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Mysterious death leaves St. Louis police at odds with victim's family
Crime

Mysterious death leaves St. Louis police at odds with victim's family

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ST. LOUIS • Geoffrey Wilson came to St. Louis to celebrate a college classmate’s wedding. The Canadian chiropractor left in a casket, with the imprint of a fire hydrant on his back.

What happened in between was murder, insist relatives who refuse to accept any other explanation for the Memorial Day weekend death of the dashing 29-year-old.

But St. Louis police say they exhausted every reasonable possibility before concluding that Wilson, intoxicated, must have been run down accidentally by his rented SUV before climbing back into the driver’s seat and passing out with mortal injuries.

The one point on which both sides can agree is the need for a witness to answer the questions that autopsy results, police interviews, an accident reconstruction analysis and review of surveillance pictures have not.

“We’re crying for help because nothing is happening,” said Wilson’s mother, Virginia “Gigie” Wilson, in an emotional telephone interview from her home in Calgary, Canada. “It’s all speculation about my son’s death. They don’t know what really happened. They don’t know all of the circumstances. This is eating us up, not knowing what happened.”

Out of frustration with the St. Louis police, Wilson’s relatives have asked their own police in Canada to review the investigation. They also have petitioned U.S. and Canadian foreign affairs officials to look into the case.

Police here believe Wilson was crushed by the Ford Escape found against a fire hydrant at North 23rd and Chestnut streets shortly after he left Harry’s Restaurant and Bar nearby. But they don’t know what he was doing behind the vehicle, how he got into the driver’s seat after he was struck and whether anyone else was present.

“Based on the nature of his injuries, we’re confident this was not a homicide,” said Capt. Mike Sack. “But we understand how difficult this has been for the family to accept … That’s why a witness would be helpful to answer those questions that we still have.”

A HEALING CAREER

Wilson had been badly hurt in an accident before, struck by a van during a family vacation when he was 6. He suffered internal bleeding and a broken pelvis, and spent two months in a hospital. It took six months for him to walk again.

As his pain persisted through the years, his mother took him to a chiropractor. Wilson recovered well enough to participate in hockey, football and wrestling. The experience set him on a career path into chiropractic medicine.

He graduated in April 2011 from Logan University’s College of Chiropractic in St. Louis, the alma mater of the doctor who had helped him heal. Later that year, Wilson opened the Coach Hill Family Chiropractic and Sports Therapy Clinic, in Calgary. His mother, who kept the books, said they saw about 250 patients a month.

Wilson returned to St. Louis in May for the wedding of a Logan alum. He reconnected with several friends, including Jon Pinkston, a chiropractor from Lake Saint Louis.

Pictures posted on social media and taken the night Wilson died show the two men smiling near the Gateway Arch and posing with several other people they met in visits to several bars, including the Morgan Street Brewery and Harry’s.

Pinkston declined to be interviewed for this story, saying it would reopen wounds that “have only just begun to heal.”

A MINOR CRASH

The police department released its report on Wilson’s death to the Post-Dispatch last month. It says the night of May 24-25 unfolded this way:

Pinkston and Wilson arrived at Harry’s together, but they became separated when Wilson hit the dance floor. At almost 3 a.m., Pinkston went to pay his tab and Wilson left to get the SUV. Pinkston told police he walked the street looking for Wilson before calling a cab to go back to Wilson’s hotel room in Chesterfield.

At 3:02 a.m., a passer-by called 911 to report an SUV had backed into a fire hydrant and a man was in the driver’s seat, passed out. Harry’s green sign glows within sight of the scene, and the thumping of the music echoes there. A Pear Tree Inn, a bank and a syrup factory border the intersection. The FBI’s St. Louis office, along Market Street, is within sight.

Police found Wilson struggling to breathe and smelling of alcohol in the driver’s seat. There were no outward signs of trauma. His clothes appeared “fairly neat and clean,” but he had urinated on the SUV seat. Paramedics took him to St. Louis University Hospital, where X-rays revealed massive internal injuries.

During emergency surgery, doctors discovered that Wilson’s kidneys, spleen and liver had been lacerated, and several ribs were cracked. The bleeding wouldn’t stop. He died at 6:46 a.m.

Medical staff told officers at the hospital that Wilson’s injuries were not consistent with the minor accident police described. The case was turned over to the homicide division as a “suspicious death.”

About two hours later, Detective Jerome Jackson went to the scene. He saw two dents on the rear of the SUV, and found the “E” from the Ford Escape logo lying near the hydrant. He also saw unidentifiable handprints smeared diagonally from the center of the back toward the right side of the rear bumper.

The dent on the right matched the shape of the hydrant; paint analysis confirmed the impact. The dent to the left was more of an oval.

