The Cold Case of Robert Lawrence Tatman

Robert Lawrence TatmanOn November 25, 1967, police found Robert Lawrence Tatman lying on his back in front of his own squad car, motor running, revolving lights still on, and the front door at the driver’s side open, near Interstate 57.  His flashlight was lying on his left side. His hat was on the ground near the curb. He was shot at very close range with a .38 caliber revolver, on the right side of his chest, approx. 3 inches above the elbow.

Tatman’s case is one of the most complicated you will ever come across. The number of boxes, reports, and notebooks, fill an entire room, yet the final answer has not been found. This case is more than 40 years old but remains open and active.

The picture of what happened that night has changed over the years. The Investigations Division has changed. Officers retired and new detectives arrived. Many saw this case for the first time. A variety of scenarios were considered. Perhaps Tatman was chasing a speeding car and got ambushed, or he saw something suspicious, or… the list goes on. Just reading through everything, you feel the tension and taste the despair when month after month went by, but without results.

But let’s start at the beginning, on that fateful night in 1967.

Tatman was shot between 01:05 and 01:10 am. How can we be sure? At 01:05am, Tatman radioed he was going to make a stop at the crossing of Church and Mattis. He gave no further details, such as the reason for the stop (routine or traffic violation), license plate, model and make of the car, or the number of people inside the car. At 01:10am, dispatch heard the frantic voices of people screaming for help. They drove by the crossing and found a bleeding police officer! Questioned later, they stated they had not seen a car in either direction. Whoever shot Tatman, left at great speed.

The cause of death was severe hemorrhage due to a single bullet that went through both lungs resulting in shock. Tatman died within minutes after being shot. Judging from paraffin tests of Tatman’s hands, it seemed that his gun was taken from him and pushed into his ribs. He then obviously tried to grab the gun but it went off. The murder weapon was his own service revolver, found lying at his feet. Judging from the position in which the body was found, the absence of blood trails, the lack of wounds on Tatman’s back, clothes, shoes, and the back of his head, we conclude that his body had not been moved. Tatman died where he fell to the ground.

Many were puzzled that Tatman’s service revolver was the murder weapon. Two scenarios were considered. Someone was capable of taking the revolver out of either Tatman’s hands or holster.

Taking the gun out of Tatman’s hands does not seem unlikely. It would mean that at some point he had his gun drawn. In that case, he would probably have mentioned the possibility of trouble, when he radioed this stop. In a scenario with Tatman resisting, I assume it is more likely that the person who shot Tatman is a man.

The other scenario, that the gun was taken out of his holster, suggests that somehow his gun was either not well secured in the holster or the holster was defective. This presents the possibility that the person who shot Tatman could be a woman. A woman may have completely surprised Tatman, thus giving her, for a few seconds, the upper hand in the argument. This could also explain why Tatman did not expect any trouble, and did not ask for back up, when he radioed he was going to make a stop.

This worries me:

● An officer described some fresh mud on the front seat on the passenger side of the squad car. According to the National Weather Service Office in Lincoln and the Midwest Climate Center, the temperature on November 25, 1967, was between 21-32 F and there was no precipitation. In fact, there had not been any precipitation between 23-28 November, 1967. The first precipitation came in the form of snow on November 30, 1967. On November 25, 1967, the ground had been too cold and hard to develop fresh mud. Where did the fresh mud come from? On the copied pictures made just before Tatman’s autopsy, his shoes seem to be clean. However, the copies are not very clear and the shoes cannot be seen from below.

● Tatman’s ticket book was in its usual place. I am curious whether modern technology can decipher any of the formerly written tickets and possibly the beginning of a ticket if there was one to be issued that night.

● Roadblocks were set up after Tatman was found. But what if Tatman was not chasing a car? After all, he did not mention he was going to make a traffic stop; he just mentioned a stop. What if he was chasing a motor cycle? Or, suppose he was chasing a car with more than one person in that car. One person drove off and the other left on foot after the shooting. That person may not have been caught at the roadblocks.

● I never found any information why the people who found Tatman were cleared. We are not implying they had anything to do with his death, but we would like to be able to definitely cross people off the suspect-list.

As much as police searched and tried, no breaks came in this case. Then, in February 1988, a call came in from the Nebraska Police Department that would keep the Champaign Police Department’s Investigations Division busy for the next years.

A woman, in therapy for domestic difficulties with her husband, spoke about the most traumatic memories in her life. She told her therapist about her father, who shot a law enforcement officer during a traffic stop, about 20 years ago. Let’s call her Lady W.

Lady W remembered travelling along I-57. She was in the back seat of her father’s station wagon, when they were stopped by police. Her father stepped out of his car, walked back towards the officer, and shot him in the stomach area. The police officer, a tall man, fell to the ground in front of his car, loosing his hat during the fall. The shooting took place at a wide road with no other traffic. She later told her husband about the shooting, when they got married in 1984. He was interviewed separately and relayed the same story. He has no further connections to this case. After hearing this memory, the therapist decided to contact police.

