When Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr finally released his report concluding that deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster committed suicide -- the same conclusion reached by previous investigations -- he immediately came under fire from leading Foster conspiracy theorists. "This is a joke, and a bad joke," Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media told the New York Times. "It's far worse than the Fiske report," produced by the first Whitewater independent counsel. Christopher Ruddy, a journalist who has devoted three years to questioning the official findings and has now published his own version of events in The Strange Death of Vincent Foster, wrote that Starr's report "carries little credibility" and "will only propel arguments that a government cover-up of Watergate proportions has taken place."

Such criticism is hardly a surprise; Ruddy, Irvine, and others have made a career of accusing Starr of being part of a Foster cover-up. What's surprising is the relative silence that has greeted Starr's report in the mainstream media. While most newspapers reported the story briefly, few if any closely examined the evidence Starr has gathered.

They're missing something. Not only does the report contain crucial information never before made public, it also adds a powerful storyline to a massive body of physical and circumstantial evidence. Taken as a whole, this evidence leaves the conspiracy theories in ruins. What follows is a look at some of Starr's key findings, based on the report itself and on lengthy interviews with sources inside the investigation.

The Gun and the Oven Mitt

Virtually all the theories challenging Vincent Foster's death by suicide " rest on an assumption that the gun did not belong to Mr. Foster," the Starr report says. Ruddy, for example, cites a firearms expert as saying the antique .38 caliber pistol found with the body "sounded like a 'drop gun,' an old, untraceable gun left at a crime scene to confuse investigators." Indeed, if the gun wasn't Foster's, anything could have happened. But if the gun did belong to Foster, it is very difficult to accept the various murder theories that have grown around the case. How could the killer or killers have gotten Foster's gun? Did they break into his house and steal it? Hold him up on the street when he just happened to have it in his possession? No homicide theory makes sense if the gun was Foster's.

With that in mind, Starr's staff went to great lengths to investigate the gun. Like previous investigators, they were unable to prove beyond all doubt that the gun belonged to Foster. But they built a detailed and convincing case that it did.

Foster's mother, Alice Mae Foster -- never interviewed by any previous investigators -- told Starr's staff that her husband, the late Vincent Foster Sr., kept a revolver in his bedside table. He also kept other guns at their home in Hope, Arkansas. In 1991, as the elder Foster was suffering from a long and ultimately fatal illness, Mrs. Foster asked her daughter, Sharon Bowman, to gather up the guns. Bowman told Starr's investigators that she collected some handguns -- it's not clear how many -- put them in a shoebox, and placed the box in her mother's closet (Bowman later found some .38 caliber ammunition owned by her father, suggesting that at least one of the guns was a .38). After Vincent Foster Sr. died, Mrs. Foster gave the box to Vince Foster, a fact confirmed by both Bowman and another sister, Sheila Anthony.

Lisa Foster, Vince Foster's widow, told Starr's investigators that the family took a box of guns with them to Washington, keeping it in a bedroom closet (Foster could not register the guns in the District of Columbia, where their possession is illegal). Lisa Foster specifically recalled two guns: a . 45 caliber semi-automatic and a silver-colored pistol that she called a " cowboy gun." She told Starr that after she learned of her husband's death, she went upstairs to check the box. She found the .45 but not the second gun.

Early investigators showed Lisa Foster a photo of the gun found with Foster's body in Fort Marcy Park on July 20, 1993, to see whether she could identify it as the one belonging to her husband. She could not. In May 1994, Fiske's investigators showed her the actual gun; according to the FBI interview report, she said it might be the one she had seen in her houses in Little Rock and Washington. In a 1995 interview with Starr's staff, she was again shown the gun; she was more definite that it could be the one, but did say she remembered the pistol in the house as being lighter in color.

Meanwhile, Sharon Bowman -- who is said to be familiar with guns -- was shown the .38 and said it looked like one her father kept in the house in Hope. Also, one of Vince Foster's sons -- who had never before been interviewed -- said he knew his father had an old .38 revolver; he told Starr's investigators he saw it being unpacked at their house in Georgetown (he also said there were a few loose bullets in the shoebox that contained the guns). Foster's other son also remembered the gun, and Foster's daughter told Starr she remembered a handgun at the home.

Another piece of previously unknown evidence appears to answer the question of how Foster took the gun to Fort Marcy Park. Starr's report reveals that an oven mitt was found in the glove compartment of Foster's car (the report says Park Police photos taken at the police impoundment lot on July 21, 1993, show the mitt in the compartment). The evidence is, on the surface, baffling. "Our investigators tried to figure out what was this oven mitt doing in the glove compartment of the car," says a source inside the independent counsel's office. Members of Foster's family confirmed that the mitt had come from their home, but they had no idea how it had gotten into the car.

