A Marine colonel's widow fights for the truth behind his death: Suicide or homicide?

A Marine colonel is fatally wounded in Iraq; authorities say it was a suicide, but his wife says it was murder and she is determined to prove it

Widow's War

Produced by Josh Yager

In July 2008, Colonel Michael Stahlman was about to come home from Iraq for R&R with his family when the military lawyer and former flight officer was found in his quarters with a gunshot wound to the head. He died about two months later.

Authorities called it a suicide. But Stahlman's wife Kim and daughter MacKenna say the man they loved would never have killed himself.

"My dad … devoted his life to his country. He was a patriot," said MacKenna.

"Someone shot him," Kim told "48 Hours" correspondent Peter Van Sant.

"Are you certain of that?" Van Sant asked.

"I have no doubt," she replied.

Kim Stahlman says her husband was right-handed, but his wound was on the left side -- and his job helping rebuild Iraq's legal system could easily have made him enemies.

"I just feel like it was somebody Mike knew," she said.

At the heart of the mystery: an email that was sent just hours before the gunshot

"Kim, sorry about what you are about the [sic] find out.  I love you and always will.  You and the girls are the best thing that ever happened to me.  Love, Mike."

But was it really a suicide note?

"The evidence shows there's no way he could have done what they said he did," Kim told Van Sant.

Asked if she's in denial, Kim told Van Sant, "No, no."

Kim started pushing the investigating agency, NCIS, for more information. And she soon enlisted some important allies: Cilla McCain, is an author and advocate for bereaved military families.

"I just do not believe that he pulled that trigger," said McCain.

And Michael Maloney, is a forensic consultant who had once worked for NCIS.  

"This is a homicide. There was someone else in that room," he said.

Maloney had left NCIS before the Stahlman incident, but NCIS hired blood stain expert Mark Reynolds.

"I see no evidence of homicide in the materials provided to me whatsoever," he told Van Sant.

Reynolds says Michael Maloney is guessing, or just plain wrong.

"There's no evidence to support anything other than a suicide," Reynolds said.

Two experts, two very different views.

"If this was a suicide, I would have to accept it" Kim said. "But it's hard when you know that that's not what it was. … the truth needs to come out."

FIGHTING FOR THE TRUTH

Kim Stahlman: You have to be strong as a military wife.

For more than 10 years, Kim Stahlman has been at war. With a small group of allies, she is targeting the toughest hill in Washington D.C.—Capitol Hill 

Kim Stahlman: All I've ever done is tell them that I want the truth.

She says she's trying to honor the legacy of her husband, Col. Michael Stahlman, one of the highest-ranking American fatalities in the Iraq War.

Kim Stahlman: This is a guy that gave his all.

Colonel Stahlman was a decorated Marine; a flight officer and a military lawyer. In July 2008, just weeks from going home for R&R, he was found with a gunshot wound to the head on a Ramadi military base. The Armed Forces Medical Examiner ruled it a suicide, but Kim has never believed her husband shot himself.

Kim Stahlman: It was not self-inflicted. Absolutely not. Someone shot him.

Peter Van Sant: Someone shot him?

Kim Stahlman [affirms]: Mm-hmm.

Peter Van Sant: Are you certain of that? 

Kim Stahlman: I have no doubt.

Kim says her ultimate goal is to get that manner of death changed on the death certificate.

Kim Stahlman It's important to have the truth on that document … because of the man that Mike was.

Suzanna Andrews | Reporter: He was just this all-American guy. … very confident, very decent.

Suzanna Andrews and Mike Stahlman lived on the same block in Chevy Chase, Maryland, as teenagers.

Suzanna Andrews:  My mother still remembers him as the most polite child any of us ever brought home.

Decades later, she wrote about his death as a contributing editor for "More" magazine.

Suzanna Andrews: I started out wanting to know what had really happened.

Mike Stahlman, son of a U.S. diplomat, had lived in India, Jordan and Panama as a boy before returning home to become one of a few good men.

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Michael Stahlman, a decorated Marine, a flight officer and a military lawyer, was described as an "All-American guy" and "poster boy" for the Marines Kim Stahlman

Peter Van Sant: Was there a pride there and a sense of I really wanna serve my country?

Kim Stahlman: Oh yeah. … I mean, he's the one that elected to go to a Marine … military academy in the 9th grade.

As a cadet, Stahlman was a Marine recruiter's dream. He appeared in a promotional video.

