The North Carolina county sheriff's department investigating the deaths of three Camp Lejeune Marines killed by carbon monoxide in a car in July has closed the case, but still cannot definitively say how the three were exposed to the deadly gas.
The Pender County Sheriff's Department told Military.com the carbon monoxide "likely" came from some malfunction in the Lexus where the Marines were found, but that it could not say for sure. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, partnered on the investigation and referred all questions to the county, which took the lead.
"How were the Marines exposed to carbon monoxide? The carbon monoxide came from the vehicle," Sgt. Chester Ward, a spokesperson for the Pender County Sheriff's Office, told Military.com in an email. "I can't say if any modifications caused the carbon monoxide leak. However, it is most likely the vehicle had a malfunction somewhere for it to leak."
Ward said the county police department would not release its findings to Military.com, because "the investigation report is not public record."
The three lance corporals -- Merax Dockery, 23; Ivan Garcia, 23; and Tanner Kaltenberg, 19 -- were found dead in a vehicle parked at a North Carolina gas station southwest of Camp Lejeune on July 23 after Dockery's mother, Heather Glass, called the installation concerned about his missed flight home.
"I never heard from him again after that," Glass told Military.com Thursday. That night, she went to the airport to wait for him anyway. When he didn't show up, Glass's daughter started calling jails and hospitals in the Camp Lejeune area.
Police never fully determined how the three were killed beyond the lethal exposure to the colorless, odorless gas, but there were some indications that Garcia's silver 2000 Lexus LS 400 might have been damaged in some way -- a detail that is also suspected but has not been publicly corroborated by authorities.
"The car did sit low to the ground," 1st Lt. Gabriel Fallis, an officer with the Marines' unit, Combat Logistics Battalion 2, said. "So if there's extensive damage to the exhaust, that's most likely what it was ... apparently mechanics said that the amount of damage it had doesn't happen in a one-time instance. It doesn't happen overnight."
Fallis, who knew the Marines well, was on the final day of a three-day duty as officer of the day when he got a call from the base -- relayed from Glass -- that the men may be missing. He eventually was the first to discover their bodies in the vehicle, which was parked in a gas station about 50 minutes from Camp Lejeune.
The Lexus was Garcia's project car, but Fallis said he didn't think that the leak could have been caused by the young Marine's tinkering.
According to the officer, Garcia put window tints on and lights inside the cab, generally aesthetic changes to the 23-year-old vehicle. Modifying the exhaust would have been too expensive and not likely a task he would undergo, Fallis said.
Fallis said he believed that the vehicle's exhaust likely had "extensive damage."
When he found the vehicle, the windows were rolled up and the Marines were in the car. Fallis initially thought they were sleeping.
The driver and passenger seats were pushed back and the Marines had bands on their wrists from what Fallis believed to be from a club or bar in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina -- a city over an hour south of Camp Lejeune and 40 minutes south of the gas station where the Marines were found.
"I was thinking that either Friday or Saturday night, we don't even know, they went to Wilmington," Fallis told Military.com. "I knew that Marines like to go to Wilmington to go out and have a good time, and I think they were too tired to drive ... so they pulled over at the gas station."
Fallis had served as Dockery's and Kaltenberg's officer in command at one point and worked with Garcia in general before. Fallis and Dockery got to the unit at around the same time and instantly clicked.
"I saw [Dockery] as a little brother, like a son. Because that's the way they teach us in the Marine Corps -- the style of leadership that we have and how to care for our Marines," he said.
Glass, Dockery's mom, also indicated she thought they may have been out the night before and pulled over to get some rest. Pender County authorities corroborated the theory that they likely pulled over due to exhaustion.
It was not immediately clear if the exhaustion was brought on by carbon monoxide leaking into the vehicle cabin. At the Speedway gas station where the car was found, Fallis checked their pulse and did not feel anything. There was blood coming from one of the Marine's noses.
Carbon monoxide, which is emitted by vehicle exhausts and other forms of combustion, slowly builds up in the blood, especially in enclosed spaces, and the poisoning can occur without the victim knowing. Symptoms include drowsiness, confusion, headaches and weakness.
The cause of death for all three was ruled "cardiac/respiratory arrest," according to a Pender County Sheriff's document obtained by Military.com.
Glass told Military.com that she requested the police investigative report, hoping that it would provide more answers as to what happened to her son.
So far, she has not received it and recalled that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service called her once to let her know it was complete. She said she had last spoken to Pender County authorities roughly two weeks ago.
Military.com contacted NCIS to request the investigative report. It deferred to the Pender County Sheriff's Office as the lead investigative agency on the deaths.
Despite local law enforcement saying the investigation was complete, NCIS told Military.com it "continues to work closely with the Pender County Sheriff's Office to fully investigate this matter." Military.com followed up with NCIS on whether it considered the case closed, and it referred questions to the county authorities.
As of last week, the Marines' command had not been given an investigation report, either, though a spokesperson for the 2nd Marine Logistics Group, Capt. Nikki McDougall, recognized Fallis' actions.
Glass said that despite little contact from law enforcement authorities, including NCIS, she was comforted by the Marine Corps' consistent communication with her amid the family's grief.
"They've been really good," she told Military.com.
Since their deaths, the Marines have had honors and memorials in their communities. Garcia was laid to rest in Naples, Florida, and local law enforcement conducted a memorial motorcade for him. Kaltenberg, who is from Wisconsin, was memorialized on Saturday. Dockery, a member of the Seminole Nation tribe of Oklahoma, was laid to rest earlier this month.
Of her son, Merax, Glass said, "He was just a great soul. If you got to know him, he was definitely an infectious person to be around. He would always make you smile. He was just a very special person to me and everyone he knew."
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.