With Murder Trial, Family Seeks Truth in Son's Death

Michael Anthony McQueen and Gary Smith
A Montgomery County jury is expected to decide in February whether Gary Smith, bottom, killed Michael McQueen, above. McQueen, 22, was an Army Ranger and former sergeant Smith, 25, is charged with first-degree murder. ( Courtesy Photos)
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2007

U.S. Army Ranger Michael McQueen had served three tours with special forces in Afghanistan, only to die in the living room of his Gaithersburg apartment after watching football, a .38-caliber bullet piercing his right temple.

Outside the apartment building, police later found his roommate, former sergeant Gary Smith, crying inconsolably, smeared with McQueen's blood and with gunpowder residue on his hands. Smith told police that before calling 911, he drove to nearby Lake Needwood, gun in hand, and dumped it in the water.

A Montgomery County jury is expected to decide in February whether Smith, 25, killed McQueen, 22, on the night of Aug. 25, 2006, or simply tried to cover up a suicide. Smith is charged with first-degree murder.

The two conflicting theories point to largely unseen fronts in ongoing wars, battles that are often fought after veterans return home. Burdened by memories of war, some veterans commit crimes of violence, even killing, that they might not have otherwise, while others direct the violence inward, according to studies. The most desperate take their own lives.

An estimated 5,000 veterans of all wars commit suicide each year, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, a trend that has led to congressional hearings and calls for an overhaul in post-combat screening. About one in five Iraq veterans suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, as does Smith.

The mystery surrounding McQueen's death deepened recently when a blood-spatter expert hired by the prosecution concluded that the fatal gunshot wound appears to have been self-inflicted, a finding at odds with the conclusion of the state's initial expert.

"Everyone has different opinions," said Warrant Officer William Burkett, who supervised Smith and McQueen. "Some people don't know what to think. Some people think he's innocent. Some people think he's guilty. Others, like me, think it's not so black and white. Maybe he did it. Maybe he didn't do it. Maybe he didn't mean to do it."

McQueen's parents say they're convinced that their son was killed, and worry that the charges could be dropped before they find out what happened that night. "I need the truth," Michael McQueen said of his son's death. "I can't deal with a version of the truth."

McQueen, 51, was at the Associated Press bureau he runs in New Orleans when he received a call about 18 hours after his son's death.

"Your son is dead," a detective told him.

"How did that happen?" the stunned father asked.

"Undetermined," McQueen recalled her responding. Someone shot him or he shot himself.

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