Kenneth Louthain was a frightened man when he returned home to Indiana on leave from the Navy 18 months ago. He confided to his best friend that all was not well aboard his ship, the USS Virginia.
"He was scared, really scared. He told me: `Listen careful and remember what I'm gonna tell you,' " the friend, Brian Urbin, recalled last week.
Petty Officer Louthain, 23, described a drug deal he had stumbled across aboard ship, according to Urbin. The suspected dealer was a Navy machinist's mate who reputedly carried a briefcase loaded with narcotics.
"Kenny said the guy told him if he said anything about what he saw, he'd kill him. He'd get him at his work station or while he was sleeping," Urbin said. "And Kenny told me: `If anything happens to me, don't believe what the Navy says.' "
Last Oct. 3, Kenneth Louthain was found dead aboard the Virginia while the guided missile cruiser was off the coast of Jamaica. His parents say the Navy told them he committed suicide by doubling a phone cord around his neck, putting the receiver back in place, then somehow hanging his 185-pound body from a phone bolted to a wall in his shipboard office.
Navy investigators told the family Louthain had been depressed.
"My son did not take his own life. He had everything to live for," Louthain's father, Donnie Louthain, said last week. "Instead of investigating his death properly, the Navy set out from the start to prove a suicide theory."
Louthain and his wife, Carole, accuse the Navy of covering up their son's murder, and they are demanding that the case be reopened. They said a civilian autopsy they arranged revealed unexplained bruises on his back and shins, and a gash on his elbow.
Taken alone, the Louthains might be dismissed as parents unwilling to accept the suicide of a beloved son. But 13 other families have told remarkably similar stories of sons whose deaths have been ruled suicides or accidentally self-inflicted, despite what the families maintain is evidence of murder.
Last week, several of the families told their stories in private to staff members of the oversight subcommittee on investigations of the House Armed Services Committee. The panel is looking into the military investigative agencies - particularly the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NIS) - following the Tailhook scandal. It agreed to the families' longstanding requests to listen to their allegations.
Some of the families have charged that their sons died after witnessing drug sales or use by soldiers and sailors. Others contend that their sons died after complaining about lax conditions or thefts aboard ships or on bases.
In other cases, the deaths came during seemingly routine periods in the young men's lives - despite rulings by the military that the dead men had been depressed, usually over a breakup with a girlfriend or wife. In only two cases were suicide notes reported found, and families have contested the validity of both. The families say their sons gave no hint of depression in their last phone calls or letters home.
All but three of the cases involve sailors and Marines whose deaths were investigated by the civilian-run NIS. The NIS has been found by outside agencies to have bungled recent investigations into the Tailhook sex scandal, the 1989 explosion aboard the USS Iowa, allegations of spying by Marines in Moscow, and the beating death of a gay sailor in Japan last year.
In interviews last week, the 14 families accused the military of lying to them, covering up evidence, losing blood samples or other critical pieces of evidence, failing to interview key witnesses or perform basic forensic tests, and providing contradictory reports of precisely how and when their sons died. They also say that the Navy has denied them access to crucial investigative reports.
"We want answers. What we're getting is lies," said Robyn Hall, who disputes a Navy ruling that her son, Navy security officer Michael Leslie, 25, committed suicide in Guam in September 1991.
Catherine Jakovic, who has challenged a Navy ruling that her Marine son killed himself in New Jersey in 1991, said of military investigators: "They intimidate you and deny you access to people and information. They hush things up and keep families in the dark. There are no facts, just their versions."
The families charged that suicide rulings were made hastily to avoid investigations that might have turned up embarrassing details of drug or alcohol abuse, or security violations - and possibly murder - by military personnel. In doing so, they alleged, investigators are forced to alter or destroy some evidence and ignore new leads.
Dozens of inconsistencies, contained in reports that the 14 families were able to obtain from the military, raise questions about suicide rulings.
-- Hall, a county housing specialist from Louisville, Ky., wonders how her son managed to shoot himself in the head while on duty if, as the Navy told her, one wrist was handcuffed to the steering wheel of his security truck and a forensic test could not conclude whether he had fired a gun with his other hand. The Navy told Hall that her son had killed himself because he was upset over a split with his girlfriend.
-- Jakovic, of Laurence Harbor, N.J., wonders how her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Jakovic, accidentally shot himself in the head while playing Russian roulette - as the NIS says - if the Navy initially charged another Marine with killing her son. Jakovic contends that her son, who she said had complained to her of drug abuse at the Earle Naval Weapons Station in New Jersey, was murdered by a Marine who later tested positive for cocaine use.
-- Lois Vanderbur, a homemaker from Mapleton, Iowa, wonders why her son, Marine weapons expert Lt. Kirk Vanderbur, 24, would first wound himself in the abdomen with a shotgun, then crawl almost 10 feet and shoot himself in the forehead with a semi-automatic rifle. That is how the NIS told her that Kirk committed suicide on a civilian rifle range near Camp Lejeune, N.C., in February 1992. Vanderbur contends her son was murdered. "If Kirk wanted to commit suicide," she said, "he had a .22-caliber pistol right at home."
-- John MacCaskill, a retired police officer from Rockville Centre, N.Y., wonders how his son, Marine embassy guard John MacCaskill Jr., 21, committed suicide in San Salvador in 1988 by firing a .357 magnum into his mouth - as the NIS ruled - when the family's own autopsy shows no powder burns in John's mouth and none of the massive facial or dental injuries that such a powerful weapon would cause at point-blank range. MacCaskill said the military had his son's body gutted and his organs buried in an unmarked grave, and had failed to take blood samples or gunpowder-residue tests.
-- Jim Langford, an electrician in Elk Creek, Calif., wonders how his son, Army Spec. 4 Chad Langford, 20, shot himself in the head at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., in March 1992 - as the Army has ruled - when one hand was handcuffed and a palm print on the gun that killed him was not Chad's. Langford says his son, an MP, had told him that he was on an undercover drug investigation and that drug dealers would kill him if they found out.
-- Marenicola Whittles, an accounting clerk from Bloomfield, N.J., wonders which of three official versions of her son's shooting death to believe. She said military investigators had told her that her son, Cpl. Cornelius Whittles, 22, died at the Earle base in Colts Neck, N.J., in 1989 while playing Russian roulette; cleaning his gun; and clowning around with his gun.
The families are demanding that their cases be reinvestigated by an agency other than the NIS or the Army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID).
Public-affairs officials at the Pentagon, the Navy and the Army said they could not comment on the families' accusations because to do so would improperly disclose personal details of the dead men and their families. The officials declined to speculate on explanations for the high numbers of suicides in all four military branches.
The Marine Corps has reported 22 suicides so far this year, compared with 26 for all of 1992, 25 in 1991, 38 in 1990 and 24 in 1989. The Army reported 75 suicides last year, the Navy 51 and the Air Force 58.