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Lingering doubts: businessman Winston Simpson's apparent suicide left a printing empire and a lot of questions.

MANY EMPLOYEES, friends and family members of deceased business owner Winston Simpson of North Little Rock still wonder about the strange circumstances surrounding his January death at age 56.

Ruled a suicide, Simpson's death received scant media attention at the time despite his prominence in the community.

He owned The Simpson Co., which included four different business interests: Simpson Press, McCaa-Hartl Inc. and Simpson Leasing in North Little Rock and United Service Advertising in Memphis, Tenn.

It is conservatively estimated that the various Simpson companies, which are privately held businesses, produce at least $15 million in gross annual revenues.

A resident of the prestigious Heritage Park area in North Little Rock, Simpson was well-known and liked in his hometown.

What media attention his death drew resulted from an initial ruling by the state medical examiner's office that Simpson had been the victim of homicide -- not suicide.

The investigation into his death was formally closed July 31, after David De Jong, assistant medical examiner, amended his ruling to suicide.

Recently, Arkansas Business examined the contents of the investigative file from the Pulaski County sheriff's office under the Freedom of Information Act.

The file, which contains information gathered during the investigation, reflects the rationale behind the suicide opinion. It also raises questions about how thoroughly the sheriff's office looked into the possibility of homicide.

Routine procedures in a homicide investigation such as checking the deceased person's will and life insurance policies and identifying possible motives and suspects apparently never took place.

Several people close to Simpson interviewed for this story also question the investigation.

DeJong first called the death homicide because of the presence of two contact bullet wounds -- the first a chest wound that exploded the heart sac but left the aortic valve intact. The second bullet, believed to have resulted in instantaneous death, penetrated the right temple.

De Jong amended his ruling to suicide after discussions with other medical examiners who knew of instances where a gunshot wound to the heart was not immediately fatal.

"There is a definite feeling that people can live for variable lengths of time after a gunshot wound to the heart," De Jong says.

He believes Simpson lived long enough after the first gunshot to "raise the gun up and shoot himself in the head."

While multiple gunshot wounds in a suicide victim are "uncommon, it's not unheard of," De Jong says.

More Details

Also playing a major role in the final ruling of suicide -- as opposed to a ruling of undetermined manner of death -- was that investigators from the Pulaski County sheriff's office apparently believed from the morning Simpson was found that he had killed himself.

The business owner was found slumped in his office chair with a Taurus .38-caliber revolver on the floor near his extended right hand. The gun was one Simpson was known to have kept in his desk.

The investigators' opinion was based largely on the crime scene, which they felt was in no way suspicious.

No signs of forced entry, struggle or robbery were evident, and the position of the body and blood clearly pointed to suicide, they say.

Also, certain events preceding Simpson's death supported the investigators' conclusion of suicide.

Unless otherwise indicated, the following details are based on information contained in the investigative file.

The sheriff's office was called to the Simpson Press plant at 6300 Old Jacksonville Highway about 8:25 a.m. on Jan. 13.

Sheila Roberts, a Simpson employee, had discovered Simpson dead when she walked into his office to deliver mail.

Another person listed as a witness-reporting party on that initial report was Thomas Tome, 40, a Simpson Press employee. Tome married Simpson's widow, Georgine Simpson, 41, about four months after her husband's death.

Sources say Georgine Simpson and Tome went to Las Vegas, Nev., about mid-May, ostensibly on a business trip. Upon their return, they were married.

The morning Simpson was found, the patrol deputy who filed the report interviewed Tome briefly. The patrol deputy learned from Tome that he had arrived at the business about 7 a.m. for a meeting with Simpson and another male employee.

Tome apparently was not interviewed again.

The other man with whom Simpson was to meet, Scott Miles, a production supervisor, said he had an appointment with Simpson to look at some business equipment that day.

Pizza Connection

Georgine and Winston Simpson married in 1982 after a courtship that began at the U.S. Pizza Co. in Sherwood. Georgine Simpson managed the restaurant where they met.

Both had been married before. Georgine Simpson had two daughters from her previous marriage.

Former North Little Rock mayor Reed Thompson married the couple in the mayor's office.

Tome had worked at Simpson Press almost two years before Simpson's death. He reportedly joined the company from a printing job in York, Penn.

At the time Simpson died, Tome was vice president in charge of pre-press operations. He is now the company's chief operating officer.

Asked recently about her remarriage, Georgine Simpson acknowledges that people might gossip about it. She says she had not planned to remarry so quickly, but Tome had been supportive of her since her husband's death. They had grown close quickly.

Sheriff's Detective Ron Tucker interviewed Georgine Simpson later the morning her husband was found dead. Family attorney Bob Hardin was present.

The detective's written summary of that interview said Georgine had last seen her husband about 9 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, as he was leaving for his business.

She said she last talked to her husband about 7 a.m. the next day by telephone. He was at their home at 25 Heritage Park Circle and she was at the Hampton Inn in North Little Rock, where she and her teen-age daughter had spent the previous night.

She stayed at the hotel with her daughter because of a family argument but "not a real serious one," according to the detective's summary. Tucker noted she seemed defensive when asked if the argument may have contributed to her husband's desire to take his life.