By April of 1987, Michael Stahlman was in flight school in Pensacola, Florida, when he landed in a bar in Florence, South Carolina, and boldly approached a striking woman across the room. 

Peter Van Sant: And what did you think when you looked at this guy?

Kim Stahlman: To be honest with you? … I didn't think anything, you know?

But she admits something about the swashbuckling young flight officer struck a chord - especially after they ran into each other again the next day at an air show.

Kim Stahlman:  He came up to me, he said, "You remember me?" And I'm like ah, "Yeah."

Stahlman offered to show her around, but she says he was quickly distracted by the triplet baby boys of someone she knew.

Kim Stahlman:  And he stopped, and he got down on his knee and he was talking to the -- these triplets … And I thought, "Oh, my God. That's someone special right there." And that's when I knew. I knew!

In less than three weeks, Kim and Mike's relationship took off.  

Kim and Michael Stahlman
"This was my soulmate," Kim Stahlman said of her husband Michael. "He'd done so much. He was worldly. He was kind." Kim Stahlman

Kim Stahlman: He rode his motorcycle up and that's when he proposed to me.

Peter Van Sant: The guy has Hollywood good looks. He's a pilot. And he's riding a motorcycle. This is like "Top Gun."

Kim Stahlman: He sold his motorcycle for my -- first ring, too. He was a gem.

They married six months later. Two daughters followed: MacKenna in 1997, and Piper in 2004.

MacKenna is 21 now and still remembers her father's kind heart.

MacKenna Stahlman: During Christmas it was his duty -- was the cameraman.  … We'd wake up and we're, like, "Don't go in the room until Dad has the camera ready." And -- that was probably one of the earliest memories I have.

Like many military families, the Stahlmans moved around the world: South Carolina, California, and Japan, where Kim says she co-founded a counseling program on the base.

Kim Stahlman: We worked specifically with rape victims and spousal abuse victims.

Mike's career was on the move, too. By the early 1990s, he'd traded in his wings for a law degree.  Kim says all the work and travel took a toll.

Kim Stahlman: We moved every two -- sometimes every year.

Peter Van Sant: Is it fair to say there was some trouble in the marriage?

Kim Stahlman: Oh, yeah. We have ups and downs like everybody else. 

After about 20 years of high-stress military life, Mike Stahlman had risen through the ranks to become a full colonel.

MacKenna Stahlman: He was about to retire. 

But there still was one thing Col. Stahlman wanted to do. He'd never been deployed to a combat zone.

Suzanna Andrews: He volunteered.

Kim Stahlman: This is his last hurrah, you know. He wants to do this.

About three months after he arrived in Iraq, something happened to Michael Stahlman – something that even a Marine's family could never have expected.

MacKenna Stahlman: My mom … sat me down. And she was, like, "Something's happened to your father."

A CRYPTIC EMAIL

Gunnery Sgt. Gary Morell: We would receive incoming every now and then. There'd be shots fired.

In July 2008, Gary Morrell was a Marine gunnery sergeant in Iraq when he picked Col. Michael Stahlman up at the airport. 

Peter Van Sant: Good guy?

Gunnery Sgt. Gary Morell: Good -- oh, awesome, outstanding.

Colonel Stahlman would be stationed at Camp Ramadi. The area had seen some of the fiercest fighting earlier in the war. 

Gunnery Sgt. Gary Morell: The front gate is still getting shot at, vehicles getting hit … it's still a rough area.  

Day-to-day life was tough.  But Morell says Col. Stahlman, who was working to help rebuild Iraq's legal system, stood strong. 

Peter Van Sant: Did you ever sense that he was depressed?

Gunnery Sgt. Gary Morell: Oh, never.

A triathlete, Stahlman was known to work out every morning.

MacKenna Stahlman: He was always such a happy man. I don't ever recall him being upset or sad. I don't remember him crying, ever.

Peter Van Sant: Did Mike have any history of depression?

Kim Stahlman: No.

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Col. Michael Stahlman Kim Stahlman

By the summer of 2008, Kim says Mike was looking forward to coming home for R&R to spend time with her and the girls.

MacKenna Stahlman: We were so close. I mean it was the home stretch. 

In June, he emailed: "…just 2 more months until I come home. Missing you terribly!!!" and in late July, the day before the shooting:  "…everything is great!"   

Sgt. Morell saw Stahlman the night before the shooting.

Gunnery Sgt. Gary Morell: He was anxious to go home, he was ready.

