The claim: A man who jumped off a building to kill himself died instead of a shotgun blast through a window as he fell.
A viral Facebook post from the public group Facts you didn’t know about, shared at least 1,400 times, tells the tale of what it calls 1994’s “MOST BIZARRE SUICIDE.”
The CliffsNotes version goes like this: Ronald Opus, who intended to kill himself by jumping off a 10-story building, instead died of a head wound caused by a shotgun blast fired through a window as he fell past it. The shooter, who was on the ninth floor, was aiming the shotgun at his wife when it went off. It turns out the couple were Opus’ parents. Opus, the story goes, had had a falling out with his mother. So he had loaded the shotgun hoping his father — who had a habit of using the usually empty weapon to threaten Opus’ mother during their frequent arguments — would kill her.
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The tale is attributed to Don Harper Mills, then-president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, who told the story at an AAFS awards dinner. The posting quotes him as saying the medical examiner in the case was forced to decide whether Opus’ death was a suicide or a homicide because, apparently unbeknownst to Opus, there was a net for window washers outside the building’s eighth floor that stopped his fall. So although he intended to commit suicide, he would not have died from the fall.
However, the story goes, Opus’ parents said they didn’t know the gun was loaded. So the medical examiner ultimately ruled the death a suicide, anyway.
Is this story too fantastical to be true?
Evidence, and the medical examiner’s own words, tell a different story
Mills, who was a University of Southern California pathology and psychiatry professor, did indeed tell the story at the AAFS banquet. But he later said he made it up.
It’s been presented as fact for decades — in fact, many articles have cited as the original author a nonexistent reporter who supposedly worked for the Associated Press.
It was shared again in September on the Facebook page. USA TODAY has reached out, without response, to the person who shared the post. The comments have since been turned off, but the post remains active.
But other fact-checks — including this 21-year-old article from daypg.com — show how internet rumors can stick around for decades.
It was even debunked in the San Francisco Chronicle under the headline “Fiction is stranger than truth” after the paper’s editorial writers apparently became fed up with the nearly daily hoaxes published on the internet. They said they felt compelled to write about it after it was published as truth in a newsletter of the San Francisco Police Officers Association.
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“When a reporter intrigued by the Ronald Opus story finally reached Dr. Mills, he said it had an element of truth. Yes, he told the story to his fellow forensic scientists — but it was in 1987, not 1994. No, there never was an AP story or a Ronald Opus or a dad with a shotgun,” the 1999 editorial said, adding, “Mills said he concocted the hypothetical anecdote to show how different legal consequences can follow each twist in a homicide inquiry.”
Snopes found a 1997 interview with Mills, who said his original telling of the story didn’t get wide attention until it was posted on the nascent World Wide Web in 1994. He said the post had garnered him at least 400 phone calls.
Since then it’s been cited in books about criminal law, and a version of the story has been featured on television crime shows and in the opening scene of the 1999 film “Magnolia.”
Our ruling: False
Though it’s been shared widely, both as a true story and fiction, all signs point to this story being false. Of course, USA TODAY cannot fact check the story with Mills himself — he died in 2013. Based on our research, we rate this claim as FALSE.
Our fact-check sources:
- Amanda Potgieter, Sept. 13, 2020, Facebook post
- Snopes, Dec. 20, 1999, “1994’s Most Bizarre Suicide”
- San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 1, 1999, “Fiction is stranger than truth”
- Photocopy of Duty First, Spring 2006, “Murder or Suicide?”
- “Making Crime Pay: The Writer’s Guide to Criminal Law, Evidence, and Procedure” by Andrea Campbell, 2002
- The Writer’s Life, July 19, 2007, “That’s just plain weird”
- “Magnolia,” 1999 movie by Paul Thomas Anderson, streaming on HBO Max
- Los Angeles Times obituary, Don Harper Mills, May 26, 2013
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