She told Tucker her husband occasionally had talked about dying and had stated before that he wished he were dead.

Simpson's medical records, obtained from his regular physician by Tucker, turned up no serious health problems, though Simpson had been treated for gout.

A Final Note

During the initial interview with Georgine Simpson, she failed to mention a suicide note to Tucker. It is unclear whether the detective asked her about one.

In a second interview with Georgine Simpson on Jan. 21, according to the detective's summary, she said her husband often became enraged over minor things, a trait various family members also have mentioned.

Georgine Simpson said her husband and daughter, whom Winston Simpson adopted, had gotten into what was now described as a heated argument the Friday before he died.

Georgine Simpson said her daughter had dared Winston Simpson to hit her. During the argument, she said her husband made a comment that maybe they should all go upstairs and he'd take his gun.

She said the argument later subsided. The next morning she and her daughter went to the Hampton Inn, fearing things might flare up again.

Tucker did not verify the hotel stay or interview the daughter about the argument.

On Jan. 22, Winston Simpson's will was filed in Pulaski County Chancery Court.

Handwritten on a single page of a yellow legal pad, it was dated Feb. 13, 1990, and a time of 4:40 p.m. was written on it.

It read as follows: "I, Winston Simpson being of sound mind wish to change my will, setting up trust with Bob Hardin and leave all my belongings to my wife, Georgine M. Simpson. This will replace all other will|s~ that I have made in the past. I restate. I wish to leave all my belonging|s~ to my wife, Georgine M. Simpson. She may do with assets as she see|s~ fit. I do not wish this will to be contested."

The will was signed by Simpson and witnessed by Sheila Roberts, the employee who found Simpson's body.

It was notarized by Celeste Whitlock, a notary public who replaced Georgine Simpson as president of McCaa-Hartl Inc., the Simpson business that handles mailing for many of the direct mail advertising tabloids Simpson Press publishes.

Roberts refuses to comment on her role as a witness in the will revision. Whitlock acknowledges notarizing the will but has no further comment.

Sworn documents signed by people familiar with the deceased's handwriting were submitted along with the will.

The documents -- signed by Simpson's lawyer, accountant and key employees -- state that the person signing the document is familiar with the handwriting of the deceased and believes the will to be his handwriting.

As best as could be determined from the probate court documents, the will has not been formally admitted to probate nor has it been contested.

Georgine Simpson has petitioned the court to be appointed executrix of her deceased husband's estate.

Thriving Businesses

Along with the businesses, which reliable sources say were financially solvent at the time of his death, Simpson's assets included his Heritage Park house, a lake house on Greers Ferry, a Jaguar and a couple of antique automobiles.

The "trust" alluded to in the will may be a family trust for the businesses that some relatives believed had been established in the form of a precise will legally prepared by an attorney. The will that preceded the handwritten one was not filed in probate court.

Simpson was survived by his wife, three sisters, three stepdaughters and nieces and nephews. Several family members worked in the Simpson businesses at some point.

Two of them -- nephew Mike Huffman and sister Dot Foster -- were fired recently from the company businesses for undetermined reasons.

Huffman had worked for his uncle almost 16 years. He was president of United Service Advertising until about a month ago.

Foster was formerly president of Simpson Press.

Asked about the firings, Georgine Simpson, who now runs the company, declined to talk about the matter.

She says the decisions were not easy. "In fact, it was extremely difficult," she says.

Georgine Simpson says she did not know the contents of her husband's will until his death and was unaware that he had changed it.

"It was a shock to me, too," she says. "I thought it was odd when I found out about it."

Apparently, the sheriff's office never obtained a copy of Simpson's will. However, in an interview with Georgine Simpson, Tucker asked if her husband had a will. According to his notes, she said he had one that had been revised in 1989. There was no indication Tucker inquired about it further.

A day after the will was received in chancery court, a short article appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, reporting that the medical examiner's office had ruled Simpson's death a homicide based on the multiple gunshot wounds.

It was the first suggestion there was anything unusual about the death.

Concerned Calls

The following day, Tucker wrote this summary: "I received a telephone call from Mrs. Georgine Simpson. Mrs. Simpson was disturbed about the chain of events, the uncertainty about the manner of her husband's death, and the fact that she had recently received a message which implicated her as a suspect in his death. Mrs. Simpson was agreeable that she would meet with me whenever I requested."

Tucker then asked Georgine Simpson some questions about a man he believed to be a former employee. In another summary dated that same day, Tucker made a note of some information he had received in a phone call from a local police officer acting on behalf of people who wished to remain anonymous.

The information concerned an apparently false lead regarding a man who was thought to have been fired from Simpson Press. It was believed the man, not related to Simpson, had been charged with embezzling money from the company. He had supposedly met with Simpson a few days before his death.

Other than the summary of the call and the question to Georgine Simpson regarding it, there was no indication the information was checked out.

On Jan. 29, Tucker received a call from Georgine Simpson informing him that she had found a note on her dresser about 7:30 the night before her husband was found dead.

She also found at home her husband's Cross pens and calculator that he always carried with him.