Suzanna Andrews: In the morning he wakes up. He goes running, we believe.

Dave Fuentes: I was … talking to some of the other medics, when the call came in.

Army Medic Dave Fuentes says he was just coming off shift at about 8 a.m., when he responded to a shooting scene.

Peter Van Sant: What condition was Colonel Stahlman in when you first laid eyes on him?

Dave Fuentes: He was in very rough shape.

Peter Van Sant: Critical condition?

Dave Fuentes: Absolutely 100 percent critical.

It was still the previous night back in Connecticut, where Kim and the kids were visiting her parents. At about 11 p.m., she says she found a cryptic email in her inbox – apparently from her husband. The email became central to this case.

Kim Stahlman [reading email]: Kim, sorry about … what you are about to find out. I love you and always will. You and the girls are the best thing that ever happened to me. Love Mike.

Peter Van Sant: What did you think? 

Kim Stahlman: Honestly, I immediately thought one of our close friends had been killed.

The next morning, Kim got a devastating phone call.

Kim Stahlman: They said -- "We're calling … to inform you that your husband, Colonel Michael Ross Stahlman, was found this morning … with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his left temple.

Her husband was still alive, but unconscious.

Kim Stahlman: It was like they took my past, my present and my future from me in that one phone call.

Kim says she was in shock. To some, that last email to her read like a suicide note. Kim had the email examined by a linguist.

Kim Stahlman: She said, "This is not a suicide note."

Sgt. Morell says he doesn't see it as a suicide note, either. He says Marines are trained to avoid divulging too much information when writing home from war zones.

Gunnery Sgt. Gary Morell: You gotta talk in code … This is something that I could see me sending my wife and I felt I've sent her that letter before.  

He says the email could have been a reference to any number of things, including a dangerous or classified military operation or personal finances.

Kim Stahlman: All I could think of, his eyes. His beautiful eyes.

A few days later, Kim and her daughters arrived at Mike's bedside at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, where he'd been flown for treatment.   

Kim Stahlman: And I walked in the room and it didn't even look like him. His face was so swollen.

Days turned into weeks with no improvement. Slowly Michael Stahlman was slipping away. 

After Mike had been in the hospital about two months, Kim decided to sit 11-year-old MacKenna down to say her father would be taken off life support.

MacKenna Stahlman: And she was like … we're not detecting any more brain waves … and that's when I had to lay in bed with him and say goodbye for the last time. … I just remember, like, the lights being dimmed, and I can still smell the hospital room [cries].

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The Stahlman family Kim Stahlman

Colonel Michael Stahlman died on Oct. 5, 2008, the day before his 21st wedding anniversary and the month before his 46th birthday.

Kim Stahlman: I've never seen anyone die before. … I literally saw his spirit leave his body.

His funeral was at Arlington National Cemetery.

MacKenna Stahlman: It was a closed casket. I just was hysterical pretty much the whole day. 

Adding insult to injury, Kim says she was still troubled by the information authorities had given her -- beginning with the detail that Mike, a righty, had been shot on the left side of his head.

Kim Stahlman: Mike did nothing with his left hand.

As time went on, her skepticism turned to anger and determination to find the truth. 

Peter Van Sant:  You became an investigator.

Kim Stahlman: Yeah.

Suzanna Andrews: Kim said right away, "I wanna do my own investigation."

Writer Suzanna Andrews says Col. Stahlman's job easily could have made him a murder target.

Suzanna Andrews:  Mike was in Iraq at a time when we were trying to sort of put the country back on its feet after the war.

Colonel Stahlman's work notes suggest he was aware of local officials on the take. He wrote: "We want to stop IP's [Iraqi Police] from taking bribes." And Andrews says some U.S. contractors were corrupt.

Suzanna Andrews: I think it would be really … hard to … have not stumbled across some kind of corruption there.

Sgt. Morell says Marines were vulnerable everywhere -- even on base.

Gunnery Sgt. Gary Morell:  You know, our perimeter was very open.

He says the security fences were a joke. 

Gunnery Sgt. Gary Morell: You could get on and get off.

Peter Van Sant: So, somebody from the outside could just come onto base.

Gunnery Sgt. Gary Morell: Correct.

Kim says it's also possible Col. Stahlman had enemies closer than he thought. 

Peter Van Sant: If Mike did not take his own life, who did?

Kim Stahlman: Gut instinct is … it was somebody Mike knew and close in rank.

