By Tim Bean
At first glance, Lake County Coroner Dr. Daniel Thomas seemed as benign as a rural pharmacist. Once his glance fell on you, that camouflage fell away. Dr. Thomas’ deep-set eyes broadcast intelligence and uncanny perception.
Dr. Daniel Thomas, MD, originally from Chicago, left the crowded city for the pastures of Lake County, eventually settling in Hobart. Dr. Thomas served as a colonel in the Indiana National Guard, and practiced a kind of “Swiss Army” medical, performing surgeries, catching babies, all while running a private practice, and even studying hypnosis in its medical infancy. That kind of catch-all medical doctor is rarely allowed today.
Luckily, I found someone who knew Dr. Thomas personally (she wished to remain anonymous for this article). Many years ago, she had kept horses at his racing stable on Ainsworth and County Line roads and spent hours trotting them on his dirt track and surrounding field (a racing stable once built and owned by Capone underboss Mike Carrozzo).
“A nice man. [Dr. Thomas would] sit on his porch and watch us ride around, smiling and waving, always friendly. He loved horses, loved animals. He had his dogs with him all the time. Always the nicest man. But integrity, integrity, integrity. And his eyes. When those eyes were on you, you weren’t hiding anything. Such a smart man.”
It was those perceptive eyes that fell on the body of 52-year-old Hobart resident James Cooley in 1985, Cooley had been discovered on the floor of his basement darkroom, sitting in a dense pool of blood. His skull dimpled and fractured with dozens of wounds, likely from the claw hammer police found by his feet.
Police judged it a suicide. A cancerous tumor had begun squeezing James Cooley’s esophagus. Eating and drinking had become increasingly harder for him, and the variety of cancer treatments he had endured over the last few months had left him weak and sickly. Investigators found no signs of struggle or theft. No broken windows or doors, no forced entry. His wife told police James had been in pain, angry, and depressed when she last saw him that day. Ruling his death a suicide seemed obvious.
Dr. Thomas came to a different conclusion. Circumstances aside, an autopsy showed Cooley had received 32 separate blows with a hammer. Ten of those would have knocked the man unconscious. Two of them resulted in fatal fractures. That’s unquestionable physical evidence.
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Suicide by hammer is extraordinarily rare, almost a novelty for anyone in forensics. It is a difficult, risky, and often painful. The victim is more likely to pass out from pain, shock, or brain trauma—unconscious but alive. Homicide by hammer is far more common, and the wounds created by the claw-end of a hammer would be a familiar sight to a medical doctor experienced in forensics. Dr. Thomas had plenty of experience. In fact, NO Lake County coroner had ever had his level of professional credentials and experience.
He completed the necessary paperwork and judged Cooley’s death a homicide. Circumstantial evidence didn’t matter: suicide by 32 separate blows to the head was “humanly impossible,” in Dr. Thomas’ own words.
When word came back that local police had ignored his findings and pushed ahead with their initial determination of suicide, Dr. Thomas was livid. Not only was it a personal and professional slap in the face for him, but it also undermined the office of county coroner, whose entire purpose is to determine the cause or manner of a sudden or violent death.
True to his character, Dr. Thomas did not stay silent. Thomas conducted a personal investigation into James Cooley’s background and discovered that although he was in poor health, he had discussed future plans with friends, including returning to work as a supervisor for Conrail railroads. Cooley was also in the midst of renovating his basement darkroom, hardly the hobby of a suicidal man.
Even more important, Dr. Thomas had his autopsy findings examined by independent medical experts: two pathologists and two neurosurgeons, all at the pinnacle of their fields. All four agreed that Cooley committing suicide in such a manner was so unlikely as to be practically impossible.
Dr. Thomas presented these conclusions to police, who calmly but insistently dismissed them. They countered with well-documented cases of “impossible” suicides and also blood spatter evidence that supported a suicide determination. These arguments did little to persuade the Lake County corner, who insisted these bits of circumstantial evidence did nothing to lessen the impossibility of the 32 hammer blows (at the time, and even today, blood spatter evidence was somewhat controversial).
Instead, he went to the press and pulled no punches in stating his opinion. “They don’t know how to investigate a homicide,” Thomas said of local police in a 1986 news conference. “I would not trust their credibility…and the qualifications of their officers.” With that conference and those words, the now very-public issue filled regional and national newspapers, aired on local stations, and a morphed into civic showdown between the two offices.
A showdown never happened. The Colley case remained unchanged. A year after the murder, with the controversy still unresolved between the two offices, the Indiana State Police reopened the investigation and offered their conclusion: homicide. The state police’s conclusion did not surprise Dr. Thomas.
”[Cooley] would have been unconscious, he could not administer 32 blows to himself. The dead giveaway on this is that he was a right-handed man and they said he turned his head to the left and administered the blows. Anatomically speaking, if he wanted to strike himself, his injuries would be on the oblique. All his wounds were mostly on the left side of the head and they were parallel, which gave it away that he was hit from behind.”
—Dr. Thomas to Chicago Tribune, in 1987
Dr. Thomas was publicly vindicated, but professionally he wasn’t. His primary concern had been preserving his integrity as a medical doctor as well as the investigative sovereignty of his office: if the judgment of a coroner is ignored, then what is the purpose in having a coroner? But to Northwest Indiana law enforcement, he had, in a sense, aired the dirty laundry in bringing a professional issue to the public so dramatically.
After the Cooley case, Dr. Thomas rarely hesitated to speak to the press and offer his opinions about former or current cases, a habit local police thought harmful to investigations. Additionally, police did not want the county’s coroner speaking directly to witnesses and conducting a private investigation, which Dr. Thomas had done during the Cooley case. When asked why attempts were bring made to push Thomas out of office in 1987, Former Lake County Prosecuting Attorney Jack Crawford said, “‘My feeling is that the coroner ought to limit his opinions to medical testimony and not get into the area of legal or criminal investigations.”
Thomas served as Lake County coroner from 1973 to 1992, and in that time the Cooley case remained a sore spot between law enforcement and him, although neither entity let it interfere in professional capacities. After leaving the coroner’s office, Dr. Thomas retired to his Hobart home and beloved horses and eventually moved out of Lake County, living seasonally in Arizona and in Chicago. He passed away at his Arizona home in 2000 at the age of 80.
Today, 35 years later, Hobart police still rule the closed Cooley case a suicide. For the Indiana State Police, it’s still an active and open homicide case.
Author’s note: Dr. Thomas served Lake County as a dedicated civil servant for nearly twenty years, was a military veteran, and practiced medicine for over five decades. After hours of scouring the Internet, I was unable to find a single decent picture of him. Opinions aside, he deserves to be remembered. If anyone has a personal photo of him they are willing to share, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.