school system audit;
- copies of all disciplinary actions taken against seven Oak Ridge Schools employees, including Heitman;
- copies of any grievances made by those same employees;
- transcripts of Alex’s testimony related to subpoenas he received, including information on which bodies he addressed (Mayes responded in June 2014 that there are no transcripts in the files, and his office would not have any transcripts of testimony that took place in front of the Grand Jury, if that is where Heitman testified);
- copies of cell phone records between Heitman and Clark;
- information about the location of Heitman’s work hard drive;
- copies of subpoenas issued to Heitman to review video footage of suspects cashing fraudulent checks; and
- communications between Kristie Heitman or anyone representing her and any Oak Ridge Police Department employee, starting July 1, 2011, and continuing through today, and including documents, memos, audio recordings, and written or oral communications.
East Tennessee officials interviewed by Oak Ridge Today said they have tried to help the parents.
“My perception is that everyone has tried to be polite, sensitive to the fact that they have lost a child,” Clark said.
Oak Ridge Schools attorney Chuck Cagle said the school system has spent tens of thousands of dollars on the case and answered every question that has been asked.
Among other expenses, attorneys have sifted through 5,000 pages of emails before releasing a “vast number” of them, Cagle said. And officials went through every document Alex Heitman had touched in the school system in the last year to 1.5 years before his death and provided those to the auditors.
“Just this case has cost the school system tens of thousands of dollars, for which there is no budget,” Cagle said in March.
He said he is not sure there is any other document or answer that the school system can produce that will change things.
“If there’s a stone to turn over, we’ve turned it over many times,” Cagle said. “We’ve done everything that we’ve been asked to do…We’ve been transparent in this whole process, certain other folks’ contentions to the contrary notwithstanding.”
The school system is not an investigatory agency, Cagle said.
“We just hope that this matter will soon resolve itself,” Cagle said.
Baughn challenged Cagle’s spending claim, saying she wants him to substantiate it. She said she paid $200 per hour for school system records released at the end of January. A receipt shows she paid $437.20 total for attorney redaction and copy costs.
Don and Annette said the school system has produced numerous documents.
“The meaningful materials, however, have been redacted to a point that it is difficult to understand their usefulness in resolving our questions,” the Heitmans said.
Baughn said she has tried to help the parents, but she hasn’t seem much cooperation from anyone else.
“Authorities from every agency have been difficult and untruthful,” she said.
But in Cocke County, Sheriff Armando Fontes said a Sheriff’s Department captain corresponded with the Heitman family through multiple emails and telephone calls after the death investigation.
“We’ve made every effort to accommodate them according to what the law stated and what the district attorney recommended,” Fontes said. “We’ve gone out of our way to provide any information that they needed.”
Kristie Heitman said some things could have been done better. But she said local officials were doing their best.
“From my experience, I haven’t had a problem,” Kristie said. “Any questions that I’ve had, I’ve had answered.”
Authorities in Oak Ridge and Anderson County said they had no involvement in the death investigation.
Asked whether he will analyze the suicide note, Clark responded: “I don’t have and have never had a case. That would not be up to me.”
“This all has to do with a body found in Cocke County,” Clark said. “We don’t have anything to do with it and never have.”
Akagi said the city’s involvement in the case was limited to a missing person report the day Alex Heitman died 80 miles away from a meeting he was supposed to attend in Oak Ridge.
Once his body was found in Cocke County, Akagi said, the Oak Ridge Police Department investigation was closed.
Fontes said he understands the Heitmans’ questions after losing their son.
But at the time of Alex Heitman’s death, the sheriff said, investigators concluded that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Alex was found with two shotguns that he owned.
“There was no evidence of anyone else being involved,” Fontes said. “Based on our findings, that’s what we had at the time.”
The release of the suicide note and other information earlier this year reiterated that the investigation had reached the right conclusion, Fontes said. The facts support the note, he said.
But Baughn and the Heitmans raised a number of questions about the investigation, including whether there even was one, and Alex’s death, which they said occurred in a remote location he hadn’t visited before.
“It’s just a bizarre location,” Annette Heitman said.
“I’m still not seeing anything that indicates suicide,” Baughn said.
The Heitmans have pointed out that their son was an ambitious 29-year-old who was working on his doctorate and had a wife who was eight months pregnant when he died, meaning he was a month away from becoming a first-time father. They’ve raised a number of concerns about the death investigation. Among them: The person who ruled Alex’s death a suicide (the Cocke County medical examiner) never personally examined Alex’s body, no fingerprints or ballistics were performed, and evidence was left behind at the scene, Don and Annette said.
“Those are the people you trust with your loved one,” Annette said. “You put your faith in them. They didn’t do anything that they said they did. It’s pretty heart-breaking.”
In December, Don and Annette asked for the death investigation to be re-opened after Cocke County Circuit Court Judge Ben Hooper ordered Coroner Terry Jarnigan, who has since reportedly resigned, 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.
The Heitmans said the former county coroner oversaw their son’s crime scene.
“Any death that he was involved in, where he was the coroner, we think should be looked at,” the parents said.
But the Plain Talk reported in June 2014 that the Fourth Judicial District Attorney General’s office saw no reason to re-open the 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.”
“There is no reason to continue to pursue it,” Fontes said in March.
He said the death investigation was led by Detective Robert Caldwell, who has three decades of experience.
Widow recounts last weekend
In a recent letter urging those considering suicide to seek help from a mental health professional, Kristie Heitman recounted her husband’s last few days.
She said Alex called her on Friday, July 22, 2011, three days before he died, and told her he thought he was going to be fired.
“He said that there were meetings going on that he was not a part of, and he had happened to see a sheet of paper that had ‘fraud’ checked on it on a colleague’s desk,” Kristie said.
On Saturday, Alex was called in for a meeting on Monday, July 25, 2011, a vacation day, to discuss two to four serious things, Kristie said.
But he wasn’t really sure what the questions were, and he was unable to get answers from other school employees over the weekend, Kristie said. She said Alex had trouble sleeping and was “extremely anxious” about the Monday morning meeting. He isolated himself and searched for jobs, she said.
“My family and I continued to monitor and support, trying to reassure him that it would be okay,” said Kristie, whose parents were in town at the time.
An email released by Oak Ridge Schools last summer—one of thousands of Heitman’s emails kept in two bankers’ storage boxes—showed that Alex was considering applying for at least one other job that weekend. On Friday evening, July 22, three days before his death, Alex told a state official he was applying for a job in Sumner County, and he asked for a letter of reference. Heitman told the state official that his father-in-law recently got a job there, and if they moved there, he and Kristie could be close to her parents with a child on the way.
On Saturday, Alex, an avid hunter, considered selling his guns at Gander Mountain to raise money, Kristie said. She said Alex had also tried to raise money by renting out a vehicle and an empty room at the couple’s three-bedroom home. She has provided the Oak Ridge Police Department with copies of those postings under the Twitter username “heitmanaj03” two days before Alex’s death, on July 23, 2011. Kristie said those posts show her husband’s panic and mental state.
Kristie said her husband was “very scared” that last weekend and was afraid he might even go to jail.
“He was on the computer a lot. He was extremely withdrawn,” Kristie said. “I remember checking on him, and he had slammed his computer shut. I had asked what he was doing and he had told me I was not going to like what he was doing. So I pressed, and he had said he was looking for pizza jobs because who would hire him? I was not happy with that answer because I felt he was much better than that and he had too many connections to be looking for that type of a job, plus he had no idea of the outcome of Monday’s meeting.”
Others were not there to witness Alex’s mental state, Kristie said.
“I will always have that guilt of not knowing the signs on my conscience for the rest of my life,” she said.
Kristie said her parents also noticed the fear, panic, and sleeplessness.
“We all tried to help him,” she said. But they didn’t expect suicide.
Kristie said she asked Alex to take his guns out of the trunk before they went to bed that Sunday night, and he supposedly did.
Kristie tried to reassure him again on Monday. She said he looked numb and wore khaki pants and a purple polo rather than a suit. She never saw him again after he walked out the door.
“Alex texted me saying he was at the meeting,” Kristie said. “I again reassured him we would get through this. He responded something on the lines of he was not so sure. Then I had asked if the police were there, and his response was not that he could see. I had no idea he was headed out of town. I had no idea he had purchased sleeping pills and more shotgun shells. I called the district office to see if the meeting was over. To my surprise and shock, I was informed then that Alex never made it to the meeting.”
His body was found in Cocke County some 16-17 hours later. Kristie’s father identified him.
The receipts for sleeping pills and shotgun shells were found in the car, Kristie said.
Missing person report
Alex was reported missing at about 3:27 p.m. July 25, 2011. Former Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Tom Bailey was the one who called Akagi. The new chief had been on the job in Oak Ridge for less than one month.
Bailey told Akagi that Alex, who had worked for Oak Ridge Schools for two years, hadn’t shown up for a meeting that morning. The superintendent said he was worried about Heitman, according to an Oak Ridge Police Department report from August 2, 2011.