Peter Van Sant: If you believe it's a homicide … somebody had to pull that trigger.

Gunnery Sgt. Gary Morell: Right.

Peter Van Sant: Give me a sense of the banter that was going' around.

Gunnery Sgt. Gary Morell: That it was somebody inside. You know, strictly all rumors.

Medic Dave Fuentes says he remembers hearing rumors, too, about a crime at a nearby facility – a crime he heard Michael Stahlman may have been investigating.

Dave Fuentes: A couple other high-ranking personnel … had been relieved of duty due to -- stealing fuel from post and selling it to the locals.

By a year after the shooting, Kim Stahlman had decided to go on the offensive. And before long, she had some very influential allies.

Mike Maloney | Former NCIS: All of the evidence that I have, and all of the reconstruction I've done, point to this being a homicide, and absolutely not to being a suicide.      

A QUEST BEGINS

After her husband's death, Kim Stahlman was paralyzed by grief.

Kim Stahlman: It's like a punch in the stomach…

Kim Stahlman: … he loved his girls. He wouldn't have left 'em 

MacKenna Stahlman: She was basically a recluse. She never left the house. And it was really rough seeing her like that.

Kim emerged from her fog of grief and began a quest for the facts about her husband's death. In October 2008, she filed a Freedom of Information request with NCIS, which had arrived at the scene some hours after Stahlman was found. Kim says she received about 1,500 documents and a small batch of photos.

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"The military says that my husband committed suicide, but I know it was murder," Kim Stahlman told "48 Hours." CBS News

Kim Stahlman: They didn't really show you anything. You know? And they were copies of copies. Like the photocopies.  

Scouring the reports, Kim says she learned her husband had been found in bed, lying on his back, next to a bloodstained nightstand. A bloodied sheet was hanging from the top bunk obscuring his body. A Bible and family photo lay next to him. Stahlman's 9 mm Beretta was on the bed, too. One first responder noted the gun appeared wedged between him and the mattress.

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Investigators took photos of Michael Stahlman's quarters in Ramadi, Iraq, after he was found with a gunshot wound to the head. Responders found Stahlman in his bed [bottom bunk] with a sheet hanging down from the top bunk, obscuring him from view. Evidence photo

Suzanna Andrews: The gun is half under him around his waist but pointed down.

According to NCIS documents, a bullet from his gun traveled through his head, then through a wall and came to rest on the floor of a storage locker in the housing unit next door.  An earwitness had reported hearing a loud noise around sunrise. The information did not satisfy Kim.   

Kim Stahlman: There were little flags, things that jumped out at me.

Believing the suicide determination had been made in haste, Kim says she wanted a closer investigation of the case. In the coming years, she would contact the military, members of Congress, and even the White House.    

Kim Stahlman: I was looking … for anything any – any help I could get.

Since the shooting, Kim had been fighting her war alone.  But in 2009, she met an important ally: author Cilla McCain.

Cilla McCain: She was grieving, totally grief stricken, but fighting.

McCain has a special interest in mysterious military deaths. She supports the families with a website and advocates for them with lawmakers.  

Cilla McCain: I know of 166 families who believe that their loved one was murdered and it has been labeled a suicide.

Together, Kim and McCain say they took on the U.S. military.

Suzanna Andrews: Here was this duo, these Southern women … up against this brass wall. You know, all these officers and soldiers and institutions who just didn't take them seriously at all.

Before long, word of their war would win them another important ally. This one had a worldwide reputation investigating cases at, of all places, NCIS itself. 

Mike Maloney | Former NCIS: If it bled, if it blew up, if it caught fire … generally, we were involved in handling the forensic issues of that.

Over a long career at NCIS, Michael Maloney investigated some of their highest-profile cases. He'd left NCIS and was teaching forensics when a student told him about the Stahlman case. He offered to take an initial look pro bono, but gave Kim a warning.

Michael Maloney: Almost 100 percent of the time the death is exactly what it's reported to be.

Maloney wanted better quality photos and thought authorities might have them. So, he helped Kim file another Freedom of Information Act request. 

Kim Stahlman: There were almost 200 photos on that disc. If I hadn't asked for those, they woulda never volunteered 'em.

Maloney says those photos led to a breakthrough. 

Michael Maloney: It changed the whole game.

Poring over the new photos, Maloney reached a startling conclusion.

Michael Maloney: This is a homicide … There was someone else in that room.

