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MERIDIAN — A misstep by the Meridian Police Department the day 21-year-old Christian Andreacchio died set the tone for the criminal investigation that has stretched into three years.
A host of police detectives, three police chiefs, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, private investigators, crime scene re-constructionists, a forensic pathologist and several attorneys have tried to figure out how and why Christian died.
Arrest warrants were issued for two individuals more than a month ago, but the police have made no arrests. Now that the case had been handed off to the state Attorney General’s office, Christian’s family is hopeful they finally will get some answers.
Christian, who worked offshore on a tug boat called the Magnolia Marine, was found dead in the bathroom of his apartment in Meridian on Feb. 26, 2014. He was kneeling on the bathroom floor with his upper body slumped into the bathtub, blood pooling down the drain. Both his girlfriend and one of Christian’s friends were at his apartment that day.
Christian’s friend Dylan Swearingen called the Meridian police, but investigators who arrived to assess the scene reported were interrupted by an order from then-police chief James Lee to stop investigating and rule the death a suicide.
Events from that point on can be described as bizarre at best and suspicious at worst.
Law enforcement authorities and crime scene re-constructionists later concluded that certain aspects of the crime scene did not add up:
• If Christian, who is right-handed, shot himself in his right temple, how did the pistol end up between his left leg and the outside of the bathtub?
• Why was the gun, a .45 Kimber semi-automatic 1911 pistol, found in an uncocked position with a live round in the chamber if it had been fired?
• If the death was definitively a suicide, why did the coroner rule it as “undetermined?”
• Why did forensic experts hired by the Andreacchio family conclude that the blood splatter in the bathroom and the location of a bullet hole near an electrical outlet above the sink and behind Christian did not line up with what would have happened if he had shot himself while kneeling over the tub?
“Things just didn’t fit,” said Meridian Police Chief Benny Dubose. He came on board after former chief Lee was fired following allegations of sexual harassment and what Mayor Percy Bland referred to as a “loss of confidence” in Lee’s ability to lead the department. Dubose decided to reopen the case.
The first problem, Dubose said, was Lee’s decision to show up at the crime scene. Lee, when reached by Mississippi Today, said he couldn’t recall the case and therefore couldn’t comment. He now works as assistant police chief in Durant.
“I think that the investigators on the scene should’ve been allowed to complete their investigation and talk to witnesses,” Dubose said. “The rule of thumb is you treat any crime scene as a homicide until you can prove otherwise.”
After Lee was fired, acting police chief Buck Roberts handed the case over to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which the Andreacchio family says submitted an investigative report to District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell at the end of 2014. Despite a court order in September 2015 requiring MBI to turn over the report to the family, the report has not been released.
Warren Strain, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, which oversees MBI, says the agency “only reviewed the file.” Strain declined to answer further questions about MBI’s involvement.
An investigation cut short, then reopened
The Meridian Police Department’s ongoing investigation has been lackluster, the Andreacchio family says. They question why certain people weren’t interviewed, why police never looked into the fact that Christian’s vehicle was moved in his work parking lot in Vicksburg the day he died in Meridian and why there has been a lack of communication between the department and the family.
And, even more striking, why was gunshot residue found by police on the hands of both Christian’s girlfriend, Whitley Goodman, and friend Dylan Swearingen the day Christian died? Tests showed Goodman and Swearingen had residue on both hands, while Christian had residue on his palm.
Her explanation, according to police reports, is she and three friends had shot a gun in the early morning hours near Hayes Road in Meridian.
Two of the individuals with her, cousins Jett and Matt Miller, gave conflicting accounts when interviewed by investigators. Matt told them Goodman never shot the gun, saying she was scared. Jett said she did shoot the gun.
But a fourth individual present that night, Zac Tabb, perhaps the last hope to shed light on what happened, was not contacted by Meridian police until a little more than a month ago.
When asked why Tabb wasn’t contacted until recently given the conflicting reports, Dubose said he could not recall Jett’s statement.
