Kye Stephenson | Courtesy Stephenson family
BLACKFOOT — The last time Buff Stephenson saw his son Kye, the two made plans to cut down a tree in Buff’s yard. They were going to make a day of it. Kye planned to bring his two sons over, help his dad with the tree, then the four were going to go fishing.
Buff never got that last fishing trip with his son and grandkids. Early the next morning, Buff and his wife, Stacey, received the call that all parents fear — the call telling them their son was dead.
Kye was pronounced dead by a Bingham County Coroner’s investigator at 2:45 a.m. on Aug. 6, 2021. The manner of death was determined to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
But Kye’s family members were unhappy with that finding. And they continue to be unhappy after the police and the coroner’s office have not provided what they view as satisfactory answers to their many questions.
The Stephenson family believes Kye was murdered and is pleading with Blackfoot police to reopen the investigation.
In her pursuit for answers, Stacey turned to Chris Bertram, a private investigator out of the Salt Lake City area with more than 30 years of experience as both a law enforcement officer and investigator. Bertram gave EastIdahoNews.com his outlook on the case after reviewing what little information was available.
“None of the questions were answered in that investigation,” he said. “We really need to go back and take another look at it.”
‘That was Kye. He was always laughing’
Kye, born March 12, 1991, was known by his family as a gentle giant. He loved to laugh with his mom and fish with his dad, according to an obituary posted by Hawker Funeral Home.
“We had a strong relationship,” Buff said. “He was my best friend — by far.”
“Do you hear how quiet it is in this house?” Stacey asked, fighting back tears while sitting on a couch in the family room of her home. “It didn’t used to be this way.”
Whether he was a child playing pranks on his friends in the basement, an adult playing pranks on his own children, or being a “class clown” with his father, Buff said Kye’s laughter always filled their home.
“That was Kye,” he said. “He was always laughing.”
He also enjoyed driving go-karts and demolition derby cars and fishing. But, most importantly, he was a father — someone, Stacey said, who was always there when his sons needed him.
“Kye was always outside playing with the kids, always available for them to talk to,” Stacey said.
Kye with his mother, Stacey. | Courtesy Stephenson family
Kye with his son and father, Buff. | Courtesy Stephenson family
Kye with his sons, Sawyer and Kohen. | Courtesy Stephenson family
Officers ‘responded to a report of a suicide’
According to police reports provided to EastIdahoNews.com by the Stephensons, Blackfoot police received a 911 call just after 2 a.m. Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. The caller reported a suicide, reports show.
Just over an hour after arriving at Kye’s home, five officers cleared the scene of what was ruled by police and the coroner’s office as a suicide.
Bertram, who was a police officer for 25 years and has investigated countless deaths, told EastIdahoNews.com that one of the major failings that can be undertaken by an officer is “confirmation bias.”
As he explained, that is when officers go into an investigation looking for ways to confirm the story they have been provided, rather than looking for clues to fill a blank slate. Now, as a private investigator who is also an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Salt Lake Community College, Bertram teaches his students to avoid the confirmation bias trap at all costs.
The officers who worked the scene of Kye’s death, Bertram said, fell victim to that mindset.
Officers were told that Kye had been drinking heavily and was taking antidepressants. Bertram believes they accepted that information as purely factual and took “the easy answer” determining the death a suicide.
This is clear in the body cam footage from the officers, provided by the Stephensons. At one point, one of the officers describes the scene as a “clean” suicide to a younger officer.
Officers were so certain the death was a suicide, in fact, less than an hour after their arrival, they were using a hose to wash away blood and any potential evidence from the scene.
‘No examination; no autopsy; no investigation.’
After carefully examining all available photos, videos and documents, the Stephensons and Bertram share many of the same questions:
Why was a detective not involved with the scene? Why was an autopsy never performed — or at the very least a toxicology report?
The biggest question, though, has to do with which side of Kye’s head the bullet entered.
Officers said several times in the body cam footage that there was a clear entry wound on Kye’s right temple, with the exit on the left side of his head. This was reflected in initial police reports.
The issue with that assessment is that Kye was left-handed and, his parents said, only shot his guns with his left hand.
