Thomas Samples hopped on his beloved motorcycle, Piglet, on May 22 intending to bail a friend out of jail, his sister Gladys Shirey said last week.
At the intersection of Crestline Street and Euclid Avenue, as a bus full of witnesses looked on, Samples’ motorcycle slammed into a Spokane Transit Authority coach, killing Samples almost instantly and totaling Piglet. Spokane police looked at video and determined Samples ran a red light prior to the collision, but they say their investigation is not over.
Yet days after the crash, Spokane County Medical Examiner John Howard ruled Samples’ death a suicide, a finding Shirey can’t stomach.
“He did not kill himself,” Shirey said. “He wouldn’t have done that.”
Shirey said her brother, older by just a year, felt the effects of a bad upbringing. He showed signs of depression and bipolar disorder, a genetic legacy that drove him to drug use and prison stays in Arkansas and Washington. But Samples, who Shirey described as her “big, badass brother,” was doing well when he died, she said. He was in the middle of the longest period of sobriety of his adult life, was finishing a science fiction novel called “Purple Lazarus,” and had just established a relationship with his estranged daughter through Facebook.
“I feel like the medical examiner treated him like a throwaway,” Shirey said.
Howard did not respond to requests for comment on the case. Many details of an autopsy are exempt from public release by state laws, including when there’s an active criminal investigation underway.
The policies of the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office allow for a delay in determining a cause of death: It reads, “If the death certificate cannot be accurately completed on the day of autopsy, due to a need for further testing, the death certificate is completed as ‘pending’ so that no disposition delay need occur.”
In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes guidelines for medical examiners in determining whether a death is a suicide. Evidence that can be used to make such a determination includes the autopsy and “toxicological, investigatory, and psychological evidence, and statements of the decedent or witnesses.”
Spokane police denied a request for investigative documents earlier this month, citing the ongoing investigation.
But Shirey said she was told by investigators the suicide finding was based on three factors: that her brother didn’t brake before the crash, that he accelerated into the intersection and that her first question of the Medical Examiner’s Office when it notified her of Samples’ death was whether the injuries were self-inflicted.
Shirey said she was “in shock” and asked the question in response to the stress of the situation. Shirey called her brother a bit of a wimp when it came to pain, especially after he’d gone through more than two years of rehabilitation for a staph infection caused by metal left in his foot during surgery.
“If he wanted to die, he would have just taken drugs,” she said.
Shirey said she’s uninterested in legal action. She did get upset, though, by a call from STA after Samples’ death asking if he was still interested in getting a pass to use the agency’s paratransit service as a result of his foot injury.
Bob Dunn, a local attorney who has represented individuals in civil lawsuits against government agencies, said he was baffled by the suicide determination when reading it in the news.
“Suicide by motorcycle? That’s a stretch,” Dunn said. “I was curious how this medical examiner could discern that, sitting in a morgue.”
The finding could have legal implications in the event of a lawsuit, Dunn said.
“If I were representing the family, I’d fight like hell to keep that out of court,” he said.
Shirey wishes the suicide determination would just go away. Her motivation lies not in legal strategizing, but ensuring that her brother’s marginalized life doesn’t end on a note far different from the sober, loving sibling she saw in the days before the crash.
“I just want that suicide wiped off his death certificate,” she said. “Not for us, but for his daughter.”
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