Christian’s family says authorities refused to allow them to have an outside forensic lab analyze the DNA sample on the trigger of Christian’s gun. Emails show the family had reached out to Sorenson Forensics. Chalise Wilson, then-forensic accounts manager for Sorenson, wrote to Christian’s mother after examination of the crime lab report that the kit used by the lab was old and their company would be able to use a newer one.
Detective Jerry Bratu with the Meridian Police Department told the family via email on May 24, 2016, he was “waiting for the DA to give me a go ahead” for the crime lab to release the DNA sample to Sorenson. Three days later, he said he was still waiting to hear from the district attorney.
On May 31, Christian’s mother, Rae Andreacchio, wrote an email to her attorney, Cynthia Speetjens, saying Bratu had called her husband a couple of days before to say he had spoken to the district attorney, who told him “to hold up on the DNA testing until he had talked to Knox & Associates (crime scene re-constructionists hired by the Andreacchios) because if they had enough to take to grand jury he was just going to go with what they had.”
Rae said she and her husband never heard anything further regarding the DNA testing.
But Meridian attorney J. Stewart Parrish, who represented Goodman in the aftermath of Christian’s death and who currently represents Swearingen in an unrelated case, said the case was investigated by a number of different agencies, all of which came to the conclusion that Christian’s death was a suicide.
“There may be something nefarious that happened afterwards (after Christian’s death). There wasn’t any misconduct that I’m aware of that was uncovered by law enforcement immediately after his death,” Parrish said.
“I feel they (law enforcement) have been thorough and fair as far as I know,” he continued. “I understand the family doesn’t like the result and they want somebody to blame and all that other stuff but at the end of the day you’ve got to make sure you get the right guy. Just because somebody’s dead doesn’t mean somebody needs to go to jail.”
Christian’s family asked the state Attorney General and the U.S. attorney’s office to review the case, believing the Meridian Police Department was unable to handle the case thoroughly and effectively.
Last week, the Mississippi Attorney General’s office confirmed that it had taken over the investigation but said that decision was made because District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell had requested his office be recused.
“I coached Christian in soccer. I’m friends with the Andreccio [sic] family … I thought I was too close to the situation, and felt the AG would come in with fresh eyes, and hopefully get to the bottom of the case,” Mitchell told Mississippi Today via text.
The day Christian died
Only 21 years old when he died, Andreacchio had worked for three years on a tug boat in the Mississippi River called the Magnolia Marine. He had been promoted twice during his time on the boat and had a goal of being the youngest employee to become captain.
Christian set out for a 30-day hitch on Feb. 22, 2014. However, on the night of the 25th, according to a statement from Cheryl Stanley, a friend and coworker on the boat, Christian began receiving phone calls from a male telling him he had seen Christian’s girlfriend riding around with a “dope dealer” in Christian’s BMW and that he needed to come home.
“He was in a good mood,” Stanley told Mississippi Today about Christian’s demeanor that night. “He said he was going to go over (home) and get his car and lock his apartment and make her (Goodman) go back to her grandma’s where she was supposed to have been. Then he was supposed to have been back to the boat for crew change at 5:30 that evening.”
Police have never interviewed Stanley.
Christian reached out to his boss to see if he could find a substitute in order to go home for a day, indicating it was due to a family conflict. He secured a substitute and arranged for a friend to pick him up on shore in St. Rose, La., on the morning of Feb. 26.
Stanley says she is not sure whether the phone call the previous night came from Dylan Swearingen, who picked up Christian the next morning and was with him the day he died. She says she did recall hearing the name “Dylan” repeatedly during Christian’s phone conversation.
According to a timeline created by the Andreacchios’ attorney based on phone records, police reports and witness interviews, Christian’s debit card was used at a gas station in Picayune, Miss., around 9:24 a.m. Christian and Swearingen arrived at Willow Ridge Apartments in Meridian around 11:30 a.m. Goodman, who was living in the apartment, was also there.
From then until about 5 p.m. that day, the only two people around Christian were Swearingen and Goodman. Each has a different version about what happened between 11:30 a.m. and the time police arrived to find Christian’s body in the bathroom.
