Family wants Navy to take another look at son’s death

First Posted: 5/16/2014

DELPHOS – Keith Bemis grew up the all-American small-town boy.

He played football and was popular. When his high school years at Delphos St. John’s were coming to a close, he decided to enlist in the Navy, wanting to serve his country.

Six weeks after his graduation in 2000, he was off to basic training. Bemis excelled in the Navy and enjoyed his assignments. He quickly moved up through the ranks.

His assignments took him around the world, including to Afghanistan. But there were many other countries, too, that the United States was not at war with where he was stationed.

The Navy had been such a good fit that Bemis, with 12 years in, was going to make a career of it. Everything seemed to be going great.

Then came the knock on his parents’ door on Aug. 7, 2012, at their home in Delphos. Three Naval officials were standing on the porch when Tony and Sue Bemis opened the door.

“At first I thought it was for my daughter, Frances, who was in Vietnam in the Navy. I said, ‘Are you here for Frannie?’ and they said, ‘No ma’am,’” said Sue Bemis, Keith’s mother.

One of them asked if she was Sue Bemis. She answered, “Yes.”

“They said, ‘We regret to inform you that John Keith Bemis was found dead,’” she said.

They said they were not sure what happened, she said.

The naval officials did the best they could to comfort the Bemises. One of them took Sue Bemis to get their priest.

A short time later, the commander of the ship their son was assigned to, the USS Independence, called the Bemis home in Delphos.

“He was very upset and asked if I was Keith’s mom. He said, ‘I want to offer condolences. We thought he took his own life,’” she said.

The Bemises were in shock.

“When he told me what happened I started screaming,” she said.

The days and weeks that followed for the Bemises left them numb, beyond sad, in shock and searching for answers.

A week after their son’s death, they were in San Diego where he was stationed for a memorial service. The funeral would follow a week later in Ohio.

While in San Diego, Tony Bemis wanted to see his son’s home where he died.

“I wanted to see the scene,” he said.

A naval official took him there. Sue Bemis stayed behind. She just couldn’t bring herself to see the location where her son died.

“When he showed me the 2-foot-by-2-foot blood stain, I noticed a big imprint in the blood stain, itself, like something had sat there,” he said. “I asked one of Keith’s friends what the imprint was and he said, ‘It’s the back of his motorcycle helmet.’”

The Bemises were told their son was found lying on the floor at the foot of his bed, with his motorcycle helmet on. They also were told he stuck a handgun in his mouth and shot himself.

For the Bemises, some things just didn’t add up. They had more questions than answers. How could he have shot himself in the mouth with a full-face helmet on? Why would their son, who never had any mental health problems or a diagnosis for depression, want to take his own life?

They began looking into it more.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department was the first on the scene and found Keith Bemis after he failed to report to work on the USS Independence. A sheriff’s investigator said Bemis was found in an upstairs bedroom with a gun nearby. The report said he shot himself in the head with a .40-caliber handgun.

Bemis was in the home alone. The doors were locked and there was no signs of a break-in. In fact, sheriff deputies had to force their way in, according to the report.

A medical examiner arrived, examine the body and the scene. She ruled Bemis’ death a suicide.

A deputy found a bullet in the room below the bedroom where Bemis’ body was found. The deputy also noticed a hole in the ceiling, according to the investigation report.

There was no suicide note left behind, and there were no alcohol or drugs found in his system.

Bemis’ body was turned over to the Navy for an autopsy, which is standard procedure.

The naval coroner also ruled Bemis’ death a suicide, one of 59 the Navy reported in 2012 for active duty sailors, which equates to 16.6 in 100,000 sailors. The U.S. rate was 12.1 per 100,000 people for 2010.

Both agencies closed the file on Keith Bemis as a suicide.

Back in Ohio, the Bemises still questioned why their son would take his own life. It didn’t add up. They hired two investigators in California who began looking at the case. One of them noticed their son’s hyoid bone in his neck was broken. They questioned how shooting himself in the way authorities said he did would do that.

The broken hyoid bone was documented in the autopsy report but it still didn’t change anything.

The Bemises began calling the medical examiner, Navy investigators and the San Diego Sheriff’s Department asking each to reopen their son’s case.

The Bemises believed their son was murdered.

They had their theories. A jealous girlfriend. An upset boyfriend of a girl their son dated.

“He was a ladies’ man,” Sue Bemis said.

The Bemises kept asking questions and talking to people.

Tony Bemis looked at the autopsy photos and saw what he believes are bruises on one of his son’s hands. He said it could be a defensive wound indicating a struggle.

The autopsy report said no defensive wounds.

They had the gun tested and an expert they used could not find blood or tissue on the gun, they said.

And there’s other things that don’t seem to add up. Cooked food was found in the microwave. Why would their son cook food to eat if he was going to end his life, his parents questioned?

“He was living his dream. He was serving his country,” Tony Bemis said.

The Bemises continue to push the Navy to take a second look at their son’s death. They haven’t gotten far. One naval official told them his death was a suicide and said it was time to get over it, they said.

“They had their minds made up,” Tony Bemis said.

Paul O’Donnell, a spokesman for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said the agency has not reopened the investigation. He added the San Diego Sheriff’s Department had primary jurisdiction. Attempts to reach a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department were unsuccessful.

Attempts to reach someone from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service were unsuccessful last week.

The Bemises have asked U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan to address his fellow congressmen about the case. They also want U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown to address senators in the U.S. Senate.

But the Bemises are not getting the help they want and the Navy has refused to reopen the case, as has the Sheriff’s Department and medical examiner.

“Another dead sailor with a gun in his hands,” Sue Bemis said is how she believes officials who labeled her son’s death a suicide look at it.

But that’s not good enough for the Bemises as long as they have unanswered questions. They vow to keep pursing the case until all questions are answered.

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