Florida family grieves as Trump spreads conspiracy theory to attack MSNBC host
A little after 8 a.m. on July 20, 2001, a couple arriving for an appointment opened an unlocked front door at an office in the Florida panhandle town of Fort Walton Beach and discovered a woman lying on the floor, dead. Her name was Lori Kaye Klausutis and she was just 28.
The police said they found no signs of foul play. The medical examiner concluded her lonely death was an accident. She had fainted, the result of a heart condition, and hit her head on a desk, he said.
Now, nearly 20 years later, Klausutis's death has captured the attention of the country's most prominent purveyor of conspiracy theories— the president of the United States — who has without evidence speculated that she might have been murdered and that the case should be reopened.
The reason for President Donald Trump's fixation: At the time of her death, Klausutis was working for a Republican congressman from Pensacola named Joe Scarborough — the same Scarborough who today, as host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," is a fierce critic of Trump and has in recent weeks decried the president's handling of the coronavirus pandemic as a failure.
"A lot of interest in this story about Psycho Joe Scarborough," Trump tweeted Sunday, the latest in a string of recent tweets on the matter in which the president has unleashed a torrent of false allegations, mischaracterizations and baseless rumors. "So a young marathon runner just happened to faint in his office, hit her head on his desk, & die? I would think there is a lot more to this story than that? An affair? What about the so-called investigator?"
A day earlier, Trump claimed without evidence that the case was now a "big topic of discussion in Florida," calling Scarborough a "Nut Job (with bad ratings)" and declaring to his followers: "Keep digging, use forensic geniuses!" In a tweet earlier last week, Trump mused: "Did he get away with murder? Some people think so."
No one in Klausutis' family would talk about Trump's tweets for this article, fearing retaliation by online trolls of the type who went after parents of the Sandy Hook massacre victims. Their grief has been disrupted by conspiracy theories before — not only over the past few years from the White House, but from some liberals who at the time of her death sought to portray then-conservative Republican congressman Scarborough as a potential villain.
"There's a lot we would love to say, but we can't," said Colin Kelly, who was Klausutis' brother-in-law.
Scarborough, who was 900 miles away in Washington, D.C., on the day Klausutis died, and his co-host and wife, Mika Brzezinski, have both expressed outrage on the air in recent days — saying that Trump's false accusations were most hurtful to Klausutis' family. Brzezinski called Trump a "cruel, sick, disgusting person" and said he was using the episode to distract from the pandemic.
The attacks from Trump come as the country's death toll from the virus nears the 100,000 mark and the ensuing economic devastation worsens. As criticism of Trump's handling of the crisis has mounted, he has turned to his Twitter feed to air grievances and settle scores. He has baselessly accused a stream of perceived opponents of committing crimes, including illegal espionage and election rigging.
In the case of the 2001 death in Florida, Trump is pushing a claim that was debunked from the outset by local officials. Despite drawing scrutiny and wild claims repeatedly over the years, there has never been any indication that local authorities planned to revisit the matter. Officials there could not be reached Sunday to respond to the president's claims.
Trump's tweets offer a reminder of the remarkable nature of the Trump era — that a sitting president can traffic in incendiary and false allegations while the political world around him remains largely silent, accustomed to Trump's modern-day definition of presidential behavior. As with many such eruptions from the White House, there will probably be little if any consequence beyond, in this case, the collateral suffering of a private family in Florida. A White House spokesman declined to comment.
Klausutis had spent two years as a constituent services coordinator in Scarborough's Fort Walton Beach annex. She was not a college intern, as some have claimed. She was not pregnant, either, as some have asserted. And she was not, as Trump claimed Sunday and others have before him, a marathon runner.
Klausutis had been married for four years to a 6-foot-3 civilian Air Force contractor named T.J. Klausutis. They lived in a town called Niceville where the population numbered about 11,000 people, many with jobs at nearby Eglin Air Force Base.
She grew up about 20 minutes outside Atlanta and graduated with honors from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism. She was completing an MBA from the University of West Florida, sang in the Saint Mary's Catholic Church choir and ran 2 to 4 miles about four times a week. She was on the board of the youth symphony and had just stepped down from the presidency of the Emerald Coast Young Republicans to become treasurer.
"She was an absolutely lovely girl," Paul Lux, then a member of the Young Republicans chapter and now Okaloosa County's supervisor of elections, said last week. "She and T.J. were very happy. ... She kept nudging me to come back to the church. Her funeral is what finally got me to come back."
She died on a Thursday two weeks before her birthday. She told two people that day that she didn't feel well. Her husband was out of town on business, and she'd planned to go to a girls' night out, but she canceled. A second employee in the office was on vacation, so Klausutis was working alone. She last spoke to someone on the phone just before 5 p.m.
A security guard was supposed to check the doors of the Miracle Strip Parkway office complex that night but later admitted he probably skipped some. He failed to discover the unlocked office door or see the office lights were on.
