Sephton Versus FBI:

Foreign Objects ( & Shrapnel ) FOI Lawsuit


                                                            Graeme Sephton Nov 1, 2003



I am a registered professional engineer who has been working diligently for years on the discovery process of the most pertinent evidence about the explosion of Flight 800.  My main effort has been to obtain the forensic evidence about hundreds of objects seized by the FBI during the autopsy that were never later shared with the coroner. (A highly irregular aspect in itself!)  I realized that, unlike other evidence collected from the bottom of the Atlantic, the foreign body evidence is definitive because there is no chain-of-custody ambiguity.  It cannot readily be explained away.


Consider, any suspicious objects that were dredged up during the salvage operation, could not intrinsically be linked with the explosion.  Objects removed during the autopsies cannot be dismissed in a cavalier manner.  But such evidence obviously can be, and was, withheld by the FBI from routine independent evaluation by the County Coroner. Why, I wondered?! 


Thus the explosive residues discovered extensively throughout the wreckage could be dismissed; - the FBI decided it must have been carelessly “spilled” during a canine explosives detection exercise.  Similarly, the evidence from scores of witnesses who saw an object streaking up from the water was both suppressed and dismissed.  The CIA experts explained that they were all visually confused by the burning disintegrating aircraft.  Radar experts who were concerned with what the radar data showed were also dismissed.  But suspicious foreign objects removed during autopsies would present a significant challenge to explain away or dismiss.  Perhaps it was easier to withhold than to explain it?


With no actual corroborating evidence to support it, the final official conclusion of an improbable spontaneous spark in the fuel tank was always very frail indeed.  The “spark” theory relied heavily on the FBI assertion that there was “no material evidence” indicating any conceivable outside cause for the explosion.        


In 1998 I made a Freedom of Information request for that forensic evidence withheld from the coroner.  I believed that obtaining that evidence might resolve the controversy caused by the controversial conclusions of the investigation.  Who, if any, in the FBI had evaluated all those hundreds of foreign bodies and what did they conclude about them?  Eventually it became evident that perhaps no one had actually made an evaluation of the critical foreign body evidence: not the county coroner, not the FBI’s medical forensic consultant, not the NTSB medical forensic specialists, and certainly not the public or the media.  Despite these and other blatant symptoms of a deficient investigation, the media has repudiated the label “coverup” almost like a matter of religious creed - an unmentionable and unacceptable concept. Unfortunately, that has left citizen investigators to do most of the investigative and research work.  Dozens of them.  Do a web search and there they are.


In early 2000 the FBI could only find 23 pages of responsive documents relating to the objects that were removed from 89 of the victims.  In July 2000, with the support of the FIRO organization (see ), I filed a lawsuit against the FBI for this apparent withholding of documents.  That three-year litigation has now produced a lot of documentary evidence confirming that there were substantial quantities of forensic lab data withheld from both the NTSB and the coroner. But among the 550 pages the FBI has now submitted to the federal District Court in Springfield (June 2003), they have only found and surrendered one page of actual forensic results.  One of the FBI affidavits to the Court acknowledged that the FBI had not and would not do a simple keyword search in either of the two computer databases that a former FBI employee identified as most likely containing the responsive records. See Dr. Fred Whitehurst Affidavit at:


Those 550 pages of records eventually surrendered to the federal Court in June 2003, only contained one single page of a forensic laboratory report.  It was a negative result from an explosive residue test.  Despite the lack of forensic data, the released records do reveal that hundreds of foreign objects were removed during the autopsies by the medical examiners and were immediately seized as evidence by the FBI for “identification” and “detailed lab analysis” mostly at the FBI Crime Laboratory. 


The records also show that not even the FBI’s own medical forensic team, headed by their specially appointed consultant Dr. Dennis Shanahan, had any access to the foreign object forensic data.


