KENT: Mary Richards’ patience has run out.
She waited for nearly a year for a Freedom of Information Act request for a report and documentation into the death of her son, Kenneth Liam Richards, 26, at Air Force basic training on Dec. 30, 2010, at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.
“It feels like they are hiding something,” said Richards, 53, an accountant and Kent resident.
A death certificate she received after the death of her son, a 2003 Kent Roosevelt High School and an Allegheny College graduate, indicated he hanged himself but the “manner of death” was still under investigation.
“I don’t believe he took his own life,” Richards said in a recent interview.
She said Air Force officials told her a 16-month investigation into Kenneth’s death was finished last April.
Richards made her Freedom of Information Act request for the report and all documents related to the inquest in May. Nearly a year later, she said she still has received nothing.
She has even contacted the White House, asking for executive assistance in getting the information she requested.
Richards said it is her understanding that her son died of asphyxiation. The morning of his death, he had taken another recruit to a medical appointment, and when he returned afterward was asked to pull guard duty, by himself, at a barracks that was not his own.
His body was found about noon, with a strap from a brief case around his neck. The other end was tied to the top of a bunk bed, Richards said.
Her son, who was gay, had never made any suicide attempts before, she said.
“There is something there that doesn’t feel right and doesn’t sound right,” Richards said.
In the only letter she received from her son, the only indication that could be taken as a possible suicidal thought — “and that would be a stretch,” she said — was when he was writing about his nephew Tom, who is in her custody and was 2 years old when the letter was written.
“I’ve been very homesick lately, partially because it is sinking in just how little time I will have in coming years to be with the family,” Kenneth Richards wrote. “It’s hard knowing that Tommy will grow up without me.”
He concluded the letter by writing, “I miss you all and love you all.”
Before entering the Air Force, Richards cared for his nephew quite a bit, his mother said.
“I’ve hit a brick wall,” Mary Richards said of her feelings of not knowing details of her son’s death.
James C. Dillard, Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) Public Affairs spokesman, said that until the Freedom of Information Act request is processed, he would be unable to release any specifics.
“This was apparently a very exhaustive investigation. OSI agents interviewed quite a few people in the process of handling this case,” Dillard said. “We pride ourselves on having thorough and dedicated agents who are trained to pursue every avenue necessary to find the truth in their investigations.”
Dillard explained that the employee who originally was processing the Richards family’s request no longer works for the agency.
“OSI, like many military agencies, has lost contracts and government workers in the past year,” he said. “Unfortunately, we lost several of our folks who process the [Freedom of Information Act] requests.”
Dillard said someone new is handling the Richards’ case now.
“It’s a massive file — more than 1,200 pages,” he said. “That has some bearing on the time it has taken.”
He said the office hopes to have the information to Richards in the next two months.
Family doubts suicide
Rebecca Richards, 31, of Stow, also does not believe her brother would have taken his own life.
“He was not a young, naive teenager who joined the military out on a whim or with the fanatical dreams of changing the world,” she said. “He joined because it was a new branch in his career path. He was excited about his upcoming graduation from basic training and heading to training school.”
Kenneth was “grounded and knew what to expect before he stepped on the plane to Lackland,” his sister said. “The thought of him taking his own life to me is preposterous.”
Paul Richards, 56, of Akron, said his son was happy when he spoke to family members on Christmas Day — five days before his death.
“He was excited about seeing us for the upcoming graduation,” he said, adding that he does not believe his son took his own life.
He said it is his understanding that since his son’s death the Air Force has employed a “buddy system’’ throughout basic training. The day he was found dead, Kenneth had been left alone for four hours guarding the barracks, Paul Richards said.
Mary Richards said Kenneth was days away from graduation and going to school for aircraft maintenance, making the ordeal difficult for the entire family to understand.
“None of us is really certain about what happened with Kenneth,” she said. “Nothing is going to bring him back. The question that lingers is: Is there someone we should be holding accountable? And that is the question I just can’t even begin to answer.
“It is the last piece in the process we can’t get to because we don’t know.”
On her son’s military marker at Standing Rock Cemetery in Kent are words that described him perfectly, his mother said: “He was sunshine.”
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at email@example.com.