At 1:30 a.m. on March 21, 2003, James Robert “Robbie” Nottingham was found dead at Buc Ridge apartments.
ETSU campus police investigated his death and concluded on April 24 that Nottingham “died as a result of a fall from the porch roof” outside of his apartment.
“We have no finding as to whether or not it was a suicide,” said Ed Kelly, assistant to the president for legal affairs.
Campus police do not suspect foul play was involved, and although the investigation into his death is open, no new evidence has surfaced contradicting their findings.
The investigation will remain open at least until Robbie’s autopsy can be completed, Kelly said.
Nottingham’s toxicology report did not indicate he had any drugs or alcohol in his system when he died, leading
Robbie’s parents, Jim and Mary Nottingham, to doubt their son’s death was the result of an accident. In fact, they are offering a $50,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for their son’s death.
Shortly after Robbie’s death, his parents hired a private investigator to review the case, whose report did not indicate foul play.
Afterward, the Nottinghams hired A.M Brown, another private investigator, to review the case once more. However, Brown would not comment on his findings for this story.
So now, with no new information surfacing, the Nottinghams have taken out ads in newspapers offering the reward in the hopes someone has a helpful lead.
“That’s why we’re still advertising,” Jim Nottingham said.
There is also a website dedicated to the investigation.
Others are not so skeptical of the campus police investigation. “What would be the motive?” Kelly asked.
“As far as I know everybody liked him.”
But with questions lingering, some people wonder if cases involving deaths on college campuses should be handled differently so investigations are conducted in a more thorough manner.
State Rep. Nathan Vaughn of Kingsport is working closely with Nashville-based Security on Campus Inc. to develop legislation that would make it mandatory for campus police to call another law enforcement agency in to help with investigations involving deaths on campus.
Now, campus police have the option of contacting other law enforcement for help but are not required to do so.
“The specifics haven’t been worked out yet,” said S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus Inc.
Carter says the reality is campus police are not routinely called on to investigate deaths, and they often lack the training and resources to pursue it properly.
“We’ve seen it several times before,” he said. “It’s not exactly unprecedented.”
“Most of the time campus police don’t have the forensics like the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation would have,” he said.
With a request from the district attorney, the TBI has the power to come in and assist an investigation if the situation calls for it, but campus police did not believe the evidence in Robbie’s case warranted it.
“We took the report to the district attorney, he reviewed it, and didn’t have any problem,” Kelly said.
“We’ve never objected to the TBI being involved,” he said. “We brought them in to satisfy the family.”
The failure of campus police to retrieve the surveillance tape from Buc Ridge has raised questions about the way the investigation was handled. The tape, which monitors the cars entering and exiting Buc Ridge, is set on a loop to record over itself every 24 hours.
It’s an oversight ETSU has claimed responsibility for from the beginning of the investigation.
“It would have been appropriate procedure to secure the tape,” Kelly says.
“But we have no reason to think there is any concern we missed anything.”
Carter says his organization has seen has seen cases like Robbie’s in the past.
He says a lot of the time university and college administrations are happy to offer their condolences when a student dies on campus, but that mainly they just want the situation to go away as quick as possible.
“They want it to be an accident or a suicide,” Carter said. “I think that’s what happened here.”
Kelly says, “Where is the credible evidence of foul play.
“We didn’t find it on March 21, and we don’t have it now.