On Jan. 30, Tucker met with Georgine Simpson, Sheila Roberts and Celeste Whitlock at Simpson Press.

Georgine Simpson gave Tucker the note.

Written on McCaa-Hartl stationery, it read: "Georgine, you don't have to leave because I won't be coming back. Best of everything. I love you, Winston."

Tucker received the note along with nine other handwritten notes from Simpson, some dating from the early 1980s.

Most were addressed to "Baby" and ended with the words "I love you" or "I love you very much" often followed by exclamation marks.

The notes reflect the love and devotion friends and family members say Simpson had for his wife.

Handwriting Comparison

A handwriting comparison conducted by the state crime laboratory analyzed the final note and the earlier ones. It concluded "it is highly probable" Winston Simpson prepared the note left on the dresser.

According to the file, Tucker asked Georgine Simpson why she had waited to produce the note. She told him she did not think it was a suicide note at first but later thought it might be significant.

She also said she was reluctant to bring it forward because of its personal nature. Tucker says he did not think the reluctance to present a note was particularly unusual in suicide cases.

Georgine Simpson, who still uses her deceased husband's last name, reiterates those reasons when asked by a reporter about the delay in presenting the note. "He wrote me notes all the time," she says.

Other than the events of the weekend leading up to Simpson's death and the crime scene, investigators had little other physical proof of suicide.

A gunpowder residue test, which involves swabbing a deceased person's hands in order to conduct laboratory tests to detect gunpowder, proved negative. However, a crime lab report notes that a negative test does not rule out the possibility the person fired a gun.

De Jong, the assistant medical examiner, says that in about 50 percent of suicide cases gunpowder residue cannot be detected.

Law enforcement sources say some guns emit powder more readily than others. It often depends on the gun's make and quality. Several police sources outside the sheriff's office say it seems likely a Taurus .38-caliber revolver, not considered a high-quality gun, would emit gunpowder -- especially if fired twice.

An attempt to get latent fingerprints from the handgun also proved fruitless. According to a lab report, "no latent prints of value for identification were developed."

Police say it is difficult to get fingerprints off wood, and the gun had a wooden handle.

Detectives at the sheriff's office say other factors such as perspiration, blood, room ventilation and the length of time since death hampers the retrieval of such physical evidence.

Time of Death?

The approximate time of death was never clearly established. Sheriff's detectives say the medical examiner's office usually cannot supply that information.

It is believed Simpson died some time after Sunday afternoon, when an employee glimpsed what appeared to be the top of Simpson's head as he walked through the plant. That employee and at least two others at the office that afternoon saw Simpson's van parked in the lot.

It was still there when employees began arriving at 7 a.m. the next day.

Numerous employees have keys to the plant but not to Simpson's office. The plant has a security camera that can record activity at the entrance and other areas of the plant.

The camera's presence was noted in the investigative file and Tucker obtained a videotape from the camera. No mention of anything relevant from it appears in the file.

Two of Simpson's three sisters -- Kathleen Huffman and Dot Foster -- were interviewed briefly during the investigation. Tucker's written summaries of his conversations with them indicate no strong feelings from them against the suicide theory.

Contacted recently by telephone in Natchez, Miss., Huffman and Foster say they have doubts their brother would commit suicide.

"He was dedicated to the nth degree to |his business~," Huffman says. "He loved it and was proud of it and rightfully so. And then to just toss it ... That was not his nature -- just not his nature."

Simpson began his printing company from scratch in the early 1960s. He built it into a small empire.

Huffman says she was dissatisfied with the investigation.

"It seems to me he would have questioned so many people, especially those who may have had keys to the building," Huffman says of Tucker.

She says she initiated the interview Tucker conducted with her after hearing him in Simpson's office in late January.

"I sought the detective out myself," she says. "He did not seek me out."

On the day Huffman was interviewed, Tucker was there to receive Simpson's final note from Georgine Simpson. Sheila Roberts, who witnessed the will, and Celeste Whitlock, the will's notary, were also present. The three women are reportedly close business associates.

Whitlock told Tucker about some information she retrieved from Simpson's office computer the day he was found dead.

She gave Tucker a printout. It showed Simpson had his lawyer's name and phone number displayed on the screen prior to an interoffice message being sent about 8:13 a.m. that would have cleared the display. A summary of an interview with Hardin, Simpson's attorney, does not mention receiving a call from him.

Mixed Opinions

Tucker says he's confident in the suicide finding, based on his investigation and the crime scene. He says he felt very strongly from the start that Simpson committed suicide.

But many of those close to Simpson were shocked at the time by Simpson's suicide.

Many still find it unlikely that a man who had spent his entire life building an empire would bow out on it all so unexpectedly.

Tucker says he is not bothered by those doubts.

"What bothers me is why people will sit and gossip and never call the police," he says.

Georgine Simpson says she is satisfied by the investigation into her former husband's death. However, she says she is disturbed others aren't content to accept the tragedy.

"We're just now getting over it," she says. "I just can't believe people can't leave it alone."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Simpson Co.
Author:Walters, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 30, 1992
Words:3102
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