Autopsy yields nil on pregnant soldier’s death

Yesterday we aired Part I of a story about Michelle Clark. It’s been almost five years since Clark died, and her family doesn’t know why. Neither does the state medical examiner. She was 31 and seven months pregnant when she collapsed in her Eagle River home. Clark was also a staff sergeant in the Alaska Army National Guard, and she told other soldiers she knew about crime in the Guard but was afraid to talk about it. Her family suspects she was killed. Today, we’ll look at what’s known about how Clark died.

Michelle Clark (Photo via Randy LaRose)
Michelle Clark (Photo via Randy LaRose)

Michelle LaRose Clark was raised in a military family and moved to Alaska as a child. She loved the outdoors, the Denver Broncos and her pit bull, Adak. She joined the Guard at age 27.

“My sister wanted to be like my dad,” says Clark’s sister, Angela LaRose of Anchorage.

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She remembers she shopped at the Eagle River Walmart the day her sister died. She drove nearly in view of her sister’s condo, where paramedics found Michelle that evening, unconscious on the bedroom floor.

“So she was dying while I was out there,” LaRose says.  “And that’s something hard to deal with. Because if I would have just stopped by … I might have found my sister.”

Angela, her brother and her parents are heartbroken over Clark’s death, and plagued by the thought that someone is getting away with murder. They think Clark may have been killed because she was about to blow the whistle on sexual assaults and drugs in her Guard unit.

Angela LaRose scours documents related to the death of her sister. (Photo: Liz Ruskin)
Angela LaRose scours documents related to the death of her sister. (Photo: Liz Ruskin)

A special state investigator hired to examine the Guard highlighted the death as a case that deserves further review.

Clark’s brother, Randy LaRose of Wasilla, says the family needs answers. He wishes he had the money to offer a reward.

“I even thought about standing out there on the Seward Highway,” he says, “like they do in protests: ‘Justice for Michelle. Justice for Michelle.’”

He has already tried a more aggressive approach. Two days after his sister died he stormed over to confront her husband, accusing him of murder. Randy was arrested on assault charges. The husband later said in court Randy’s accusation against him was frightening and unfounded.

“From that anger, I was paralyzed. Because I was like, there’s no way this dude is saying this kind of stuff,” Clark’s husband told a magistrate.

The husband is a pharmacy technician and an Army reservist who met Michelle when they were both deployed in Kosovo in 2009. They were married for six months. (He did not respond to a note APRN left on his door recently, and we are not naming him because he has not been charged with a crime.)

Michelle Clark (Photo via LaRose family)
Michelle Clark (Photo via LaRose family)

Michelle Clark’s family doesn’t like that her husband is named as the beneficiary of her military life insurance policy, which has a $400,000 payout. But they have no evidence tying him to homicide, or any conclusive evidence that it even was a homicide.

The authorities, on the other hand, have not assured the family, or the public, that Clark’s death has been thoroughly investigated.

The Anchorage Police Department opened a case when Clark died in January 2011. In May of that year they wouldn’t discuss the case with an attorney representing Clark’s mother. And they won’t describe the extent of their efforts now. A police spokeswoman says the case is still open, so the files can’t be released, and she can’t talk about it.

On the autopsy report and death certificate, Clark’s cause of death is listed as “undetermined.” That’s a rare outcome in autopsies of adults, says pathologist Gary Zientek, now the state’s chief medical examiner.

“But there’s a small percentage of case where we just don’t find a cause of death,” he says.

State Medical Examiner Gary Zientek
State Medical Examiner Gary Zientek

Zientek signed Clark’s autopsy report. According to a copy provided by Clark’s family, he found no evidence of trauma or disease that could have killed Clark. Toxicology tests showed no drugs or alcohol, and a further screening months later found only caffeine and a substance found in chocolate.

Zientek says state law prevents him from releasing information about any autopsy to the public, or to a reporter, but he spoke generally about inconclusive autopsy results.

“It’s frustrating for us,” he says of not finding a cause of death. “It’s very frustrating for families.”

Zientek says sometimes a natural cause of death leaves no mark on the body. It can happen when a young adult is struck by seizure or arrhythmia. Or, he says, a spasm of the coronary artery can last long enough to kill, but then relax, leaving nothing to find at autopsy.

He says in those cases, toxicology usually helps. If the basic screen turns up nothing, Zientek says he’ll order an expanded toxicology panel, to test for another 100 or so less common substances.

“They pick up a lot of prescription drugs,” he said of the toxicology screenings he typically orders. “There are some drugs that they don’t pick up, and some drugs that we have tried to find somebody to test for and we have not been able to.”

Clark’s family believes the toxicology testing was inadequate. They want to exhume the body. Her sister, Angela LaRose, says she’s heard of lethal compounds that can’t be detected, but she thinks more specialized tests could yield results.

Clark is buried at Fort Richardson National Cemetery (Photo by Lynn Rogers)
Clark is buried at Fort Richardson National Cemetery (Photo by Lynn Rogers)

“You can’t just run a regular toxicology test and think that this is coming out … If you’re looking for a certain (drug,) you have to look for that thing,” she says.

Clark’s mother, Sun LaRose, hired a California pathologist to review the autopsy report and medical records. He concludes Clark likely died of complications from high blood pressure. Records of Clark’s prenatal care show that in her second trimester her blood pressure hovered above the threshold for hypertension. But the final reading in her chart, within three weeks of her death, shows her blood pressure was back down, in the pre-hypertension range.

Randy LaRose believes it can’t just be a coincidence that on her final work day his sister told a Guard officer she feared for her life.

“Two days before her death she comes to (Lt. Col. Ken) Blaylock and says ‘Sir, they’re going to kill me. I need to talk to you, but not here.’ And then she’s found dead?” LaRose recounts. “There’s something more to it. I mean, there has to be.”

Alaska Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Michelle Marie LaRose Clark is buried at a cemetery on Fort Richardson, where she worked.

 

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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz