Robbie Nottingham was 22 years old when he died on the sidewalk below his apartment at Buccaneer Ridge on March 31, 2003.
It has taken countless hours of interviews and fact-gathering for his parents, Jim and Mary Nottingham, to get the case in front of a grand jury.
Young Nottingham’s death was initially ruled a suicide by then-James H. Quillen College of Medicine forensic pathologist Dr. Gretel Harlan. Her autopsy report, dated May 5, 2004, states that Nottingham died from “crushing impact injuries to the head, due to jumping from a height of two stories.”
But after nearly 10 hours of testimony from at least a dozen witnesses — and reviewing Harlan’s report as well as a conflicting autopsy report Nottingham’s parents contracted when they started their own investigation — a Washington County grand jury said suicide was not how the young man died.
The panel determined the death “did not involve any criminal activity. Evidence presented supports Mr. Nottingham did not take his own life and the fall causing his death was accidental.”
The finding report was filed in the circuit court clerk’s office in Jonesborough after the daylong hearing on Wednesday. For Nottingham’s parents, the certified document brought some relief.
“To have the grand jury look at everything and to say he didn’t (kill himself), in that respect it helps me,” Mary Nottingham said.
Jim Nottingham said once information about suicide was released, it was difficult to think people believed it.
“We knew that all along he didn’t, but once something’s out there in the public venue it’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube,” he said.
For the Nottinghams, this chapter of their life is over.
“We fought the good fight. We just tried to be the best parents we could be,” Jim Nottingham said. “You go on from here. This is a chapter in our life (and) we’re going to close the book on it.”
“It’s hard to say goodbye, especially to your children,” he added.
The Nottinghams initially thought their son may have been murdered and offered a sizable reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any person or persons responsible.
As their own investigation grew, that theory shifted to their son’s death being accidental.
District Attorney General Tony Clark said while testimony before a grand jury is secret, he could say the panel found no indication anyone was involved in Robbie’s death.
“No one felt Robbie took his own life,” Clark said.
“There was nothing mentally. There was nothing in his life (to indicate suicide). He had everything going for him. He had just finished (Army) jump school. He had spent four or five days with his mom and dad on spring break. He had ordered car parts for a Camaro he was working on with his dad. He was going to work the next day,” Clark said.
Clark, like the Nottinghams, knows there are still unanswered questions that will likely remain that way unless new evidence surfaces in the future. If it does, Clark said he’ll be glad to assess the case again.
Witnesses who testified before the grand jury included ETSU campus police officers, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents, physicians, a toxicology expert, Nottingham’s mother, and a number of his friends and neighbors at Buccaneer Ridge.
Two people received immunity for the hearing, Clark confirmed, but he would not release their names. Clark said the decision to grant immunity came after numerous discussions with the Nottinghams and their attorney, Richard Pectol, in hopes of learning exactly what happened that night.
Still, that fact remains elusive.
“There was really no determination made as to exactly what happened,” Clark said.
“We know exactly when the roommate arrived. We know for a fact that Robbie was still alive around 12:30 or 1 a.m. We know there was a panic alarm hit at 1:30. We know he had been downstairs with some other people in another apartment and the roommate was upstairs in his bed,” he said.
Robbie’s roommate, David Knopp, told police during the investigation that he was in bed when he saw Robbie walk out of their apartment wearing only boxer shorts. He said Nottingham closed the apartment door, and Knopp was awakened later by an audible alarm outside.
From all evidence in the case, Knopp was apparently the last person to see Nottingham alive.
Another resident returning from spring break discovered his body on the sidewalk in a pool of blood.
Jim Nottingham said the battle to find out what happened to his son did produce one positive thing — the Robbie Nottingham Law.
The legislation requires state universities to call in outside law enforcement to help investigate any student death that occurs on campus.
“I don’t think it was in vain,” he said. “The Robbie law will be here long after we’re gone. That was certainly well worth it.”