SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A former Department of Homeland Security official's death two years ago that generated right-wing conspiracy theories was ruled a suicide Wednesday by a Northern California sheriff-coroner.
Evidence found during the investigation into Philip Haney's death has now spurred a new investigation into how he obtained “contraband” documents.
Haney, 66, was found dead with a single gunshot wound Feb. 21, 2020, in a park-and-ride lot along a busy state highway in a rural area of Amador County, east of Sacramento. He was a former DHS national security official for 15 years and self-described whistleblower critical of President Barack Obama's administration.
Haney’s death was controversial enough for the Amador County Sheriff’s Office to bring in FBI crime scene investigators and other analysts to assist.
Investigators found that Haney left a suicide note with a signature that a forensic analysis determined was in his handwriting. The gun used was traced to him.
He also left behind neatly arranged financial documents with instructions on how he wanted his assets distributed, according to investigators. And Haney gave away his potted plants the day before he was found dead.
“After a thorough review of the evidence collected and processed by the Sheriff’s Office and FBI, the Sheriff’s Office has determined the manner of Mr. Haney’s death to be suicide,” the statement from Sheriff Gary Redman's office said. “This case has been classified as closed.”
Haney published a book in 2016 titled “See Something, Say Nothing: A Homeland Security Officer Exposes the Government’s Submission to Jihad,” which alleged inaction against terrorism by the Obama administration.
He testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee and appeared on Fox News' “The Sean Hannity Show” the year his book was published. His death spurred conspiracy speeches by Republican Iowa U.S. Rep. Steve King and another GOP congressman on the House floor.
“He was a target because of all he knew of Islamic terrorist coverups,” King tweeted at the time. “Phil Haney didn’t kill himself.”
After Haney’s death, the FBI's analysis of numerous thumb drives and a personal laptop in Haney's motorhome determined that “many documents found are the property of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection,” according to the sheriff's detailed account of the death investigation.
That federal agency's Office of Professional Responsibility asked to take possession of what it called “contraband” documents.
The sheriff's office said it turned over Haney's laptop and three thumb drives a month ago “for their investigation into violations of CBP policy and numerous United States Codes.”
Customs and Border Protection spokesman Jaime Ruiz said he couldn't comment “because it’s an open investigation.”
“We might have further details as the investigation progresses, but for now we can’t say anything," Ruiz added.
An FBI spokeswoman, Gina Swankie, said her agency assisted the sheriff's office with analysis, but it was not an FBI investigation. She declined to comment, deferring to the sheriff's office.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not immediately comment Wednesday.
The sheriff's office outlined numerous reasons it concluded that Haney killed himself less than three miles (4.8 kilometers) from where he was living in a motorhome.
Investigators found his vehicle parked next to his body, with the suicide note on the dashboard that the FBI analysis found had been signed by Haney. He appeared to have fallen out of a folding chair after shooting himself, the sheriff’s office said.
An autopsy found no other “suspicious trauma” nor any pre-death injuries suggesting that he'd been “involved in any type of altercation,” the sheriff’s office said.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced the unregistered handgun to the last registered owner, who lived in Georgia. He told investigators he was a friend of Haney's and had sold Haney the weapon about five years earlier.
Haney's motorhome in an RV park was “clean and well organized," the sheriff’s office said. Personal and financial paperwork “was arranged neatly on the kitchen countertop, some containing instructions for how Mr. Haney wanted his assets disbursed,” the sheriff’s office said.
A neighbor told investigators that Haney “appeared depressed lately” and had given the neighbor his potted plants the day before his death.