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Singapore police present evidence of suicide in controversial death of American engineer

Singapore police present evidence of suicide in controversial death of American engineer


After officers revise their story, Shane Todd's death looks to be more tragedy than spy thriller

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Shane Todd's parents, Rick and Mary Todd, arriving at the coroner's public inquest. Photo: Belmont Lay

Investigators and friends testified today that Shane Todd, the American engineer who was found hanging in his bathroom in Singapore last year, was depressed and even visited suicide-related websites in the months before his death.

It was the first day of testimony in the highly sensitive 12-day coroner's inquest, which was commissioned after Todd's parents raised questions about their son's death. The Todds believe that Shane was murdered, possibly because he facilitated an illegal transfer of military-grade technology from the US to China through his work at the Singaporean research agency Institute of Microelectronics. There is evidence Shane was working on a radio frequency amplifier using gallium nitride, a cutting-edge technology potentially worth billions.

The case even attracted attention from the FBI, two senators, a congressman, and the secretary of state. If true, the Todds' accusation means that the friendly Asian trade ally is acting as a proxy for China, which could have significant implications for relations between the US and Singapore.

"The state is acutely aware of the strong public interest in this case."

"The state is acutely aware of the strong public interest in this case," Singapore's counsel wrote in an opening statement. "We are committed to presenting all the relevant evidence to the court, so that a proper determination can be made as to the cause of and circumstances surrounding Shane's death."

Singaporean officials and police had remained largely silent until now, letting the Todds set the narrative through a deluge of media interviews sparked by an in-depth investigation by the Financial Times. During that silent period, the state interviewed at least 57 witnesses, at least 36 of whom are expected to be called to the stand.

This morning's session was focused on Shane's character and his mood before his death. The afternoon session was focused on the first responders and the scene at his apartment when he was found. After today, many of the questions that raised suspicions now appear to have logical answers.

For example, the Todds discovered that sensitive files on their son's computer had been accessed after his death. The police now say it was one of their detectives who accessed the files. The Todds also found one medical expert who examined the autopsy report and concluded it was consistent with homicide. Today the state presented three experts who agreed with the official diagnosis of suicide, including the chief medical examiner for Maryland and the chief medical examiner for Jacksonville, Florida.

Initially, the police told the Todds that their son had drilled bolts into the marble walls of the bathroom and used those to hang himself. But when the Todds arrived on the scene, there were no holes in the wall. Today, all the first responders testified that the hanging mechanism was actually a simple strap with a plastic buckle that was slipped over the top of the door.

"I can't tell you enough how sorry I am."

The suicide notes that were found on Shane's computer were also released in full, along with his last text messages to his girlfriend, in which he canceled plans. "I can't tell you enough how sorry I am," one excerpt reads. "I just can't explain fully what I am going through."

The girlfriend, Shirley Sarmiento, was the one who found Shane's body. She testified that Shane was depressed and withdrawn, and that he had told her he hated his job and felt there were "heavy hands coming after him." She thought that he was overanalyzing. Three of Shane's friends also testified that he was not doing well, but none expected suicide.

"He displayed no evidence at all that he would take his own life," said Michael William Goodwin, Shane's housemate. He testified that Shane was a perfectionist who hated his job, and that Shane had lost weight and hair in the last few months before his death. Shane was also upset about dropping a $10,000 piece of equipment, Goodwin testified.

The Todds' legal team did not press the issue of the discrepancy in the police's initial statement that Shane had drilled holes in the wall. On cross-examination, the Todds' lawyers instead focused on whether the police acted as if there was an assumption of suicide before there was proof and whether the scene was "materially altered." They also focused on whether Shane's feet were touching the ground when he was found.

On cross-examination, the Todds' lawyers focused on whether the police assumed it was a suicide

The inquest drew about 75 attendees, mostly international and local press. The Todds are expected to testify and bring most of their evidence in the second week of the inquiry. They believe Shane was murdered because he was working on a sensitive project with Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, the substance of which may have constituted a breach of US law. The scope of the inquiry is limited to the facts surrounding Shane's cause of death, however.

Shane's parents seemed satisfied with the hearing, even though the evidence now points to suicide. "We like the judge, how he is proceeding. We like the whole process," Rick Todd said after the hearing. "It's very early in the case, we really don't have much to talk to you about. But we really appreciate all of you. We thank you for being here. And if it wasn't for the press we wouldn't be where we are."

The Singaporean state counsel said the case is proceeding ahead of schedule. The process will resume tomorrow at 9:30AM Singaporean time.

Belmont Lay in Singapore contributed to this report.