Holland, who lives in Amherst, Ohio, said she still remembers the exact words spoken to her over the phone to deliver the news: “There’s been an altercation. Your daughter has passed.”
Investigators know one thing for certain: someone held a gun to Natalie Eppler’s head and pulled the trigger. But seven years later, investigators still don’t agree on who was holding the gun that killed her.
Natalie Eppler (far left) pictured in 2006 with her husband James Eppler, who would later be arrested on murder charges, mother Rebecca Holland and sister Alexandra Wlaszyn-Keesee. (photo courtesy of Rebecca Holland)
The husband became the primary suspect because it was a domestic dispute call that led police to the Epplers’ front door that night.
James Eppler, who at the time worked at a Marine Logistics base, told police he and his wife had been out drinking at a local bar earlier that night, and when they arrived home, they began arguing over whether Natalie had been flirting with another man. Eppler said his wife admitted during the argument that she had slept with his best friend. By the time the argument was over, Natalie Eppler was on the floor, shot.
James Eppler said he found her that way. He told police investigators that after shattering a mirror with his fist during the argument, he went to the kitchen to wash his wounded hand. When he returned to the bedroom, Natalie was bleeding on the floor.
A friend of his, James Tarleton Jones, was at the home that night, but he could neither confirm nor deny Eppler’s story. Jones told police he tried to break up the couple’s argument and then went outside, which is where he was when the shooting happened. Neither man reported hearing a gunshot.
What Jones did next differs depending on who said what to the police. Jones himself said Eppler came outside and called for his help, while Eppler said he came outside and Jones forced him back inside at gunpoint.
When police asked Eppler why Jones would point a gun at his friend, Eppler answered, “I don’t know. Maybe he thought I shot my wife like everyone else.”
Police arrested Eppler on the scene, charging him with murder, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. He was booked into the Dougherty County jail to await indictment for a crime that would carry a life sentence if he were convicted.
Three months later, though, Holland, the victim’s mother, received a shock in the mail. It was Natalie’s death certificate, and there was a word written on it that she hadn’t expected.
It was marked “suicide.”
‘NO ATTEMPTS TO MOVE AWAY’
While James Eppler was still in jail on murder charges, an autopsy of his wife’s body appeared to tell the same story he’d told police. Maryanne Gaffney-Kraft, a medical examiner for Dougherty County at the time, wrote in her autopsy report that the death was “best classified as a suicide.”
Gaffney-Kraft didn’t explain in the report what specifically led her to this conclusion, but she did note the presence of alcohol in Natalie Eppler’s body. The blood alcohol content was .203 at the time of her death, nearly three times Georgia’s legal driving limit.
Months later, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which had been called in to assist, came to the same conclusion and closed the case in May 2011.
Natalie Eppler. (photo courtesy of Rebecca Holland)
Bryan Smith, the lead GBI investigator on the case, determined it was “more likely than not that the victim died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head,” according to the GBI’s case summary, which The AJC obtained from the family.
Smith found the position of Natalie Eppler’s head particularly intriguing. “The positioning of the victim’s head relative to the observed injuries suggest the victim made no attempts to move away from the weapon, which is commonly observed with victims shot by other persons,” the summary read.
The summary concluded that “Agent Smith could not mathematically or physically exclude the possibility that someone else fired the weapon that shot the victim.” But based on factors like the flight path of the bullet and the victim’s position in the room, Smith concluded it was “unlikely the victim was shot by another person.”
After James Eppler had been in jail for three months, his charges were dropped and he was released. The only thing he had left of Natalie, he said, was a picture of her he kept in his wallet.
‘THE CYCLE OF ABUSE’
Eppler’s in-laws, though, aren’t convinced Natalie took her own life.
“She was not suicidal. … She was not depressed,” Holland said.
Natalie Eppler’s medical records show she had seen a therapist for acute stress disorder, a precursor to post-traumatic stress disorder, a year before she died. Holland said her daughter was taking the antidepressant Lexapro to help cope with the stress of her marriage.
According to family members, the young couple’s marriage was a rocky one. Just two months before she died, Natalie had returned to Georgia after a period of separation from her husband.
“It looked like she was heading in the direction of a divorce,” Holland said. “She lived at home with us in Ohio for a year, and he pleaded and begged — you know, the cycle of abuse. He coaxed her into going back to Georgia.”
Rebecca Holland, Natalie Eppler’s mother, said this photo is the last one she ever took with her daughter while she was still alive. At right is Natalie’s sister, Alexandra Wlaszyn-Keesee. (photo courtesy of Rebecca Holland)
Holland said she believes Natalie was planning to leave again the night she was fatally shot. Police found a partially packed suitcase in the hallway and her father’s ashes in the trunk of her car.
In an interview with authorities, Eppler said he had cheated on his wife five times. And he admitted he had even tried to persuade Jones, his friend, to sleep with Natalie so he could “discover” the two of them in the act and use infidelity as grounds for divorce.
Court records also show that Natalie was arrested for simple battery in 2009 after a previous domestic dispute, but the charges were dismissed.
For Natalie Eppler’s family, the circumstances of her death are too suspicious for suicide. A sentence at the very end of the GBI’s investigation summary is of particular interest to them. It reads, “Should other scientific evidence, factual information or reliable statements be discovered at some future time, these results will be reevaluated accordingly.”
The family has spent the past seven years trying to uncover that additional information.
