Douglas Crofut: Suicide by Radiation

Mar 6, 2023 0 comments

On January 22, 1981, a 38-year-old industrial radiographer named Douglas Crofut was admitted to a hospital in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the United States, with serious burns on his chest. His sister, who brought him to the hospital, suspected that the burns might have been caused by radiation—Crofut being a radiographer who routinely worked with high radiation sources.

Doctors confirmed her suspicion and determined that the patient had suffered a massive exposure from an unknown source of radiation. Because the hospital was not equipped to deal with severe radiation burns, Crofut was transferred to the St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa.

An industrial radiography device using iridium-192, the type that was suspected of causing burns to Douglas Crofut. Photo:

When Crofut was first brought in, the left side of his chest was completely burned away. There was no signs of his left nipple, and his left arm was raw and bleeding. His upper torso was also badly damaged. Shortly after his transfer to Tulsa, Crofut’s conditions improved and for a while it appeared that the patient might pull off a miraculous recovery. His doctors even considered the possibilities of conducting skin grafts. But then, Crofut’s wounds began to worsen and by May, radiation injuries had destroyed his bone marrow and “ate deep into his body like a cancer”.

Crofut died on June 1, 1981. Following his death, Crofut's attorney, Richard Gibbons, described the radiation burns as “grotesque and painful.”

“The area that I looked at was the left side of his chest and it was the most of the left side from his belt line up above his breast. The meat was just completely eaten out and gone for a depth of at least 2 inches,” Gibbons said.

Gibbons said the radiation burns kept growing, “eating away until it got to a vital organ -- probably his heart. The man was in such obvious pain.”


Douglas Crofut

While Crofut was undergoing treatment, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was trying to crack the puzzling question: how did Crofut come into contact with such a powerful source of radiation?

Crofut was an industrial radiographer who worked with the oil industry to examine joints and welds in the pipeline for possible leaks. Crofut used a portable X-ray-type machine to shoot high energy gamma rays through the welds, just like medical radiologists shoot X-rays through the human body, to obtain a picture of the weld. The picture helped engineers determine whether there is any flaw in the metal.

Related: Demon Core: How The Third Nuclear Bomb Destined For Japan Killed a Bunch of American Scientists

The machine that radiographers like Crofut used contained a powerful source of radiation, either iridium-192 or cobalt-60. The radioactive module was slightly less than an inch long and about as wide as a pencil. NRC investigators determined that Crofut’s condition was likely caused by such a source. Officials were concerned that if a rogue piece of radioactive iridium or cobalt was at loose, it might cause harm to others. Crofut’s sister and his ex-wife were tested, but none showed any signs of radiation poisoning.

An industrial radiography device being deployed in the field. Photo: GAO

The NRC also determined that Crofut's injuries were consistent with radiation exposure occurring between December 15, 1980, and January 10, 1981. These dates were important, for it soon came to light that on December 30, an industrial radiographic device was reported stolen from a locked truck in Henryetta, Oklahoma, only a half-mile away from Crofut's home. But who would steal a radioactive device? It had no personal use. It cannot be sold without raising suspicion, and it has no scrap value.

Less than a week after the theft, the stolen iridium-192 source mysteriously turned up on the back porch of another radiographer living in Crofut's neighborhood. Two weeks later, Crofut was admitted to a hospital with severe radiation burns.

Suspicions fell on Crofut, but he denied having any knowledge of the theft. The NRC investigation was eventually closed without drawing any conclusions. Shortly after, Crofut died.

Following Crofut’s death, a number of NRC investigators and other officials started making allegation that the radioactive device was stolen by none other than Crofut himself with the intention of self-harm. Crofut was described by his neighbors as an alcoholic who was deeply in debt and had difficulty keeping a job. He was reported to have a record of sixteen arrests between 1974 and 1980, with most being liquor law violations. He had even tried to kill himself once by dousing his body with gasoline and attempting to light a fire, but was unsuccessful with the match. In another incident, Crofut was reported to have been found intoxicated, kneeling over a radiation-emitting device and exposing himself to hazardous rays.

Investigators speculated that Crofut, who had a working knowledge of the devices, stole the machine from a company truck, broke it open, removed the iridium capsule from its heavy lead shielding and placed it into his shirt pocket for at least five minutes, receiving what ultimately proved to be a fatal dosage of radiation. Crofut then carefully placed the lump of iridium-192 back into its protective jacket and placed it in the porch of his neighbor. If the allegations are true, it would make Douglas Crofut the first person in history to have deliberately irradiated himself with radiation. Whether Crofut did it intentionally to end his life or accidentally in a state of intoxication is unknown.

Crofut’s attorney Richard Gibbons believed that Crofut was innocent of the theft and dismissed the suicide theory, stating that his client got exposed in his last workplace New Mexico. The last time Gibbons spoke to the media, he mentioned he was contemplating pursuing legal action.

# Radiation source in death mystery, Gadsden Times - Jul 30, 1981
# NRC links death of man to radiation poisoning, The Des Moines Register - 30 Jul 1981
# Worker's Probably 'lethal Dose' Of Radiocactivity Is Under Inquiry, The NY Times
# The Nuclear Regulatory Commission Thursday attributed the agonizing death..., UPI


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