Kathy Sweeney Investigates: The Final Battle

Published: May. 23, 2011 at 6:15 PM CDT|Updated: May. 23, 2011 at 10:54 PM CDT
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POPLAR BLUFF, MO (KFVS) - In Butler County, Coroner Jim Akers found himself on a heart-breaking mission earlier this year after facing a rash of deaths involving veterans.

It's Akers' job to figure out how the men died, but he also wanted to know how and why they faced this final battle alone.

On March 22, Akers found the decomposing remains of a 57-year-old man in a small local apartment.

The man's name was Luther Hadrick. Among his meager belongings, Akers found his military identification card.

"I could not believe a retired staff sergeant was living in those conditions, but we see that quite a bit," Akers said.

In fact, Hadrick is the fourth veteran to die in Poplar Bluff in just a one month period.

Akers sorts through a stack of papers before pulling out a recent report.

"Newman passed on the 13th. Newman was the first one I had," he said.

Akers is speaking of 63-year-old Walter Newman, found dead inside the room he rented at the Guest House Motel back on February 13.

Just three days later, 67-year-old Robert Rogers is found dead in his room at the same motel.

"Mr. Newman, when we went into his room, both of them… pretty much all we found in Newman and Rogers' room was alcohol containers and food that's non perishable," Akers recalled.

The coroner goes back to his stack of reports before pulling out another.

"Yeah, here's Mitchell,"he said.

Gary Franklin Mitchell, 62, died March 10.  His body was found in his room at the Plaza Motel.

"He (Mitchell) had a microwave and a hot plate," Akers said. "And he lived in such filth the microwave was caked to where you couldn't read the numbers anymore."

The four veterans all died alone. And as this former undercover officer and detective soon discovered, they all chose to live alone.

"Whether it's their decision or actions they've done, for whatever the reason they're estranged from their families and we have a lot of difficulty in finding family and it's not right for these people," he said.

Akers is bound by law to find someone to claim a dead body within 10 days, or move forward with a pauper's funeral, which is paid for by the county.

"And that's not appropriate for our vets at all," he said.

So, Jim Akers begins a death investigation, knowing time is not on his side. I met with him back on March 24 as he searched for clues to Luther Hadrick's death by learning more about his life.

Akers took me into a side room where most of Luther Hadrick's belongings remain in a single black duffle bag.

"These are some of the items we found in the apartment," Akers said, pulling out a stack of papers and lottery tickets from Hadrick's bag.

"What do these tickets tell you?" I asked.

"We were looking at the date," he said.  "It told me, for one thing, that he was a very avid player. And we found them for the 19th, the 15th, 22nd, which these were the drawing dates."

"And then they just stopped, right?"

"They stopped, right."

Akers finds another clue in a small, yellow shopping bag.

"Here's the last receipt. This is for 10:35 on the 24th."

The evidence leads to a sad conclusion. Luther Hadrick had been dead nearly a month before anyone realized he was gone.

"I'm estimating it at 1 a.m. on the 25th. We know that he didn't wake up the next morning," Akers said.

Akers found Hadrick dead on a queen-sized mattress, his lottery notebook and two photo albums filled with military pictures lying next to him.

"Whether he chose to live this way or he was forced to live this way, that I may never know. But, I know I have some control over how he's buried and how he's remembered.  And I want to do everything I can to make sure that's as honorable as he deserves," Akers said.

Akers begins his military research by heading next door to the Veterans Services office in Poplar Bluff, headed up by Ray AuBuchon.

"He's going through his sources to try and find out if there are any VA benefits or anything we can get," Akers said of AuBuchon's efforts.

To learn more about the men's military careers, I requested available information from the National Personnel Records Center.

Walter Newman spent six years in the Army, five in the Navy.  Newman, a decorated shooter, received three bronze service stars for his time in Vietnam.

Gary Mitchell's military records show he served two years in the Navy, receiving medals from both the U.S. and Vietnam governments for his service in that country.

Robert Rogers ended life alone, his body unclaimed. But for 21 years, Rogers surrounded himself with his fellow soldiers. A helicopter technician, Rogers flew into combat in Vietnam seven times. After an honorable discharge, he re-enlisted as an instructor.

Luther Hadrick's photo albums tell the story of his long and distinguished military career. Both a Marine and a soldier, Hadrick trained as a guard and served as a squad leader aboard the USS Forrestal, the world's largest aircraft carrier.

While Hadrick did not receive any services from the VA Hospital in Poplar Bluff, the other three had. I met with staff members Jim Todd and Michael Dobbs in hopes of learning more about the men, and the services available to all veterans.

"Our veterans deserve the very best," Jim Todd said.

Todd served 23 years in the Air Force.  He is visibly moved by the news Hadrick, Newman, Rogers, and Mitchell all died alone.

"They put their lives on the line," Todd said, choking back tears. "And there are many that are hurting today because they don't seek benefits that they deserve."

"Those who serve, that's what it's all about," Dobbs added.

I asked Dobbs what his staff recall about Newman, Rogers, and Mitchell.

"We're aware that they were very involved with not only their health care, but talking to them, you know, friendly faces they know who they were," Dobbs said.

If a veteran serves honorably, one of the benefits available is burial at a veterans cemetery like the one in Bloomfield.

"They're our veterans and they're all equal to us," said Cemetery Director Ken Swearengin. "Whether they're homeless or whether they were living in a mansion. We treat everybody the same here with the respect and dignity they deserve for being a veteran."

Despite being unclaimed by family, Robert Rogers received a funeral here with full military honors.

Tammy Smith had a hand in researching Rogers' service record to make sure he qualified.

"It's very touching for me to be able to do this, to be able to perform this service every day," Smith said.

Back at his office, Jim Akers has good news to report on veteran Gary Mitchell.  Family is willing to take his remains for burial in Illinois.

"We do this more often than people realize and the outcome has been very, very good," Akers said.

And he has more good news in the case of Walter Newman.  Akers tracked down Newman's ex-wife, and recently learned his remains are buried at Jefferson Barracks, close to his young daughter.

Luther Hadrick's story ends with a surprise phone call from one of his sisters.

"She hasn't seen her brother since 1978. He left for the Marines. That's the last time she saw him," Akers said.

Despite that time lost, Hadrick's family steps in.  He too, is now buried at Jefferson Barracks.  The two photo albums found on the bed next to him are headed to his 18-year-old son.

"Most of us aren't invested emotionally with these people, and yet it feels like sometimes we're working harder than they would themselves or their family, but they deserve that," said Akers.

Everyone I interviewed for this story hope the stories of Luther Hadrick, Walter Newman, Robert Rogers, and Gary Mitchell remind all veterans and their families about the benefits and services available. Any Veteran that needs information can contact the Poplar Bluff VA Medical Center, 1500 North West Wood, Poplar Bluff, MO at 573-686-4151 or www.poplarbluff.va.gov.

Other useful contact information:

Department of Veterans Affairs

Health Care Benefits

National Veterans Crisis Hotline
1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Homeless Veterans in need of help
1-877-4-AID-VET (877-424-3838)

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