Screen Shot 2021-11-19 at 6.19.04 PM.png

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY RICHARD FRIEND

LAUREL NOIR

The Body In the Blue Building

More than twenty years later, conspiracies linger in one of Laurel’s most mysterious deaths

Laurel Noir is a series focused on historic crimes and the darker underside of our hometown.

rich-headshot-1.png

By Richard Friend  |  This article originally appeared in Voices of Laurel Spring 2021

A single DVD sat on a shelf in the third floor office of Carlos Ghigliotti on April 28, 2000. It was a collection of episodes of The X-Files—and a more appropriate item was unimaginable, given the circumstances. 

Laurel Police detectives were scouring the office for clues, because Ghigliotti’s badly decomposed body had just been found there. Improbably, the corpse had gone undetected in the office for weeks—possibly a month
or more.

Ghigliotti’s office was located on the third floor of what had originally been the American National Bank building at 608 Washington Boulevard. The familiar blue mid-century modern building was demolished in 2012 to make way for the Walgreens that now occupies the site. The building had gone largely vacant in its final years, but at the time of Ghigliotti’s death, it still housed several businesses. While a few people had noticed Ghigliotti’s car in the parking lot, unmoved for weeks, no one had reported the 42-year-old missing.

 

Who was Carlos Ghigliotti?

The already strange story took another bizarre twist when police learned who the dead man was. Carlos Ghigliotti was the owner and sole proprietor of Infrared Technologies Corp. Not only did he specialize in thermal imaging, he was one of only about a dozen U.S. experts in the field at that time. His skill at reading and interpreting Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) video had awarded him a unique contract with the House Government Reform Committee in October of the previous year—to analyze videotape from the notorious Waco siege. The committee was investigating allegations that FBI agents had fired their weapons at Branch Davidian members, leading to the death of 76 people as the compound burned on April 19, 1993. The FBI had vehemently denied firing any weapons, but Ghigliotti’s analysis suggested otherwise. He was quoted in the Washington Post, saying, “The gunfire  is there, without a doubt.” Ghigliotti was convinced that both the infrared surveillance footage as well as standard videos filmed by the media included evidence that the FBI had lied—and that federal agents had indeed fired upon people inside the compound as they attempted to flee the burning structures. 

Just a month before his death, he’d been preparing a report to Congress and working with attorneys who were filing a $100 million wrongful death suit against the government on behalf of the heirs of the Branch Davidians. In a March 28th letter to the lead attorney, he’d written, “I still have a lot of shocking evidence to show you.” 

Ghigliotti had previously worked with the FBI, analyzing a number of environmental dumping cases between 1991 and 1995. But his latest job put him decidedly at odds with them, and just a few months into his research, he believed he had found the smoking gun—literally and figuratively. Flashes that appeared throughout the thermal video footage, Ghigliotti claimed, were clear evidence of gunfire. His trained eyes had seen it on FLIR video many times before, having filmed above shooting ranges. 

To this day, the FBI dismisses the flashes as reflections of sunlight.

 

Conspiracy Theory

The idea that Ghigliotti—a seemingly healthy 42-year-old man with information potentially damaging to the FBI—turned up dead in his office just before completing his work was undeniably suspicious, and the story immediately became national news.

Within days, stories began to emerge, painting a disturbing picture. David Hardy, a former U.S. attorney who’d worked with Ghigliotti on the Waco investigation recalled a chilling conversation they’d had in Laurel:

“I remember talking to him outside his office, after the first visit, standing there in the parking lot after dark. He’d mentioned that the guy with Infraspection Institute, who had analyzed the FLIR for (the television show) 60 Minutes back in 1995 or 1996, and found FBI gunshots and shooters on it, had been terrified. In fact, he’d sent copies of the tape to Carlos and to several others in the IR field, with notes saying ‘If anything happens to me, you’ll know why.’ 

I asked Carlos, there in the parking lot, if he’d ever been fearful. He said only for a while, between the time he made his findings and the time he reported them to the committee. Then he had been worried, because he was looking at clear evidence that would nail a lot of FBI agents on perjury, and perhaps much worse. But once he told others of his results, he figured the cat was out of the bag. Since the committee has his results, and has had information on it for months now, I guess we’ll soon know how serious they are about investigating Waco.”

The committee did have Ghigliotti’s results, but it was quickly becoming apparent that they were leaning in the other direction—and had been for some time. In the weeks before his death, Ghigliotti had grown frustrated and voiced concern that Congress was “more worried about their budget than with finding out what really happened.” For the countless hours of work he’d put in over the course of five months, Ghigliotti had reportedly been paid only $16,100. The committee also refused to fund additional hours that he felt were needed to complete his work. The final straw came when the Office of Special Counsel conducted a field test of FLIR technology on March 19, 2000, using similar conditions to determine whether gunfire caused the flashes. Despite this having been Ghigliotti’s own suggestion, the committee wouldn’t pay to have him fly to Texas and be part of the experiment.