At about the time Jackson took over the case, Pinkston was waking up in Wilson’s hotel room, concerned that his friend never arrived, he told police later. He said he went to work that day and learned afterward from calls and texts with mutual friends that Wilson had died after a car accident.

In an autopsy May 28, the Medical Examiner’s Office determined that “the injuries were consistent with a single crushing type of event.” The only external injury was a crescent-shaped, dotted-like bruise on Wilson’s back. The medical examiner’s investigators found that the pattern of the bruise matched photographs and measurements of the hydrant.

Toxicology results also showed Wilson’s blood-alcohol content was 0.182, more than twice the legal limit for driving.

Police determined that nothing had been taken from him, and they discounted the possibility of an attack.

DEEPER INVESTIGATION

Jackson collected surveillance pictures from every camera he could find in the area, but none showed the incident. Video from Harry’s shows Wilson walking north from the bar at 2:36 a.m. and disappearing into the night. Pinkston leaves at 2:43 a.m. and remains in sight of the cameras until he gets into a cab at 2:56 a.m.

Detectives interviewed the 911 caller, Pinkston’s taxi driver and a woman Pinkston and Wilson met that night. She said nothing had seemed amiss. The cabdriver said he took Pinkston to the hotel in Chesterfield. The caller saw no one else when he stopped to check on Wilson.

Police hired Tom Morris, who is certified by the Accreditation Commission for Traffic Accident Reconstruction and owns St. Louis Traffic Accident Reconstruction. “He’s the guy we call to teach our accident reconstruction team,” Jackson explained.

Morris rented the very same SUV Wilson had used and performed three trials to see whether it could roll back into the fire hydrant and bounce off far enough to free someone trapped in between.

He estimated that the impact with the hydrant was between 3 and 5 mph. And he said there was a 95 percent probability that the vehicle, if left in neutral at a distance from 29 to 63 feet, could mount the curb, crush Wilson with nearly 3,000 pounds of force and bounce back about 1.8 feet.

Using an average man’s walking speed, Morris also determined it was possible for Wilson to exit the vehicle and beat it to the hydrant.

“Based upon these results, I cannot exclude the possibility that the victim was injured by an unoccupied rolling vehicle,” Morris wrote.

There is little else left to investigate, but Jackson still has questions. Wilson’s shirt was lost after paramedics cut it off. The investigator wonders whether it showed evidence of contact with the hydrant.

The vehicle’s internal crash data recorder either didn’t activate or was reset after many subsequent start-ups.

DNA tests are pending from a water bottle in the SUV and swabs of the Ford’s door handles. But Jackson doubts the results will be probative, especially given the number of people in and out of a rental car.

‘IT WILL NEVER BE ENOUGH’

Wilson’s family suspects that someone with a grudge killed him. They believe he was set up to be beaten with something like a baseball bat, and think police should review phone records of Wilson’s friends and even ex-lovers.

Countered Jackson: “This investigation wasn’t done in a couple of hours or over a weekend; we put in the time.” He added, “We don’t have enough answers to give (the Wilsons), and until we tell them we have arrested someone for this, it will never be enough.”

Virginia Wilson said she thinks St. Louis police botched the investigation to avoid putting another murder on their books. St. Louis ended 2013 with 120 homicides in a population of roughly 300,000 residents. Calgary has a population of about 1.2 million and had 22 homicides last year.

She said her family doctor reviewed the autopsy report and told her he thinks someone beat Wilson to death.

But the assistant medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, Dr. Jane Turner, strongly disagrees.

She said a smooth surface consistent with the SUV’s bumper caused an injury to Wilson’s abdominal area, and the bruise on his back matched the hydrant. Because both injuries were on the same plane of his body, Turner said, they must have occurred at the same moment in a crushing manner — not through blows.

Turner said Wilson had some scrapes on his knees, and bruises on his left arm, that could have happened when he fell — or even before the incident.

“We did the right thing by considering the possibility of homicide, and initially that was the point we worked from, but it became clearer and clearer that this was an accident,” she said. “All of our findings are consistent with the damage to the car and the patterned injury on his back … Had it not been for the patterned bruising on his back, we’d still be stumped.”

St. Louis police are voluntarily sending Turner's and Jackson's findings to police in Calgary.

“Understandably, she’s very upset,” Calgary Inspector Scott Boyd said in a telephone interview. “Here you have a promising doctor whose death is not supposed to happen that way. It’s very difficult for a family to come to terms with that when there are so many outstanding questions.”

While Virginia Wilson cannot be certain of what did happen, she insists she knows what didn’t.

“What they are saying about this hydrant, it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “My son was not that stupid. Whoever did this to him, he took our son away and now our life is shattered and will never be the same. My tears never stop. Every day, I cannot believe that my son is gone.”

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Christine Byers is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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