Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Day 64° Clear
News >  Spokane

Surgeon challenges law enforcement over controversial autopsies

Dr. Suzan Entwistle's surgical career ended in 2013 from a hand injury she sustained when she was thrown from a horse. She now uses her medical training to help several families who have questions about recent autopsies performed by the Spokane County Medical Examiners Office. Her late husband, Dr. John Marshall, was found dead in the Spokane River on Jan. 26, 2016. His death remains a mystery. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Dr. Suzan Entwistle's surgical career ended in 2013 from a hand injury she sustained when she was thrown from a horse. She now uses her medical training to help several families who have questions about recent autopsies performed by the Spokane County Medical Examiners Office. Her late husband, Dr. John Marshall, was found dead in the Spokane River on Jan. 26, 2016. His death remains a mystery. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Dr. Suzan Entwistle is a trained surgeon whose injured hand ended her career. She now works to give voice to the dead.

Entwistle, 50, who earlier this year changed her name from Marshall, is also a grieving widow whose husband’s mysterious death in 2016 set her on a collision course with Spokane law enforcement.

After she was thrust into the position of asking uncomfortable questions about her own husband’s death, other families who have suffered the loss of loved ones under questionable circumstances have gravitated to her willpower and ability to read autopsy reports based on her medical training.

“I am a (greater-than) 140 IQ, female surgeon, Ivy-leaguer, with military and mass-casualty trauma experience who is telling well-entrenched, arrogant, good old boy, piss-poor trained schlocks that I’m not swallowing their lies,” she wrote in an email. “I am not saying anything different than the less-educated, lower-income, disenfranchised, neglected and forgotten victims of identical violent crimes.

“But I am portrayed as ‘difficult,’ ‘crazy’ even. Why? Because I’m dangerous. I say, ‘No,’ and I speak from a position of authority.”

‘Body dump’

Dr. John Marshall went missing on Jan. 25, 2016. His body, floating face up, was found the next morning in the very place where searchers began looking for the acting chief surgeon at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center.

Questions arose that had no easy answers: Why was Marshall’s body found floating face up when most male drowning victims float facedown? Why was there bruising, which appeared to be ligature marks on his neck, not noted or explained in the autopsy?

The questions kept coming, and the answers were elusive.

Testing on Marshall’s iPod, an older MP3 player, did not indicate that it had been submerged under water despite being found on Marshall’s floating body. He suffered a broken sternum and ribs and had a corresponding blood clot that Entwistle says would have taken more time to form than the trauma caused from a fall and drowning in the river.

For Entwistle, those unanswered questions led to her conclusion that someone killed her husband during his early morning jog near the Monroe Street Bridge. However, Spokane County Medical Examiner Dr. John Howard ruled that Marshall’s death was an “accidental drowning.”

“This isn’t the picture of a man who drowned,” Entwistle said. “This is a body dump.”

Detective Brian Cestnik, the Spokane police investigator on the case, spent weeks reviewing the death. He walked past every possible location where Marshall’s body could have entered the river. No witnesses were ever found who could provide the first clue as to how Marshall died or how his body ended up where it did.

There was one camera, affixed to the Monroe Street Bridge, that could have captured what happened, but fog that morning obscured the view.

“At this time, I cannot say for certain what caused the death of John Marshall,” Cestnik wrote. “Though I have not found any evidence that anyone else was involved with the death of Marshall, I cannot definitively eliminate the possibility that he was a victim of foul play.”

Clearing her own name

Cestnik first interviewed Entwistle just hours after Marshall failed to show up for scheduled surgeries on Jan. 25, 2016, and before his body had been found.

She spoke freely of the couple’s financial situation. Cestnik noted they owned three homes, and she explained that her husband was looking forward to a family trip to Hawaii to celebrate his upcoming 50th birthday.

As part of his investigation, Cestnik interviewed one of John Marshall’s colleagues who said that Child Protective Services had become involved with the couple regarding their two adopted children.

However, the records do not reflect any follow-up with the state agency to determine if it had an open investigation. Cestnik did not return a message Thursday seeking comment.

Entwistle said the lack of follow-up left her in a position to clear her own name. She hired an attorney to help seek the CPS file. The agency “sent me a letter back saying that no records were found under my name,” she said.

It was just one of many decisions she perceives as misguided with regard to her husband’s and other death investigations.

“I am a victim of violent crime, widow of a high-profile surgeon, mother to two adopted fatherless-again young children looking for answers,” she wrote.

Entwistle previously worked from 2005-09 as a surgeon in the U.S. Army based in Seoul, South Korea. Then, in 2012, she was given 100 percent disability for post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, her career took the ultimate turn in 2013 when she and her daughter were thrown from a horse. Entwistle said she suffered broken ribs, but her fractured hand went undiagnosed. Despite three surgeries, her injured hand didn’t heal correctly. The injury ended her career as a surgeon, even though she has retained her medical license.

“I could have gone to work, but that’s not where my brain was,” she said. “I don’t think people understand the level of devastation that the sudden, unexpected death of the head of the household does.”

“That’s why I dropped the name Suzan Marshall. As far as I’m concerned, she was beaten to death and dumped in the Spokane River,” she continued. “I have worked hard to form a new and stronger identity. I’ve tried to bring out my leadership-self versus my victim-self.”

