Two men are asking Lancaster County Court to force the county coroner, Dr. G. Gary Kirchner, to hold an inquest into the 2003 death of federal prosecutor Jonathan Luna.
Earlier this month, private investigator Ed Martino of Blue Ball and Lancaster attorney Jim Clymer filed a petition for a writ of mandamus, contending that Kirchner has wrongly declined to conduct an inquest without a formal request from the FBI.
The conduct of the FBI itself is in question in the investigation, Martino and Clymer wrote in the petition.
"It's the only way we're going to hold the FBI accountable," Martino said Friday. "I feel they had something to do with the death of Luna."
Neil Albert, the attorney representing the coroner's office, called the petition "completely wrongheaded," arguing that the law does not require Kirchner to conduct inquests.
Luna, 38, an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore, was found dead in a Brecknock Township stream on Dec. 4, 2003.
The coroner at the time, Dr. Barry Walp, and forensic pathologist Dr. Wayne Ross ruled that Luna died of "multiple traumatic wounds and fresh water drowning" and that his death was a homicide, according to a letter that Kirchner sent to Martino's attorney, Samuel C. Stretton.
FBI sources have suggested to the media that Luna either committed suicide or staged a suicide attempt that went awry, but Lancaster County officials have resisted efforts to change the ruling.
Author Bill Keisling, who wrote a book on Luna, said he thinks Luna's family ought to be the ones to make a request for a coroner's hearing.
Meanwhile, Keisling has been corresponding with the bank robber whose case involved the disappearance of $36,000, which federal sources have tried to tie to Luna's death.
The robber, Nacoe Brown, sent Keisling a copy of a letter from the Baltimore U.S. attorney's office that said investigators do not believe the money was a factor in Luna's death.
And Keisling, along with the Sunday News, has been contacted by researchers for Men's Vogue magazine, which is preparing an article on Luna.
"The interest is only growing in this thing," Keisling said.
Luna was found Dec. 4, 2003, in a shallow stream on the Sensenig & Weaver Well Drilling property.
His Honda Accord was hanging over the stream bank, still running. Investigators found blood on the floor of the rear seat.
Luna had left his office in the Baltimore federal courthouse at 11:38 p.m. the night before, his cell phone and glasses on his desk. He was working late to finalize plea agreements in a heroin case; one deal was unfinished when he walked out.
His vehicle took a twisting course from Baltimore to Brecknock Township - through Delaware, New Jersey and Philadelphia - and toll records showed an hour-and-a-half gap in the trip.
At first investigators treated the case as homicide. But then stories began to appear suggesting that Luna was in debt and might have been worried about the investigation into a missing $36,000 from the bank robbery he had prosecuted. Federal sources told The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and other papers that Luna probably committed suicide or died accidentally during a staged attempt.
At one point Kirchner was asked to change the cause of death; he declined and said he would hold an inquest if the FBI wanted to prove its contention.
Martino, who was retained by Luna friends and family members, has scoffed at the notion that Luna was involved in the missing money or that he had any reason to commit suicide.
He, along with Keisling, thinks Luna was murdered.
"We have enough evidence," Martino said. "We'll bring that out at the inquest. But we have to force these [FBI] agents to testify."
So far, he said, FBI agents have avoided appearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which has been looking into the Luna case.
U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., then chairman of the committee, wrote in a letter to the FBI last year that agents gave "conflicting stories" to internal investigators about Luna issues.
Kirchner wrote in a June 22 letter to Martino's attorney that Luna had "multiple traumatic wounds, including abrasions and contusions and knife wounds."
In the petition for a writ of mandamus, Martino and Clymer said they are "seeking a coroner's inquest to resolve this conflict between law enforcement so justice can be sought."
They said an inquest is needed to "fully determine" the cause of death, given the difference of opinion between the FBI and Kirchner, and pointed out that there are "serious issues as to the conduct of the Federal Bureau of Investigation" in the Luna matter.
'Cause and manner'
A court may issue a writ of mandamus to force a public official to perform a mandated act.
Albert, the coroner's solicitor, pointed out that state law says a coroner may call an inquest - not must or shall.
"Mandamus exists to compel an official to pursue a duty that he must perform," Albert said, not a discretionary one.
The coroner must determine "cause and manner" of death, Albert said: "That was done in the Luna case."
"Only the coroner can set an inquest," Kirchner said. "The coroner would do that only if cause and manner were not able to be determined. Cause and manner were in fact determined by Walp and Ross.
"I agree with their pronouncement. There is nothing I see that would make the court compel me to call an inquest.
"... The Baltimore FBI told the media some time back that the manner was wrong and in error. I told them they could present data to prove their point and if they were right, an inquest could be called. They failed to present any data."
Friday, in a daily e-mail summary, the coroner noted of the Luna case, "From what I gather, the FBI no longer wishes to push the issue."
Albert said he intends to file preliminary objections to the petition with the aim of having it dismissed at that stage of the proceedings.
The petition for mandamus is the next step in Martino's effort to resolve Luna's death. Earlier, he tried to convince Kirchner to release the autopsy report; the coroner said he had sent the report to the U.S. attorney's office in Philadelphia.
Martino said the FBI has "rogue agents out there basically unsupervised." He said he has other agents "who will come forward to testify" if Kirchner holds an inquest.
An FBI spokesman wasn't available for comment late last week.
Martino praised Kirchner for his interest in keeping the public informed, but claimed that the FBI and federal prosecutors have "threatened him."
Stretton, the West Chester attorney representing Martino, has offered to serve as a special prosecutor, "free." The coroner could appoint a special prosecutor, Martino said.
"I just want to get this inquest," he said, and "hold the bureau responsible for the behavior of its rogue agents.
"These people are like guided missiles out there with no guidance."
While the court case moves forward, author Keisling is pursuing connections to Luna's death in Baltimore.
Late last year, he posted details on his Web site, www.yardbird.com, about a Baltimore mortician who prepared Luna's body for viewing. The mortician, Kim MacLeod, counted 32 cuts - including some in his back and "ragged" wounds to his scrotum - which cast doubt on suicide theories.
More recently, Keisling has been in touch with Nacoe Brown, who was convicted for the bank robbery in which the $36,000 disappeared.
Brown provided Keisling with a letter he received from a prosecutor in the Baltimore U.S. attorney's office, "saying they don't think the missing money is connected with Luna's death."
The letter was dated about two weeks after a 2005 Washington Post story, citing federal sources, linked the $36,000 to Luna.
Brown wants to have an evidentiary hearing on the missing money, Keisling said.
He intends to include the new angles in the next edition of his 2004 book, "The Midnight Ride of Jonathan Luna."
Men's Vogue magazine also has been researching the Luna case, with plans for a story in the May-June issue.
Keisling said a researcher for Men's Vogue contacted him and said the FBI had referred her to Keisling.
"That's the second time the FBI has, believe or not, referred people to my book," Keisling said.
Keisling agreed "there needs to be a full inquest" into Luna's death, but "I don't think Ed Martino's the guy to do it. ... I think we've got to be supporting Dr. Kirchner here and not attacking him.
"The inquest has to be a totally honest and full inquest, and everybody has to agree with that. That's why it's important that the family members request the inquest."
Martino sees it differently.
"Once we have an inquest," he said, "the public is going to be astounded at what happened in this case."
Contact Helen Colwell Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org