SUICIDE OR DIXIE MAFIA HIT? – DEATH OF NORMAN LADNER

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PHOTO COURTESY OF UNSOLVED MYSTERIES 

This article has been re-blogged from Synova Ink with permission

A seventeen-year-old boy spends his days exploring his family’s 122-acre property. Even at a tender age, Norman Ladner was an experienced outdoorsman. He loved hunting, fishing, and exploring the nature around him. Why then was he shot in the head and left in the woods to die? Did he witness one of the Dixie Mafia’s narcotics planes? Was the radio device found hanging in a nearby tree used to signal a drop? Thirty years later, these questions are still unanswered.


On August 21, 1989, Norman Ladner spent the day exploring his family land like he had done almost every day. Ladner was the oldest child and was very responsible. Everyone that remembers him tells of his dependability and his kindness. The Ladner family also owned the local country store. When Norman finished his day of exploring the outdoors, he would usually show up at the store to help his parents close up shop and prepare for the next day. You could set your watch by him. Norman always strolled in around 7 pm. On occasion, he would be closer to 7:30, but never later. On this night, his father began to worry when his son never showed up at the store. Norman Ladner Sr. hurried home to see if his son was in his woodworking shop in the barn. The teenager was nowhere to be found.

Worried, but not frightened, the father gathered a few friends and together they formed a search party. Everyone thought the boy had gotten lost, or maybe injured. No one expected what they would find in those woods on that fateful night. Sr. stumbled upon his son laying beneath a tree. When he reached down and touched his boy, the chill of death shot through him. The distraught father sat with his son in the dark woods until his search party to could return to the house to call the police. 

Pearl County Sheriff Lorance Lumpkin arrived on the scene around 10 pm. There he found Norman laying on his back with his legs curled up underneath him. He was rolled partially to the side a gunshot wound in his temple. From the outset, the authorities began speculating the death was a horrible accident. Perhaps the teenager had jumped down from the tree and fell. Maybe the impact caused his rifle to go off.

A few days later, the coroner came into the family store with two deputies to speak to the family about his results. He told the family that he was 90% sure it was a terrible accident. Strangely, when the official ruling came out a few days later, it was classed as suicide. The family was shocked. They couldn’t believe it. Nothing about it made sense. Norman was a happy child. If it were suicide, why did he have a large gash on the top of his head?

The family went to the sheriff and tried to speak about the case, but the sheriff flat out said they were wrong. It was a suicide, and they were just grieving parents who refused to see the truth. 

Evidence Against The Suicide Theory:

  • Why did the boy have a gash on TOP of his head, and how does that relate to suicide? I wasn’t doing a handstand while trying to hold a rifle and shoot himself in the temple.
  • I was unable to verify this, but it was once reported that the head wound had live maggots while the temple wound held larva. This would lead one to believe that the head wound came first, and the temple wound was secondary.
  • The police never processed the scene as a crime scene. They didn’t find a bullet. The father would find one on his own later.
  • Norman’s gun was never tested or fingerprinted. 
  • No one determined what type of weapon that killed him. They never checked because they believed it was his own gun from the beginning. 
  • Norman’s wallet with $140 was missing. I’m sure he just stole his own money, threw away his wallet, and marched into the woods to shoot himself, right? I don’t think so!

The family repeatedly tried to get the sheriff to reopen the case, but he flat out refused. The father, desperate for answers went out into the woods to begin his own investigation. There in the dirt under where his son’s head would have been, they found a bullet with human blood and hair. It seemed to the father that his son was slumped on the ground rolled to the side and someone standing above him shot the boy through the temple. The bullet then traveled through the hair and skull and buried into the dirt. It makes sense. If the boy had somehow pulled the trigger on his own rifle, then the gun would have flown through the air and landed at another location.

I should also mention that in some reports the boy was carrying a shotgun and other stories call it a rifle, so I cannot say what type of gun the boy had. I can tell you that it was most likely a shotgun. Either way, it isn’t easy to shoot oneself in the temple with a shotgun or a rifle. 

Still desperate for answers, the poor father took the bullet to the sheriff and was immediately dismissed. The police claimed that since they didn’t find the bullet, then they couldn’t prove it was the one who killed Norman. The father argued that they didn’t look for a bullet, but it was no use. Since he was getting nowhere with the local sheriff, Norman Sr. took the bullet to the state ballistics lab. He explained how the bullet was too long to fit in his son’s gun and asked the examiner to look over the bullet. The results came back inconclusive siting the same lines as the sheriff almost verbatim. To make matters worse, when the bullet was returned to the family, it was a different one than the bullet they had sent in.

During their frequent trips to the coroner’s office, Norman’s mother was approached by a stranger. He asked if he could discuss her son’s case with her, so of course, the mother agreed to step away and speak with him. When the pair were out of earshot of her husband, the stranger turned and uttered a chilling threat to the poor mother. He told her that she had other children and she should just drop this investigation and raise them because they’d never find Norman’s killer. Frightened, she hurried back to Norman Sr. and told him about the threat. The man was gone before anyone could find him. 

Determined to find the truth, the now somewhat paranoid father makes another trip into the woods to find clues. Three hundred yards from his son’s position, he saw a strange object hanging in a tree. It was a homemade radio device of sorts covered in tape and wires with a small antenna protruding from the top. Of course, the father took it to the sheriff and was dismissed. Norman then turned to a neighbor and told him about the device. The neighbor put him in contact with a retired DEA agent who lived in the area. 

The DEA agent knew what the strange object was immediately and explained these devices transmit signals. The narcotics plans would fly over an area, and when the signal was picked up on their devices, then they would drop their load of drugs. Was this the answer the family had been looking for? Did their poor boy run up on a drug trafficker and a narcotics drop?

To make matters worse, the sheriff would later be charged with dogfighting and other illegal activities. Although some believe he had ties to the local group of Dixie Mafia drug cartel, nothing has been proven. Norman Ladner, Sr. died in 2003, and the sheriff died in 2007. Thirty years have passed, and most of the witnesses are long gone. What evidence the family found is no longer available. Still, questions remain. What happened to Norman Ladner? Was it suicide or murder?


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Further Reading:

Unsolved

Only In Your State

Trace Evidence Podcast Video 

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This week’s Recommended Reading:


The Boys on the Tracks


The Life and Times of Frank Balistrieri: The Last, Most Powerful Godfather of Milwaukee


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