In the body cam footage, one of the veteran officers at the scene instructs a younger officer on how to identify entry and exit wounds, pointing to “flakking” on Kye’s right temple as signs of entry.
Three of the five officers, in fact, say at separate points during the investigation that they identified the entry wound on the right side of Kye’s head.
At his funeral, Stacey recalls Kye having to be leaned to his left to hide the damage from the exit wound on the left side of his head — gases built up by the bullet cause greater damage at the exit point than at the entry. This, Stacey said, further identifies the left side of Kye’s head as being the side the bulleted exited.
Buff and Stacey said the only way a bullet was fired into the right side of Kye’s head was if someone other than Kye was holding the gun.
When Stacey questioned police and the coroner about Kye being left-handed and shot on the right side, she says they waffled about that determination.
Throughout several conversations, she was given multiple different reasons Kye would have used his off-hand to shoot himself.
One of those theories was that he had dropped to a knee to urinate. Stacey says she was told by police officials and the coroner that Kye was urinating with his left hand when shot himself with his right hand. Stacey said she was taken aback by that version of events, left with yet another crippling question — why would her son drop to one knee to pee? And why would he choose that moment to end his own life?
After going back and forth, though, both police officials and then-coroner Nick Hirschi altered their official stances to claim the entry wound was on the left side of Kye’s head — going along with his left-handedness.
‘There’s a lot of gaps there as to what really happened’
With that answer, Stacey is left with another question: why was there a bullet hole, containing what police believe to be the bullet used in Kye’s death, on Kye’s left side?
Adding on to that question, Bertram is baffled by the fact that police have not yet removed that bullet as potential evidence.
“If there’s a bullet up there, why don’t you go get it? It’s a death investigation, go get it,” he said, adding that retrieving the bullet and confirming its involvement would be able to answer questions about the bullet trajectory and where the shot was fired from.
Additionally, revising a determination like the entry side based on what little information is available in reports and photos is a tough pill to swallow for both Bertram and current Bingham County Coroner Jimmy Roberts, who was not part of the initial investigation.
Revising anything determined at the scene would be “really difficult” based on the “inadequate” police investigation, according to Bertram.
Asked if he could determine a right or left entry, Roberts carefully examined the records before telling EastIdahoNews.com that based on what was available, he could not say with any degree of certainty.
He went on to explain how the documentation from the coroner’s investigator could have been better.
Compared to his own investigations of similar occurrences, there were far fewer pictures taken of the scene and body — around 100 fewer photos, actually. And the narrative of the investigation into Kye’s death — written by the investigator describing his investigation — was only two paragraphs, compared to reports Roberts has done, which span several pages.
While examining the coroner’s case report, EastIdahoNews.com found several sections left blank, and others with incorrect information.
Kye’s occupation, for example, was listed as “barista,” which was not true — he drove a water delivery route. Stacey admits it is a small detail, but one she believes shows the investigator’s lackluster work.
Another issue raised was that patrol officers with limited death investigation training made the determination that the death was suicide.
Within minutes of finding the body, the younger officer asks if a detective is needed.
“Is this something you’re going to want to call in a detective on?” the officer asks in the video.
“Probably not,” the veteran officer responds.
According to Blackfoot Police Capt. Wes Wheatley, all officers receive some death investigation training during Idaho Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST), but no advanced training. Having a detective with advanced death investigation training present would have eliminated some of the questions, he admitted, but the department stands by the determination that Kye died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
There is no certainty that all questions would have been eliminated had a detective been there, according to Bertram. In an area like Blackfoot, where detectives are not regularly asked to investigate deaths, mistakes are always possible.
“If you don’t do this on a day-to-day basis, you miss things,” he said.
That is why everything has to be documented correctly — giving investigators useful information should they need to go back and review the case. That is something Bertram feels is the greatest shortcoming of this investigation.
“One of the biggest problems with this case is, the police department did not document this death investigation well at all,” he said. “There was no autopsy. The coroner’s report was very insufficient.”
‘Things seem odd. There’s just an oddness to it’
The fact that there was no autopsy or, at the very least an examination and toxicology report, was shocking to both Bertram and Roberts.
Part of the theory that Kye killed himself rests on the idea that he was depressed, taking medication and mixing it with booze.
