Case closed, but sailor death baffles the Navy

DANE SCHILLER, HOUSTON CHRONICLE Published 6:30 am CST, Sunday, November 8, 2009

His newlywed wife, reportedly a stripper, got $200,000 in government life insurance money and didn’t even go to his funeral.

His own shipmates may have stolen some of his personal effects while he was lost at sea.

A four-year investigation into the death of a Navy sailor from Sugar Land, who disappeared from the USS Princeton in September 2005 as it patrolled about 35 miles off the coast of Iran, offers tantalizing details, but frustratingly few clues about his mysterious demise.

“All logical investigative actions to attempt to determine the circumstances of (Robert “Bobby” Macrum’s) death have been exhausted,” notes a recently completed Naval Criminal Investigation Service report obtained by the Chronicle. “This investigation is closed.”

Indeed, the only official conclusion that the Navy reaches regarding Macrum is that he is dead. Lost at sea.

So little is revealed in the report, his mother told the Chronicle, that it’s as if he just died yesterday.

“It is more a mystery to me now than it ever was,” Mary Macrum Jones said after reading the report. “I just want to know what really happened, and somebody on that ship knows.

“It is ridiculous,” said Macrum Jones, who suspects foul play.

Every page of the 225-page document that was obtained by the Houston Chronicle under the Freedom of Information Act has portions blacked out by Navy censors, mostly the names, ranks and titles of people interviewed.

Also, 52 pages were deleted entirely.

Macrum, a deckhand on the USS Princeton — a $1 billion guided missile cruiser — was reportedly last seen by a shipmate early on the evening of Sept. 12. The first sign something was wrong came when the 22-year-old didn’t show up for a 2 a.m. work assignment known as watch duty.

According to the report, some of the Princeton’s deck crew looked for him aboard the ship, but an operation to hunt for a possible man overboard wasn’t launched until three hours later.

His death is unique not only because Navy sailors rarely disappear in calm seas, but because despite years of work, investigators have not been able to find anyone who saw or heard Macrum go into the water.

Busted in rank twice
No suicide note was found. He was due to get out of the Navy in a few months to attend college, according to interviews and the report. The former high school swimmer and diver was in good physical shape and competent at his job as an able-bodied seaman, the records show. But he’d also twice been busted in rank and looked to be in trouble again after being caught playing Hang Man on a chart table while on duty on the bridge about 24 hours before his disappearance.

Macrum was last seen alive in a passageway aboard the ship where he was working on safety lines designed to prevent falling overboard. A pole he had been working on was later reported missing and apparently never found.

A naval officer who was interviewed by NCIS investigators in 2007 said he too remains puzzled.

“I am at a loss to say anything — it was frustrating then and it is frustrating now,” he told the NCIS. “I don’t know what happened to Macrum.”

The Princeton had a crew of nearly 400, of which about a dozen were interviewed by NCIS.

At least two sailors were read their rights when questioned about the theft of Macrum’s possessions, a DVD player and a digital camera, but they apparently were never charged with a crime, the record shows.

Another sailor interviewed said Macrum didn’t strike him as the type of guy to jump over the side, nor did he seem to have the type of enemies who would want to kill him.

“I don’t think anyone would have pushed or thrown Macrum over the side, either,” said the sailor. “Like I said, he didn’t really get along with everyone, but I don’t think anyone disliked him enough to actually try and kill him.”

The report also indicates investigators spoke to his wife, a woman with whom he never lived and who didn’t go to either of two funerals, one in Texas, the other at a Navy base in San Diego. Her name is blacked out in the report. She did not respond to requests from the Chronicle for an interview.

‘I’m still in denial’
She spoke with investigators in California in 2005, but wasn’t located again for three years, according to the report, which noted the difficulty the NCIS had finding her. She told them she met Macrum as she sold cell phones at a San Diego mall and that it was his idea to get married, taking their vows at a courthouse without even telling their parents.

She never lived with him and said she hadn’t spoken with her husband in the months leading up to his death. She told investigators she feared meeting his family, who she said had badgered her over insurance money.

“At first, I had hoped to get to know Bobby’s family, but I don’t see us ever getting together after what has happened,” she told investigators last year.

“For a long time, I was in the dark about what might have happened to Bobby,” the widow continued. “Sometimes, I am still in denial and think maybe he could be alive somewhere on an island or something.”

For now, about the only remnant of Macrum’s life is a headstone his mother has enshrined in her backyard.

“I truly thought I would have one answer by now,” she said. “I know nothing.”