He believes an assailant probably fired two shots: one missed and the other went through Stahlman's head. He also believes the scene then could have been made to look like Stahlman had been alone and shot himself with his own gun.

Kim Stahlman: All I remember is him sayin', "We've got a problem. This was staged."

Peter Van Sant: And when you heard those words?

Kim Stahlman: It was like, "Oh, holy Jesus. I'm right."

Maloney set up a simulation for "48 Hours" to help illustrate his theory: the trajectory of the bullet authorities recovered in the locker does not account for Col. Stahlman's injury.

trajectory2.jpg
"Why is the trajectory of the bullet way up here and his injury is here?" Michael Maloney asked, pointing to a diagram. "They should overlap each other. Because the bullet has to cause the injury." CBS News

Michael Maloney [pointing to top of a graph]: Why is the trajectory of the bullet way up here and his injury is here? [pointing to bottom area of graph]. They should overlap each other. Because the bullet has to cause the injury.

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In his theory, Maloney says the bullet hole in the wall likely came from the assailant's first shot -- a shot that Maloney believes missed Col. Stahlman. Evidence photo

Maloney says the bullet hole in the wall, as seen in the investigator's photo, likely came from the assailant's first shot.

Michael Maloney: For the first shot, he's going to fire and he's going to miss.  That explains the hole in the wall.

He says what he sees around that hole is a telltale sign that the bullet never went through Stahlman's head.

Michael Maloney: It has the appearance of gunshot residue.

Peter Van Sant: All these little dots

Michael Maloney: All those little dots --

Peter Van Sant: This could be gunshot residue –

Michael Maloney: Burned … and unburned particles of gunpowder coming out of the muzzle of the weapon.

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Michael Maloney points to what he believe is gunshot residue in a photo taken by investigators CBS News

In his interpretation, those particles would be unlikely to have hit that area of the wall, if Col. Stahlman's head had been in the way of the bullet.

Michael Maloney: This is when I began to believe that, perhaps, this wasn't the shot. This wasn't the fatal shot.

The fatal shot, says Maloney, would have been the second one.

Michael Maloney: And as he [Stahlman] starts to move, the shooter is going to rock up as well and right in here, the shooter can fire as well.

He believes the bullet may have come to rest in the mattress, though that alleged second bullet has never been found. Maloney thinks he knows why.

Peter Van Sant: All of this was destroyed, correct?

Michael Maloney: All of this was burned as a biohazard, yes.

Michael Maloney: Now let's look at that nightstand.

The bloody nightstand, says Maloney, supports his theory, too, because he says the stains only cover certain areas --

Michael Maloney [pointing to evidence photo]: But we have none in this area or this area.

-- leaving unstained sections called voids.

Michael Maloney: There was something blocking the blood from hitting this surface of the nightstand.

That something, he says, could have been the assailant's body.

Michael Maloney: Someone sitting on the nightstand, facing his bed.

And Maloney says there's more evidence Stahlman may not have been alone. He says it looks to him like a woman could have been in the room.

Michael Maloney: Well, there was a … tampon found on the floor.

There also was a dirty strip of fabric nearby.

Michael Maloney:  It … certainly would have the appearance of a sheer bathrobe tie or something like that.

Peter Van Sant: There has been speculation that … Mike Stahlman perhaps had a girlfriend there.

Michael Maloney: Well … what you propose is well within the realm of possibility.

Kim Stahlman [negates]:  No. Uh-uh.

Peter Van Sant:  A one-night stand with someone?

Kim Stahlman: No. I would have known, I think.

But either way, Maloney says the strongest evidence supporting his theory of homicide is that sheet hanging over Stahlman's bed. It had blood on both sides. But, he says, what's most important is a particular type of stain called "misting."

Michael Maloney [looking at a photo of the bloody sheet ]: Look at this misting … The problem is, this on the outside of the sheet. … this tells me that this side of the sheet had to be facing or oriented towards his injuries at the time they occurred.

He says if the sheet was hanging down during the shooting, as it was found by first responders, the misting stains would have been on the inside. Maloney demonstrated for "48 Hours."

Michael Maloney: A lot of times when you are over there, you do drop a sheet … It blocks the light coming in from the windows. But, if you want to talk to someone, you can just pull the sheet back, and tuck it up.

Maloney demonstrated by tucking the sheet into the springs of the overhead bunk.

The bloodstains at the scene, he says, strongly suggest the sheet was tucked up, out of the way, when the fatal shot was fired.

