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Relatives in Jail Death Say Officials Spoke of Finding Cut on Throat

November 12, 1987|JOHN SPANO | Times Staff Writer

Relatives of Roscoe Ben Shirley, the convicted drunk driver who died in an Orange County jail facility last weekend, said Wednesday that investigators had told them that there was a three-inch cut on Shirley's throat and evidence of suicide.

Sheriff's Department officers said after the body was discovered Sunday at the James A. Musick Honor Farm in El Toro that there was no indication of foul play, but both the Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office have refused to disclose the circumstances or cause of death.

Shirley was the 11th inmate to die in county custody in the last two years. The 10th, 34-year-old Mark Robert Ernst, was found hanging from a bed sheet Saturday in the main men's jail in Santa Ana. Ernst, who was being held on a burglary charge, hanged himself, according to the Sheriff's Department.

Investigator Declines Comment

The prosecutor heading the investigation into the death of the 38-year-old Shirley for the district attorney's office declined to comment Wednesday on the report of the throat laceration.

Said Donna Trower, Shirley's ex-wife and the mother of his three children: "All I know is that the (investigator) said there was a three-inch cut on his throat. I asked what cut him. He said they couldn't find a weapon. Who in the world would cut his own throat if he wanted to kill himself?"

Air Force Lt. Cynthia Shirley Marie, the victim's sister, was bitter about the investigators' approach. She said they had asked leading questions about the possibility of suicide, "but not once did they ask if he had any enemies."

Shirley was serving a six-month sentence for drunk driving, his fourth such conviction. He expected to be released early, for good behavior, this week or next, Marie said.

No Hint in Letters

Trower, who was married to Shirley 12 years and has remarried since their divorce, was contemptuous of the suggestion that her former husband killed himself.

"It's absolutely ludicrous," Trower said. "It's crazy. That man did not want to die. I don't want my kids even thinking that's what he did to himself."

Trower, now a resident of Kansas, said she had received 11 letters from Shirley while he was in jail. They show despondency and frustration at being locked up but offer no hint that he felt himself in danger and included no suggestion of suicide, Trower said.

His last letter, dated Oct. 29, begins: "Life continues on, and I hate this horrible place so very much. I am getting absolutely crushed in spirit."

He wrote with repugnance of his alcoholism and with hope that he had finally beaten the addiction. Shirley castigated himself in the letter for neglecting his responsibilities and thanked Trower for caring for their children.

At one point in the letter, he wrote that he hoped that he had "hit bottom, and won't get any worse. I really don't know how I could survive."

Shirley's criminal file reflects that he twice wrote to judges, seeking early release. Shirley asked for help "in the name of humanity," adding that he was "sorry."

Marie, Shirley's sister, said she refused to believe that suicide was a possibility because her brother was expecting to be released within a week. Investigators who notified the family of the death said Shirley had been a model inmate, Marie said.

Trower refused to credit suicide for another reason as well: Shirley loved his children and was about to become a grandfather.

The oldest of his three children is 17 and is to have a baby in March.

"He was so thrilled about being a grandfather--just thrilled," Trower said.

Shirley was also anxious to return to his girlfriend, Marie said.

"He wrote her a real cheerful letter, a nice, happy letter. It was like he was expecting to get out soon, and then I can hold you in my arms," she said.

American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Richard Herman, who has challenged jail conditions and past inmate deaths in court on numerous occasions, said Wednesday that he intends to become involved in the Shirley case.

"If they try to say this is a suicide, we will do an independent autopsy," Herman said. "The family doesn't think it is a suicide, and I don't think it is.

"The fact that they said there wasn't foul play, when the physical evidence seems to indicate there was, is unbelievable. Something stinks."

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