QAnon believers “follow Trump’s tweets very closely, because they see Trump as working with Q and with them against the ‘deep state,’” Uszinski said in an interview on “Conspiracyland.” “So everything that Trump tweets they look at, and decipher, and decode. Every Trump tweet to them has some sort of subterfuge going on — there’s a secret message that only they can know.”
Last month Trump praised a QAnon follower, Marjorie Taylor Greene, as a “future Republican star” after she won a GOP primary for a U.S. House seat in Georgia, in a district she is almost certain to win. And when asked recently about QAnon, Trump pointedly refused to disavow or distance himself from the cult. “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,” he said. “I have heard that it is gaining in popularity, and … I’ve heard these are people that love our country.”
The “Conspiracyland” series is based on several hours of interviews with T.J. Klausutis as well as with his wife’s friends and colleagues, the medical examiner who conducted her autopsy and two distinguished pathologists who reviewed the autopsy report at the request of Yahoo News. Also interviewed was Lt. Mark Hayse, the commander in charge of investigations in the Fort Walton Beach Police Department, who completely rejected the president’s call to reopen a probe into Lori Klausutis’s death. “No, this case is closed,” he said in an interview. “Everything appears to be what it was determined to be — accidental, nothing suspicious. … This is not a murder case.”
The series examines Lori Klausutis’s work for Scarborough and the origins of the internet conspiracy theories that started circulating among liberal partisans and activists within weeks of her death — long before Trump or the QAnon cult picked up on them.
Those conspiracy theories were driven at first by the media’s saturation coverage of the summer 2001 disappearance of government intern Chandra Levy, who had been having an affair with Democratic California Rep. Gary Condit. When Michael Berkland, the deputy medical examiner for the judicial district where Fort Walton Beach is located, was first alerted by his assistant that Lori Klausutis’s body had been found in Scarborough’s office (“Well, I’ve got a dead secretary in a congressman’s office,” she told him), he immediately thought the incident might blow up in the media in the same way the Condit-Levy saga had.
In fact, the circumstances were quite different. Klausutis, a graduate of the University of Georgia, was not a secretary or an intern like Levy. She was a 28-year-old constituent service coordinator in Scarborough’s Fort Walton Beach office, a tiny two-room satellite office about an hour east of the congressman’s main district office in Pensacola and one that Scarborough himself rarely visited. She was, according to her friends, bubbly and vivacious, a devout Catholic who sang in the local church choir, wore a “precious little feet” pin that is a symbol of the pro-life movement, and served as president of the local Young Republicans club.
She also appears to have been totally devoted to her husband. When Mary Potthast, a friend of hers from the Young Republicans and the church choir, called Klausutis on the afternoon of July 19, 2001, and asked her to commit to knocking on doors for a local GOP candidate that weekend, Klausutis told her she wasn’t available because T.J., who was out of town for meetings at the Pentagon, was due back and she needed to spend all her time preparing to clean the house and get ready for him. “She didn’t want to have any house chores or anything left to do other than to spend time with him,” Potthast said.
That conversation, about 4:30 in the afternoon, was one of the last Lori Klausutis ever had. The next morning a couple arrived at Scarborough’s office a little after 8 a.m. to discuss a work permit issue and found Klausutis dead, lying flat on her back on the floor next to her desk, fully dressed, with foam and blood coming from her mouth and nose. Police rushed to the scene. According to a detailed police report, the officers found no sign of any intruder, no sign of any struggle or defensive wounds on her body, and, as they repeated over and over, no sign of any foul play.
But her death seemed a puzzle until a month later, when Berkland, the deputy medical examiner, released his report. He had discovered that Klausutis had a previously undiagnosed mitral valve anomaly, which can cause cardiac arrhythmia. His conclusion: She had experienced an arrhythmia that caused her to faint, lose consciousness, and bang her head against her desk, resulting in brain injuries that proved fatal.
Berkland told “Conspiracyland” he is “100 percent” confident in his findings. “It may not have been the answer that everybody was looking for, but this is the scientific answer as to what happened,” he said.