Michael Maloney [demonstrating in simulation]: …and it causes the bloodstain up here, the bloodstain pattern here, the misting stain, and the rest of the bloodstain from the exit wound goes down into the pillow and into the mattress. 

Remember, the mattress was destroyed.

Peter Van Sant: How about the sheets and the blood?

Kim Stahlman: Burnt. Everything.

Kim Stahlman filed a lawsuit in 2013, alleging authorities conducted little or no investigation into various aspects of the scene.

Cilla McCain: They did not follow their own protocols, and that's why this has happened.

A federal judge dismissed the case saying the court had no jurisdiction. So, Kim filed again with a military review board. Her lawyer says the board offered no assistance either.

Michael Maloney: This required a thorough investigation. It didn't get one.

Michael Maloney says he sent his 2011 report to his old employer, NCIS, and says they refused to meet with him about his findings. They declined to give "48 Hours" an on-camera interview.

But there is another side to this story.  

Peter Van Sant: Kim, it turns out that NCIS did do a forensic investigation … We have some clips … that we would like you to listen to.

TWO EXPERTS, TWO CONCLUSIONS

Peter Van Sant:  Do you believe that NCIS ever did a proper forensic examination of the shooting scene?

Kim Stahlman: No. No.

"48 Hours" submitted its own Freedom of Information Act request, and we discovered it's not quite that simple. 

Mark Reynolds:  My name is Dr. Mark Reynolds. I'm a forensic consultant and I investigated the, ah, death of Colonel Stahlman.  

Dr. Mark Reynolds was brought on by NCIS in 2012 to review the case more than three years after the shooting, including Michael Maloney's report.

NCIS gave the veteran homicide investigator and bloodstain pattern expert permission to speak with "48 Hours."

Peter Van Sant: Did you have everything you needed?

Mark Reynolds: I -- the short answer is no. … I was quite critical of the response by NCIS in my report about the scene.

Reynolds told "48 Hours" he concurs with Michael Maloney that the shooting scene should have been handled differently.

Mark Reynolds: A better documentation of the scene and better exhibit collection would've been helpful … and it wasn't done.

He says that's partly because Col. Stahlman was still alive when he was found. So, first responders rightly were focused more on stabilizing him than preserving evidence. But Reynolds disagrees with Maloney on just about everything else.

Mark Reynolds: All the scene indicators that Mr. Maloney has raised -- are either equivocal or wrong.  

Peter Van Sant: Mike Maloney has a great reputation. … So, we're supposed to believe, in this particular case, the man doesn't know what he's talking about?

Mark Reynolds: In this particular case, believe the science. And the science is there.

Reynolds says Maloney based many of his conclusions on speculation. He says his own analysis of photos of the bloodstains, the nightstand, the sheet, the bullet hole and the trajectory, yielded no evidence anyone else was involved in Stahlman's death. Reynolds says the unstained area on the nightstand is too narrow to be meaningful.

Mark Reynolds [looking at a photo of the nightstand]: If Mr. Maloney is suggesting that that … might've been the leg of the attacker … it's three inches … That's a fairly thin leg.

And what about that sheet hanging from the bunk above Stahlman's bed, the one that Michael Maloney claims has bloodstain misting on the wrong side?

Mark Reynolds: Transfer bloodstains look like spatter even under the microscope.

Reynolds says the bloodstains could have been transferred there by first responders.

Peter Van Sant: In your opinion, there's nothing conclusive about this blood issue on the sheet?

Mark Reynolds: No.

And he says the same is true of the gray spots near the bullet hole, which Maloney suspects are gunshot residue.

Mark Reynolds: It was never determined. There was no sampling ever done. To go from a grayish particulate matter on a wall … to extrapolate that as being gunshot residue I think is very dangerous leap. It could've been anything on that wall.  

Peter Van Sant: You don't even go to this potential two-shot scenario?

Mark Reynolds: There's no scientific evidence to say two shots were fired.

Documents indicate authorities did check the mattress for a bullet and didn't find one. And Mark Reynolds says Michael Maloney made miscalculations in analyzing photos of the scene. He says when those errors are corrected, the path of the bullet that went through the wall does line up with Col. Stahlman's head wound.

reynolds-trajectory.jpg
Mark Reynolds believes Michael Maloney made miscalculations in analyzing photos of the scene. Reynolds says when those errors are corrected, the path of the bullet that went through the wall does line up with Col. Stahlman's head wound.

