The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, September 08, 2020 1:00 am

Police: Man's '05 death not homicide after all

SARAH REESE | The Times of Northwest Indiana

HIGHLAND – Cindy Neizgoda couldn't sleep ahead of a scheduled meeting with Highland police Aug. 5 to talk about her son's case, which had been ruled a homicide 15 years earlier.

In anticipation of a possible break in the case, she had searched arrest records going back a month to check if a possible suspect had been arrested.

She hugged her 22-year-old grandson, who was just 7 years old when his father died, and said, “It would be so good if we walked in there, and they told us this case is finally solved.”

Instead, the news she and her family received left them reeling.

Officials told the family they were changing their ruling on Larry Neizgoda's death July 2, 2005, from homicide to “undetermined.”

Neizgoda, 27, died from smoke inhalation in a blaze investigators no longer think was arson, but instead suspect was “likely accidental.” Neizgoda's body was found after the fire destroyed his house in the 8100 block of Wicker Park Drive.

Cindy Neizgoda and her daughter Tiffany Neizgoda said they were outraged.

Investigators never should have ruled Larry Neizgoda's death a homicide 15 years ago if they weren't certain at the time, they said.

“Not one of them could even apologize for what they did to us,” Cindy Neizgoda said. “Now, after 15 years, you want to roll this over and call it a wash? It's not that easy. Every day, I get up, I think of my son. He's the last thing I think about at night.”

For 15 years, the family has been consumed by their quest for justice.

“We never healed, because we were out there searching for the killer,” Tiffany Neizgoda said. “It was tortuous. My mom shut down. There was no more family functions, like there used to be. I feel like my family died the day my brother did.”

Life didn't go on as usual, she said. She didn't have a bonfire for 10 years, and she couldn't go to parades because the sirens reminded her of the day she had to tell her parents her brother was dead.

“Anything they say to me isn't going to make it better. Nothing's going to bring him back,” she said. “I want the whole world to know. ... Losing a family member is hard enough, but when you're told your family member was killed and there's no one accountable, it ruins you and everyone around you.”

Highland police said they worked for years to generate leads and follow up on tips.

“Numerous leads and theories were investigated when they were received from family and friends, none of which provided any evidence to substantiate a classification of homicide,” police said in a statement.

Detective Lee Natelborg submitted the case in February to the Cold Case Foundation, a group that includes active and retired law enforcement officers, fire investigators, legal experts, death investigators, forensic experts, stress management experts and victim advocate experts.

Natelborg learned of the foundation from a television show, and Cindy Neizgoda consented to the group's review of the case, Cmdr. John Banasiak said.

“This is a tragic situation. You can't bring that person back, no matter what,” Banasiak said. “They're at a loss. I totally understand that.”

The foundation conducted an unbiased review and issued an opinion that Larry Neizgoda's manner of death should be classified as undetermined, police said.

The Indiana state fire marshal's office and Lake County coroner's office subsequently reviewed the case and came to the same conclusion, police said. The family's insurance carrier classified the case as undetermined.

Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey said her office changed the manner of death because of further work by the police department and fire marshal.

“Initially, the police felt that it was a homicide,” she said. “The police and fire marshal no longer support that it was a homicide. The police investigated further.”

The Highland police and fire departments reviewed the findings of the other agencies and agreed the manner of death should be undetermined, police said.

If any new evidence becomes available, police will investigate, he said.

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