What those 550 pages fail to provide is very disconcerting.  The FBI could not find any of the requested physical details or descriptions of those objects; their size, weight, composition, or likely point of origin.  If it accurately reflects the status and contents of the “Main File” of the investigation produced and maintained by the NY FBI Field Office there was a serious problem in the investigation.  It implies that Assistant Director Jim Kallstrom and the FBI Office in charge of the investigation never received any of that forensic information or even summaries or assessments of what the foreign objects and shrapnel removed from the bodies were.  Were they merely pieces of a 747 and its contents? 


The official FBI investigation cost over $20 million and the main record appears to be totally silent on this fundamental issue.  Was this incompetence or deception on the part of the FBI?  Only a thorough review by some independent authority will be able to determine that.


Theoretically the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was the lead agency in the Investigation.  However NTSB records released in response to a similar FOI request were equally perplexing.  Those records revealed that the FBI had never shared any of the descriptions or forensic details with them either.  When asked about it via phone, Burt Simon, Chair of the NTSB Medical Group/Report, subsequently confirmed that revelation.  It seems particularly remiss that the NTSB did not seek or receive that data.  It is an important and routine part of the survivability factor analysis of every accident investigation, to analyze what particular objects were flying around and hurting passengers, if such evidence exists.  Mr. Simon had no reasonable explanation for how he could have completed a professional survivability report without that data.  He attempted to dismiss the unreviewed data as being “probably of little consequence.”  Despite his own negligence in the matter, he expressed the utmost confidence in the never-seen analysis, and conclusions the FBI must have made about it.


The FBI’s assertion that they cannot now locate the forensic data is not believable.  In support of our case, Dr. Fred Whitehurst, formerly a senior chemist at the FBI Crime Laboratory, submitted an affidavit to the Court explaining how easy all of the forensic data would be to find if the FBI merely searched in the right place.  He even identified, by name, the two most relevant computerized data bases at that institution.


Despite all the facts above, in August 2003 the District Court reaffirmed its 2001 judgment in favor of the FBI and returned the case to the Federal Appeal Court for final review.  On October  24, 2003 the First Circuit Appeals Court in Boston rejected the lower court’s ruling and remanded the case back to Springfield District Court.  The First Circuit directed the lower court to now finally  “resolve the FOIA issues raised by Sephton”.


Item “1B-28” - 20 mysterious shrapnel pellets of “unknown origin”


Apart from the single page mentioned above, only one other forensic laboratory report out of those missing hundreds has ever been released by the FBI.  It was an analysis performed by Brookhaven National Lab (BNL) to evaluate 20 small (~1/4” diameter) pellets that were removed during autopsy of the person whose ME# was 96-5037; the pellets were designated Item “1B-28”.  The lab report showed that a sample pellet was composed mostly of Aluminum with traces of Titanium, Zirconium, Cerium and Barium.  Such compounds are consistent with incendiary pellets used in some missiles.  The report merely concluded “unknown origin”.  The details of 1B-28 were among over 200 fairly innocuous pages of documents released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from another independent researcher, Don Collins, in California.  The FBI’s executive summary of that BNL Lab report was at variance with the remarkable implications of the BNL’s findings.  The FBI initially classified the BNL report “secret”.  Because it is so damningly inexplicable, it seems likely that it was declassified and included with the other pages only due to an oversight.  Even if the remarkable incendiary components could be explained, the official low-velocity type fuel explosion could not shatter aluminum into small pellets.

Refer to the details and some of the documents of this BNL evidence at:


230 souls perished with TWA Flight 800.  It is now time to find out what really went wrong immediately prior to the explosion.  Perhaps even more importantly for the sake of public safety and government credibility, we now also need to find out what went wrong with this elaborate and expensive investigation.  As more and more evidence emerges from the archives of the investigation it has the appearance of a mere charade.  As a society we will not be safe if catastrophic events and serious problems can be swept under the carpet with elaborate and inadequate investigations such as this one now appears to be.