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'48 Hours’ highlights widow’s fight for truth over Marine colonel's death

By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 31, 2019

In the decade since her husband died of a fatal gunshot wound to the head in Iraq in 2008, Kim Stahlman has never believed Marine Corps Col. Michael Stahlman killed himself as military investigators had declared.

She hired forensic expert Michael Maloney — a former investigator with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the very agency that handled the original case — and in 2012, he concluded that the shooting was a homicide.

For years she had pleaded with the military to reopen the investigation and review the cause of death.

On Saturday’s broadcast of CBS’s “48 Hours,” Stahlman learned that NCIS had actually years ago reviewed the case — including Maloney’s findings — and again found no scientific evidence supporting homicide.

Inexplicably, NCIS never shared that information with the widow despite several Freedom of Information Act requests she had filed.

Stahlman, who was 45 when he died, was planning to retire after his deployment to Iraq. He had begun his Marine Corps career as an aviator — a back-seater in an RF-4 reconnaissance plane — but he gave up his wings when he became a military lawyer.

His mission in Iraq was assisting the country in rebuilding its legal system.

On July 31, 2008, Stahlman was discovered in his room lying on his back in bed with a gunshot wound that entered the left side of his head. He remained unconscious for about two months, and when doctors determined he was essentially brain dead, his wife decided to take him off life support. He died Oct. 5, 2008.

His widow was troubled by the fact that the wound was on the left side of his head, even though he was right-handed. “Mike did nothing with his left hand,” Stahlman said on the show. She said her husband had showed no signs of depression and had been looking forward to coming home.

“Someone shot him; I have no doubt,” she said.

Investigators gave special weight to an email Stahlman had sent his wife and two young daughters only hours before the shooting, which could be interpreted as a suicide note.

It read: “Kim, sorry about what you’re about the [sic] find out. I love you and always will. You and the girls are the best thing that ever happened to me. Love, Mike.”

For his investigation, Maloney examined a trove of documents and photos taken at the scene of the shooting. According to his calculations, the trajectory of the bullet through Stahlman’s head, through a wall and into a locker in another room could not have come from a single bullet. He contends that there must have been two bullets fired, one of which would likely have lodged itself in the mattress.

Maloney also found sections of the nearby nightstand that did not have blood misting on them, as though, perhaps, a shooter had been standing in the way of those spots.

And Maloney also concluded that the direction of blood splatter on a sheet hanging from an upper bunk was in the opposite direction it should have been had Stahlman shot himself while lying in bed.

“This was a homicide,” Maloney told “48 Hours.” “There was someone else in that room.”

The mattress and linens were all burned after the investigation, he said.

NCIS did not grant an interview request by “48 Hours,” but it did allow the show to talk to forensic expert Mike Reynolds, whom NCIS had commissioned in 2012 to review the case in the wake of Maloney’s findings.

“All the scene indicators Mr. Maloney has raised are either equivocal or wrong,” Reynolds said. “I see no evidence of homicide in the materials provided to me whatsoever.”

He said there was no “scientific evidence” that two shots were fired. “48 Hours” found that the original investigators had examined the mattress and found no indication a second bullet had hit it.

He said that first responders, who were desperately working to revive Stahlman, could have moved or smudged the sheet, contaminating the scene.

He contended that Maloney miscalculated his measurements on bullet trajectory.

In a statement provided to “48 Hours” last year, NCIS said it had “thoroughly investigated the case and we continue to stand by our investigative findings.”

Kim Stahlman wept on camera after watching footage of Reynold’s conclusions on his review for NCIS.

“Why didn’t they show me?” she asked.

But she and Maloney remain convinced that the cause of death should be changed to homicide.

Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction under President George W. Bush, has gotten the chief military medical examiner to review the case, the show said

olson.wyatt@stripes.com
Twitter: @WyattWOlson

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