What was the answer everybody was looking for?
“Oh, I think a lot of people back at the time would have been happy to blame Joe Scarborough for the death, and it would have just been another sensational case and stuff like that,” he said. “But Joe didn’t have anything to do with this death. Period.”
And yet there were a number of anomalies and oddities that would provide grist for the conspiracy theorists. Scarborough fueled some of them himself because he had abruptly announced his resignation from Congress just a few months earlier, giving rise to speculation over why he would give up his political career so suddenly. In announcing the resignation, Scarborough, his voice quivering with emotion, told reporters he wanted to spend more time with his children. A security guard initially told police that he had locked up the office on the evening of July 19 — then later changed his story, acknowledging he had failed to do so.
But most of all, there were questions about Berkland and whether his findings could be trusted. In 1996 he had been fired as the medical examiner in Jackson County, Mo., for failing to complete timely autopsies and finish all the work he claimed to have done. Then in Florida in 2003 he was fired again for similar reasons and even lost his medical license.
And finally, in 2012 — 11 years after Lori Klausutis’s death — Berkland was arrested and charged with improper storage of hazardous waste after police found hearts, brains, and other body parts stored in Styrofoam cups and ziplock bags in a storage locker he used. They were the remains of private autopsies he had conducted over the years, not from official autopsies in forensic investigations.
The charges were later dropped after Berkland agreed to enter a pretrial intervention program. And he insisted in his “Conspiracyland” interview that none of the charges against him involved accusations that any of his autopsies were wrong. “Conspiracyland” asked two prominent pathologists — Dr. Cyril Wecht, the former medical examiner in Allegheny County, Pa., and Dr. Jonathan Arden, the former medical examiner in Washington, D.C. — to review Berkland’s autopsy report on Klausutis. Both offered the same conclusion: There was no reason to question his findings.
“Whatever he may have done of an inadequate, improper nature in the past is certainly not reflected in this particular autopsy report, which is quite thorough, detailed and something even more than you find in regular forensic pathology, autopsy protocols,” Wecht said.
Arden offered the same conclusion, citing in particular Berkland’s findings that the injuries to Klausutis’s brain were what pathologists call a contrecoup — on the opposite side of the abrasions found on her head. That is consistent with cases in which a person’s head slams into an immovable object, like a desk. This is opposed to a “coup” injury, in which the head is hit by a moving object, such as a baseball bat or a weapon, causing damage to the brain on the same side where the person has been hit.
“The pattern of her brain injury is not consistent with her having been struck by an object, such as an assailant,” Arden said. “I think Dr. Berkland was correct when he put all the facts and evidence together that her head trauma was the result of a fall. I see nothing suspicious in her death.”
And yet that summer, just as the media frenzy over Chandra Levy was reaching its peak, liberal and Democratic partisans began to insist that the Republican Scarborough be given the same level of scrutiny as the Democrat Condit, who was being widely accused of having been involved in Levy’s disappearance. (Years later, Levy’s body was found in Washington’s Rock Creek Park and another suspect was charged with and convicted of her murder. Although the conviction was later vacated on technical grounds, prosecutors, convinced the suspect was guilty, arranged to have him deported to El Salvador.)
In postings on sites such as the Democratic Underground, Truthout, and the message board of the left-leaning American Prospect, writers sought to poke holes in the findings about Klausutis’s death and to suggest, without any evidence, that powerful figures in the Florida Panhandle were covering up Scarborough’s involvement. “With Lori Klausutis, it seems possible that a corrupt North Florida establishment is determined to keep the lid on the case, even if that means silencing the news,” read the entry on the American Prospect site.
All this caused T.J. Klausutis no end of grief. He read the blog postings intensely. He complained to the local newspaper about its coverage of the case, even though the paper never endorsed any of the conspiracy theories. And he grew ever angrier about the slurs on his deceased wife’s reputation.
“I had gotten obsessed with it,” Klausutis said. “And so I want to scream about this.”
In the years to come, T.J. Klausutis would have much more to scream about.