Nestled in the quiet countryside of Rolling Prairie, Indiana is a little cottage on the lake. It is a peaceful setting that was shattered on a December night in 2012 with an emergency call that Elmer Layden III just committed suicide. The family is not so sure it was suicide.
Their brother, nicknamed Trey, was the grandson of a legendary Notre Dame football player made famous in the 1924 win against the Army. With dramatic prose, a celebrated sports writer linked Knute Rockne’s powerful backfield to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – famine, pestilence, destruction and death. The image stuck and the Layden name became a part of Notre Dame lore.
The Layden’s made the papers also when they sold the family’s Indiana farm to talk show queen Oprah Winfrey.
But what happened here at the lake cottage is a long way from the fame and fortune of the past. No one really knows what happened behind closed doors. There were signs of violence including a busted office door. But who was hurt? Michelle, Trey’s wife, wouldn’t talk with WGN-TV, but is recorded telling a 911 operator: “He was really mentally not right and he was kinda hitting my daughter tonight and I didn’t wanna call the police because I didn’t want any problems and then I went in there and he just shot himself.”
However, when the police showed the family the crime scene photos, Layden’s brother TJ said, “My family rose out of their seat because the first photo we’re looking at he has a busted up face.” He added that his brother’s lip was cut and his mouth was so swollen it appeared to have been hit by something.
There was no photo evidence of any violence to Trey’s daughter or wife. The police photos do show a rifle lying on the bed next to Trey. Within hours, his death was ruled a suicide by the Coroner’s office. The LaPorte County Sheriff’s office agrees. There was no autopsy. No evidence was collected. In less than 48-hours Trey’s body was cremated and his wife Michelle signed a request to have the gun destroyed. Christmas is a week away and the case was essentially over.
But get this: All of that took place before Trey’s brother, sisters, mom and dad even knew he was dead. Trey died on Monday, but they were not informed until Friday.
“It’s not normal behavior. I mean who does that,” questions his sister Karen Layden.
Trey, they say, had plans. He promised to fly down that week to drive his parents from Florida to Chicago. Suicide made absolutely no sense to them.
So, when the family finally got a chance to sit down with police they offered a different theory of what happened. The day before his death, Trey had a long talk with one sister saying, “Somebody in my family needs to know what’s going on. Michelle is back to her usual tricks…I know she’s taken money from me. My shotgun is gone, Karen and I haven’t seen it in six weeks.”
There are plenty of charges and counter charges from both sides, but the investigation never got very far. Detectives re-interviewed the wife and daughter and looked for DNA on the gun, but it had been handled by so many people that the tests proved nothing.
“They treated this thing like you would criminal damage to property, not a death case,” according to private investigator Paul Ciolino. WGN asked Ciolino to look at the police evidence. He’s troubled by the conduct of the Sherriff’s Department. “You better treat it like it’s a criminal case. They treated this like a civil matter like it was a divorce. Let’s move him out of the house. Well he got moved out feet first that’s the problem,” says Ciolino.
WGN asked the LaPorte Sheriff to discuss this case on camera. He declined writing, “…the answers to some questions are occasionally unattainable.” He added that the department determined it was a suicide. “Based on scene evaluation, historical data, witness statements, and forensic evidence.” Ciolino doesn’t think they went far enough, “If someone committed suicide great let’s find someone he talked to. Was he distressed? Was he upset? Did he call his brother? Did he call his father, his best friend? Did he text his sister? Did he call work and say I’m not coming in I’ve having a big problem at home? None of these things happened that we’re aware of. This is police 101 you’ve got to immediately check this stuff.”
Ciolino points to a number of red flags missed by the officers starting with the 911 call. Michelle says she witnessed the shooting. That’s what the police reports from that night show too. Yet, in the videotaped interview by LaPorte Detectives two weeks later, she changes her story saying only her daughter actually witnessed the shooting.
Another red flag, according to Ciolino is that when either Michelle or her daughter called 911 they hung up. That’s right, just hung up. It was a 911 operator who had to call back twice offering help.
And then, in a voicemail to Trey’s brother, she said there was a big letter written about how Trey was going to kill himself. But to officers, she says, “There was no note.”
The family believes there was something terribly wrong that happened in the house according to TJ, “And the two people that know that are Michelle and Mackenzie. What they’ve told the police you would never convince me is the truth. There is too many inconsistencies in their story.”
Finally, there is the suggestion by Trey’s wife that there was trouble at his work. She told police that Trey constantly threatened to quit. No one for the Sheriff’s Department attempted to verify her claim. If they did, they would have heard a different story. “I think he loved his job,” says Roger Leyden, owner of Se-Kure Controls. Trey sold security equipment for the company from his home. The company let us look at his computer. Trey’s last day was spent making dozens of phone calls, cutting deals, and e-mailing clients. As late as 6:16pm that night in December, Trey was e-mailing a client. An hour later he was dead. His boss says he was devastated.
What’s more, Trey knew he was about to receive a $20,000 dollar bonus before Christmas.
Trey’s boss kept the promise even after he died, paying the bonus to Trey’s wife.
Perhaps, this is a good time to step back and describe how police say this suicide took place and why it raises so many questions. Police reports say Trey took a necktie and wrapped it around the butt of a rifle. He tied one end to his foot and other with some tubing to the trigger. Why lying down in bed he shot himself, in of all places his armpit. Kim Layden, Trey’s sister wonders, “Who kills themselves, commits suicide by your left armpit?”
Forensic expert Brent Turvey asks the same question, “The reality is you wouldn’t be assured of killing yourself. What you’d be assured of doing in that position blowing your arm off possibly. And you’d maim yourself severely.” He suggest the trajectory of the bullet was not consistent with a shot to the armpit but rather a shot from the side, “What we’re meant to believe by what was reported here is he did it in this position and somehow the buckshot took a left turn into his chest. That didn’t happen.”
There is now a nasty split between Trey’s wife and daughter and the rest of Trey’s family. They aren’t speaking. That too makes it difficult. What happened in the house on the lake is just a tragedy.