Antonin Scalia's Death Prompts Confusion, Conspiracy Theories

The family of Justice Antonin Scalia declined an autopsy, sparking multiple theories about his cause of death.

Published Feb. 15, 2016

Image courtesy of Flickr

On 13 February 2016, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died on a Texas hunting trip.

Although Scalia was 79 years old at the time of his death, he was also considered to be in reasonably good health and had no stated intention of retiring. The event was unexpected, and as with most unexpected deaths, there was initially some confusion over the accuracy of the news.  Because of that and his family's decision not to order an autopsy (and because his death occurred in an election year) speculation and rumormongering immediately ensued.

Immediately, social media users speculated as to whether the timing of his death was suspect enough to warrant additional attention. On 14 February 2016, a Facebook user published the following status update, encapsulating one of many intricate theories:

The man you see shaking hands with Barack Obama is the owner of the Texas ranch resort Justice Scalia was found dead at. His name is John Poindexter and he was earlier honored during a ceremony by Obama.

Mr. Poindexter was the one who helped get Justice Scalia declared dead w/o an actual medical examination. (It was apparently done over the phone based upon his descriptions of the Justice's condition) He was also the one who was the link between Justice Scalia's death and the response of federal authorities.

No autopsy was ordered...

scalia murdered

Much of the post's text appeared to be based on details published in a 14 February 2016 New York Times article specifically about the discovery of Scalia's body:

When Justice Antonin Scalia did not respond to a knock at the door of his suite at the Cibolo Creek Ranch at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, John B. Poindexter, the property’s owner, was not alarmed ... It was less than three hours later, when Mr. Poindexter tried again, that he found Justice Scalia’s body.

Justice Scalia had no pulse and was clearly dead, Mr. Poindexter recalled in an interview on Sunday.

The Facebook post asserted Scalia was "apparently" declared dead via telephone, a circumstance described across several paragraphs in the Times' article. But that also appeared to be anecdotal, based on an e-mails from Texas judge David Beebe:

Just after 11 a.m., Mr. Poindexter and a friend of Justice Scalia’s tried the door again, again to no answer. They entered the room, and it took no medical training, Mr. Poindexter said, to recognize that Justice Scalia was dead.

Mr. Poindexter called a hospital and, without identifying Justice Scalia, reported what had happened. A hospital official, Mr. Poindexter said, assessed that it would be impossible to resuscitate Justice Scalia, and ranch officials contacted the United States Marshals Service.

That call set into motion hours of intense discussions about how to navigate the protocols associated with the death of a Supreme Court justice outside the Washington area.

“No identity or clue was given that this was not another body found by hunters in the desert,” David Beebe, a justice of the peace, wrote in an email Saturday night.

Judge Beebe said County Judge Cinderela Guevera had ultimately pronounced Justice Scalia dead by telephone and “ruled it natural causes based on credible information.” She did not respond to messages on Sunday.

The Times didn't clarify whether Beebe was present, party to the flurry of activity in or around Cibolo Creek Ranch on 13 February 2016, or how he came to learn details of the chain of declaration of death.

Beebe's relevance was further detailed in a 14 February 2016 NPR piece:

When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died Saturday in Presidio County, it wasn't easy to arrange the inquest, the judicial inquiry into the death ... I was reporting from a candidate forum in neighboring Brewster County. Officials from all three counties were in attendance. David Beebe, the justice of the peace for Precinct 1 in Presidio County, was there, too. Shortly after 1 p.m., he received a request to handle an inquest for "a dead body" back in his county.

Beebe responded he was also far away, too, busy at the political forum. The deceased wasn't identified. Bishop said she would find an alternate. In this border county, sometimes the dead body is an undocumented migrant. Identification can take weeks; death can wait.

Bishop contacted the third choice, Presidio County Judge Cinderella Guevara, who was also unable to make the drive to Cibolo Creek Ranch. Connecting with the county sheriff there, she officially handled the inquest — over the phone — pronouncing Justice Scalia dead just before 2 p.m. The Texas Code of Criminal Procedures allows justices of the peace to pronounce death via phone when deemed reasonable.

It wasn't until after 3 p.m. that the news started to make its way to the local officials at the candidates forum. Phones lit up. People stopped paying attention to the debate on the stage. I was sitting near Judge Beebe, and we rushed out of the school auditorium together. We drove straight to the only funeral home in the area, in Alpine — where there was no answer at the door.

As the additional information from an on-the-scene press account indicated, Beebe was initially contacted, but not advised that the death in question involved Scalia. When Beebe and the reporter learned that the deceased was in fact a Supreme Court Justice, both hastily traveled a long distance to the funeral home closest to Cibolo Creek Ranch. In the interim, Judge Cinderella Guevara declared Scalia dead per the jurisdiction's protocol (by phone).