When Starr's experts tested the mitt, they found pieces of sunflower seeds on the inside, which they believe were deposited there in the normal course of kitchen use. They also found a small amount of lead residue in the mitt. Then they made a connection. Tests of Foster's pants pockets also revealed a portion of a sunflower seed in the front left pocket -- as well as a small amount of lead residue. The evidence led Starr's investigators to the conclusion that Foster placed the gun inside the oven mitt when he took it from his home. The gun picked up some sunflowerseed scraps and left some lead residue. At some point, probably when he got to Fort Marcy, Foster removed the gun from the oven mitt and placed it in his pants pocket, where the gun left the sunflower particles as well as more lead residue.

The Blood, the Shoes, and the Carpet

In The Strange Death of Vincent Foster, Ruddy devotes several pages to what he characterizes as a suspiciously small amount of blood at the scene where Foster's body was found. Citing a homicide expert, Ruddy writes that " the first thing detectives look for in a murder/suicide investigation is massive blood loss. If it exists, detectives can eliminate any idea the death was caused by other means, or that the person had been killed elsewhere and the body moved."

The blood evidence has given rise to a large number of theories about Foster's death. If Foster did not bleed profusely at the death scene, the theories suggest, he must have bled at some other place, after which the body was cleaned up and taken to Fort Marcy. Starr's report disproves that speculation by showing that Foster's body did bleed extensively at the scene - - and later lost a massive amount of blood during its removal to a hospital morgue.

Starr's investigators concede that Foster did not bleed a great amount from the mouth, as might happen in a case in which a man put the barrel of a gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger. But the Starr report quotes five people present at the scene -- each of whom had an opportunity to take a close look at the body -- as saying Foster did bleed extensively, apparently from the exit wound in the back of the head. One witness recalled "a lot of blood" under Foster's head. Another said that there was a pool of blood under the head and "the back of the shirt was soaked with blood from the collar to the waist." And yet another noticed a "large blood pool" where Foster had been lying.

After that, according to Starr's report, the doctor who conducted the autopsy "observed a large amount of liquid blood in the body bag" used to take Foster's body from the park to the Fairfax County Hospital morgue. "If you see the photos of the shirt taken after the autopsy," says the source in Starr's office, "the whole shirt is blood-drenched." Starr's experts argue that the loss of so much blood after Foster's body was moved indicates that there had been no extensive blood loss prior to Foster's time in Fort Marcy. " Logically, blood in the body bag is inconsistent with the theory that blood drained elsewhere," says the source.

Then there is the issue of Foster's shoes. "Foster's shoes were found by the FBI lab not to have a speck of soil on them," Ruddy writes. That " evidence" has led conspiracy theorists to maintain that the body was carried into the park. How could Foster have walked more than 700 feet through the grass and bare dirt of the park and have no soil on his shoes?

The source in Starr's office says the answer is easy: There was indeed dirt on the shoes. "There are pictures taken of the shoes at the time the FBI first examined them," the source says. "Those pictures show soil on the shoes. " The source says the soil is located on the left heel of the black dress shoes and is easily visible to the naked eye. He attributes the no-soil theories to confusion over an FBI report prepared for independent counsel Fiske. "A lot of this got currency to begin with because of a misunderstanding in the FBI report that says there was no coherent soil on the shoes," the source says. That simply means that there was no mud or caked dirt; there was, he says, a visible portion of plain old loose dirt.

Another component of the body-was-moved theories is the presence of carpet fibers on Foster's clothing. Conspiracy theorists maintain the fibers indicate that Foster's body was rolled in a carpet, then taken to Fort Marcy Park. Ruddy, for one, has criticized the Park Police and Robert Fiske for not thoroughly investigating the fibers; in his book, Ruddy says Fiske "accepted lame excuses from the Park Police and others to explain away evidence that pointed to foul play."

Starr's evidence should dispose of much of that speculation. According to the report, the FBI laboratory found 35 carpet-type fibers in Foster's clothing. Of those, 23 were white fibers that Starr's technicians say are consistent with carpet that was in Foster's house at the time of his death. Of the others, four were consistent with samples Starr obtained from the White House and from Foster's car (Starr's experts could find no source for the other eight).

