Family wants investigation into Marine veteran’s death reopened
ATHENS, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — Ryan Presutti was coming home for his birthday.
The decorated Marine veteran had stocked his Ford F-150 pickup with road-trip supplies — Gatorade; chips; treats for his bulldog, Bubba — in preparation for the 13-hour slog from north Alabama to his childhood home in suburban Philadelphia.
It was the summer of 2016.
“Happy and so excited” was how a close friend described Presutti’s mood. He talked about his old haunts in Chester County and how much he was looking forward to seeing his parents in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
On the day he was to leave, July 17, 2016 — his 37th birthday — his parents couldn’t reach him by phone.
“We tried to get in touch with him, endlessly, all day,” recalled his mother, Maryellen Presutti. ”I never heard back from him.”
The following night around 11 p.m. she got the call. Her only son had been found dead in his trailer, a gunshot wound to his head.
Four days later, the Limestone County coroner ruled Presutti’s death a suicide. An autopsy was never performed.
Presutti, a machine gunner who’d served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, was flown back to Pennsylvania and buried with military honors at Washington Crossing National Cemetery in Bucks County.
It didn’t make sense, his friends and family said to each other. This was not like Ryan.
A year later, the coroner would quietly change the manner of death. He crossed out suicide and checked the box next to “undetermined.”
From the beginning, questions
Suicide can be hard to accept for those left behind, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. But the death of Ryan Presutti raised troubling questions from the outset, and in recent months, new evidence has emerged challenging the conclusions reached by the coroner and the sheriff’s office in Limestone County.
Those close to Presutti — both in Alabama and Pennsylvania — immediately doubted that he’d shot himself. They still do today.
Not only did Presutti not appear to be suicidal, or even depressed, but he had been outspoken against suicide and had once helped save a fellow veteran in Virginiawho was considering taking his own life. Parents, Presutti used to say, should never have to bury their own child.
“There have been so many red flags throughout this whole thing,” said Presutti’s father, Vic, seated at his kitchen table last month in Kennett Square. “We know this wasn’t suicide.”
The gun used in Presutti’s death was a .45-caliber Kimber that had been owned by a police officer in another Alabama county. A private investigator hired by the Presutti family said the officer told him he couldn’t remember what he’d done with it, even though it was worth about $1,500.
The Limestone County Sheriff’s Office had initially balked at turning the firearm over to the family.
“Nobody knew where the damn gun was when I called down there,” said the investigator, William Trump, a former New Jersey State Police detective who has been working the case since 2019.
When the sheriff’s office finally turned the gun over last year, Trump said, a forensics consultant concluded that it appeared to have been wiped down and lubricated. No fingerprints.
“It was cleaned spotless,” Vic Presutti said.
That agency, Forensics Pieces, in Pensacola, Florida, also reported that the sheriff’s investigators and coroner likely mistook the entry wound in Presutti’s head for the exit wound. His body, according to its analysis, appeared to have been moved after the shooting, and the location of the gun was “not consistent with the location expected from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
“The entire case demands additional investigation,” Forensic Pieces president Jan Johnson, a former analyst for the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement, wrote last August in a report for the Presuttis.
Then there were the actions after Presutti’s death by Jeremy Cameron and his girlfriend, Shavonna Sue Barton. It was Cameron, a friend of Presutti’s before they had a falling-out, who said he found the body and called police. He lived in a house just yards away from Presutti’s trailer and owned the property.
Cameron, who was later arrested on drug distribution charges after Alabama authorities seized nearly a pound of methamphetamine and 12 guns from his house, has provided shifting accounts to Trump and others of where he was and what he was doing on the weekend that Presutti died.
“There’s something more here than meets the eye,” Trump said.
Cameron has been seen wearing Presutti’s clothes and in possession of his valuables, including a Marines watch his parents had given him, according to a friend of Presutti’s.
Reached this week, Cameron declined to discuss Presutti’s death.
“I ain’t got nothing to say about that,” he said, then hung up the phone.
Called by Sept. 11
After graduating from Albright College in 2002 with a degree in special education, Presutti had a job offer from the Reading school district. Instead, the former all-conference football player and wrestler at Unionville High School in Kennett Square, decided to enlist in the Marines.
“I said, ‘You can’t go now!’” his mother recalled. That spring, the United States was battling fighters from al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“Yeah, Mom. All the more reason” was his response.
At the Marines graduation ceremony at Parris Island, South Carolina, Presutti was company honor graduate for Platoon 3014. He fought overseas as a lance corporal in the First Battalion, Sixth Marines, Bravo Company.
About three years before his death, Presutti moved to Alabama to be with a woman he’d met while visiting friends there. The relationship didn’t last, but he stayed.
“He said he liked it down here. He liked the area,” said Jimmy Collins, who lives in Curry, Alabama, about 90 minutes south of where Presutti had lived, and served with him for the four years they were in the Marines.
The pace of life is a little slower in rural Alabama, the air a little softer. In Limestone County, which borders Tennessee, you can escape the strip malls and fast-food joints in 20 minutes and lose yourself on long country roads with green crops running to the tree line on either side. There’s room to breathe.
Presutti had his demons, some brought back from the wars. PTSD. Occasional drug use. He worked for a while as a manager at a strip club, where he’d crossed paths with some unsavory characters. He was also kindhearted, generous and loyal.
“If there was anything he could do to make someone smile, he would pull out all the stops,” said Recie Renee Luttrull, a close friend of Presutti’s who lives in Alabama. “If he knew he could help you, you might as well give it up, because he was going to help you.”
After Ryan’s death, his mother received a call from a woman who was crying. She said Ryan made a bed frame for her daughter, who is blind, and described him as the kindest man she’d ever met. He’d taken up carpentry as a hobby after moving to Alabama and had built benches for an area veterans group and others.
“None of it makes sense,” said Collins, who kept in touch with Presutti after they left the military. “It wasn’t like he sat around depressed. He was ready to roll when things weren’t dealt his way. He moved on. He was like a phoenix. He was reborn. That was his personality. It was like, ‘OK, there’s a fork in the road. I’m taking a left. Let’s go.’”
Days before Presutti died, Luttrull had helped him clean and organize his trailer ahead of a planned move. She said he wanted to get away from Cameron and the drug activity on the property, hoping to find more time to relax and focus on building furniture.
“We had already packed and secured everything so it wouldn’t fall off during the move and get broken,” she said. “Everyone knows he wouldn’t kill himself.”
‘I go with what they tell me’
In July 2017, a year after Ryan died, Maryellen Presutti reached out to Mike West, the longtime coroner in Limestone County who had ruled the death a suicide. She wanted to know how he reached that conclusion. He said he would pull the report.
“Whatever he was reading, he was saying, ‘This can’t be right. This can’t be right.’ Those were his words over and over again,” Maryellen Presutti said. “As soon as I said Ryan was right-handed is when he said he was going to change the death certificate.”
In a phone interview last month, West denied saying that. He said he initially ruled, without an autopsy, that the death was a suicide because that’s what the sheriff’s office believed had happened.
“I go with what they tell me,” West said. “They tell me it’s consistent with suicide, so that’s what I put.”
Asked why he later changed the manner of death to undetermined, West said he “did that for the family.”
“I can put whatever I want to on the death certificate, but the investigation is unchanged,” West said, adding that he still believes Presutti shot himself.
After the new death certificate was signed, Luttrull relayed the news to Cameron’s girlfriend, Barton. Her reaction was concerning.
“When I told her that,” Luttrull said last month, “her eyes about fell out of her head.”
At the time, a previous private investigator hired by the Presutti family had been calling Barton, seeking information about the Marine’s death.
