A 71-year-old Florida man tied a gun to a weather balloon to fake his own murder, police say
Suspicious death investigated after body found in Palm Beach Gardens:
The Palm Beach Gardens Police Department's first homicide investigation of 2018 opened in late January - rather early in the year, considering that Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, is basically a live-in golf course of 50,000 people, where the annual murder count rarely cracks one.
The case proceeded by the books, at first.
Victim: Alan J. Abrahamson. A well-liked man, by the accounts of friends and family. Ostensively happy, according to the same.
"Alan was an avid golfer, enjoyed traveling and had a zest for life," per his obituary in the Palm Beach Post. "He woke up each morning with a smile on his face and was adored by all."
Abrahamson lived in a $900,000 house, inside the gates of an opulent country club, within walking distance to the ocean and whatever amenities a 71-year-old man might avail himself of. He owned the house with his wife, Linda, ("soul mates," as a family friend put it to police.) He had children and stepchildren and step-grandchildren. He had no major medical issues that police knew of. No known enemies, either.
He must have been walking to meet a friend at Starbucks when it happened, his wife told police, per the investigative report. Abrahamson's pre-dawn walks were a new routine - he told friends he wanted to lose a few pounds he'd gained on a cruise. But they hardly seemed out of character for such an active, sociable man.
A surveillance camera at the community's north gatehouse captured Abrahamson's last living images on Jan. 25.
It was a windy morning, still climbing toward the 70s. He wore a sweatshirt, ball cap and shorts, passing the gate and walking out of the camera frame at 5:53 a.m.
He seemed to be carrying something in his left hand, police noticed. What? Too dark to make out.
Exactly 37 minutes later, the surveillance camera recorded the sound of a gunshot, then silence.
A dog found Abrahamson just before 7 a.m., police wrote. It jumped off a golf cart and ran over to the body, which was lying in a palmetto-lined field near a walking path, maybe 300 feet past the gate.
Abrahamson was lying on his back, feet pointed east toward the Atlantic, arms at his side, blood pooled around the hole in his sweatshirt.
Three detectives were on the scene by sunrise and found few clues near the body. No weapon, no shell casing, no signs of struggle, no dirt on the soles of his sneakers.
Abrahamson still had his phone and his wallet - though a binder clip he commonly used to carry several hundred dollars in cash was empty. A watch that his wife said he usually wore also was missing. The index finger of his left hand was extended, detectives noted before the body was carried away for an autopsy.
"This kind of crime is unheard of in this area," a CBS 12 News anchor said. George Blackstone, who owned a lighting company where Abrahamson worked, told the Palm Beach Post that his friend had been in typically good spirits when they spoke a few days earlier - "optimistic about a business opportunity," he said.
"It's horrifying, just the thought of it," Blackstone told one of the TV reporters. "Why Alan? Why Alan? Why Alan?"
Shortly after lunchtime that day, the autopsy found a hollow-point bullet lodged in Abrahamson's torso. It had mushroomed into the shape of a six-point star after ripping through his heart and lungs.
By sundown, TV stations were reporting that the search for the killer was on.
On Feb. 2, a week and a day after the body was found, police offered a $3,000 reward for information leading to a suspect's arrest. Abrahamson's friends later chipped in to increase that amount, but not a single tip came in, according to police.
By then, detectives had met with Abrahamson's wife and biological children, including an estranged son. They had stopped and questioned early morning commuters near the country club, canvassed homeless shelters and cross-referenced robbery reports. They had repeatedly scoured the field, searched storm drains and rooted through dumpsters. And for all that, they had turned up not so much as the shell casing, let alone the gun, let alone a suspect.
But it would be wrong to say that police were totally stumped. Although the fieldwork had turned up little, police wrote in the case report, Linda Abrahamson had helped police unlock her husband's phone.
The contents were, at least, interesting.
A preliminary search of Abrahamson's emails turned up a curious email regarding an order he had placed on Christmas Day 2017 from an online science supply company.
"Weather Balloon, $55.00, 600 g, x1."
In Abrahamson's Google Maps history, investigators discovered that between his typical morning walks to Starbucks and various errands, he had visited an industrial supply store in West Palm Beach two days before his death.
Detectives drove to the store and came back with a copy of Abrahamson's receipt for a 40-cubic-foot helium tank.
