Mishap or Murder?

updated 08/18/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/18/2003 01:00AM

The morning traffic out of San Antonio was moving smoothly on I-10 when a tan Mercury Tracer suddenly swerved onto the median. Horrified drivers watched as the car bounced along for 1,500 ft., then briefly became airborne before smacking back onto the highway.

The Tracer seemed to right itself and cruised safely for several miles. Then things went terribly wrong again: The car veered off the right shoulder and slammed into a cluster of oak trees. Sheriff's deputies found the driver, a middle-aged man in military fatigues, dead from what appeared to be massive head injuries. But a closer inspection revealed several mysterious details. For starters, the man, who had no wallet or ID, had a deep gash in his chest that seemed unrelated to the crash. Plus, his left pinky had been severed, and his wrists and ankles had been bound in duct tape.

Four months after the April 16 crash that killed Col. Philip Shue, 54, an Air Force psychiatrist, the mystery has only deepened. Did the doctor, whose wife says he told her and his superiors about receiving threatening letters, meet with foul play? Or had he been trying to harm himself? Although an autopsy ruled Shue's death a suicide, a local grand jury and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations are looking into the case. Shue's widow Tracy has also hired a forensic pathologist to conduct a second autopsy. "Based on the information they have, it doesn't make sense to me," says Lt. Col. Joseph Chozinski, Shue's commanding officer, of the suicide finding.

Tracy Shue bristles at the suggestion that her spouse of 10 years took his own life. "My husband did not commit suicide," says the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, 48, a psychiatric nurse who met Shue in 1988, when they were stationed at the same base in Florida and he was in the middle of an acrimonious divorce from his first wife. "The autopsy is bull." Tracy points out that the couple were looking forward to Philip's planned retirement from the military in September and a move to Birmingham, Ala. "He was so excited," Tracy says. "We were on cloud nine, both of us."

Shue set out at 5:45 a.m. from the couple's home in Boerne, Texas. He apparently never made it to his office 30 miles away, and no one knows his whereabouts until his accident 2½ hours later. Tracy believes he died as a result of foul play, somehow connected to the series of ominous notes he claimed he received starting in May 1999. She says her husband showed the notes to his superiors, but they "dismissed the notion that the letters represented a real threat."

That did not seem to put Shue's mind at case. As part of his divorce settlement, his ex Nancy had taken out two life insurance policies on him totaling $1 million. When he tried to cancel them in August 2000, he told one insurer in a letter, "Thoroughly examine my death for evidence of foul play, even if on the surface the cause would appear natural or accidental."

As fearful as Shue seemed to be of imminent harm, he had also claimed to be victimized in several bizarre incidents in recent years. Among them: In June 1999 a laptop containing the only copy of his nearly completed master's thesis disappeared; in the fall of 2000 he inexplicably received a score of zeros on his aerospace-studies medical boards. Back in 1978 he had told family and friends that a lone gunman in a car shot at him while he was driving home. Tracy concedes her husband suffered from episodes of acute anxiety. But despite his disquiet, says Lieutenant Colonel Chozinski, Shue was a "highly regarded" psychiatrist who was "very mellow, laid-back, easy to get along with." And not, he believes, suicidal.

But Bexar County medical examiners came to the opposite conclusion. Chief Medical Examiner Vincent DiMaio points to the high concentration of the anesthetic lidocaine in Shue's blood, the "hesitation marks"—scratches often made as a would-be suicide works up the nerve to cut deeper—next to his gaping chest wound and his failure to use his cell phone. "If you were captured, tortured and were fleeing, you would seek help, right?" DiMaio asks. "Usually when things are really, really bizarre, something's been staged."

In addition to ordering a new autopsy, last month Tracy sought a restraining order to block Shue's ex Nancy from collecting on the insurance policies until the probes are completed. Nancy countersued on July 30, accusing Tracy of "inflicting emotional distress." (A suicide ruling would not affect either woman's ability to collect on her policies.) For his part, Nancy's lawyer Virgil Yanta believes that Shue died while attempting to fake an abduction. "This guy was hell-bent," he says, "on making it look like the ex-wife did something."

While court proceedings play out, Tracy's own $1.5 million insurance payout will be delayed. She says she's unconcerned. "If I didn't love my husband so much or believe in him so much," Tracy says, "I could've just taken the money and run."

Pam Lambert
Michael Haederle in Boerne and Lorna Grisby in Chicago

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