Megan Ward: A mother looking for peace of mind
Over the last few days an ad was published in The High Point Enterprise offering $10,000 for information about a High Point University student who died last year.
The ad shows a photograph of handsome, young Robert Tipton Jr.
Robert, 22, died on March 26, 2012, at a fraternity brother’s off-campus apartment. He was pledging Delta Sigma Phi at the university.
The ad reads, “An autopsy determined that Robert had received numerous injuries consistent with an assault or accident in the hours prior to his death. The injuries could have contributed to Robert’s death.”
The ad also mentions that Tipton had spent the evening with other pledges and fraternity brothers.
Fraternity. Pledge. Bruises. Death.
I knew I needed to explain why this ad was placed in our paper. I also wanted to see what happened with this case.
I looked in our archives. We had an obituary but we didn’t report Robert’s death in the paper in 2012.
I thought, “How would we miss that?”
We looked into it last year. Robert’s death was ruled an overdose by police and then the medical examiner.
His friends found him unresponsive the morning after he was partying and taking prescription drugs.
We don’t usually report on overdose deaths, which could be invasive and disrespectful to the family. In a Google search, I found one local TV news station covered Robert’s death in 2012.
But here is this ad in our paper. And our readers should know the background.
A security firm in Raleigh, Risk Management Associates, which does private investigations, placed it.
The firm was hired by a lawyer, who was hired by Robert’s mother, Deborah Dunklin Tipton.
Michael Longmire, a retired law enforcement officer who now works for the firm, told me they are trying to learn what happened to Robert during the last hours of his life.
Longmire said Robert had several bruises that haven’t been explained.
“We have found no one who can provide any information as to how and when he received those injuries,” he said. The firm’s investigators have interviewed several of Robert’s friends, Longmire said.
Some had last seen Robert at 3:30 a.m. (he died sometime after 9:30 a.m.) but no one said they saw any injuries, according to Longmire.
The lawyer who hired the firm, Bill Bystrynski, told me they aren’t questioning High Point Police Department’s investigation of Robert’s death. “Right now, we’re just hoping to get more information about how Robert received these injuries. We’re hoping for peace of mind, if nothing else.”
I contacted the medical examiner’s office in Chapel Hill for the autopsy report.
The medical examiner ruled that the cause of Robert’s death was “oxymorphone poisoning” (a powerful prescription painkiller). “Benzodiazepine use contributed to this death.”
Benzodiazepines are drugs commonly used to treat anxiety.
On those autopsy reports, I saw that Robert had “contusions and abrasions” and what looks like a lot of them.
A local medical examiner did the initial review of his body at the hospital in High Point. Dr. Gordon Arnold noted a large bruise on Robert’s left buttock.
That bruise wasn’t noted by Dr. Jonathan Privette, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy in Chapel Hill.
On a diagram of a body, Privette circled the right side of the head, the left side of the face, the neck, the torso and both knees.
“The contusion on the right head has associated subjacent subgaleal hemorrhage and hemorrhage in the right temporalis muscle. There is no injury to the underlying skull or brain,” Privette wrote. He also noted some retroperitoneal hemorrhage associated with the capsule of the right kidney.
He noted that “These injuries are superficial or mild in nature and did not contribute to death.”
So to be clear, the medical examiner ruled drugs caused Robert’s death and that he didn’t die from those injuries.
But, could those bruises show that Robert had been assaulted before he overdosed?
Were those recent injuries or old?
Dr. Arnold told me when he viewed Robert’s body in High Point, Robert was still dressed in a hospital gown. Arnold said he authorized the autopsy, but didn’t do an exam. He told me that other than the large bruise on the left buttock he didn’t remember the injuries noted above.
I tried for days to reach Privette. Finally a staff member at the ME’s office said he refused to speak to me.
So I contacted the chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Deborah Radisch.
She didn’t return my call, but did return an email I sent asking how old those injuries were and if they could show Robert was assaulted. She wrote, “The injuries indicate some type of blunt trauma. I do not know how they were received.”
Autopsy reports are public record in North Carolina but we can’t force a medical examiner to explain his or her findings.
Maybe if they did a better job of explaining, families wouldn’t be so confused or worried.
Police investigation reports and the background from Arnold’s report say that Robert had been partying at the off-campus fraternity brother’s house. He stayed the night and slept on the couch.
His friends told officers he was snoring when they left for class in the morning. They returned around 10:30 a.m. And, according to the 911 call log, they found him unresponsive.
The toxicology report shows that in addition to Oxymorphone, Xanax and Klonipin (both benzodiazepines) were in Robert’s system, but no alcohol.
Tipton’s parents are divorced.
I spoke with his father, Robert Tipton Sr., a physician in Indiana. He doesn’t believe that his son was assaulted.
“They didn’t say if those bruises were fresh or not,” he said. “I think it got to be too much for him. (He was) a kid who just got in over his head.”
Robert had been in trouble. Nine days before he died, he was involved in a car wreck. He drove his car off Eastchester Drive, struck a curb and traveled across both lanes on Cook Street.
Robert got a ride back to campus and reported his car stolen. According to the police report, Robert eventually admitted to the High Point officer what happened. He was arrested for filing a false police report.
His booking photo shows Robert with a solemn expression but no injuries on his face.
The university released a statement after the ad was published in our paper. It described the memorial service held on campus for Robert after he died and how several students traveled together by bus to his funeral in Memphis.
“We understand that law enforcement officials and the medical examiner have conducted their investigation and that the matter has been closed.
We appreciate and sympathize with the Tipton Family’s incredible sadness. Out of respect to them and to the university community, and because of student privacy, we have no additional comment at this time.”
High Point Police Chief Marty Sumner said he reviewed photographs taken at the apartment on Crossing Way where Robert died and photos of the autopsy. The bruises did not look like Robert had been assaulted, Sumner said.
“Those bruises were old or very superficial,” Sumner said.
The medical examiner’s report matched what the police officers found, he said.
During their investigation, they heard a few rumors about the possibility of hazing or mistreatment of Robert. They investigated each rumor, he said, and found nothing that showed Robert had been mistreated.
The case is closed and cleared.
But this obviously isn’t enough for Robert’s mother.
Her son died 600 miles away from home. He overdosed on drugs that he abused. But he had bruises on his body. If she wants to know more about his final moments, she has every right to hire someone to do so. I hope she gets what she’s looking for, peace of mind.
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