The testing—without Ghigliotti’s participation—was conducted under a protocol agreed to and signed by attorneys and experts for the Branch Davidians and their families, as well as for the government. The final report to the Deputy Attorney General on November 8, 2000 discounted Ghigliotti’s findings.

Analysis of the shape, duration, and location of the flashes indicated that they resulted from a reflection off debris—likely broken glass—on or around the complex, rather than gunfire. Additionally, an independent expert review of photography taken at the scene showed no people at or near the points from which the flashes emanated. Interviews of Branch Davidians, government witnesses, filmmakers, writers, and advocates for the Branch Davidians found that none had witnessed any government gunfire on April 19, 1993. None of the Branch Davidians who died on that day displayed evidence of having been struck by a high velocity round, as would be expected had they been shot from outside of the complex by government sniper rifles or other assault weapons. Given this evidence, the Special Counsel concluded that the claim that government gunfire occurred on April 19, 1993, amounted to “an unsupportable case based entirely upon flawed technological assumptions.”

According to a Government Reform Committee spokesperson, Ghigliotti’s research had been defunded “because he repeatedly failed to produce what the staff considered a ‘scientific’ report.” While he had provided detailed evidence noting where he detected supposed gunfire, he had not included the type of calculations and comparisons to other FLIR-recorded gunfire that the committee felt was needed for a case against the FBI. In short, Ghigliotti simply stressed that based on his extensive previous experience, he knew exactly what gunfire looked like on infrared video—and dismissed any possibility that the flashes were the result of sunlight reflections. “There is no alternative explanation,” Ghigliotti had stressed. “None.”

Laurel Police initially investigated Ghigliotti’s death as a possible homicide, although they found no evidence of a break-in or struggle. Nor was there any sign that he had committed suicide. What they did discover, however, was that Ghigliotti had not only died at his office—he’d been living there, too. His sister later corroborated this, explaining that Carlos was excessively frugal. Friends and associates never realized that he didn’t have an actual home outside of the office. In fact, he’d also been living out of his office’s previous location years earlier at 1905 Guilford Road in Columbia—an industrial park address that the Motor Vehicle Administration also had listed as Ghigliotti’s residence. His sister speculated that the well-groomed Ghigliotti would check into nearby motels to shower, with no one the wiser.

A routine visitor to Infrared Technologies wouldn’t have noticed anything that belied Ghigliotti living there, but closer inspection after his death revealed the truth. A closet in his two-room Laurel office contained his clothes and a suit bag, along with a small mirror. Numerous over-the-counter cold medications, pain killers, toiletries, and other drugstore staples were stored througout Suite 304. And Ghigliotti’s body, in its advanced state of decomposition, had been found lying on an air mattress, dressed in nightclothes. 

There was no way to definitively know when Ghigliotti died, but investigators suspect it was on or around April 6, 2000. A grocery receipt from April 4th was found in his office.

The autopsy report by Maryland’s chief medical examiner ruled that Ghigliotti died of natural causes—officially, a heart attack hastened by massive arterial blockage. Toxicology tests found only an over-the-counter flu medication in his system. 

Carlos’ sister wasn’t surprised at the results; she knew that his lifestyle wasn’t healthy. Tightly-wound, he was a Type A personality who lived on fast food and little sleep. He didn’t exercise, and he hadn’t allowed himself a real vacation in over a decade. Genetics may have worked against him, as well. His father died in his sixties from heart problems, and his mother had passed away at an even younger age—42, coincidentally. She, too, had heart disease.

Conspiracy theories began populating the Internet shortly after Ghigliotti’s death and continue to this day—some theorizing that Carlos had been poisoned by anthrax (or some other untraceable toxin that creates flu-like symptoms), or that his death was faked by the government using the corpse of an unknown (and conveniently unidentifiable) man. 

Carlos’ sister doesn’t necessarily believe that, but she does believe that her brother’s analysis of the FLIR videos was correct, and that the FBI had lied. She has difficulty reconciling an incident that had occurred the autumn before Carlos died—when he took the unusual step of staying over at her house. Paranoid and completely out of character, he told her that he believed his life was in danger. He then made her watch the tapes, pointing out exactly what he had seen. “He did a second-by-second analysis of where, what, and when.”

Carlos Ghigliotti’s funeral included full military honors in respect to his service with the U.S. Navy. He is buried at Maryland Veterans Cemetery in Cheltenham—a decision his sister made rather than cremation. Given the circumstances of his death, she said she did it “just in case ... he might need to be exhumed someday.”

Screen Shot 2021-11-19 at 6.24.34 PM.png

Carlos Ghigliotti circa 1994. FAMILY PHOTO