‘Surgeon’s arrogance’

Not long after her husband was found dead, Marshall hired private investigator Ted Pulver. Asked if he’s ever had a client like her, Pulver gave an emphatic, “No.”

“I’ll probably offend her, but she has the so-called surgeon’s arrogance,” Pulver said. “She’s used to having the last word and being the one in the room who is right all the time.”

Police detectives, likewise, don’t like to have their cases questioned by civilian skeptics, he said.

“A good investigator does not have to love their clients or their sources, but you listen,” Pulver said. “For every email I get where I say, ‘What the hell?’ she will send me an email with information that I had no ability to get. If you ignore the information just because it’s coming from Suzan Marshall, you do it at your own peril.”

Pulver also is working for the family of Brenda Thurman, who was shot to death by her husband, Dwayne Thurman, eight days before John Marshall was discovered dead in the river.

Dwayne Thurman, a 44-year-old former Lincoln County reserve deputy, told investigators he accidentally shot his wife while cleaning her gun. He remains free as he awaits trial for first-degree manslaughter.

Marshall and both Thurmans worked in three separate offices of the Veterans Administration. Despite one VA police officer telling Cestnik in July that he remembered seeing both Brenda Thurman and John Marshall together once at the VA hospital, investigators have not disclosed any links that could connect the deaths.

However, Pulver and Entwistle both point out that investigators have not bothered to interview at least one co-worker known to both Dwayne Thurman and John Marshall or obtain cellphone records that would show cell-tower pings of Dwayne Thurman’s location at the time John Marshall disappeared.

“Anything that breaks away from the police’s theory on both these cases, they choose to ignore,” Pulver said. “I think law enforcement is getting a black eye on these cases and it’s going to get worse. A lot of information is going to come out on how law enforcement ignored information.”

Asked about their interactions with Entwistle, Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich declined to comment.

“If Suzan wants to come and talk to me, I’m not going to violate that trust,” Knezovich said. “Everybody has the right to question how investigations are done. As far as I’ve seen, the investigations we have been involved in, they seem to be done very correctly.”

Dueling state investigations

Earlier this year, Anna Schmidt, of Portland, read stories that mentioned Entwistle, who not only questioned the investigations but invited syndicated TV program “Crime Watch Daily” to examine John Marshall’s death. “Crime Watch Daily” aired a show in December about Marshall’s death. Later, “Dateline NBC” came to Spokane and spoke to Entwistle for a possible episode focusing on the Brenda Thurman and Marshall deaths.

Schmidt said she took note because her younger sister, Sarah Schmidt, 33, was found dead in the Spokane River on May 20, 2016.

Sarah Schmidt was found with no pants and had what appeared to be five-finger bruising in her armpits and ligature-type bruising on her ankles. Spokane County Medical Examiner Dr. Sally Aiken ruled Schmidt’s death a suicide.

When the grieving sister called Aiken to have her explain some of the medical terms, Aiken got defensive and laughed at her, Schmidt said. She said Aiken later apologized but Schmidt then reached out to Entwistle and forwarded the surgeon her sister’s autopsy.

Entwistle found what appeared to be extensive bruising on Sarah Schmidt’s back and believes that Schmidt drowned in her own blood before she was thrown in to the river.

“She is an amazing woman,” Schmidt said of Entwistle. “She was a resource I could use, medically and emotionally, because she had been through it herself.”

Entwistle also heard from other families and learned of several suspicious deaths that had been ruled as either accidental or suicide. She then filed a complaint with the Department of Health, asking the state to review the findings of several autopsies.

Both she and Schmidt said they have been informed that the state investigation has progressed to the point that investigators have sent the cases over to its own pathologist for review. If discrepancies are found, Aiken and Howard will be allowed to respond, they said. The Department of Health did not respond to a request seeking comment.

“Science doesn’t lie, but people do,” Schmidt said. “So a second opinion will bring some closure either way.”

As for Entwistle’s advocacy for the group, Schmidt said she is glad to have the former surgeon on her side.

“She’s a go-getter from the start. She asks tough questions,” Schmidt said. “She doesn’t allow people to bully her. These families may not have a strong voice. But that’s what Suzan has done. She wants the truth out there. That is a unique quality in this day and age.”

Just weeks after Entwistle filed the complaint against Howard and Aiken, Aiken responded by filing her own complaint to the state against Entwistle, alleging that the out-of-work surgeon was “practicing beyond scope” of her medical license.

Entwistle provided a copy of her responses to the allegation made by Aiken, including claims that Entwistle had told others that she assisted on some of the county autopsies, which she denied, and that Entwistle provided information from the autopsies to the press and victims’ families.

“Absolutely! I have reviewed these cases from the perspective of and the experience as a trauma surgeon,” Entwistle wrote to the state investigator. “Furthermore, I, along with many victims, have fully exercised our rights as family members and as tax-paying citizens to criticize the conclusions, unprofessionalism, conduct, integrity, and even humanity of both Drs. Aiken and Howard.”

Entwistle wrote the investigator that she believed Aiken’s complaint came as retaliation to her advocacy for the families.

“I am the whistleblower, not her,” she wrote. “Dr. Aiken should be ashamed of herself. What’s worse is, she’s not.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.