Confirming the alcohol and medication part of that theory would have been as easy — and cheap — as a $200 toxicology, Roberts said.
In Bertram’s opinion, the claim that Kye was drinking heavily the night he died was something that should have been vetted. Investigators, he said, have to “put those puzzle pieces together and paint the whole picture.”
Kye’s sister, Shayley, was with her brother that evening and said that he had consumed a couple of beers but not enough to be drunk. When she left, Shayley added, Kye was talking about his plans to see the family the following day.
As for the medication, Stacey said her son was prescribed antidepressants — in 2011.
Courtesy Stephenson family
Issues with lacking work from coroner’s offices is a far-reaching issue in Idaho, according to former Ada County Coroner Dotti Owens, who is pushing for more coroner oversight.
As was told to EastIdahoNews.com by several sources, there is no prerequisite for being a coroner in the state of Idaho. There are training programs that coroners go through once in office, but no education required before taking the position. There is also no watchdog group tasked with enforcing any set of standards.
That is something Owens hopes to change. And she has support from coroners across the state, including Roberts, who believes the position should meet standards set by a state agency.
Another part of the issue for autopsies is the cost.
Owens said there are three levels of pathological examination — forensic inspection, limited autopsy and full autopsy. The prices range from $1,000 to $2,000, but there is also a cost to the county in that the body must be transported to the only forensic pathology lab in the state — in Ada County.
That additional cost is another thing Owens is hoping to remedy by aiding the development of the East Idaho Forensic Pathology Center in Pocatello
‘They owe us some answers’
To Stacey, it seems every time police provide an answer to one of her questions, it only creates another.
The fact that there are so many questions revolving around a death investigation is more than enough to reopen and reinvestigate, Bertram said.
“Absolutely. Absolutely needs to be reopened by law enforcement. It needs fresh eyes to look at it and go through it,” he said. “The fact that initially, the officers thought that the bullet wound was one direction … then months later changed that — the truth is, it needs to be looked at again.”
Wheatley told EastIdahoNews.com that the department is willing to investigate any new leads and would reopen the case if probable cause was presented.
“I will guarantee that we will follow up, in a timely fashion, any lead that (comes) from this,” he said.
Roberts is also willing to help fill in gaps. That would require an exhumation, something he “encourages and supports.”
“I certainly support (Stacey) finding the answers that she wants to get,” Roberts said. “And who knows what those answers are? They may not be what she thinks they are, but the good thing about the truth is that when you have the answers, you can at least process them and start to come to grips with them.”
Roberts, whose father died in what was originally ruled a suicide then changed to murder and solved, says he would provide whatever approval is necessary for Kye’s exhumation.
Stacey has started the process of requesting an exhumation through the office of the state registrar of vital statistics.
Courtesy Stephenson family
It goes so much further than getting or confirming the truth about her son’s death, though. The Stephenson family is hopeful that reinvestigating Kye’s death and answering the many questions will provide Blackfoot police with what it believes to be much-needed training.
“If we can do anything, it would be to save somebody else from having to go through this,” she said. “(Blackfoot police) believe they did everything right, and they did everything so wrong.”
If this is how officers are being trained to handle death investigations, she added, “we’re in deep trouble.”
According to Bertram, even with the lack of evidence and documentation from the initial investigation, there are routes police can take to get answers. His recommendation is to question anyone with any connection to the incident — even if that means issuing subpoenas.
“I just want answers,” Stacey said. “Do something. Go see if you can recover that bullet, bring him up and do a full autopsy, something. Give me some sense of peace so we can move on.”
For now though, the Stephensons are left with a massive vacancy in the middle of their lives. But Buff and Stacey believe Kye’s spirit remains close to them.
After spending much of Aug. 6, 2021, facing the emotions of losing their son, Stacey and Buff returned home to a different kind of surprise.
The tree Kye had been excited to help cut down with his new chainsaw had seemingly come down on its own.
Not only that, it fell in a way that a lone branch kept the tree from collapsing onto their fence, which would have allowed dogs and horses to escape.
Buff, clearly the sturdy but quiet type, took a moment to maintain his emotions telling the story. After a pause but still, at a loss for words, he said his son helped with the tree after all.
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