"You don't understand the pain you cause to families who've already lost a loved one," Joe Scarborough told Trump as the president spread theories about the 2001 death of 28-year-old Lori Klausutis

By Adam Carlson
May 25, 2020 05:12 PM
Donald Trump
President Donald Trump
| Credit: Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

They called her “Little Miss Mary Sunshine” and, at the time of her sudden death in the summer of 2001, Lori Kaye Klausutis was finishing her MBA and looking for her next job — excited about what was to come. Her 29th birthday was two weeks away.

A Georgia native, she’d relocated to Niceville, north of Destin in Florida’s panhandle along the Gulf of Mexico. There she lived with her husband of four years, an Air Force contractor named TJ Klausutis. Starting in May 1999, she handled constituent services for then-Rep. Joe Scarborough, who later launched a cable news career.

Lori ran regularly, often with the local track club, and she was active in the Emerald Coast Young Republicans, where she was president and then treasurer. She sang in her Catholic church’s choir, sat on the board of the Fort Walton Beach Youth Symphony and worked with a local civic group, the Fort Walton Beach Jaycees.

“Every time I saw her, she had a smile on her face,” her church’s music director said of her in 2001. “She helped out with everything and was always very people-friendly.”

A fellow member of the Young Republicans told the Northwest Florida Daily News at the time that she was “a joy.”

“She was always very upbeat and positive about everything,” he said. “Even when things got argumentative, she always stayed on the upside of the argument and would never resort to getting dirty or cruel.”

Nearly 20 years later, that sunny image of Lori Klausutis has been shadowed — once again — by conspiracy theories surrounding her death. No less than President Donald Trump has tweeted multiple times this month suggesting Scarborough, a vocal Trump critic, murdered Lori despite all evidence to the contrary.

(This description of the investigation and of Lori is based on her obituary and reporting by the Daily News, Pensacola News Journal, Tampa Bay Times, Washington Post and wire reports.)

Trump, who prefers to attack his detractors in sometimes startlingly personal terms, has repeatedly labeled Scarborough a “psycho” in Lori’s case.

“Did he get away with murder? Some people think so,” the president wrote on May 12.

On Sunday morning, Trump again tweeted about Lori's death, this time mistaking some details.

"A lot of interest in this story about Psycho Joe Scarborough," he wrote. "So a young marathon runner just happened to faint in his office, hit her head on his desk, & die? I would think there is a lot more to this story than that? An affair? What about the so-called investigator?"

In fact, according to the local authorities who investigated Lori’s death, what killed her on July 19, 2001, was an accident — a fluke of poor health, complicated by terrible timing.

The medical examiner, Michael Berkland, found that Lori had an undiagnosed heart condition, that she had likely passed out and hit her head on the desk as she fell and a blood clot in her brain killed her. Berkland said her heart had stopped her breathing and that blood also pooled in her skull from her fall.

The satellite office where Lori worked for Scarborough was usually staffed by one other person, but she was alone that day as the other woman was on vacation. A security guard checking the area later told police it was possible he had skipped checking the congressional office that night, probably hours after Lori had collapsed.

Earlier that Thursday afternoon, Lori had told both a co-worker on the phone and a mailman who came by the office that she didn’t feel well — a sign, perhaps, of the distress caused by what the medical examiner suspected was cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, from a heart valve disease. Police said she had no major trauma but her body did have a bruise and scratch from her fall as well as a hairline fracture on her skull.

Lori was last heard from when she spoke with the co-worker in another office just before 5 p.m. on July 19. An employee of a nearby restaurant said her car was seen in the parking lot around 5 o’clock the next morning and the office lights were still on.

A couple arriving there for an appointment about a work permit found her body around 8:30 a.m. Police said there was no evidence of foul play: a break-in or attack.

“My assumption was she had a seizure and it caused her to go into cardiac arrest,” the woman who found Lori later told the Daily News.