“Heitman’s wife stated that he never made it to work, and he could not be reached on his cell phone,” the report said. “She stated that he was very nervous about the meeting and thought he was going to be fired. She also advised that he had no mental or medical problems.
“Upon interviewing Bailey further, this detective learned that a yearly audit (had been) performed for the last three months. (Bailey) advised me that no big problems have been found, but there had been a few small things that needed fixing.”
The report said there were three questions that Bailey wanted to ask Heitman, so he called him on Saturday, July 23, while he was on vacation, to set up the meeting, which was set for 9:30 a.m. that Monday.
Alex didn’t know what the questions were, but the report listed them: There were some issues related to an employee’s time off, a question about who had permission to use personnel super code user software, and a question about why Alex had not put in a requisition for items. The meeting had been expected to help clear up any confusion or misunderstanding on the three issues.
Bailey met with two ORPD detectives at noon the next day, Tuesday, July 26. He and Green and Gagliano then met with Ted Hotz of auditor Pugh and Company that afternoon to review the concerns shared with the detectives. They wanted to have a thorough and complete review of “due diligence procedures” related to the “recent events at Oak Ridge Schools,” a report said. The audit firm agreed to work on preparing information for the Oak Ridge Board of Education.
Fraud report, audit findings
Don and Annette said their son had been helping to train Oak Ridge Schools staff to fight fraud, waste, and abuse, and cooperating in the prosecution of an alleged check fraud ring that had resulted in the theft of thousands of dollars from Oak Ridge Schools. The alleged check fraud ring was tied to a group of methamphetamine users, Don and Annette said. They said the case stemmed from Alex’s initial report to police, and their son had been subpoenaed numerous times by local authorities on the matter, with the last subpoena less than a week before he died.
“In his work and cooperation with authorities, we fear that Alex may have trusted the wrong person or identified someone that did not want to be identified,” the parents said.
An ORPD report from April 12, 2011, lists Heitman as the reportee on a walk-in fraud report. He said a forgery had occurred that affected a general account used by the school system. An officer concluded that at least one $988 forgery occurred at a bank branch inside the Oak Ridge Walmart.
The check was written to the suspect and cashed using the suspect’s driver’s license number and information, the report said. It said the check looked very different from actual Oak Ridge Schools checks. Heitman reported that there was no link between the suspect and the school system.
After talking to the bank, Heitman learned that there were about 14 checks passed under several different names, according to the report. It said only one check had been verified as having been passed in Oak Ridge. Heitman also filed police reports in Knoxville and Clinton.
The case was referred to investigators. One suspect was interviewed on June 27, 2011, at the Anderson County Detention Facility in Clinton, according to the report. The suspect said she passed three checks at Food City and tried to pass one at Bank of America, the report said. She said a second suspect supplied her with counterfeit checks, and she would give that suspect half the money and keep the other half and use it to buy meth, which she injected, according to the report.
The first suspect said she had seen the second suspect print checks at a hotel near Cedar Bluff Road in Knoxville and at a home on South Purdue Avenue in Oak Ridge. The case was closed by an arrest, according to the report.
Oak Ridge Today found two other references to apparently fake checks in the emails released by Oak Ridge Schools last summer. One email briefly discussed a $897.65 check, and the other mentioned a $482.50 check.
But law enforcement representatives question or dispute whether Heitman discovered the check fraud scheme or was simply a point of contact from the Oak Ridge Schools’ finance department. They said it’s common for a large employer to have a courtroom representative to verify that a fraudulent check wasn’t authorized, and Heitman may have been sent a subpoena to verify that a fraudulent check was not a school check.
Clark didn’t have the numbers available during a March interview, but he said the check fraud was possibly under $10,000.
Oa Ridge Schools Attorney Chuck Cagle said the Oak Ridge Board of Education had an audit conducted after Heitman’s death to make sure the situation wasn’t worse than expected, and it showed no mass fraud of any sort in the school system.
But a report released by Oak Ridge Schools last summer did raise questions about Alex’s spending.
It said there were $6,403 in personal charges on Alex’s school credit card in violation of policy. Those charges were for unapproved tuition fees for graduate school classes, continuing education, professional memberships, publications, conferences, travel, and related expenses.
Heitman had reimbursed the school board $1,985.
The report was issued by auditor Pugh and Company on March 13, 2012, more than seven months after Heitman’s death. It covered a roughly one-year period from July 2010 to July 2011.
The report also found:
- a purchase of one iPad for $778 that was not discussed with or approved by Heitman’s supervisor; and
- $1,137 in unallowable and unapproved charges and expenses from expense claim reimbursements, expenditures that were used for various professional memberships, continuing education, or publications that were not approved by his supervisor, or where approval was obtained by the unauthorized use of a signature stamp.