‘MORE LIKELY THAN NOT’
In their push for further investigation, Holland and her brother, Mark Burd, have hired a number of forensic analysts over the years to review the case. One of those analysts, Cleveland-based forensic pathologist Frank P. Miller, told the family he couldn’t say with certainty that the death was a homicide. However, he did say that the GBI’s conclusion that it was “more likely than not that the victim died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound” was not definitive enough.
“The probability standard of ‘more likely than not’ is not appropriate for ruling a death a suicide,” Miller wrote in a 2011 report. “The classification of a death as a suicide has far-reaching consequences, and should be determined ‘to a reasonable degree of medical and certainty,’ just like a ruling of homicide.”
Miller concluded that the manner of death ultimately couldn’t be determined, although he said there were “circumstantial facts that point to this as a domestic violence homicide during an attempt to leave a troubled marriage.”
Ross Gardner, a blood pattern analyst who rendered his own opinion of the evidence, came to a similar conclusion. Gardner criticized several of the GBI’s conclusions, including the agency’s interpretations of its own gunpowder residue testing and ballistics analysis. He did not respond to requests for permission to quote his report.
And when the CBS true-crime television show “48 Hours” caught wind of the case in January 2012 and sent its own investigator to sift through the evidence, he also arrived at the same conclusion.
“The physical evidence does not prove homicide or suicide at this point in time until there is more concrete information,” wrote Eugene Liscio, a crime scene re-creationist hired by the show.
Members of Natalie Eppler’s family have said they aren’t convinced her death was a suicide and have spent the last seven years calling for additional investigation. (photo courtesy of Rebecca Holland)
Despite the apparent ambiguity of the evidence, the Dougherty County district attorney’s office remained unwilling for years to reopen the case. Natalie Eppler’s family said they received only silence from the DA, who was already being sued by James Eppler for false arrest, false imprisonment and defamation. That lawsuit was eventually thrown out.
As for the GBI, it did not reconsider its suicide ruling. The bureau declined to comment for this story, and Agent Bryan Smith did not respond to requests for an interview. A spokesman for the GBI, Bahan Rich, said his agency “provided limited assistance” in the investigation.
“We’re up against somebody, and we don’t know who,” said Burd, Natalie’s uncle.
A “cold case” is a criminal investigation where all leads have been exhausted and the case remains unsolved. This story is one in an occasional series on unsolved homicides and missing person cases from around the state. To read more cold cases, go to myAJC.com/coldcases.
Some family members took their frustration further than others. Irene Wlaszyn, one of Natalie’s aunts, was convicted in 2012 of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to three years’ house arrest after attempting to hire someone to kill James Eppler.
Burd and Holland said they have no contact with Wlaszyn and have tried to file a restraining order against her.
‘WE’RE NOT GOING AWAY’
It wasn’t until a Florida-based team of pro-bono forensic investigators volunteered to conduct an independent review of the case in December 2014 that the DA appeared to take notice. The team’s investigative lead declined to release their official results, reached in October 2016. But unlike previous reviews, this one prompted the DA to look into the case again.
Dougherty County Assistant District Attorney Hal Moroz spent more than a year interviewing GBI agents and Albany police officers about the Eppler case. And for Holland and Burd, it seemed like a prosecution was on the horizon. Holland said she was assigned a victim advocate and given a date on which the case would go to a grand jury, although Moroz denied making this guarantee.
In the end, though, Moroz’s review led where every other official investigation had — back to suicide. He said he couldn’t uncover any new information. And as for the report from the Florida team, he said there was no new information in that, either.
“Most of their questions were already evaluated and analyzed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which, again, resulted in no conclusive evidence that a crime was committed,” Moroz said.
This last detail was key for Moroz. Not only could he not find grounds to re-arrest James Eppler, he said he couldn’t prove that a crime had even been committed.
“Not only did we not hit probable cause, we didn’t hit the higher threshold which is required for criminal prosecution — and that is, can we convict someone based on evidence and get something determined beyond a reasonable doubt,” Moroz said.
Holland said the current Dougherty County coroner, Michael Fowler, indicated he wanted to perform an inquest to formally re-examine Natalie Eppler’s death, but the request was denied. Fowler did not respond to requests for comment.
Holland, though, said she won’t give up. “We’re not going away. We’re trying everything we can.”
‘I CRY MYSELF TO SLEEP’
James Eppler, now 32, is remarried and out of the military. He has two children and works at a computer repair store. He said what happened to Natalie still haunts him.
“I cry myself to sleep most nights. I constantly ask myself what I could have done that night,” Eppler said. “I have two children now and still question myself that night how I could have saved the love of my life.”
Not everyone is as certain as Natalie Eppler’s family about what happened that fateful night. Some, like Kelly Tucker, who said she used to be James Eppler’s roommate, just want him to be able to move on with his life. Tucker said she was initially “one of many who thought 100 percent that he did it.” But she has since changed her mind after getting to know him better.
“James is one of the most generous and kind hearted people you will ever have the chance of meeting,” Tucker wrote in an email to The AJC. “He’s been dragged through hell and back over a woman’s decision to end her own life, he’s been judged by thousands who didn’t know him, called many things other than his name, yet all by people who don’t know him.”
Eppler said accusations that he is guilty have become commonplace. He told The AJC he comes under attack by the media and his late wife’s family at least once a year.
But he said he feels the same heartache his former in-laws feel.
“As much as I would love to take away their pain, I will always be blamed.”