OK, I know what this sounds like — an Oliver Stone-style conspiracy tale. But just indulge me by reviewing some indisputable facts.

Air Force Lt. Col. Steve Cogswell, a medical doctor, forensic pathologist and deputy medical examiner with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, has released photos and x-rays which purport to show that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown had a gunshot wound in his head following his airplane crash in Croatia last year.

Ludicrous? Preposterous? Incredible? Maybe. But Cogswell’s credentials are certainly impressive. He runs the training courses at AFIP.

Cogswell was involved in the investigation of the April 1996 crash of the Air Force plane that carried Brown and 34 others on a trade mission. He says evidence that the Cabinet official was murdered has been ignored. There was s rush to judgment. Mirroring political judgments made in the White House and Pentagon, the crash was immediately deemed to be an accident — then only evidence that bolstered that conclusion was gathered.

No autopsy was performed on Brown, though Cogswell urged that the procedure be conducted. He also believes an autopsy should have been performed on Brown’s aide, Naomi Warbasse, because examiners could not determine her cause of death.

But, wait “X-Files” fans, it gets worse. Cogswell also notes that the original x-ray, which, he says, showed a “lead snowstorm,” typical of a gunshot wound, has been replaced by investigators with another one. However, Cogswell still has in his possession a photographic copy of the now missing x-ray.

Cogswell disputes the official explanation of the hole — that it was a superficial wound inconsistent with a gunshot. He says brain matter is visible in the wound, indicating the skull was penetrated.

Dr. Martin Fackler, former director of the Army’s Wound Ballistics Laboratory in San Francisco, also examined the photos.

“I’m impressed with how very, very round that hole is,” he said. “That’s unusual except for a gunshot wound. It’s unusual for anything else.”

He said he could not rule it a gunshot wound without an autopsy, and expressed shock that one was not conducted.

“They didn’t do an autopsy,” he said. “My God. It’s astounding.”

It’s astounding, all right. But, you say, these gentlemen didn’t actually examine the body, so why should their suspicions be given any credibility?

Because Army Lt. Col. David Hause, a deputy medical examiner at the AFIP, did examine the body and the wound and agrees with Cogswell and others that it did seem to be a gunshot wound — one that approximates the size of a .45-caliber round.

What’s worse, these are not the first questions raised about the Brown plane crash. What happened to the flight attendant who — briefly — survived the crash? What really happened to that flight controller found dead of a gunshot wound shortly afterward? What caused the plane to crash into the side of a mountain — a disaster that should have been averted with the navigation equipment aboard the T-43? Why did military authorities and the White House decide the crash was an accident before American investigators ever got to the scene? Why did early reports state that weather conditions at the scene were hazardous when they were not?

So what’s been the reaction to this explosive story since it was broken by investigative reporter Christopher Ruddy in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and picked up by the Associated Press?

The military has begun an investigation — but, strangely, not of the circumstances of Brown’s death. Rather, authorities are probing whistleblower Cogswell. He has been placed under virtual house arrest. Hause, who put his career on the line to tell this story, may be next.

I don’t know if Ron Brown was assassinated. I don’t know if that’s a gunshot wound in his head, or just some fantastic anomaly. But when experts like Cogswell and Hause take extraordinary risks to make such profound allegations, they deserve to be treated seriously — not like crackpots and conspiracy nuts.

If ever there was a need for an autopsy, this is the case. If ever there was a need for a congressional investigation or an independent counsel probe, the strange death of Ron Brown is it.

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