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.
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 their website, 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.”
They said it was absurd to suggest that Alex bought himself an iPad “that was not discussed with or approved by his supervisor” since they think his supervisors were aware that he had the device, based on emails they’ve reviewed.
Under normal circumstances, Heitman would presumably have been able to respond to the audit findings.
After it was released, Marsh, the assistant DA in the Fourth Judicial District, told the Plain Talk in Newport: “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).”
“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,” Fontes told the newspaper.
Oak Ridge school officials had hoped that the release of new information in the past year would help put an end to the ongoing questions.
“We need to stop capitalizing on someone’s misery,” Cagle said.
Officials comment on case, question of conspiracy
Like Fontes, Akagi said he hasn’t seen any evidence casting doubt on the official cause of death.
“From the moment the body was discovered, no evidence has ever come forward indicating that it was anything other than suicide,” Akagi said.
Even if you remove the disputed suicide note from the discussion, the chief said, other facts point to suicide. Among them: the receipts for shotgun shells and sleeping pills purchased by Alex the day he died; his reported fear that he was going to lose his job at Oak Ridge Schools and possibly go to jail; his Internet postings seeking to rent out a car and a room in the family’s home to strangers, even with a wife who was eight months pregnant, in an effort to raise money; and the two shotguns he owned that were found with his body in Cocke County, guns that he apparently left the house with on his way to a school meeting.
Akagi pointed out that there were questions about Alex’s spending and billing, and he had reimbursed the school board almost $2,000.
“The fact that he repaid it further demonstrates that he was culpable,” the chief said. “That’s kind of an admission of guilt.”
In a September 2013 email to Annette, Clark addressed the question about whether there was a conspiracy that would explain Heitman’s death.
“If there is evidence of such a thing, I am unaware of it,” Clark said. “The audit of the Oak Ridge Schools came back clean. My condolences to you and your family.”
Asked if they had information on what else might have happened, Don and Annette said: “We have other information that we cannot disclose at this time that gives us pause about the claims that Alex committed suicide. We remain optimistic that we will one day know what happened to our son.”
Baughn said the agencies involved could have helped the family by disclosing information “up front” and when it was requested.
“If it was suicide, all of these agencies could have made this very simple,” she said.
Some local residents and officials object to the questions now being raised about the widow, saying she is being treated horribly.
Baughn said it is “absolutely fair” to raise questions about the note that Kristie released in February.
“She brought it into the public side,” Baughn said.
The Heitmans had gone to great lengths to not bring Kristie into the conversation, Baughn said.
“Kristie chose to put herself into the spotlight,” said Baughn, who emphasized that she does have sympathy for the widow. “It was her actions that brought her into the spotlight.”
But Kristie Heitman, who hadn’t discussed the case publicly until this year, had hoped her release of information would help resolve the ongoing questions.
“This needs to stop,” Kristie said. “There are people that are very innocent in all this…who are almost getting harassed. That’s not fair to them when they may not have had anything to do with this.”
Some people have pointed out that the death occurred in Cocke County, and they wonder why Baughn is trying to get Oak Ridge involved, or why a City Council member is involved in an investigation like this at all.
“Mr. Heitman worked in my city,” Baughn said when asked about those concerns. “He was supposed to go work the day he died and was found not to have gone to work.”
She said the Heitmans reached out to her before she was elected in November 2012, and when someone asks for help, she helps.
“If a public official’s role is not to help someone in need, then what is it?” Baughn said.
In a recent television interview, Ward, the attorney, said Don and Annette still have questions about their son’s death.
“Any parent can empathize with the tragedy,” he said. “They are truly ready and willing to accept anything that they can know.”
“All that we seek is closure to our never-ending grieving process,” the Heitmans said. “As we’ve stated before, we are seeking the truth and therefore remain open to any and all possibilities.”
They said they have not determined what to do next if Akagi and Clark don’t officially analyze the note.
“We’re waiting for a response to our request,” the Heitmans said.
Biographical—Who was Alex?
Alex Heitman was born on September 3, 1981, in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. He graduated from Adams-Friendship High School in 2000.
Heitman earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater and an accounting certificate from the University of California-Berkley. He completed pre-doctorate work in finance and educational leadership at Nova South Eastern University.
He worked for the American Cancer Society and UNICEF before he started at Oak Ridge Schools.
Alex Heitman married Kristie Kasperski on June 28, 2008, in Waunakee, Wisconsin. The two met at Adams-Friendship in central Wisconsin. They had been married three years when Alex died, but they had known each other for 13.
