Everyone agrees that 32 blows to the back of the head with the claw end of a hammer killed Conrail supervisor James A. Cooley last spring. Hobart police and the county coroner said, "Murder."

The trouble started when the police broke ranks and said, "Suicide."

Hobart Police Chief Larry Juzwicki says his investigation "moved from the possibility that it was a homicide to the possibility that it was a suicide" because there were no signs of forced entry into Cooley's home, no signs of a struggle, no fingerprints on the blood-smeared handle of the hammer.

"I called it a homicide from the minute I looked at it," said Lake County Coroner Dr. Daniel Thomas. "I'm the coroner. I give the cause and manner of death." He said that since police reclassified the death, "they won't meet with me because they say, 'Case is closed.' "

That leaves county prosecutor Jack Crawford in the uncomfortable position of potential mediator between law enforcement officials who usually play for the same side. Crawford is reviewing the case but said he does not expect to make a decision before the new year.

Cooley, 52, died April 6. His wife, Diane, told police that she came home from grocery shopping and found her husband, who suffered from lung cancer, slumped on the floor of his basement workshop. He had been struck 32 times, and a hammer whose claws matched his wounds was found in the room.

The police investigation produced no motive, no suspect, no leads. Their efforts were stalled until two Hobart detectives contacted Sgt. Rod Englert of Multnomah, Ore., who had taught a seminar they attended on investigative techniques. "We felt a need to go outside the department," Juzwicki said.

In a telephone interview this month, Englert said he believes with "absolute certainty" that Cooley killed himself. The "clustering of wounds" is "very typical" of suicide, he said, and the spattered blood in the workshop "is consistent with that man being on the floor and hitting himself on the head with a hammer."

Englert's study of the crime-scene photos convinced him that "nobody disturbed that blood on the floor. Nobody stepped in that blood." In a report filed last August, he laid out the case for suicide.

Outraged by the reclassification, the coroner asked Crawford to intervene. "I wouldn't let them call a homicide a suicide," Thomas said in an interview in his office. "I'm so persistent, I won't let it go by."

Flipping through the close-up color photographs, Thomas said, "The injury to the brain was so overwhelming, it couldn't be self-inflicted." He pointed to a photograph of Cooley's head and added, "Ask any doctor if a man could inflict that on himself."

The "perfect order" of the parallel rows of claw wounds indicates murder to Thomas. The V-shaped "seagull" marks made by the claw point straight down, an angle that Cooley could not have achieved "because of the structure of our arm." Thomas argues that "if he did this to himself, they would be on the oblique."

Diane Cooley, 42, agrees with Thomas. "I don't believe he committed suicide," she said. ". . . A lot of people have cancer and don't kill themselves." But she knows of no one who would have wanted him dead.

"He was an easy-going, well-liked, very intelligent, kind man," she said. "He was a good guy."

The eight-month dispute over his death distresses his wife. "I'm just not interested in promoting the controversy. It doesn't do Jimmy any good," she said. But she said she does want the case reopened, does want to know what happened.

Chief Juzwicki is waiting to hear from prosecutor Crawford. "We closed our case and classified it as a suicide. We can certainly be wrong. We're not above reopening it."

Meanwhile, Crawford will not comment on the substance of the case or say whring with some of his work. "indicates passion rather than indifference."