Detectives from the Champaign Police Department left for Nebraska. Her story seemed to describe Tatman’s death. Lady W stated that she and her half-brother traveled with their father through many states. Apparently, they did not have a permanent home. The father worked on construction sites. After some time, they would move on, never staying long at one place. The children lived in various foster homes in between their father’s jobs. According to Lady W, there was a reason her father might have been on edge when he was stopped by a police officer. She suspected that her father had taken her and her half-brother out of a foster home without prior permission, and he now feared police would take the children away from him.

Lady W was not sure whether the shooting happened at night or during the day. She thought the officer had a flashlight on his belt (suggesting daytime) instead of in his hand (suggesting nighttime). She noted that her father had a gun in this car. He kept it either underneath the front seat or in the glove compartment. When shown a detective’s snub-nosed Colt, she stated her father’s gun appeared to be similar. Later, in February 1988, Lady W’s half-brother was interviewed. Let’s call him Mr. O. He confirmed his half-sister’s memories of their father, but he did not recall the shooting of a law enforcement officer. He did remember his father’s gun.

This new lead presented the police with an enormous amount of work that had to be done on top of regular duties. The father needed to be found, as well as character witnesses, and, of course, they needed to get hard evidence to prove the shooting. After some digging into the father’s past, a series of relationships surfaced with several partners (some deceased) and more children. Tracking down all these people meant detectives had to travel all over the United States.

The case started to present its own problems. Tight budgets meant that detectives could not just be taken off their daily duties in Champaign to pursue possible leads in a 21-year-old case, even if the case concerned one of their own. However, the detectives were determined to solve this case. They made progress but ever so slowly.

In 1989, a detective discovered that Tatman’s service revolver and flashlight had disappeared from the evidence room. They were never found again.

In the mean time, detectives checked Lady W’s story, traced down relatives and possible witnesses, and consulted with experts on polygraphs and repressed memories. Slowly a disturbing picture emerged. That Lady W remembered a very traumatic incident is something most people agree on, but that she remembered seeing Tatman being shot by her father, most people doubt.

It started so promising, but alas! There were parts in her story that were correct, but when she was pressed for details that mattered, she was wrong time and again. Two state police hypnotists tried to hypnotize Lady W for another interview. Unfortunately, she appeared not stable enough to do so. She was not even stable enough for a polygraph. The polygraph report stated that she was not tested because as a subject, she was unfit. The investigator found she “was suffering from a combination of some form of mental illness and an apparent low IQ”.

What is truly disturbing is that all siblings and relatives seemed to have their own take on the story. Add to that a 1967 newspaper article in the Champaign-Urbana Courier that gave away details that we would now consider confidential, and you will understand why I am suspicious. Not only did the news article speculate and suggested that Tatman possibly tried to get the gun back, it also quoted then-Chief Shirley who described in detail what Tatman’s holster looked like.

Despite that she was wrong on important details, police kept trying to find her father. When they did, he was interviewed several times without results. The father’s fingerprints were sent to the FBI for comparison but they lacked sufficient ridge details. On August 5, 1994, Lady W dies in a passenger-car accident. In May 1998, police took blood samples from Tatman’s elderly parents for possible future DNA sampling.

I do not think that Lady W’s father can be regarded as the sole suspect in Tatman’s homicide. No doubt Lady W went through some traumatic experience, but I sincerely doubt she was capable of distinguishing reality from fantasy. The statements from her siblings and relatives changed over the years, and we do not consider them credible.

As in any case, sources gave information. Informants pointed to various people. Incarcerated people gave information about drug addicts, the drug addicts pointed to the alcohol dependants. And, of course, many people who read about Tatman’s death the morning after the homicide came to the police with information. Some were credible and had indeed spotted Tatman’s squad car driving towards I-57. Some also saw another car in front of Tatman’s, but these people also stated that they were too far away to see details of that car that would help the police.

I am not sure that focusing on Lady W’s father (because of his daughter’s statements) is enough in this case. I’d like to offer an alternative explanation that Tatman’s death was not premeditated but an awful accident.

Consider the possibility that Tatman knew who he stopped. It could have been a friend, a source, an informant, or someone he had arrested before. In any case, Tatman did not feel threatened by this person. Tatman may or may not have had words with this person before. Perhaps, this person would normally not have posed a threat, but that night, something was different. Maybe Tatman just stopped the wrong person at the wrong time.

Somehow this person and Tatman got into an argument, a fight, and they struggled. The person grabbed for Tatman’s gun, Tatman fought back, but the gun went off when it got pressed against him. Maybe the person who shot Tatman also caught him. Surprised and horrified by that shot, by Tatman falling, this person caught him and gently lowered him. Remember that Tatman had no trauma on his back or the back of his head, and his clothes and shoes showed no signs of dragging.

If you have any information please contact the Champaign Police Department at (217) 351-4545.