Alex was a St. Louis Cardinals fan, a golfer, a conscientious worker, and someone who liked to dress well. Before he died, he and Kristie had been preparing for the birth of their son, looking at a car and baby strollers.
Alex was the treasurer of his homeowner’s association, and he liked the TV show “Parks and Recreation.” He also enjoyed running, traveling, and his dog Yadi.
He had officiated high school basketball games, and he umpired baseball.
“He always liked a challenge and strove to do his best,” Kristie said. “He really loved living in Tennessee and working for the Oak Ridge Schools. He liked the people and that the job was challenging. This was his first ‘real’ job that was using his degree. He loved it.”
He was a member of Tennessee Valley Golden Retriever Rescue. He supported the Loggerhead Marine Center because of his love of sea turtles, and he supported St. Jude Children’s Hospital. He was a member of All Saints Catholic Church and St. John’s Newman Catholic Church in Knoxville.
Alex was featured in an ASBO (Association of School Business Officials) electronic newsletter on May 12, 2011. That article noted that Heitman had created, more than a decade earlier, Great Lakes Sports Officials, which helped organize youth sports fundraising events with contracted staff and volunteers in Wisconsin.
Alex returned to school later to earn a master’s degree in school business management, the story said.
Heitman served in positions at the University of Wisconsin and in various school districts in the area before relocating to Oak Ridge.
Heitman was proud to have guided Oak Ridge Schools from a self-funded dental/vision plan to a regular plan, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. He also streamlined processes in other areas, including the creation of a uniform copy center contract, which also saved money.
Emails with school colleagues, supervisors
Oak Ridge Today looked through about two-thirds of the Alex Heitman emails that Oak Ridge Schools released last summer. We also skimmed through a portion of the rest. The thousands of emails, which are stored in two boxes, are mostly from the period between March to mid-July 2011. Most of the emails we reviewed appeared to be routine work-related emails—discussing purchase orders and contracts, and invoices and receipts, for example—but a few shed light on Alex Heitman himself. There were also a few that included brief conversations between Alex and Bailey, the former superintendent, and Karen Gagliano, the director of business and support services.
There were about a half-dozen emails between Heitman and Bailey, but half of those were work-related, discussing state funding and CEO pay, while the other half were congratulatory. One email concerned news that Oak Ridge schools had won one of two awards they applied for in the spring of 2011 for excellence in financial reporting from ASBO International. It was a very high award, and the school system could still possibly win an GFOA award, Heitman told Bailey on July 19, less than one week before his death.
“Alex: That would be very significant news. Keep me updated,” Bailey responded.
“Thanks,” Heitman replied. “Winning this one is also a substantial award as well and given away only by meeting very high standards of financial disclosure. It’s a great accomplishment for the entire staff.”
Alex, who reported he hadn’t been back home to Wisconsin in more than one year, also received congratulatory emails from school board members after he became registered as a Certified School Financial Officer. Heitman learned of that accomplishment on June 24. An email said he had passed the very difficult ASBO International national certification program exam and was now registered with ASBO International as a certified school financial officer.
“He is one of very few in the United States to hold this honor,” ASBO International said in an email to Bailey. “Further, he is the first to pass the exam series and receive certification as an SFO in the state of Tennessee.”
The exam included tests on accounting and school business management and adherence to a code of conduct, and there were certification and experience requirements.
“Alex: Congratulations on achieving this milestone,” Bailey said in a June 27 email. “ASBO is well-known and to pass their tests is not a given. They are well-respected nationally and internationally. I have asked Karen (Gagliano) to do some recognition of your accomplishment. I want you to be aware in case you are contacted by press, etc. Sincerely, Tom.”
In his last week, Alex noted that an audit team would be in the office the week starting Monday, July 18, and then didn’t plan to come back until the fiscal year closed, possibly in August.
Heitman was scheduled to attend TMAC (Tennessee Meal Accounting and Claiming) training in Sweetwater on Wednesday, July 27, with an ARAMARK representative to learn more about software that all schools would start using that fall. Alex had also been selected as a presenter for the ASBO International Annual Meeting and Expo in September 2011 in Seattle.
In a few emails, Alex referenced heart and blood pressure issues, stomach issues, and a possible ulcer or acid reflux. Karen Gagliano wondered if it was just nerves, and she suggested Alex consider trying valerian root, like natural valium, which had helped someone she knew with anxiety. Valerian is an herb sold as a dietary supplement that can be used for insomnia and other sleep disorders, according to the National Institutes of Health.