Death probe suggests suicide
Investigators say Sellers locked herself in trunk
Shea Sellers, 50, was found dead in her trunk on April 12. She had been missing for more than a year.
By Stephanie Taylor Staff Writer
Published: Friday, July 2, 2010 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 10:53 p.m.
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TUSCALOOSA | Final autopsy results on a woman found dead in the trunk of her car in April were inconclusive, but the investigation strongly suggests that she took her own life, Tuscaloosa County Sheriff Ted Sexton said Thursday.
Shea Sellers, 50, was found dead April 12 after she had been missing for more than a year. Toxicology results from an autopsy that investigators received last week indicate she had five antidepressants, a prescription sleep aid, painkillers and alcohol in her system, Sexton said. Her body was so badly decomposed that it was impossible to determine the quantities she had ingested, he said.
“In a follow-up I had with forensic sciences, I was told that based on supporting information they feel that it was a suicide,” he said.
Sellers was found in the trunk of her BMW at her home in the Carmel Bay subdivision on Lake Tuscaloosa after family members called a locksmith to open the trunk.
She was lying on a blanket, and one wrist was handcuffed to the hinge of the trunk.
“That had to have been done from inside the trunk,” Sexton said. There was an upright can of Coca-Cola inside the trunk, along with the car keys, Sexton said. There were no indentations inside to indicate that she had kicked or tried to get out, he said.
Sexton said that Sellers had previously attempted suicide at least four times since the 1970s and had handcuffed herself during at least one of those attempts. He didn't elaborate about the attempts.
“There are indications that she had done that this before, and also that she would sometimes spend time in the attic of the house,” he said. “We all have challenges and peculiarities. When we do these types of investigations, we find out a lot. We have to go back through people's histories and try to bring clarity to behaviors.
“This is difficult for the family, and I'm sensitive to that, but at the same time we are trying to afford transparency to the process. We've been asked by The Tuscaloosa News at least a dozen times about the results of this autopsy and now that we're in the final stages of concluding our report, we are at a point where I can answer more questions.”
Suicidal risk factors
Dr. Bruce Atkins, a forensic psychiatrist in Tuscaloosa, will conduct a psychological autopsy in the next few days.
“That's when you evaluate a death to determine whether or not that death was due to suicide, a suicidal gesture that was accidentally successful or not a suicide at all,” he said.
Psychological autopsies are performed for several reasons: at the request of insurance companies, families or law enforcement.
He said doctors review medical records of a person's treatment and medication history, previous suicide attempts or suicidal gestures and recent history. They look at toxicology reports and at the amount and varieties of drugs in a person's system.
He listed the top risk factors of a suicidal person. The top warning sign is a history of suicide attempts, he said. The presence of mental illness is another, he said. Recent life stressors can also be triggers, such as the loss of a loved one, a divorce, the loss of a job or a physical illness.
“A suicide note is another indicator. In essence, it is almost conclusory,” he said.
Sellers exhibited many of those risk factors, Sexton said.
He did not release a copy of a 14-page handwritten note investigators found at Sellers' home in January 2009. In the note, she left all of her possessions to her mother and left a list of the monetary worth of several items in her home, he said. She indicated that she was in a distressed mental state, investigators have said in the past, and that she intended to take her own life.
Sellers was the ex-wife of former Tuscaloosa Police Chief Ken Swindle. She once worked as a registered nurse at DCH Regional Medical Center.
She had been missing for 10 days when her family called police on Jan. 19, 2009. Investigators searched her home and nearby Lake Tuscaloosa for several months, because she had indicated that if she ever killed herself it would be by drowning in the lake.
Investigators were criticized for not finding Sellers' body sooner. Sexton said that the investigation was handled properly.
“When her family called, they asked for it to be kept pretty low-key,” Sexton said. Sellers was one of 116 people reported missing to the Sheriff's Office in 2009, he said. Most of those cases are handled by the office's Criminal Investigations Division, but this one was investigated by the Tuscaloosa County Metro Homicide Unit because of the likelihood that it could turn into a death investigation, he said.
The home was not considered a crime scene because there was no evidence that a crime had occurred, he said.
“Based on the note and things she had said, it was believed very strongly that she was in the lake,” he said. Investigators asked her family members twice to provide the keys to the car, he said, but they could not be located.
“Keep in mind that this was a missing persons case, not a crime,” Sexton said. “In the meantime, the lake was the primary target of our search.”
In March 2009, the homicide investigators asked Alabama Bureau of Investigation investigators to review the case, which Sexton said is not routine but not uncommon. They also requested that the special agent in charge of Tuscaloosa's FBI office look at the case because he was previously assigned to the behavioral science unit at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va.
The case was eventually moved to the criminal investigations division, he said. The department received several phone calls from people who thought they had seen Sellers or who had heard that she had checked into different hospitals.
“We followed up on every one of those,” Sexton said.
Several experts were also called for assistance during the investigation.
Investigators contacted experts at the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center in Knoxville, who said that it was not odd that the decomposing body did not give off an odor, Sexton said.
“It was the middle of winter, in an airtight car trunk in a shaded, closed garage,” Sexton said. “They said that it was not uncommon for that to happen in that kind of time frame, temperature and location.”
Dr. Keith Jacoby, a forensic anthropologist, was present at the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences lab in No
rthport when her body was removed and when the evidence was being processed, he said.
“We're almost through with this process. We hope to have the report concluded and the investigation completed by next week,” Sexton said.
Reach Stephanie Taylor at
news.com or 205-722–0210.