Perplexed, police re-interviewed friends and relatives to find out whether Abrahamson's hobbies might have included atmospheric science. But as they wrote in the report: "Nobody could advise ... any reason why he would have a weather balloon or helium tank."
So investigators' suspicions began to turn in a new direction. A detective remembered that more than half an hour had elapsed between the time Abrahamson had walked past the gatehouse, beyond camera view, and the time of the gunshot.
"I later walked the same route, exiting around the guard gate and then back onto the sidewalk to the location where Abrahamson was located," the detective wrote. "It took me approximately 4 minutes 3 seconds at a normal walking pace."
The peculiarities kept mounting, eventually coalescing into something approaching a theory. The evening before police publicized their $3,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, a detective who had been poring over Abramson's phone and computers privately advanced a wild idea to his colleagues.
"Det. (Bryan) Broehm, theorized that it possibly was not a homicide, but possibly a suicide," an investigator wrote in the report. "That he tied a gun to a string, and attached it to the weather balloon, and once the shot was fired the weather balloon ascended carrying the weapon from the scene."
Police researchers could find only two cases of such a thing being attempted, both somewhat ridiculous. A man had tried to fake his murder in the New Mexico desert in 2008 - but his bundle of helium balloons had merely carried the gun into a cactus not far from his body.
The only other example detectives could find of someone managing to balloon a weapon out of a crime scene was from 2003 - on an episode of the fictional TV show "CSI: Las Vegas."
Still, a Palm Beach Gardens investigator wrote in his report, "although the theory seemed far-fetched, it was plausible."
Police returned to the field again on Feb. 5. Near the wall of the country clubs, more than 100 feet from where the body had lain, they found a few rubber bands and a piece of knotted string. Abrahamson had more of the same in his home office, police wrote.
The next day, a forensics investigator noticed something peculiar in the bloodstain on Abrahamson's sweatshirt. A very thin, straight trail of blood led from the center of the stain outward toward a shoulder, police wrote - "possibly indicating that something was in the blood and dragged across to the top of the shirt."
Two weeks after Abrahamson's death, as the by-the-books homicide investigation continued, a detective called a nearby airport and a TV traffic reporter to ask whether anyone had seen a weather balloon drifting over Palm Beach Gardens on Jan. 25.
No one had. But police were able to access Abrahamson's phone and web searches dating back nearly a decade. As excerpted in the final police report, the search queries told a story that made sense to detectives:
July 7, 2009: "Suicide." "How to commit Suicide."
April 10, 2012: "Life insurance suicide."
March 17, 2016: "Undetectable suicide methods."
Feb. 21, 2017: "Gizmodo.com, explains what happens when you get shot in the Head." And: "If shot in the heart do you die instantly." And: "Can you have a gunshot suicide with no weapon present."
Feb. 23, 2017: "YouTube / SEG, Suppressors, Jefferson Silencer on Walther PPK's Suppressed .380."
Aug. 28, 2017 (voice search): "How many cubic feet of helium do you need to raise one pound?"
Jan. 23, 2018: "Helium suppliers near me."
Jan. 24, 2018 (final search before death): "Dawn / Dusk Times."
A full three weeks into the investigation, the balloon theory no longer sounded far-fetched to police. A detective finally contacted the owner of the online company from which Abrahamson had purchased his weather balloon.
"I asked (the owner) how far a 600-gram balloon can travel," the detective wrote. "He advised me he launched a balloon on Monday in Huntsville, AL and l8 hours later it burst in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New Jersey."
Police fed the weather conditions for Palm Beach Gardens on Jan. 25 into a simulator. The result, they wrote, was that if Abrahamson had inflated his weather balloon and tied it to a gun before dawn that morning, then walked out into the palmettos beyond his gates and shot himself point blank in the heart, gusts of wind would have carried the evidence somewhere north of the Bahamas before it fell into the Atlantic Ocean.
In early March, detectives again contacted Abrahamson's wife, his children and stepchildren, and some of his friends and told them that their first homicide investigation of 2018 had been closed, canceled and ruled a suicide.
Police released their final report to the public this week. A spokesman declined to comment on what motive Abrahamson might have had for faking his murder, and his family could not be reached.
Meanwhile, the workers who dredge the many water hazards of Palm Beach Gardens for sunken golf balls have been advised to keep an eye out for a helium tank.
This article was written by Avi Selk, a reporter for The Washington Post.