But the most persuasive argument about the fibers is actually a question: What if Foster's body had been wrapped in a carpet? What kind of evidence would that have left? According to Starr's investigators -- and common sense - - such a full-body wrap would have left vastly more fibers than were found on Foster's clothes. "The experts think there ordinarily would have been hundreds of fibers, not 35, if he had been carried in a carpet," the source says -- particularly if the clothes were soaked with blood, making the fibers more likely to stick to the material.

Craig Livingstone and the Keys

Another matter that has fed conspiracy theories is the issue of the keys: Police found no keys on Foster's body at the park, but later, at the hospital morgue -- supposedly after White House aides Craig Livingstone and William Kennedy III had arrived to identify the body -- the keys were found. Livingstone and Kennedy might have planted the keys on the body, say some; Ruddy quotes a homicide expert as calling the whole thing "fishy."

In this instance, Starr's investigators are quick to point to mistakes by the Park Police. In the initial, on-the-scene search of Foster's pockets, Park Police officer John Rolla found no keys. Rolla told investigators that later, when he and a colleague went to the morgue to look again, they discovered the keys -- in the pants pocket Rolla had searched before. "It's really a little bit unfortunate for him [Rolla] to get out there and do this half-baked thing," the source says. "We're not going to stand behind the thoroughness of the initial work done at the scene." Starr's experts believe Rolla simply missed the keys in Foster's pants pocket because their weight pulled them down toward the side of his leg as he lay on the ground.

According to the Starr report, Rolla arrived at Fairfax County Hospital at 9:12 p.m. He then found the keys and left before Livingstone and Kennedy arrived, about 10:30, to identify the body. And the source says Livingstone and Kennedy were never even in the same room as the body. "They did not have an opportunity to put keys on the body," the source says. "They were accompanied by police at all times and were only allowed to look at the body through a window."

Foster's State of Mind

This is the topic in Starr's report that made the most headlines. The New York Times topped its story with "A Report On His Suicide Portrays a Deeply Troubled Vince Foster," and virtually every newspaper article led with Starr's conclusion that Foster killed himself because of deep depression.

On this, Starr's report includes some new information. The most compelling is that Foster's wife told investigators he broke down in tears -- a very unusual occurrence -- during a dinner conversation four days before his death. She says he also mentioned resigning around the same time. And Foster's mother told Starr that Foster told her a day or two before he died that he was unhappy with his job.

Mostly, however, Starr repeats previously known episodes. For example, he recounts how Foster's sister, Sheila Anthony, told investigators her brother told her on the Friday before he died that he was depressed. Anthony said she gave him the names of three psychiatrists. On Monday, Foster called his doctor in Little Rock; the doctor prescribed an anti-depressant, Desyrel, which Foster took the night before he died. Based on such evidence, a psychiatrist retained by Starr declared that "to a 100 percent degree of medical certainty, the death of Vincent Foster was a suicide."

That impossibly confident claim is not the strongest point of Starr's report and will surely be attacked by the Foster doubters. The truth is, state-of-mind analysis is less precise and more open to interpretation than physical and circumstantial evidence. It is the cumulative weight of all Starr's evidence pointing toward suicide that is overwhelming.

Beyond these basic issues, Starr's report covers dozens of lesser controversies in the Foster case. Among them:

The Note

In late 1995, a panel of three experts hired by the newsletter "Strategic Investment" announced that the famous note found in Foster's briefcase -- " Here ruining people is considered sport" -- was a forgery. Fiske had declared the note authentic, and some had criticized him for making that determination on the basis of a single page of Foster's handwriting. Starr's experts -- from both the FBI lab and outside government -- examined four original pages known to have been written by Foster, as well as 18 checks he had written. They decided that the handwriting was Foster's and that any differences between the samples and the note were the result of "normal, natural and spontaneous writing variations." Starr's experts point out that they examined the originals of all samples, not photocopies as the "Strategic Investment" team had. Also, some have questioned the absence of a classic "Goodbye, cruel world" suicide note. Starr's experts point out, however, that the "great majority" of suicides leave no note at all.

The Neck Wound

Ruddy cites a Fairfax County medical technician who says he noticed a " gunshot wound" on Foster's neck near his right ear. Starr's report says that there simply was no such wound. "There was a lot of blood on the right side of the neck," says the Starr source, suggesting the paramedic mistook a stain for a wound. "We showed him the autopsy photos, after everything was cleaned, and he said, 'Well, I must have been mistaken about that.'" The source points out that there were six people at the autopsy and that detailed photographs were taken. "There's just not a wound there," he says. "That's the bottom line."