Klausutis' job was helping people in Scarborough's district who needed assistance navigating bureaucracy. The couple who showed up Friday wanted a work permit. They found Klausutis lying near a desk and called 911. They told the local paper they saw no sign of an attack and assumed she had had a seizure and collapsed.
Police reported no signs of a robbery or a violent attack. When the medical examiner was slow to announce a cause of death, speculation began to swirl. The local Northwest Florida Daily News reported getting inquiries "from Massachusetts and Oregon and dozens of places in between."
When one story mentioned suicide as a possibility, Klausutis' father-in-law, Norm, wrote a letter to the editor: "Losing Lori was the most painful event in my life of 62 years. It was far more painful for her husband. ... She was extremely happy with her life, job and family. For those who knew Lori, the thought of suicide, as your published reports suggested, is absolutely unthinkable."
Finally, on Aug. 6, Assistant Medical Examiner Michael Berkland announced his findings. Klausutis, he wrote, "died as a result of an acute subdural hematoma which occurred as a result of a closed head trauma sustained in a simple fall."
The position of the body and her hands showed she had made no effort to break her fall, he wrote, and the nature of her brain injury wasn't consistent with an attacker hitting her. Her heart had a "floppy mitral valve," suggesting she suffered from an abnormal heart rhythm that led to a fainting spell. It also explained why she had felt ill, he said.
At that point, her husband made his one and only public statement about the case, praising Berkland's "thoroughness and attention to detail" and adding, "He did a wonderful job in finding the right answers without rushing to make a quick diagnosis,"
But Klausutis' death occurred while the nation was caught up in speculation about the disappearance of Bureau of Prisons intern Chandra Levy and her ties to Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif. Soon the stories merged in the public's mind, with some labeling Scarborough the Republican Condit (who was never charged with any crime).
Posts on such sites as Truthout and the liberal Daily Kos all but accused Scarborough of murder. Filmmaker Michael Moore talked about registering the domain name "JoeScarboroughKilledHisIntern.com." Rumors claimed her death had something to do with the 2000 election or 9/11 or that it had prompted Scarborough to resign from Congress two months afterward — although Scarborough had announced his resignation before her death. He married his second wife, a Jeb Bush fundraiser named Susan Waren, shortly after his September resignation took effect.
Scarborough, who writes occasional opinion columns for The Washington Post, declined to be interviewed. His fullest comments came in a 2005 letter to Vanity Fair protesting a suggestion he had been caught in "a sleazy sex scandal cover-up."
"Here are the facts," he wrote. "(1) Lori worked in my annex office in Okaloosa County, Florida. (2) I met her no more than three times; I was never alone with her. (3) I didn't leave Congress because of her death; I announced my retirement from Congress in May 2001 — she passed away several months later." The magazine apologized for "any emotional distress."
The "Scarborough scandal" picked up steam in 2012 thanks to an unrelated controversy involving Berkland, the medical examiner who had determined that Klausutis died from an accidental fall.
Berkland had failed to pay the rent on a storage unit he'd used for three years. When opened, it turned out to hold more than 100 containers of human tissue, including brains, hearts and livers. Officials said the remains, kept in leaky cups and dinner boxes, were from private autopsies he had conducted, not ones he'd handled for the state.
Berkland, an osteopath, had somehow landed his Florida job despite being fired in Kansas in a dispute over his caseload and autopsy reports, including unproven allegations that he had fabricated some details. In 2003, he was fired from his Florida post for being slow to complete autopsy reports.
After the storage unit discovery, Berkland was arrested. Because this was his first criminal offense, he was eligible for a pre-trial intervention program. Upon its completion, prosecutors dropped the charges.
Despite Berkland's unrelated troubles, no evidence has emerged to contradict his findings in this case. "That thing has been scrutinized by a number of other pathologists, and it's a solid diagnosis," he said in an interview Sunday. "There's nothing to reopen."
Once Scarborough became a prominent critic of the Trump administration, the right picked up where the left had left off.
Trump, a president with a penchant for fanning the conspiratorial flames with fabricated allegations, seemed eager for something to use against Scarborough.
In a November 2017 tweet, the president asked when NBC would "terminate low ratings Joe Scarborough based on the 'unsolved mystery' that took place in Florida years ago? Investigate!"
He has tweeted about it four times this month.
As the speculation about Klausutis' death has persisted, her husband's grief put his own health in jeopardy.
"For five years, I didn't socialize. I traveled. I worked. And I ate," he said in a 2017 interview with Bicycling magazine that touches only briefly on the reason for his mourning. His weight soared to nearly 400 pounds, he said.
Through strict dieting and serious mountain biking, he dropped to 220 pounds, he said, and "the Hardee's, where I got breakfast every morning, and the local pizza shop, where I got dinner, closed." He still lives in the same house he shared with his wife. He has never remarried.
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