Lead Investigator Explains Tillman Case

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending an educational event at the Cal State LA Crime Lab hosted by the Los Angeles Visionaries Association. It’s my third one, and I’m addicted. It’s like grad school without the student loans. I always learn more than I can process in one afternoon.

The first presentation was by Michael I. Kelley, who outlined his investigation of the 2004 death of Army Ranger Patrick Tillman in Afghanistan. Kelley is an adjunct professor with the Forensic Science department, California State University – Los Angeles, and a firearm and toolmark examiner with the Scientific Investigation division of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Because initial investigations into the circumstances of Tillman’s death had alleged inadequacies, the United States Congress and the President ordered the United States Army Criminal Investigation Command to conduct the investigation.

Kelly’s investigation aimed to shed light on an emotional case for many observers—Tillman was awarded the silver star for bravery because it was believed that he was killed in battle, and the suggestion that he was killed by friendly fire could jeopardize the posthumous award.

In Spring 2006, Kelley was selected as the team leader for the Army’s crime scene reconstruction investigation of the death incident of Corporal Tillman. Kelley conducted the reconstruction of the shooting incident two years to the hour from the date of Tillman’s death at the exact same location.

From the photographs he showed during his presentation, the canyon where Tillman stood was shrouded in darkness like the picture above (an example, not from the presentation). Tillman was standing next to an Afghan soldier who fired an AK-47 to defend against enemy fire coming from another part of the canyon. A U.S. Army gun vehicle, approaching the hill from another direction, saw the AK’s muzzle flash, assumed it was a rebel soldier and sprayed the area with machine gun fire.

Considering the level of visibility and the particular weapon in use, Kelly detemined that all parties acted in a reasonable manner, concluding that Ranger Corporal Patrick Tillman died as a result of friendly fire while his unit was engaged in combat with enemy forces. Because he died in combat, Tillman’s family was allowed to keep the silver star.

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