The Makeup Artist

There has been much speculation that the president knew about Foster's death before the White House says he was informed, around 10 p.m. Ruddy tells the story of a makeup artist for CNN who went to the White House before the president's appearance on Larry King Live. Ruddy says the young woman told Fiske's investigators that she saw the president informed about Foster before the program began at 9:00 p.m. "At that point, she said, an unidentified male, whom she presumed to be an aide, notified Clinton that a note or document had been found in Foster's office," Ruddy writes. "She clearly saw the president acknowledge the remark."

But this is not what the woman told the Fiske team, Starr's investigators say. According to the source, Starr's team interviewed the woman three times - - and her story is completely different from that reported by Ruddy. "She gave us pretty detailed testimony that she heard staffers talk about [Foster] during the show," the source says. "They were talking about who would notify the president." That does not support the idea that Clinton knew about the death before going on television.

The Office Files

Of course, there was a cover-up in the Foster case; it just had nothing to do with the manner of his death. We know from extensive testimony before the Senate Whitewater Committee that several top White House officials, including the first lady's then-chief of staff Margaret Williams, went to Foster's office on the night he died. There is testimony that Williams removed some documents (she denies this). But there is no question that White House officials were adamant in their refusal to let outside authorities look in Foster's office as they investigated his death. And we know that then- deputy attorney general Philip Heymann became so frustrated with White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum's secretiveness that he said, "Bernie, are you hiding something?"

Starr is looking into these suspicious actions as part of the larger Whitewater investigation. But they do not tell us anything about whether Foster killed himself or was murdered. "Ultimately," says the source, "the actions taken by White House personnel in the aftermath are not inconsistent with suicide."

What happens now? There is no doubt conspiracy theorists will cite plenty of reasons to reject Starr's conclusions. For example, they have already begun to complain about Starr's treatment of Patrick Knowlton, a motorist who says that on July 20 he stopped in Fort Marcy to relieve himself and saw a man in a car who stared at him menacingly. Knowlton believes this man was connected to the Foster case. But Starr found no other evidence to support Knowlton's story, and the report mentions the incident only briefly.

There will also be talk about Miguel Rodriguez, whom Ruddy calls the "hero" of the Foster story. Rodriguez served for several months as a lawyer on Starr's team; he resigned after a number of disputes with other investigators. Ruddy reports Rodriguez questioned earlier findings of suicide; his efforts to investigate evidence that might point toward foul play, Ruddy contends, were frustrated by top officials in Starr's office.

But the conspiracy theorists have other reasons to dismiss the Starr report -- reasons that have little to do with the investigation itself. In Ruddy's case, he now has a book to sell; it is unlikely he will suddenly concede that its premise is wrong. In addition, he writes about Foster for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the newspaper owned by conservative millionaire and Foster skeptic Richard Mellon Scaife. And then there is Ruddy's Web site (www.ruddynews.com), which he uses to update his attacks on Starr.

And that is not all. In April of this year, Ruddy teamed up with Pat Matrisciana, the California filmmaker responsible for the Clinton-bashing videotapes "The Clinton Chronicles," "The Death of Vincent Foster: What Really Happened?" and "The Mena Cover-up." The two sent out a direct-mail advertisement for a new video, "The 60 Minutes Deception," in which Ruddy claims to have been misrepresented by the CBS newsmagazine. The program, Ruddy says, "did every sneaky, underhanded thing to make me look bad." Reporter Mike Wallace's plan was "to reinforce the Establishment's suicide-in- the-park hoax and to protect the Clintons by making anyone like me who questions the Foster death look like a crazy, mean-spirited political adversary."

But attacking CBS did not seem to be Ruddy's real point. "I'm going to ask you to make a heroic sacrifice for your country" he continued. "I'm hoping a heroic benefactor will sacrifice $ 1,000, $ 2,500, or even more. Can you be that hero? Think of the newspaper, radio and TV ads Pat [Matrisciana] could buy if someone sacrificed $ 5,000 or $ 10,000. . . . Pat also needs gifts of $ 500, $ 250, $ 100 and $ 50. Whatever you can send will be put to use immediately in his monumental battle between the forces of truth and the forces of falsehood. If you sacrifice $ 30 or more, you'll receive a free copy of the shocking new video 'The 60 Minutes Deception.'"

It seems unlikely that Kenneth Starr's report -- and the extensive, carefully analyzed evidence behind it -- will stop such campaigns. Judging by their writing, speeches, and fund-raising appeals, the conspiracy theorists simply have too much invested in their murder scenarios to conclude that the evidence proves them wrong. But in the end, it does just that.

Byron York is an investigative writer with the American Spectator.

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