Forklift Murder Mystery

Ask Vance

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All this is my overly complicated way of saying that it is highly unlikely that Stiles managed to turn on the forklift, get it rolling, raise the blades, and then jump off and stand in front of it while it impaled him. But don’t take my word for it. According to the Press-Scimitar, “Experts and those familiar with the operations of forklifts say it was next to impossible for him to start up the machine and then get in front of it accidentally before it ran 15 feet into the stacks of cartons.”

Here’s something else to consider. Forklifts are not exactly known for their speed. To travel across the factory floor would take more than a minute. Can we really imagine a person who would wait calmly beside some packing crates while a forklift lumbered toward them, and not move out of the way? If you’re intent on committing suicide, that takes a heckuva lot of nerve, more than even the Lauderdales are capable of. And if it’s an accident, how could Stiles — working alone in a deserted factory — not have heard the gasoline-powered forklift start up and roll towards him? And remember, he was facing it; it’s not like it rolled up behind him.

So that left most people in Memphis, perusing this strange case as it unfolded, day by day, in the pages of the newspaper, to conclude that the poor fellow had been murdered. Check the steering wheel for fingerprints, the family implored. The police said the wheel was too “grease-stained” for any prints to show up. (Well then, were Stiles’ own hands also grease-stained? The police weren’t saying.) And if it was murder, let’s put aside the who did it, and consider the how. How do you stab a person to death with a slow-moving forklift? Do you tell them to stand right there and not move? Did someone else hold the poor victim in place? As you might imagine, the crime scene was a bloody mess, but police picked up no one else’s footprints there.

Nobody knew what to make of it. The regional supervisor and even the vice president of the Purex Corporation both came to Memphis to help any way they could, and the attorney general’s office convened a special investigation. They decided they were “ruling out murder at this time” and concluded that Stiles’ death “was accidental, suicide, or a combination of both.” Police commissioner

Claude Armour announced, very cryptically, that he had “12 to 15 reasons why we make this statement, but it was best for the public not to know what the reasons were.”

In a futile attempt to explain just what the heck they were getting at, one of the investigators said that sometimes a death “can be a combination accident and suicide” when a person attempts to injure himself “for a purpose” and then kills himself accidentally. And what would be that purpose? “To arouse sympathy,” he said.

Mary Stiles didn’t accept that argument at all. Her husband had called her from his office just a half-hour before his body was found, and she insisted “he was in good spirits” and had never hinted at any reason to commit suicide, or even attempt it to “arouse sympathy.” For that matter, they were about to buy a new home, she told reporters, and he planned to enroll at Memphis State in a few weeks to earn his CPA license. What’s more, he was looking forward to singing for the Beethoven Club, and in a few weeks was going to be a soloist at a relative’s wedding.    

Newspapers reported that the grieving widow would collect $5,000 from her husband’s life insurance policy, which had a “double indemnity” clause that increased the benefit to $10,000 if the death were an accident. Officials with John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company conducted their own investigation and “were sifting reports, newspaper clippings, and other data on the case.” Within a few weeks, they decided that, “in our opinion, payment of the indemnity check was appropriate.”

Even so, nobody could agree how this strange death occurred. On Stiles’ death certificate, the medical examiner listed the immediate cause of death as “traumatic injury” and wrote, “Decedent impaled on forklift.” Death certificates have another section, with three boxes labeled “Accident,” “Suicide,” and “Homicide.” The doctor checked the “Accident” box, but at the same time, he put a checkmark in the box “Not While at Work.”

I just don’t know what to make of it. After weeks of coverage, the Press-Scimitar concluded it was “one of Memphis’ strangest deaths — one of the strangest deaths in the entire U.S.”

Charles Stiles, described by his mother as “a fine, happy, Christian boy who made friends easily and sang at church gatherings,” was laid to rest in Forest Hill Cemetery.  


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