Mark Reynolds [showing the diagram]: Did you get that?

Peter Van Sant: That matches.

Mark Reynolds: That matches.

But what about the curious items on the floor?  Like that piece of fabric that Maloney feels could have belonged to a woman?

Mark Reynolds: Pure speculation.

And that tampon?

Mark Reynolds: Many soldiers around the world carry tampons in case they get shot because they put the tampon in the bullet hole and it stems the flow of blood.

Reynold's conclusion?

Mark Reynolds: There is no obvious scientific evidence to indicate that it was a homicide.

"48 Hours" informed Michael Maloney about Mark Reynolds' findings. Maloney insists Reynolds is wrong.

Michael Maloney: I stand by my assertion that the best explanation given the evidence that I've examined, does not indicate suicide.

Two experts, two very different conclusions.  

A look at the evidence: Two experts disagree on how Col. Michael Stahlman died

Peter Van Sant: Have you ever heard of a man by the name of Mark Reynolds?

Kim Stahlman: No.

Peter Van Sant: Never?

Kim Stahlman: No.

"48 Hours" wanted to see what Kim Stahlman thought of Mark Reynolds' findings.

Peter Van Sant [with Kim]: We have some clips from the interview that we did with Mark Reynolds that we would like you to listen to.

"48 Hours" showed Kim Van Sant's interviews with Reynolds on an iPad:

PETER VAN SANT [looking at a photo of Col. Stahlman's bunk]: Mike Maloney says at best, this is an ambiguous death scene.

MARK REYNOLDS: My interpretation of this is there's strong contextual and scientific support for it being self-inflicted. There is no contextual or scientific support in my opinion for it being a homicide.


PETER VAN SANT: And the fact that it's on the outside of the sheet, when the shooting occurred on the inside ...  is an indication that someone pulled the sheet down.

MARK REYNOLDS: I think he doesn't understand how difficult it is to classify bloodstains on fabrics.

 

Kim Stahlman [reacting to the video]: Yeah, I mean, I guess he's got his opinion. I don't know what to say.

Kim says she brought the case to other experts who supported Maloney's findings, and she still stands by Maloney.

Kim Stahlman: I know that Maloney broke down the room pixel by pixel -- that's all I know.

And Kim is furious. She says authorities should have showed her the Reynolds report years ago.

Kim Stahlman [emotional]: Why didn't they show me that? Or tell me so that I could at least know. I don't understand why NCIS did not bring that to my attention, ever.

Kim says she has never felt authorities have respected her. In fact, in 2012, she says she discovered an email showing someone at NCIS appears to have blamed her for her husband's death.  

Peter Van Sant [reading the email]: "It was a tragic suicide contributed by the pressures he was under to include stress piled on by his wife, who now believes/pretends it was a storybook marriage …"

Kim Stahlman:  I never said it was a storybook marriage. Never. … I have said it was a marriage with ups and downs.

As "48 Hours" discovered in his emails, Col. Michael Stahlman may have been battling an enemy within.

WHAT IS THE TRUTH?

Kim Stahlman has always accused NCIS of not conducting a thorough investigation.

Kim Stahlman: I think … they thought they could get away with their mistakes.

But NCIS documents suggest otherwise -- that evidence was collected, people were questioned, and many of Kim's concerns were answered.

They also provided her with all those photos and thousands of documents, many of which were passed on to "48 Hours."  Among them, emails between Kim and Mike in the final months of his life. Some are loving and upbeat. But there are others that raise troubling questions about Mike and the marriage, like one from Kim sent about two weeks before the shooting:

 "I just can't keep putting myself on a guilt trip anymore and blame myself for our problems."

Peter Van Sant: What problems are you talking about in this?

Kim Stahlman: We had gotten to the point where we really didn't communicate. … and so we were talking about seeing a counselor for that.

Peter Van Sant: You went on to say, "after that, I can't make any promises because at this point, I feel it is about life and death for me.  I can't stay in an unhealthy relationship."

Kim Stahlman: Right.

Peter Van Sant: Here's the next quote: "I know I've done some terrible, hurtful things to you and vica versa." … What's the terrible thing?"

Kim Stahlman: Well to me -- I can't think of a specific thing, but ...

Peter Van Sant: It sounds like your relationship is almost at the end of the line here.

Kim Stahlman: I'm a bit of a drama queen. … But it didn't -- that's not where it ended. And it doesn't show the conversations we had on the phone.

