INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - Three years after a sailor was found dead, the investigation into his death is being reviewed again by authorities in Illinois. New evidence obtained by I-Team 8 could help reveal the truth behind 22-year old Kyle Antonacci 's death. A death that happened when the young man was serving as an informant in a sexual assault case for NCIS, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
Allegations of sexual assault
22-year-old Kyle Antonacci came from a family of military tradition. He hoped to become a Navy Seal.
"He loved his country," said his mother, Lisa Antonacci . "He wanted to protect his country."
From their home in central Indiana, his parents say the military he loved let him down.
"They betrayed my son," she told 24-Hour News 8. "They betrayed me."
In May 2009, a female Marine , who we are not identifying, accused Antonacci's friend and fellow sailor Mike Pineda of sexual assault. Antonacci, who had a relationship with the woman, found her naked and crying in his bed. She told him Pineda attacked her and he became a key witness in the case against Pineda.
WHO'S WHO | Meet the key players, places and evidence
Antonacci had a previous relationship with the woman. Pineda says the sex was consensual and he believes she told Antonacci she was raped because she didn't want him to be mad at her.
"I believe any normal, rational person would not want to say, ‘You know, your friend and I just had sex in your room,'" Pineda told I-Team 8. "I think her response was something along the lines of, ‘Holy (expletive), I just got caught.'"
But as the weeks went by, friends say Antonacci began to doubt if it was an attack or consensual sex.
In his own words, he wrote about the threats that started after sharing his doubts.
I-Team 8 obtained Antonacci's seven-page, handwritten statement to NCIS. In the September 2009 document, Antonacci wrote that the woman confronted him and accused him of "switching sides." Then, he wrote that another Marine showed up saying he was the woman's friend. Antonacci wrote that the man had a knife and threatened "he will be at the courtroom and if he doesn't hear what he likes it's going to be bad."
James Culp , the attorney first hired by the Antonacci family to investigate their son's death, says NCIS should have done more.
"NCIS had legal and moral obligation to protect him at the time he told them he was being threatened," Culp said.
Antonacci said a few nights after being confronted by the woman and her friend, an "X" was carved in his door. He wrote that he asked to be moved off base.
"They move him 300 feet down the hall into another room," Culp said.
"The whole chain of command knew Kyle was being threatened," Pineda said.
Two months after the threats began, Antonacci testified against Pineda. Pineda was convicted, sentenced to serve three months and dishonorably discharged from the Navy.
Afterward, Antonacci admitted to NCIS he lied by not confessing he'd had sex with the woman the same evening as the alleged attack. To avoid perjury charges and help clear Pineda's name, Antonacci became an NCIS informant. He conducted wiretapped conversations with the female Marine, trying to entice her into admitting there was no assault.
I-Team 8 has listened to two calls. In it, the NCIS agent can be clearly heard in the background prompting Antonacci with questions. That raises the question of if the woman could hear the agent also.
Just hours after a final recorded phone conversation on Feb. 1, 2010, Antonacci was found dead. A fellow sailor said he found him hanging in his closet.
The Antonaccis remember well the day they got the knock at their door.
"We couldn't see their bodies. We couldn't see their faces. All we saw were the hats," Lisa Antonacci described. "Just the way it is on TV is exactly what happens. I knew right away.
They claim NCIS agents lied to them from the beginning.
"He died in his bunk." Lisa Antonacci said they were first told about their son's death. Then she says she was told, "he was in a car accident."
The third thing they were told was that he hanged himself.
Antonacci's autopsy was done by the Lake County, Ill. coroner's office. The coroner's report lists "hemorrhages around his entire face ... not consistent with a typical hanging."
The report goes on to describe his neck: "the furrow mark went straight back, with no upward angle, which is not typical in a self-inflicted hanging."
He had a broken nose.
The deputy coroner told NCIS he was "not 100 percent convinced this was a self-inflicted hanging."