Scarborough, who was in Washington, D.C., at the time, mourned Lori in a statement: “I know Lori will be missed by the thousands of citizens who regularly contact my office to seek assistance with a variety of problems. May God grant Lori’s family the grace, comfort and hope that will get them through this difficult time.”

donald trump, joe scarborough
President Donald Trump (left) and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough
| Credit: Win McNamee/Getty; Bryan Bedder/Getty

After the medical examiner’s ruling on Lori’s death was made public, her husband said in a brief comment that he was happy with the “thoroughness and attention to detail.”

“He did a wonderful job in finding the right answers without rushing to make a quick diagnosis,” TJ said, according to the Daily News.

Her family largely shunned press coverage of her death — though her father-in-law spoke out in indignation over continued headlines in the local paper about what happened to her, in particular the fact that authorities had not yet ruled out suicide.

“Losing Lori was the most painful event in my life of 62 years. It was far more painful for her husband,” Norm Klausutis wrote in a letter to the editor of the Daily News in late July 2001. “Lori was a loving, healthy and dynamic person. She gave of herself to her community, her church and even perfect strangers She was extremely happy with her life, job and family.”

The Daily News continued to follow the investigation closely, driven by some discrepancies in official statements at the time and an apparent reluctance of investigators to move quickly in releasing details about what they knew.

Berkland, the medical examiner involved, made a minor stir when he admitted he did not initially tell reporters Lori’s body had injuries on it because “the last thing we wanted to do was answer 40 questions about a head injury,” implying he had wanted to tamp down undue speculation.

There were other, later issues with Berkland: Authorities in 2012 found that he had kept human tissue and organs in a storage unit from private autopsies he’d conducted; in 2003, he’d been fired from his job in Florida “for being slow to complete autopsy reports,” according to the Post, and he had been fired from a previous job in Kansas.

The Daily News faced criticism of being overly sensational but also received supportive letters urging its reporters to continue asking questions. The paper made much of unusual delays in releasing the investigative documents, which appeared to violate the state’s open-records laws. Berkland was quoted at the time not wanting to be too hasty in making a determination.

Though ultimately unrelated to how Lori died, together all of these incidents and Scarborough’s resignation soon after (though announced months before her death) fused to fuel a more conspiratorial view of what happened — one initially fed by some liberal commentators and, in recent years, taken up by Trump and right-wing allies.

Scarborough and his wife and Morning Joe co-host, Mika Brzezinski, have in particular seemed to chafe the president after becoming more and more critical of his administration. In 2017, Trump claimed Brzezinski had once come to him while “bleeding badly” from a face lift. (“Trump targets anything that pricks his ego,” Brzezinski told PEOPLE at the time. “It is very sad that the leader of the free world can be played like a fiddle.”)

His brazen tweets about Scarborough were similarly shrugged off, sometimes in pointedly patronizing manner.

“Why don’t you turn off the television, and why don’t you start working, okay?” Scarborough said on the May 12 broadcast of Morning Joe, addressing the president. “You do your job, we’ll do ours, and America will be much better off for that. Just go. Turn off the TV, Donald.”

Scarborough has also said Trump’s spotlighting of the conspiracy was most harmful to Lori’s relatives. “You don't understand the pain you cause to families who've already lost a loved one, not me,” Scarborough said earlier in May. (The White House has not commented on Trump’s tweets.)

Lori’s widower, TJ, was interviewed in 2017 by Bicycling magazine where he touched on the despair following her death, including spiraling into bad habits and, years later, a reinvigoration through biking.

“I went to grief counseling after my wife died. They told me to find a hobby … to find like-minded people who support you,” he said then.

A Post article published on Sunday noted, “No one in Klausutis’s family would talk about Trump’s tweets for this article, fearing retaliation by online trolls of the type who went after parents of the Sandy Hook massacre victims.”

“There’s a lot we would love to say,” said Lori’s then-brother-in-law, Colin Kelly, “but we can’t.”

An investigator told the Post in 2017 that there had been "no stone unturned" in the case.

Speaking with the paper, a reporter who covered the case in 2001 said: “It was a tragedy then that it was the subject of conspiracy theories; it's even more of a tragedy now that it's still the subject of conspiracy theories because the authorities were clear — they did a thorough investigation. It's terrible that people are still referring to this as a mystery. It's not a mystery."