A 1992 Death in Guatemala, and a Wife’s Questions Linger — (New York Times)

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New York Times


Published: May 15, 1995

On the last morning of his life, Peter Tiscione frantically telephoned his wife from his hotel room in downtown Guatemala City to confide his terror: “Sweetheart, you must be brave. I don’t think I’ll be allowed to leave.”

“Are you sure?” Bernice Tiscione pressed him. But by the last time she called back that August night in 1992, he was dead, slumped in a bathtub fully clothed, his neck stabbed four times, his valuables untouched and his documents strewn across the floor.

The death of Mr. Tiscione, an archeologist from New York, drew headlines in the local Guatemalan newspapers about a violent struggle and a murder in a hotel room found stained with the blood of more than one person. But the Guatemalan authorities — in a judgment accepted by United States Embassy officials — ultimately came to a different conclusion: Peter Tiscione stabbed himself to death with a machete.

“I wasn’t able to demand how or why,” said Mrs. Tiscione, 46, of Jackson Heights, Queens, whose income wasn’t enough to pay the $4,000 to ship her husband’s body home. “I thought, how can I go up against the government of Guatemala and my own government?”…

Mr. Tiscione’s body was buried in Guatemala. The Embassy’s version of the circumstances of his death was based on a report prepared by the Guatemalan police, characterized by State Department officials as “well trained and professional.”

In classifying Mr. Tiscione’s bloody death as a suicide, the police investigation focused on several pieces of circumstantial evidence: empty pill bottles of a mood-stabilizing drug, a locked hotel room door and Mr. Tiscione’s history of manic depression. The conclusion was that Mr. Tiscione probably had a violent, suicidal reaction after running out of the medication that he took to control his illness.

If that is true, Mr. Tiscione’s form of suicide was highly unusual. Fewer than 5 percent of suicides involve self-inflicted neck wounds, and in those cases, people typically slit instead of stab themselves, said Dr. Alan Berman, the executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, a Washington-based suicide-prevention group.

After examining the Guatemalan autopsy report on Mr. Tiscione’s death at the request of The New York Times, he also noted that right-handed people, like the archeologist, tend to stab themselves on the right side of the neck. The report said Mr. Tiscione had four puncture wounds: one on the left side and three on the right.

“It’s a particularly violent, messy kind of suicide,” Dr. Berman said. “And when you have that kind of behavior, someone has lost touch with reality. Most people look to kill themselves in a quick or easy way.”

But friends and relatives said they had detected no signs of suicidal thinking in Mr. Tiscione’s last days; rather, he was elated to be visiting Guatemala after an absence of nearly 16 years.

Mr. Tiscione, 50, stood 6 feet 2 with a spreading middle, his glasses thick and his hair and beard flecked with gray. He had returned to the highlands of Guatemala in July 1992 to satisfy some long-time goals.

In 1976, as a student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, he had worked in the small town of Aguacatan, named for the avocados that flourish there. He had become friends with one of the town’s most prominent families and left in their care a large collection of Mayan pottery. As part of his 1992 trip, he planned to transport the collection to a national museum in Guatemala City.

Mr. Tiscione was also drawn back to the highlands as part of the work toward completing his doctoral thesis, a task that had been interrupted several times by family obligations and, his wife said, by his bouts with manic depression. The inherited illness is caused by an imbalance in neurochemistry characterized by severe mood swings.  But his illness had been stabilized for the last 10 years, Mrs. Tiscione said, with a combination of antidepressants and lithium.