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Did this teenage boy commit suicide or was he murdered?

Norman Ladner

Norman Ladner

On August the 21, 1989, 17 year-old Norman Ladner left his parents’ country store to go hunting on the family farm near Picayune, Mississippi. Norman was a popular high school student who loved the outdoors. He knew his family’s 122 acre property like the back of his hand. According to Norman Ladner Sr., his son was late coming home:

“Norman would always be back 7 to 7:30 in the afternoon or in the evening. And about seven o’clock,  I began to get worried about him because he was very punctual and it was most unusual.”

When Norman Sr. seached the property, he found his son lying on the ground:

“I knelt down by him and felt that he was cold, so I knew he had been dead for a while. It’s a deep shock and a tragedy to find your own son dead, because you could never imagine or think how this could happen until you’ve experienced it, gone through it.”

A single gunshot to the head had taken the young man’s life. Just after 10 PM, the Sheriff’s Department arrived. They roped off the area and began their investigation. From the start, Pearl River County Sheriff Lorance Lumpkin said he didn’t suspect a crime had occurred:

“Foul play is the first thing that I normally address in the course of an investigation. I ruled it out in this instance because I saw nothing there to indicate that. At first I thought it might’ve been an accident. It looked as though he might have been in a tree nearby and subsequently fallen out of the tree and the gun discharged.”

Norman was found lying in the woods

Norman was found lying in the woods

Norman’s father said the coroner also told him that it was an accidental death:

“The coroner came back to the store after the results of his examination, and he came up with two deputies and he said that he felt that he was 90% sure that it was an accidental shooting.”

However, Norman’s family was in for a terrible shock. When the official ruling came down, the coroner said Norman did not die from an accident:  he committed suicide. The coroner’s decision was based on the fact that Norman died from a close contact head wound. The bullet entered his right temple and exited his left. It was a very typical suicide wound. Sheriff Lumpkin speculated:

“I think that he went back into an area where he felt comfortable and for reasons that we don’t know, that he decided to take his life.”

Norman Sr. couldn’t see how that was possible:

“I knew my son too well. He enjoyed and he lived life to the fullest. He was happy. He was outgoing. He was not depressed in anyway. They made no attempt to locate the bullet. They never fingerprinted the gun. They cannot say that his gun was the weapon that was used to kill him.”

There were other problems. Norman’s wallet with $140 dollars was missing. He had a 1 ¼ inch long cut on top of his head. If Norman had committed suicide, how did that cut get there? Authorities said the head wound was caused by a bloody tree root found at the scene. Again, Norman Sr. didn’t see how that was possible:

“We didn’t see how that could happen because falling straight back  you would hit your head on the side or directly in the back, not up in the crown of your head, up in the peak of his head.”

Did Norman see drug dealers in the woods?

Did Norman see drug dealers in the woods?

Norman’s parents began their own investigation. They dug in the dirt area where their son had fallen to see if they could find the bullet that had taken his life. Norman Sr. found a bullet:

“We found a bullet that was longer than a bullet that Norman’s gun would hold. The chamber was not bored out for the length of that bullet. And it had dried blood and a hair when we examined it under the magnifying glass.”

Sheriff Lumpkin doesn’t think the Ladners found the bullet that killed Norman:

“We don’t have any reason to believe that it was the bullet that was fired that caused the boy’s death, mainly because we feel that the boy was standing at the time that the gun was fired. And if that being the case, it would not have been in the ground underneath his head.”

Norman’s mother had a different theory:

“We came to the conclusion that he was lying on the ground and he was shot by someone in a standing position.”

The Ladners gave the bullet to a state ballistics expert, but he couldn’t tell if it had come from Norman’s rifle. And, when they were given back the bullet, they claim it was not the same one they had found. A few weeks later, Norman’s parents went to the coroner’s office to question his ruling. His mother said a stranger interrupted their conversation:

“He said Mrs. Ladner, don’t open this case up. You have other children. I suggest you raise them for your own good.  You’ll never find the person that killed your son.  And then he left.”

Unfazed, Norman’s father returned to the area where his son had died. Three hundred yards away, he found a strange, radio-like device that looked home-made. State authorities said it was not an important clue, but a neighbor suggested he show it to an ex-narcotics agent who lived in the area. Norman Sr. recalled what he was told:

“The former DEA Agent said that this was a type of device that drug dealers use to signal aircraft by sending out a low range signal for the proper alignment to drop a shipment of drugs.”

Norman believes that his son came upon drug dealers in the woods, and they killed him because they didn’t want any eyewitnesses. Authorities continue to stand by the coroner’s ruling, but Norman’s mother says it was nothing less than cold-blooded murder:

“We will not stop this investigation no matter what, until it is finished. We owe it to our son and we owe it to our children. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the other people’s children out there as well.”