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Haunted by a word, a family battles medical examiner’s office

David J. Haverty Jr. was struck by an MBTA commuter train at the Brighton Street crossing in Belmont on Feb. 27, 2009.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

David M. Haverty wishes he could forget about his father’s death certificate, filed away in the Belmont town clerk’s office. He wants to see it as a meaningless piece of paper. Why let that one word, put there by a medical examiner, undermine his father’s legacy?

Yet in the seven years since his father died at the age of 82, that blue certificate has haunted him, his four younger siblings, and, particularly, their mother. All the joyous birthdays, weddings, and graduations since Dad died have not reduced the sting of the word: suicide.

It is a word they associate with metallic coldness, a reminder of the MBTA commuter train that whipped by and struck their father, an avid walker, one winter morning at the Brighton Street crossing in Belmont.


It is also a word suggesting total certainty about one man’s inner world when, the family says, none exists.

Yes, their father had that week started a low-dose of antidepressants for anxiety and low mood, but he also wasn’t wearing his hearing aid that morning and may not have heard the train.

The family insists their father was an upbeat man — a man making vacation plans and talking about investments — who likely fell while exploring a new walking path on the other side of the tracks.

There was no suicide note left, no life insurance policy that could be cashed, no known event that might have triggered despair.

David J. Haverty Jr. left his house in the early morning of Feb. 27, 2009, as he always did on his daily walk.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The MBTA police and attorney general’s office, after examining the incident at the family’s request, told the medical examiner’s office that they saw reason to believe that David J. Haverty Jr. may have died accidently.

But Dr. Mindy Hull, the medical examiner assigned the case, ruled almost immediately that it was a suicide, and has refused to budge.

The medical examiner’s office has drawn controversy several times in the past two years over how it decides the manner of death in cases, especially those involving infants. A Globe report in August found it gives extraordinary power to its 12 medical examiners to rule how people died, with little oversight by the chief medical examiner and virtually no legal mechanism for critics to appeal.


The Globe has also found there are no standards dictating the level of certainty medical examiners must have before ruling on a manner of death.

In the cases involving the infants, the rulings out of the office affected the course of murder prosecutions. But in the Haverty case, the effect has been much more personal: how a family remembers, and honors, the loved one they lost.

The Havertys quickly learned that it would be Hull who would have the exclusive power to declare, for the official record and for posterity, what their father’s intentions were that day.

“There was nothing we could do to change her mind,” said David M. Haverty, the owner of an advertising agency.

In the family’s longtime Belmont home, Rita Haverty recalls the day the MBTA police knocked on her door. She said she detected nothing to suggest that her husband of 52 years was on the brink of taking his own life.

“We were looking forward to going on a cruise,” she said.

Hull and the chief of her office, Dr. Henry Nields, declined the Globe’s request for an interview.

At the long-ago wake for David John Haverty Jr., attended by more than 1,000 people in Belmont, he was recalled as a World War II Marine veteran with a Purple Heart, a devoted family man with 14 grandchildren, and an exercise devotee who loved to play golf and take daily walks.


He was buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Watertown. But the family says they have to do more to honor their father’s memory.

At the very least, the family says, the medical examiner’s office, if unwilling to rule the death an accident, should consider checking the box saying the cause of death “could not be determined.”

The passing years have not led any of the Haverty children to better accept the official death certificate. It remains, they say, a document with an inaccurate word that affects them all.

His daughter Christine Haverty said simply: “He’s our father.”

David M. and Rita Haverty (seated) and Dan and Christine Haverty continue to fight the medical examiner’s office.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The fateful day

On Feb. 27, 2009, an unseasonably warm winter Friday, Haverty left his Belmont house in the early morning, wearing his Marine cap, as he always did on his daily walk. He had, however, forgotten his hearing aid, a device he had needed since a World War II explosion left him deaf in his left ear. Not infrequently, his family said, he would forget to put it in.

He drove his car to the lot of the White Hen Pantry, now known as the Loading Dock, about 150 feet from the MBTA tracks that run across Brighton Street. The owner of the store recalled nothing unusual that day about his regular customer, who typically bought coffee and a newspaper.


Haverty then walked toward the MBTA tracks, a change in his routine. His family and close friends believe he headed that way because he couldn’t wait to check out a new elevated walking trail, just across the tracks, that had recently been written about in the local newspaper.

A longtime friend, Robert Sullivan, who has since died, told investigators that Haverty had “an adventurous spirit” and frequently explored new places.

“David expressed an intention to locate and walk the trail once weather permitted,” wrote Sullivan, a former high school principal in the town.

The previous days had been full of family for Haverty. On Thursday, he had spent part of the day helping Christine at the flower shop she owned in town, as he often did since retiring as a longtime salesman for a distilled beverage company. He had also asked one of his sons for advice that day about some maturing CDs. He had dinner with one of his grandsons.

The one unusual aspect of that week was his appointment with his longtime physician, Dr. Stephen Ranere.

In a letter to investigators, which the family provided to the Globe, the physician said Haverty had been treated for chronic lung issues, skin cancer, and other long-term health issues. He had “severe hearing issues,” he wrote. He noted, however, that his patient’s “medical problems had remained relatively stable over the course of the past few years.”


Ranere told investigators that Rita Haverty, who is also his patient, had expressed some concern that her husband “might have just been a little down” because of the major recession that began a year earlier.

When he and Haverty met that Wednesday, his patient reported that he had “not been feeling as well as he would like to feel but certainly did not feel despondent at any time.”

“He talked to me about future plans over the next few weeks. I thought he did have a mild depression and we talked about starting him on a medication, which he was not convinced he needed but thought it was worth a trial if I thought it might be beneficial to him.”