“A few minutes later, she went outside and got on the phone,” Luttrull said of Barton. “She was standing by the window and she said, ‘Jeremy, we got a problem. That investigator keeps calling me and he wants to talk to me and I don’t know what to say. What’s my story? What am I supposed to say?’ She was stuttering all over the place. She said, ‘We got to get our stories straight.’”
Luttrull has provided this account in a signed written statement to Trump, the family’s current private investigator. Trump tracked Barton down in December 2019 and tried to get her to talk about Ryan’s death. He said she seemed as if she had something she wanted to say.
“She put her head down, then raised it up,” Trump said of Barton, “and she said, ‘Can I think about it?’”
He didn’t hear from her again.
‘We’re not Columbo’
Seated behind his desk last month, Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely slipped some Copenhagen tobacco into his bottom lip as he and his chief investigator, Capt. Lance Royals, reviewed the Presutti case at The Inquirer’s request.
The sheriff’s German shepherd, Shadow, growled at a reporter before hopping on the couch. She’s protective, he explained, but won’t bite — at least, not without good cause.
Blakely, 70, is Alabama’s longest-serving sheriff. Like West, the coroner and a close friend of his, Blakely was first elected in 1982. He runs a yearly rodeo that is billed as the “Greatest Show on Dirt East of the Mississippi.”
In 2019, Blakely was indicted by a grand jury on a slew of theft and ethics charges, and his trial begins this month. He brushes the allegations aside as the work of a disgruntled employee and said he looks forward to clearing his name and possibly running for reelection next year.
As for Presutti, Blakely maintains that the evidence still points to a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“We’re not magicians and we’re not Columbo, but we take our jobs seriously and call it as we see it,” Blakely said.
Royals said the case file shows that a small amount of methamphetamine was found in Presutti’s trailer. The toxicology report showed he had also consumed the drug. He said the scene did not appear to have been tampered with.
It remains unclear why an autopsy was never ordered.
“I thought there was an autopsy done, wasn’t there?” Blakely asked Royals.
“There’s just the toxicology,” Royals responded as he leafed through the file.
Blakely and Royals could not explain why the gun that fired the fatal shot would have been wiped of fingerprints or cleaned, as the Presutti family claims.
“As far as I know, it wasn’t sent off for any reason, so I don’t know why it might have turned out like that,” Royals said. He said it was kept in a locked evidence room to which only he has a key.
“No way in hell it would have been cleaned here,” Blakely added.
Luttrull, Presutti’s friend, said she went to the sheriff’s office shortly after his death in 2016 and tried to convince them that it was highly unlikely he’d shot himself and that they needed to do an autopsy. She said she was turned away by a staffer there who told Luttrull she was being irate.
“I couldn’t figure out why he was just shipped back home for a burial,” she said. “I was so angry and frustrated when I left there. It seemed like nobody cared.”
Royals said the investigative file does not mention any contact with Luttrull. He said he was unaware of any subsequent statements she had made about the case.
Asked about Cameron, who is still awaiting trial on the drug distribution charges, Blakely said they have no reason to believe he was involved in Presutti’s death, beyond his discovery of the body.
A flag still flies
Even five years later, Presutti’s family in Chester County and his friends around the country still hold out hope that the death investigation will be reopened.
“This has weighed heavily on me. This is probably the hardest veteran loss I’ve ever had,” said Dustin Russell, a former mortarman in the Marines now living in Texarkana, Texas, who served with Presutti. “I loved the man. He was a good dude. He had his demons. But no way. He didn’t do it.”
In Kennett Square, Ryan Presutti’s bedroom remains largely untouched, a dartboard on the wall, along with a Pittsburgh Steelers pennant and his football plaques from Unionville High.
His service medals hang in a shadow box in the dining room. On the front lawn, a red Marines flag flies year-round.
Each month, Vic and Maryellen Presutti pay $69 rent for a storage facility in Alabama where their son’s trailer is parked. One day, they say, it might yield a clue.
“I’m not here to point fingers at the police,” his mother said. “I just want something done. I just want somebody to do their job.”
©2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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