Antonacci's manner of death was ruled "undetermined."
The report also reveals a twist in the case. 132 photographs from the autopsy were missing in what was described as "technical difficulties with the IT department."
Then-family attorney James Culp, a former Army JAG officer, doubts the claim.
"Hogwash. Erroneous. It's a lie!" Culp said. "Digital photos in the modern age don't disappear."
The family hired attorney James Culp , who had been an Army JAG officer. He calls the investigation into Antonacci's death an NCIS cover-up and says he battled NCIS and prosecutors from the start.
That's why Culp and the family exhumed Antonacci's body for a second autopsy with famed forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden.
Dr. Baden found two scorch marks on Kyle's back not mentioned in the initial autopsy.
Those marks will become a key to a future development in the investigation.
But what makes the second autopsy notable also is what Dr. Baden didn't find: the hyoid bone . The hyoid bone would be crucial in determining how Antonacci died.
"The hyoid bone is more commonly fractured in homicidal strangulation than a suicidal hanging," Dr. Baden said.
The bone that could prove murder was missing from the body. Any pictures of the hyoid bone were also missing.
Two Years Later
Dr. Richard Keller was Lake County, Ill. coroner at the time of Antonacci's first autopsy.
I-Team 8 obtained a notarized statement Dr. Keller made about Antonacci's death investigation in October 2012. In it, Dr. Keller describes how he reviewed results from both autopsies.
In an alarming admission, Dr. Keller reiterates how his office was not convinced "with the NCIS investigators calling it a death by suicide." He revealed his office was pushed by NCIS to call the death a suicide. He said based on his review that he believed the death involved "violence" and "the hand of another."
Dr. Keller wrote, "I believe, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that the manner of death of Kyle C. Antonacci to be homicide."
Culp set out to prove his theory of how Antonacci died.
Trying to prove a theory
Culp's client is now Mike Pineda , the fellow sailor Antonacci testified against and who he was trying to clear when he died. Pineda was eventually cleared of the sexual assault charges and given an honorable discharge. Now, he uses the backpay he earned to help pay for the investigation.
"I've spent thousands and thousands of dollars and countless hours trying to seek resolution to this because it's the right thing to do," Pineda said about his unlikely role in finding answers to Antonacci's death.
Culp and Pineda believe that a stun gun was used to subdue Antonacci before he was strangled during a struggle in his room at the Great Lakes Naval Training Base .
I-Team 8 was given exclusive access to document a test done at a veterinary hospital near Austin, Texas. The goal of the test was to see if a stun gun could have caused the scorch marks found during the second autopsy on Antonacci's back. The test was done on a sedated pig.
Police and forensic experts involved in the re-examination of the investigation watched.
When comparing the mark left on the pig to the photo of the marks on Antonacci's back , Culp believes the marks appear to match.
Culp believes Antonacci's killer put his knee in his back, wrapped a belt around Kyle's neck and strangled him.
Culp and Gary Rini, the former lead forensic investigator of the Lake County, Ill. Major Crime Task Force, took the evidence to the Illinois State Police. They spent two days briefing ISP on the case.
"ISP has reviewed the case and has forwarded the case to the Lake County Coroner's Office," said Illinois State Police spokeswoman Monique Bond.
The coroner will now review the case again to determine if the manner of death can be changed from undetermined to homicide. Dr. Keller , who wrote the letter about Antonacci's death in October 2012, is no longer Lake County's coroner.
Back in Indiana, the Antonaccis will watch developments closely. They believe their son would have been safer in Iraq than Illinois. Lisa and Al Antonacci believe their son was murdered.
"This is a story that every American needs to know," Lisa Antonacci explained. "That something like this can happen to any enlisted person in America, in America."
Al Antonacci, Kyle's dad, wears his son's Navy belt every day. He never takes it off.
He made a promise to his son: "On his gravesite, Dad would get to the bottom of it." Al Antonacci said.
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