Ranere prescribed a low dose of Celexa.

“I have taken care of many patients over the past 35 years,” Ranere wrote, “and do not feel David could have taken his own life.”

The collision

At 7:05 a.m., an MBTA engineer, John Fortier, was in command of a five-car train packed with about 500 passengers. As it was zooming eastbound toward the Brighton Street crossing, he spotted a tall man near one of the buildings by the track, according to an MBTA report.

Some trains routinely sound warnings as they approach an intersection, but this stretch had been declared a “quiet zone” in deference to neighbors’ requests. It is unclear whether the warning bells on the crossing gate went off as it came down.

As the train barreled ahead at close to the 60-mile-per-hour speed limit, the engineer said in the report, the man “took two or three running steps toward the track and dove” onto them.

The only other eyewitness was a driver who had stopped at Brighton Street when the gates went down. He told MBTA investigators his car windows were closed and he did not hear any bells go off at the crossing gate.

According to the MBTA, he observed a “tall thin elderly male” walking toward the tracks. His initial report suggested the man leaned into the path of the train, but he later said the man may have fallen accidently. The eyewitness apparently later returned to the site and noticed uneven rocky terrain near the tracks.

A photo of Haverty during his time in the Marine Corps.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The engineer told authorities that when he spotted the man, he “sounded the horn.” However the family says any warning would likely have been too late. The train was traveling quickly and Haverty’s hearing was poor, particularly without his hearing aid.

Jack Haverty, the victim’s second oldest son and a lawyer in Plymouth, said he can understand how Hull and the MBTA might have initially suspected suicide. But what astonished him was how quickly she signed his death certificate, on the day he died. She had completed his autopsy, but had not yet received the toxicology report or spoken to all the eyewitnesses or family members.

“I saw it as arrogance,” he said.

Within two weeks of their father’s death, Jack Haverty wrote a letter to Hull asking that she “give consideration to the additional evidence” they provided and possibly “revisit the manner of death listed on the death certificate.”

He wrote that “to dispel any suspicion of pecuniary gain as motive,” the family was willing to sign a release discharging the MBTA and any others of legal responsibility.

But while Hull and Nields agreed to meet with the family, nothing changed.

Family is not alone

Refusing to let go of the issue, the family later asked the MBTA police to weigh in. In a letter that April, MBTA Lieutenant Detective Mark Gillespie asked Hull to consider changing the manner of death from suicide to “pending” until more information could be finalized.

That letter also went into detail about the “terrain in the immediate area of the accident,” which may have been “a contributing factor to the circumstances surrounding Haverty’s death.”

Still nothing changed.

About two years later, the family felt new hope when they persuaded Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office to examine the case. After investigators conducted an inquiry, Coakley wrote a letter on June 2, 2011, asking the medical examiner’s office to consider, minimally, revising the manner of death to “undetermined.”

She suggested Hull had an overly simplistic view, which was primarily that “a grown competent male who places himself in front of a moving train” is choosing to kill himself.

But Coakley cited “at least one case in the Boston area where a law enforcement official, clearly not suicidal, did not hear an oncoming train and was killed while looking for evidence” near the tracks.

She said she didn’t understand how a physician trained in forensic pathology could rule Haverty’s death a suicide to “a reasonable degree of medical certainty,” given all the conflicting evidence.

The MBTA transit police, who see 25 or 30 cases of “suicide by train” each year, later went even further in its conclusions. Superintendent Richard Sullivan told the Globe last month that while the agency “accepts” the medical examiner’s finding, its top detective concluded the Belmont man most likely suffered from “an accident.”

In response to the Globe’s inquiries, a spokesman for the medical examiner’s office has maintained that it keeps an open mind to being wrong and will “consider all new information that may shed light on a case.”

But David Haverty said he didn’t see such open-mindedness when his family met with the office. He also said the longtime chief medical examiner, Nields, was a passive presence as the family talked with Hull, saying in essence that these rulings are up to whoever is assigned the case.

“He didn’t want to rock the boat,” he said.

Still seeking change

Medical examiners often face push-back from families after being told that an elderly loved one may have died of suicide, said Patrick Arbore, founder and director of the Center of Elderly Suicide Prevention based in San Francisco.

“There’s a stigma to death by suicide,” said Arbore.

He said statistics show that suicide rates are actually higher among the elderly than any other age group — with the top rates among older white males.

Haverty’s death certificate.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

But as with all manners of death, initial hunches aren’t always right and it’s generally wise to gather as much information as possible before reaching conclusions, said David Fowler, head of the National Association of Medical Examiners. He emphasized, however, that he was not familiar with this case.

Thomas Andrew, chief medical examiner in New Hampshire, said “suicide” is a powerful finding with potential legal repercussions, such as life insurance payouts, and emotional repercussions for the family. If there’s both evidence of suicide and an accident, he believes medical examiners generally should consider, minimally, an “undetermined” ruling.

Jack Haverty said the medical examiner’s office must believe he and his family are in denial about their father’s final moments. But he said that if they thought their father had a deep depression that they all tragically missed, “we could deal with that as a family.”

If they thought their father committed suicide, he said, they certainly would not have continued pursuing the issue, nor contacted a Globe reporter this year, after a story about the lack of oversight in the medical examiner’s office, inviting further public scrutiny of their father’s death.

“I’m not chasing a finding that I don’t have the maturity to deal with,” he said.

The family has concluded there is no legal recourse to appeal this, in the courts or within the current medical examiner’s office.

David Haverty said he and his family will continue to try to find new ways to erase that single word from the death certificate, even if means waiting for new leadership in the medical examiner’s office who might be willing to take a fresh look at the case.

“I don’t want to quit,” he said.

Patricia Wen can be reached at patricia.wen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobePatty.