Shakespeare’s Hamlet is considered one of the greatest plays ever written. But it’s also a ghost story.
The king is killed by his brother, who then marries the widow and takes the crown. The dead king re-appears as a ghost, tells his son Hamlet who the killer was, and demands revenge.
I thought of Hamlet recently while hearing the story of private investigator Sheila Wysocki.
In 1984, Wysocki’s freshman-year roommate at Southern Methodist University, Angie Samota, was raped and murdered at an apartment in Dallas.
The case went unsolved for years. But one night Wysocki — who had since married, moved to Tennessee, and begun raising kids — was visited by the ghost of her dead roommate.
The ghost did not identify the murderer. But it communicated its desire for Wysocki to revisit the case, to do what she could to seek justice.
The ghost could not have picked a better person to ask.
Wysocki was initially brushed off by police in Dallas and was soon known at the station as ‘Pita,’ short for ‘pain in the ass.’ She phoned hundreds of times asking the status of the case, the whereabouts of evidence, the names of detectives past and present, and so on.
She was consumed by the case and frustrated by the lack of respect which she, as a stay-at-home mom in Tennessee, received from police back in Texas. So she put in hours of work, took the Tennessee licensing test, and became a private investigator.
Finally, in 2008, thanks to reassignment of the Samota case to female detective Linda Crum, and thanks to DNA testing, the killer was identified, tried, and convicted.
Samota’s killing should not have taken 24 years to solve. It could have been solved earlier with proper initial investigation and sustained attention. But at least Samota’s ghost finally got its justice.
The same cannot be said for Lauren Agee, a Tennessee woman whose death Wysocki has investigated for five years.
Agee, 21, died in the summer of 2015 while camping with friends on a cliff above Center Hill Lake, about an hour east of Nashville. The group was at the lake to attend WakeFest, an annual wakeboarding event.
The term ‘friends’ should probably be used loosely. Agee didn’t really know the three men at the campsite — Aaron Lilly, Christopher Stout, and Brixner Gambrell. And none of them — nor her actual friend Hannah Palmer, also at the campsite — attended Agee’s subsequent funeral, according to Agee’s family.
The campers told authorities that Agee must have woken up at night to pee and accidentally fallen off the cliff. Her body was found by a fisherman the next day in a cove which was not particularly near the cliff, with injuries not particularly consistent with either a fall or drowning.
As with the case of the old college roommate, the initial police investigation into Agee’s death was cursory and flawed. Investigators were persuaded by the accidental-fall theory. They applied little meaningful pressure, if any, to witnesses Lilly, Stout, Gambrell, and Palmer.
Agee’s family tried to apply pressure themselves by hiring the mom-turned-P.I. Wysocki and by filing a wrongful death suit against the other campers. But the death remains a mystery, six years later.
WakeFest will be held again this July, same as always. Thousands of young adults will flock to the shores, drink a lot of beer, and spend nights on houseboats or in the woods.
Witnesses Lilly, Stout, Palmer, and Gambrell have moved on with their lives and have stuck, for the most part, to their original story. But Wysocki, the private investigator, knows from experience that the truth will emerge, or to borrow a phrase from another long-dead writer, Chaucer — “murder will out.”
Whether it’s a talkative ghost, an attack of conscience, a desire for reward money, or a new forensic test, the truth will eventually come out. The late Lauren Agee will get justice, and her family, a measure of peace.
And if one wants to hear a particularly good job of questioning by an investigator, then listen to the first 15 minutes of this. It’s a recording of off-duty police officer Chris Yarchuck, who worked security at WakeFest and who interviewed Hannah Palmer the day Agee’s body was discovered.
It’s a shame Yarchuck himself never got to investigate the case. He was already making tremendous headway that day. His interview technique and especially his question to Palmer around the 7:45 mark — Why (do) you say that? — ought to be taught to young people training for law enforcement. The tone is casual, patient, non-confrontational. Yarchuck allows room in the conversation for Palmer to get lost and begin contradicting herself. It’s an open-listening technique, and is extraordinarily effective.
People with information about the death of Lauren Agee are asked to contact Sheila Wysocki through her website.