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Suicide

When 'Suicide' Is Really Murder

Part 1: Meg Purk, Jeanette Jumping Eagle, and the perils of staged crime scenes.

Talk to anyone who's lost someone to suicide and you know the agony they’ve gone through: the guilt, the second-guessing, the grief. On top of that, while the topic of suicide is not as taboo as it used to be, there’s still a stigma associated with it. Many survivors of suicide loss feel tainted by it and rejected because of it. Some people in their lives have disappeared because they don’t know what to say or how to help. Relatives may blame each other, certain that something that was said or done contributed to their loved one’s death, or that some vital warning sign should have been seen but was not. Some religions view suicide as a sin, leaving family members unable or unwilling to get support from their church community.

Now imagine that your loved one’s death has been ruled a suicide but you just don’t believe it. You are absolutely convinced that your husband, daughter, sister, or parent was murdered in cold blood. You even have a pretty good idea who did it. But when you tell law enforcement about your suspicions, they’re either chalked up to denial (“We know it’s hard to accept; no one wants to believe someone they loved would choose to end their lives) or simply ignored (“There’s no evidence of foul play and the medical examiner ruled it a suicide”). In March 1985, this was the situation Meg Purk’s family was in. In January 2020, Jeanette Jumping Eagle’s family was in the same boat. There have been others.

How Murder Clues Get Overlooked

Staging a murder to look like a suicide is rare. It’s a whole lot rarer than actual suicide, which has been growing at an alarming rate over the past twenty years. So, when someone calls 911 and reports a suicide (who then reports it as such to law enforcement), it’s easy to take that at face value. No matter how much an officer is trained to treat any sudden and unexpected death as a homicide until proven otherwise, we are all influenced by what we are first told about an event.

When officers get to the scene, they not only find what initially looks like a genuine suicide, they have to deal with the seemingly shocked and devastated person who just discovered their loved one hanging on a rope or dead from a shotgun blast. It can be difficult—and seem unnecessarily harsh—to treat the situation as a crime scene and the loved one as a suspect. On top of this, if the person who finds the body is the actual killer (as often, although not always is the case), they have a great opportunity to plant additional seeds of a suicide in the officers’ minds.

Take Scott Purk, Meg Purk’s husband and murderer. He told responding officers that Meg, who was almost nine months pregnant, had not been feeling well earlier that day and the two of them had gotten into an argument. He had gone into the bathroom to take a bath and saw his wife walk past him when he was in the bathtub. When he got out, he found her hanging from a wooden banister. He stated that he had cut her down, called 911, and immediately started CPR. Meg still had the rope around her neck when the police arrived. Meg, still breathing, was rushed to the hospital but she and her baby died shortly after they arrived.

“She Was Depressed”

Scott Purk also told the officers that Meg had a history of depression and had attempted suicide at least twice before. He pulled out a poem Meg had written, a sad six-line tale ending with “and then she killed herself.” That sure seemed like a suicide note. Scott also mentioned that he and Meg had been married since 1981 and that he didn’t get along with his in-laws. Hell, he said, they might even blame him for her death.

The whole thing just seemed like a horrible tragedy by an emotionally overwrought pregnant woman who was not thinking clearly. The coroner agreed, concluding that Meg had died from asphyxiation and the baby died before he could be surgically removed from the mom. “Suicide” was the mode of death listed on the death certificate. The autopsy report also mentioned Meg’s “emotional problems” and noted that she had “attempted suicide in [the] past.”

The Other Side of the Story

Not only was Meg’s family devastated by her loss, they were certain that she would never commit suicide, not at this particular time in her life. Yes, they said, when Meg was in her teens, she had been depressed and talked about ending her life. One time, at a friend’s house, she had locked herself in the bathroom and threatened to slit her wrists but didn’t follow through. A few years later, when she and her best friend, Dawn, had shared an apartment shortly after high school, Dawn had once come home to mini-blinds on the floor and a note from Meg, who said she had tried to hang herself with the blinds cord because she felt everyone would be better off without her. That storm had also passed.

That had been years ago. Meg was happy now, her family said. All she had ever wanted was to be a mom. She had been over the moon when she found out she was pregnant. In fact, the family found a letter written to her grandmother the day before she died, talking about how much she was looking forward to being a mom and promising her that she would visit as soon as possible so she could meet her first greatgrandchild. And the “suicide note” Scott had produced for officers responding to the scene? The family knew all about it; Meg had been quite a poet back in the day and that poem had been written long ago.

The case was closed and life went on. It would be twenty-four years—and many crimes later—that Meg’s family would learn the truth of what happened to Meg. And it wasn’t suicide.

The Bottom Line

I’ve had a number of calls from families who refused to believe their loved ones had committed suicide. Sometimes it’s for understandable—but inaccurate—reasons. Not leaving a note, for example, does not mean a suicide didn’t happen; most people don’t. Having a history of depression doesn’t mean someone has. But, as you’ll see in part two, there are clues, often left by the loved ones themselves, that can help us detect a staged suicide from a murder and make sure that justice is done

References

If you're interested in more forensic psychology information, visit my website at drjonijohnston.com or my YouTube channel.

Ferguson, Claire and Petherick. Getting Away with Murder: An Examination of Detected Homicides Staged as Suicides. Homicide Studies. Vol. 20, Issue 1, 2016.

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