According to the timeline prepared by the attorney for the Andreacchio family:
• Swearingen told the police that when he and Christian arrived at the apartment that morning, Goodman and Christian immediately began arguing. Swearingen said that during the course of the argument Christian put a gun to his head and threatened to shoot himself. Goodman, however, never mentioned this incident to police.
• After the situation with Christian and Goodman calmed down, Swearingen said he told them he was leaving to get food and asked if they wanted anything. Swearingen says Christian gave Swearingen his debit card and told him to pick up the food.
• Swearingen says Christian also told him to “go to the credit union and take all of his money out of his account,” in addition to going to the phone store to fix Goodman’s phone, which had reportedly been broken in the argument, the timeline states.
• Swearingen is seen on video footage at Christian’s credit union attempting to withdraw money around 12:30 p.m. He was not able to retrieve it because he didn’t have Christian’s PIN number. Around that same time he made a call to Christian’s phone.
• When Swearingen returned to the apartment later that afternoon, apparently after also making a trip to Best Buy, he saw Goodman asleep on the couch. He then went upstairs to look for Christian, whom he found in the bathroom, his body slumped over the bloody bathtub.
Goodman’s version of events, as prepared by the attorney, differs in key ways:
• Goodman never mentioned Christian putting a gun to his head to police, either that day or in later interviews. In fact, that night when being driven to the police station, she told an investigator that she “doesn’t believe she ever heard him (Christian) talk about hurting himself.”
• Goodman said that because she had taken Xanax the night before, she slept through the gunshot that killed Christian and did not wake up until Swearingen came home.
Goodman declined to answer questions about the case when reached by Mississippi Today. Attempts to reach Swearingen were not successful.
Was there a motive?
Phone records from early January 2014 show Goodman texted Christian about the possibility of being pregnant, the family says. She reportedly asked who would take care of her and the baby if something happens to Christian. “We need to get married,” she tells him.
Christian’s co-worker, Cheryl Stanley, says that later that same month, Christian told her he was thinking about buying a life insurance policy with Goodman as the beneficiary.
Stanley said she strongly advised him not to take out a policy and that he agreed. Having worked on the boat with Christian for three years, she described him as being like a son.
“I’ll put it this way: Christian would never, ever, ever have killed himself because he loved life too much. I mean, me and him always made joking comments like, ‘If something ever happens to me, I didn’t do it,’ ” she said, laughing. “But he was outgoing, full of fun, you didn’t have a dull moment around him.”
In February 2014, Christian asked his father, Todd Andreacchio, about taking out a life insurance policy. Todd also advised against it.
The Andreacchios never were able to determine whether Christian took out a policy, and Chief Dubose said police never confirmed there was such a policy.
Although arrest warrants for murder have been issued for Goodman and Swearingen, they have not been arrested. Dubose says the arrests have not been made because he and the city prosecutor agreed there wouldn’t be enough evidence to get murder charges through a preliminary hearing.
Police tried to downgrade the charges to manslaughter with culpable negligence, Dubose said, but the family and the judge who signed off on the warrants would not agree.
Cynthia Speetjens, the attorney for the Andreacchios and a former prosecutor for the state, expressed the family’s point of view: “They have a staged scene and a financial motive and obvious lies. The standard at a preliminary is probable cause.”
She points to the differing stories of what happened that day from Goodman and Swearingen and parts of the crime scene that don’t add up. In addition, she said she believes the alleged discussion of a life insurance policy between Christian and Goodman is enough to qualify as a potential motive.
“Both individuals at the scene had a financial motive to kill Christian,” Speetjens said. “Whitley (Goodman) believed that she was Christian’s life insurance beneficiary, and Dylan spoke to a member of the Andreacchio family on her behalf, asking whether the policy had paid off yet, because Whitley’s grandmother needed a car.”
The case was scheduled to be presented to the grand jury this month, but now that the Attorney General’s office has taken over the investigation, the next step remains unknown. A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office confirmed that they had taken over the case from the district attorney, but could not comment further.
“The longer you wait, the more difficult it is to prove a case in my opinion,” Dubose said when asked whether he thinks the nearly three years that have passed will have an impact on the outcome of an investigation.
“I hope there’s some resolution and we’ll know what happens.”