Was a Marine captain’s suicide a military cover-up?

Jeffrey Digman

Jeffrey Digman

At the age of 28, Jeffrey Digman’s life seemed to be on track.  He had become a Marine captain and was stationed near his hometown in San Diego, California.  He even owned a house with a fellow officer. 

But on November 1, 1988, only four months after his promotion, Jeffrey was transferred to Puerto Rico. According to friends, he was unhappy about the transfer.  But by Christmas, he had begun to settle in and was dating Lucy Garcia, an accountant at the local base.  Lucy remembered being impressed with the young Marine captain:

“Jeffrey was a very quiet person.  He was so serious and I liked that of him.”

After Christmas, Jeffrey flew home to San Diego.  He was scheduled to go back to Puerto Rico on January 22, 1989, Super Bowl Sunday.  At halftime of the game, a neighbor saw Jeffrey return to his house.  At 6 PM, neighbors heard what they thought was a car backfiring. 

Later that night, Jeffrey’s roommate arrived home with his girlfriend.  He was surprised to see Jeffrey’s car still there, since his flight to Puerto Rico had been scheduled to depart 15 minutes earlier.  Henry Sawicki was an Investigator for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department at the time of Jeffrey’s death:

“When the roommate returned home with his girlfriend, the lights were on, the garage door was open apparently.  So this caused them some concern, some suspicion, as Mr. Digman’s not supposed to be there.”

When the roommate entered the house, he found Jeffrey Digman dead.  There was a single bullet wound to his right temple.  An autopsy revealed that Jeffrey’s blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit.  Traces of gunpowder were found on his right hand, evidence that he had fired a pistol.  His death was ruled a suicide.  Jeffrey’s father, William Digman, was immediately skeptical:

“I at no time ever believed that he committed suicide.  I never believed that from when I first got the phone call, to when I went down that night. I’ve always believed that he was murdered and that’s what the evidence shows.”

Actual photo

Actual photo

The Naval Investigative Service backed up the coroner’s ruling of suicide.  But Jeffrey’s parents were unconvinced.  They began their own investigation and soon found compelling evidence that their son was murdered

With the help of a private investigator, Bill Digman concluded that Jeffrey could not have killed himself given the trajectory of the bullet and the fact that his son was left handed. According to the evidence left at the crime scene, the person who shot Jeffrey was right handed.  They were also puzzled by an unexplained smear of blood above Jeffrey’s head.  His parents hired Steve Schliebe, an independent forensic expert, to review the case:

“I don’t feel that Jeffrey killed himself.  I think there was some kind of a struggle that took place and he was shot during that struggle.”

Almost a year after Jeffrey’s death, his parents requested a second autopsy.  Two contusions were found that had not been previously reported, but the medical examiner concluded that the injuries were insignificant.  There was no medical evidence to support a conclusion of homicide.

The Digmans remained convinced that their son was murdered.  They felt his death was somehow related to his work with the San Diego Marine Drug Testing Unit.  According to his father, Jeffrey had served as the unit’s commanding officer prior to being transferred to Puerto Rico:

“People were dealing drugs.  People were testing positive.  He would write his reports documenting what the results of his investigations were.  And those people weren’t being disciplined.  They were not being discharged.  And he was very upset over that.”

During the time Jeffrey ran the Drug Unit, his mother discovered a safe hidden in his room:

“I found some military documents in his safe and I asked him what they were.  And that was when he told me that he was saving those tests from drug abuse tests… We wanted to empty the desk to make it lighter, and we opened the hinged door that the safe was usually behind and the hinged door came off in our hands and the hinges were not connected and the safe was not there.”

Another puzzling aspect to this case occurred when Jeffrey’s girlfriend Lucy helped the Marines pack his belongings in Puerto Rico.  Lucy found a small, green diary of Jeffrey’s and gave it to the Marines with all of the pages intact.  But when the Marines returned the diary to Jeffrey’s parents, some of the pages were missing.  Donna Digman remembered finding her son’s diary:

“Eventually we unpacked things and looked for the… little green book that Lucy was telling us about.   And when we found it, what we found was that the pages were cut out of it.”

Could there have been a military cover-up?  After reviewing both autopsy reports, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology changed Jeffrey’s cause of death to “undetermined.”  However, both the Naval Investigative Service and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department stand by their ruling of suicide.