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Georgia Mystery: Was drowning death suicide or murder?

Glynn County Commissioner Tom Sublett's 2012 death was ruled a suicide, even though his hands were zip-tied.
Vinnie Politan and his team of experts piece together the details of Tom Sublett's death

SAINT SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- A coastal Georgia commissioner was found dead after playing poker with friends. His death was ruled a suicide, even though his hands were bound. Loved ones refuse to accept that Tom Sublett would kill himself. His case remains a Georgia mystery.

The County Commissioner

At the time of his death, 52-year-old Tom Sublett was District 2 Chairman for the Glynn County Board of Commissioners, representing Jekyll, Sea and St. Simons islands. He was elected in 2008 to a four-year term, which was set to expire Dec. 31, 2012. He also worked as a commercial real estate agent, having decided not to pursue reelection.

On Monday, Dec. 10, 2012, Sublett participated in a low-stakes poker game at William Parker's house; Parker told police he and Sublett were part of a group that met regularly to play cards. The game ended at around 10:15 p.m., and Sublett left Parker's house with fellow poker player Allen Whittington.

Sublett's wife Carol called the Glynn County Police Department at around 2:30 a.m. the next day to say her husband never returned home. Sublett's car was found shortly before 4 a.m. at Gascoigne Bluff, a park about a mile from his St. Simons Island house. His body was pulled from the nearby river two hours later.

Investigators said Sublett's hands were bound together with zip ties. He had been shot in the head, near his left ear, but the wound was not fatal.

"He was alive when he went in the water. His cause of death is drowning," said Joseph Scott Morgan, a distinguished scholar at the Jacksonville State University Center for Applied Forensics. "It's not so much the cause -- it's the manner. How are you going to determine the manner?"

The Investigation

Police originally investigated Sublett's death as a homicide. They spoke with Allen Whittington, the friend who left the poker game with Sublett. Whittington said that, per their routine, Sublett dropped him off at around 10:30 p.m. in the Brunswick Winn-Dixie parking lot where he'd left his car.

After receiving a worried phone call from Sublett's wife in the middle of the night, Whittington drove the route his friend typically took home. He told the GBI he looked along the road and even under a bridge, hoping to spot Sublett's Toyota Avalon.

"I was worried something had happened," Whittington said. "Even though I didn't think Tom would kill himself, it crossed my mind."

Whittington was the one who found Sublett's car at Gascoigne Bluff.

"I just had a sense that I needed to go through (the park) and just check it out on my way" to Sublett's subdivision, he said.

Seven weeks into the investigation, the coroner reached a conclusion: Tom Sublett had committed suicide. The GBI agreed and closed the case in July 2013.

Mark Johnson, an attorney for the Sublett family, said the victim's wife, children and grandchildren do not believe he killed himself.

"The finding that the coroner made, nobody in the family believes it or thinks it's correct," he said.

The Theories

Investigators recovered a packet of zip ties, an empty gun holster and a loaded magazine from Sublett's car. But the gun used to shoot him in the head was never found, giving some credibility to the theory that he was murdered.

"It's almost like someone is standing over him, put the gun in his ear after he's hog-tied, and shoots him and kicks him in the water," 11Alive legal analyst Philip Holloway said.

Holloway pointed out that if Sublett had shot himself with his zip-tied hands, it would've been easier to aim the gun upward beneath his chin, not against the side of his head.

Jacksonville State's Morgan wondered how Sublett supposedly tied his hands. Morgan tried to bind his own hands with zip ties. It took a little time and a lot of maneuvering, but he managed to do it.

Holloway said the coroner had the option of ruling Sublett's cause of death "undetermined," yet chose to call it a suicide. But by all accounts, Tom Sublett had no reason to take his own life. He was a devoted family man and, apart from his mortgage, did not have any major debt. He'd undergone shoulder surgery, but that was his only known health issue.

Carol Sublett told detectives her husband was "happy as always, excited about the holidays" in the days before he passed away.

"He doesn't get angry. He doesn't hold grudges. He's just a happy-go-lucky guy," she said in a police interview.

"I can't even imagine why they would rule this as a suicide," Morgan said, adding that he believes Sublett's death was "obviously a drowning, manner of death left undetermined."

Holloway took his own theory a step further: "Based on everything -- manner of death: homicide, execution style."

"The only thing that we know for sure is the cause of death," Holloway added. "Everything else is just one giant question mark."

Anyone with information in Tom Sublett's death is encouraged to call Sublett family attorney Mark Johnson at 912-265-6700.

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