Twenty Years Ago Today: 1994's Most Bizarre Suicide

Falling ManTwenty years ago today, Ronald Opus jumped to his death from the roof of an apartment building. But he didn't die by smacking his head into the pavement. Instead, his head was blasted by a shotgun as he fell past one of the windows below. And that was only the beginning of the weirdness.

The President of the American Association for Forensic Science, Don Harper Mills, recounted the increasingly odd circumstances of Ronald Opus' demise at an association meeting in August of 1994. Opus had most certainly intended to kill himself; his mother had cut off financial support and he was thoroughly suicidal. But if the shotgun blast hadn't intervened, he would have survived, for safety netting had just been put in place for some workmen toiling away on the outside of the building. So was this actually a murder?

The only problem with a charge of murder was that the shotgun blast wasn't even aimed at Ronald Opus; it was randomly fired out of a window. Except that it wasn't entirely random. It was fired by his father, who was busy threatening his mother in one of their regular arguments. And just to complicate things even further, the shotgun was not normally kept loaded - yet on this occasion, it had been loaded by Ronald Opus himself, in the hope that his father would accidentally kill his mother - his revenge for her cutting him off. His father missed his mother when he pulled the trigger, and Ronald just happened to be falling past the window at that exact moment.

So was this a murder or was this a suicide? The medical examiner ruled it as the latter, although you might have heard differently, because you may have been told this story before. It's been adapted for film and television several times, usually as a knotty problem in a police procedural. The most notable version, though, is this segment from the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 film, Magnolia (which will, if nothing else, help you get your head around the craziness of the events):

The names are changed, the identity of the shooter is switched, the date is set back more than thirty years and the final charge is altered to murder - but it's essentially the same story. Quite a tale!

Except that none of it is true.

Paul Thomas Anderson wrote the script for Magnolia, but he didn't create this story. It has often been attributed to a 1998 article for the Associated Press under the byline "Kurt Westervelt" - but Westervelt doesn't exist, and the AP never actually published that story. The first real sighting of the story was when it spread across the internet by email in late 1994, going viral before anyone had actually come up with the term 'going viral'.

It referred to two key dates: the August 1994 dinner at which pathologist Don Harper Mills spoke, and the 23rd of March 1994, when Opus supposedly died. How the story acquired those dates is unknown, for nothing of the sort happened on those days. And we know this because Don Harper Mills admitted to having invented the story for a completely different meeting of the American Association for Forensic Science back in 1987.

It was a complete fabrication from end to end - but with a useful purpose. The point of the tale was to present a complex case for a medical examiner to resolve, as a test of legal knowledge in extreme circumstances. Mills had no idea who released the story to the internet, but had to field hundreds of enquiries as a result, including from professors of law who wanted to cite it as a legal precedent.

And what verdict should you, the casual internet user, give upon this case? Why, the answer is simple: if you hear a strange story that seems too amazing to be true, check it first. Your first stop should be Snopes, as mine was when I encountered this story associated with this date (something that saved me a good deal of embarrassment!) And if that fails you, then there's always The Straight Dope, or any of a myriad of Skeptical resources, provided by people who spend their lives figuring out what's real and what isn't.