Poindexter provided further details about the chain of events surrounding Scalia's death in a 15 February 2016 San Antonio Express-News article:

"We discovered the judge in bed, a pillow over his head. His bed clothes were unwrinkled ... He was lying very restfully. It looked like he had not quite awakened from a nap," he said.

Scalia, 79, did not have a pulse and his body was cold, and after consulting with a doctor at a hospital in Alpine, Poindexter concluded resuscitation would have been futile, He then contacted federal authorities, at first encountering a series of answering services because he was calling on a weekend.

"Ultimately they became available and handled it superbly. They flew in by helicopter. They told me to secure the ranch, which I did until this morning," he said.

That article concluded by reporting that the "body of the Supreme Court justice was moved to an El Paso funeral home early Sunday," per the wishes of Scalia's family. The Facebook post asserted that "no autopsy was ordered" shortly after stating Scalia was pronounced dead via phone, creating the impression that the two details were somehow linked and some barrier existed to an official forensic investigation.

However, a 14 February 2016 Chicago Tribune article reported that Scalia's family declined an autopsy and simply requested his body be returned to Washington as soon as possible:

Chris Lujan, a manager for Sunset Funeral Homes ... says an autopsy was not performed.

He says Scalia's family didn't think a private autopsy was necessary and requested his remains be flown home as soon as possible.

The county official who declared Scalia dead Saturday did not order an autopsy after finding he had died of natural causes. She said investigators told her there were no signs of foul play.

That article included a 15 February 2016 statement from the U.S. Marshals Service about Scalia's death, confirming Scalia declined security detail for the trip:

The U.S. Marshals Service routinely coordinates with the U.S. Supreme Court police to provide security for the Justices, however, Justices may decline USMS protection. In this instance, the USMS detail was declined for the personal trip to the hunting resort in Texas, so USMS personnel were not present at the ranch. Deputy U.S. Marshals from the Western District of Texas responded immediately upon notification of Justice Scalia's passing.

The Washington Post confirmed Scalia's family opposed an autopsy:

As official Washington tried to process what his demise means for politics and the law, some details of Scalia’s final hours remained opaque. As late as Sunday afternoon, for example, there were conflicting reports about whether an autopsy should have been performed. A manager at the El Paso funeral home where Scalia’s body was taken said that his family made it clear they did not want one.

Speculation over the lack of autopsy wasn't confined to social media. As the Dallas Observer reported on 15 February 2016, conspiracy magnate Alex Jones leapt into the fray almost immediately:

Radio talk show host Alex Jones, never one to pass up an opportunity to stir the pot, said he feels this happened “in his gut." ...

Scalia was not a young man. He was 79 years old and friends at the West Texas ranch where he died say he went to bed early because he didn’t feel well. There are many natural causes of death that could be responsible. A heart attack seems to be the most probable cause, and local media are reporting that his death certificate will read “myocardial infarction.” Other media reports say the cause will be deemed natural. Either way, no official is suggesting homicide.

Let’s not let that stop us from conjecture. Besides, there are also a few man-made ways to kill him that would fit the very thin facts — some of which would be hard to prove even if examiners conducted an autopsy.

The Facebook post linked above is an excellent example of such conjecture. It depicted Cibolo Creek Ranch owner John Poindexter with President Obama implying some kind of connection. However, that photo was taken on or around 20 October 2009, when Poindexter was invited by President Obama to the White House for a 2009 ceremony in which he was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for heroism for his service in Vietnam:

The Presidential Unit Citation, the highest honor given to a military unit, has been issued since World War II and is awarded to U.S. Armed Forces units that display extraordinary heroism in combat against an armed enemy force. It has been bestowed roughly 100 times, Obama said.

The initially confusing circumstances of Antonin Scalia's death were not at all suspicious. Poindexter was circumspect in securing the scene out of respect for Scalia, and reaching an official from a remote area in Texas on a Saturday was complicated. In compliance with local protocol, Scalia's death was declared by the first available judge via phone, and after Scalia was transported to a funeral home his family declined an autopsy. Cibolo Creek Ranch owner John Poindexter was indeed photographed with President Obama, but that occurred during a 2009 ceremony for veterans.

We were unable to find any other connection between Poindexter and President Obama, nor anything that made us suspect that Justice Antonin Scalia's death was anything but the peaceful, ordinary death of a man who was nearly 80 years old.

Kim LaCapria is a former writer for Snopes.