It's that last email Mike Stahlman apparently wrote to his wife not long before the shooting that strikes some as the strongest proof of suicide.

Peter Van Sant: Is this in your opinion a suicide note?

Stuart Bowen: No. Clearly not.

Stuart Bowen may be Kim Stahlman's best hope of getting authorities to listen.  Bowen was the George W. Bush administration's Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Kim first contacted him in 2011. He says he reviewed her legal filings and Michael Maloney's report and discussed the report with Maloney extensively.

Peter Van Sant: What have you concluded? 

Stuart Bowen: It was not a suicide. I believe that he was murdered.

Bowen says authorities may have cut corners early on.

Stuart Bowen: It might be the case that the rush to judgment … led to practices that departed from best practices.

Though in 2017 Bowen resigned from a government job in Texas amid unrelated ethics allegations which he denies, he has become one of Kim's most important supporters.

Stuart Bowen: She's committed to the truth about what happened.

Bowen and Kim have helped Cilla McCain and others push Congress for a bill of rights for bereaved families. McCain says many have nowhere else to turn.

stahlman-supporters.jpg
Kim Stahman and supporters for a bill of rights for bereaved families take on Capitol Hill CBS News

Cilla McCain: There's no court in which they can say, "Hey … let's hear this fairly with unbiased eyes and ears." It doesn't exist for military families.

Recently, another significant step forward. Bowen says he convinced the military's new chief medical examiner to take another look at the official findings in the case.

Stuart Bowen: He assured me that he's going to review it closely and discuss it widely.

Peter Van Sant: Is that a big deal?

Kim Stahlman: Oh, God. Yeah.

Peter Van Sant: Because what can that medical examiner do?

Kim Stahlman: Change … the death certificate.  

After spending about 10 years looking into this case, Cilla McCain is writing a book about it with Kim.

Cilla McCain: I have pored over thousands -- thousands of documents. I have talked to anybody that I could find.

McCain says in her experience, authorities rarely change their findings. And last summer, NCIS sent "48 Hours" a statement saying: 

"NCIS has thoroughly investigated this case and we continue to stand by our investigative findings."

NCIS's independent expert Mark Reynolds insists the science strongly suggests how Col. Stahlman sustained his fatal wound. But Reynolds also surprised "48 Hours."

Peter Van Sant: Do you feel 100-percent certain that this is a suicide? 

Mark Reynolds: No.  I think that -- if it was a hidden ... homicide, it was sophisticated and ... it won't be determined forensically. It'll be determined investigatively.

Peter Van Sant: Would you be professionally troubled … if this this case was changed to undetermined?

Mark Reynolds: Would I be professionally troubled?  No.

Peter Van Sant: Can you live with undetermined?

Kim Stahlman: That's like saying, "Eh, it can be this, it can be that." No. I may have to live with it, however I don't want to. I don't think it's fair to my children.

Peter Van Sant: You've been described as a woman in denial about all of this.

Kim Stahlman [affirms]:  Mm-hmm. 

Peter Van Sant:  You're not in denial?  

Kim Stahlman: No. No.

Far from it, she insists.

Kim Stahlman: It would have been easier for me if it had been a suicide. At least I could move on with my freakin' life.

Kim recently visited her husband's grave at Arlington National Cemetery. She's now thinking of moving his remains closer to home. 

Kim Stahlman: A man gave his entire life to his country, and for what? They didn't support him in the end.

As for the man they loved, Col. Stahlman's family knows they may never prove how he died, but they will always be proud of how he lived.

stahlman-mackenna.jpg
"It's my duty to carry on his legacy," MacKenna Stahlman, now 21, said. "My father … was probably the best man that I have ever met and might ever will meet." Kim Stahlman

MacKenna Stahlman: It's my duty to carry on his legacy and do great things so he'll be proud of me in whatever I end up doing in my life. ... My father … was probably the best man that I have ever met and might ever will meet.

He's a man she still sometimes meets when she closes her eyes at night.

MacKenna Stahlman: … all of a sudden there's like, a knock on the door, and the door opens and it's Dad. … And then … I wake up and I'm, like, "Nope, that was just a dream."

Kim Stahlman: There's no other man I've ever loved...

Kim Stahlman: I know I'll never meet another Mike Stahlman. 

Stuart Bowen says the medical examiner has agreed to meet with him again at the end of April.

  • Peter Van Sant

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"