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Ronald Opus is a fictional man in an urban legend about a hypothetical suicide.

The story was originally an example invented by Don Harper Mills, then the past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, which he presented at a banquet in 1987. Mills has since said that he "made it up" for entertainment purposes[1] and "to show how different legal consequences can follow each twist in a homicide inquiry".[2]

The story first appeared on the Internet in August 1994[3] and has been widely circulated since, on web pages, in chat rooms, and even print publications. The reprints often include Mills's name and place it at a 1994 event, or attribute it to a supposed Associated Press report of the banquet.[2] Mills expresses little surprise, calling it "a fabulous story", and has fielded numerous inquiries about it over the years.[1]

The incident has been incorporated into various media works, notably the 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia with the protagonist renamed to Sydney Barringer.

Contents

The Ronald Opus Case

The popular account of the story is told as follows:

On 1994-03-23 a medical examiner viewed the body of Ronald Opus and concluded that he died from a gunshot wound of the head caused by a shotgun. Investigation to that point had revealed that the decedent had jumped from the top of a ten story building with the intent to commit suicide. (He left a note indicating his despondency.) As he passed the 9th floor on the way down, his life was interrupted by a shotgun blast through a window, killing him instantly. Neither the shooter nor the decedent was aware that a safety net had been erected at the 8th floor level to protect some window washers, and that the decedent would most likely not have been able to complete his intent to commit suicide because of this.

Ordinarily, a person who starts into motion the events with a suicide intent ultimately commits suicide even though the mechanism might be not what he intended. That he was shot on the way to certain death nine stories below probably would not change his mode of death from suicide to homicide, but the fact that his suicide intent would not have been achieved under any circumstance caused the medical examiner to feel that he had homicide on his hands.

Further investigation led to the discovery that the room on the 9th floor from whence the shotgun blast emanated was occupied by an elderly man and his wife. He was threatening her with the shotgun because of an interspousal spat and became so upset that he could not hold the shotgun straight. Therefore, when he pulled the trigger, he completely missed his wife, and the pellets went through the window, striking the decedent.

When one intends to kill subject A, but kills subject B in the attempt, one is guilty of the murder of subject B. The old man was confronted with this conclusion, but both he and his wife were adamant in stating that neither knew that the shotgun was loaded. It was the longtime habit of the old man to threaten his wife with an unloaded shotgun. He had no intent to murder her; therefore, the killing of the decedent appeared then to be accident. That is, the gun had been accidentally loaded.

But further investigation turned up a witness that their son was seen loading the shotgun approximately six weeks prior to the fatal accident. That investigation showed that the mother (the old lady) had cut off her son's financial support, and her son, knowing the propensity of his father to use the shotgun threateningly, loaded the gun with the expectation that the father would shoot his mother. The case now becomes one of murder on the part of the son for the death of Ronald Opus.

Now comes the exquisite twist. Further investigation revealed that the son, one Ronald Opus, had become increasingly despondent over the failure of his attempt to get his mother murdered. This led him to jump off the ten story building on March 23, only to be killed by a shotgun blast through a 9th story window.

The medical examiner closed the case as a suicide.

As mentioned above, the story of Ronald Opus is hypothetical.

Appearances in media

The case has appeared in the following shows and film:

  • TV series Homicide, in the 1998-01-16 episode.
  • Law & Order, in which District Attorney Ben Stone merely offered a hypothetical example of a man who jumped off the Empire State Building because he wanted a ham sandwich and was shot on the way down by someone who thought he was committing suicide.
  • In Australian TV show Murder Call, in an 1998 episode.
  • In the 1999 film Magnolia, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Although some details were changed in the film.

References

External links

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