CPD, Coroner report Sponseller's death as suicide

Columbia police have found missing Columbia CEO Tom Sponseller ten days after his mysterious disappearance.

COLUMBIA (WACH) - Richland County Coroner Gary Watts confirmed Wednesday that Columbia business executive, Tom Sponseller, died from a single gunshot wound to the head. According to Watts, it appears that he died relatively near the time he was reported missing.

In a Tuesday afternoon news conference, Watts indicated that Sponseller likely died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Wednesday's report does not confirm the death as a suicide.

"Although he has been found and everything indicates it was self-inflicted, the police department and our office is going to continue to investigate this until we can come up with as many answers as we can for the family and the public," said Watts.

Investigators say the 61-year-old was found dead in a locked "room within a room" inside a lower level parking garage attached to the South Carolina Hospitality Association chief's downtown Columbia office building.

Investigators searched Sponseller's Lady Street office building and parking garage three times since his February 18 disappearance, on one occasion using cadaver dogs, but were not able to find Sponseller's body until Tuesday. Police Chief Randy Scott says authorities previously did not have access to the room where Sponseller was found because there was not a key available.

Scott expressed frustration that his officers were not able to find Sponseller sooner when he was so close and vowed the department would "do better" in the future.

"I'm really disappointed that the family had to go through this many days of grief," said Scott. "I can tell you it's going to make us take an even more in-depth look at how we do business. We're not perfect, but I'm a little disapointed."

Authorities went back to Sponseller's office building Tuesday after a hospitality association representative found a suicide note from the former executive.

Sources confirm to WACH Fox that Rick Erwin, the interim director of the SC Hospitality Association, found the note in a locked drawer in Sponseller's desk. Police had previously searched the office.

The full contents of the note have not been released. However, sources with knowledge of the note, indicate Sponseller references a federal investigation into the SC Hospitality Association over hundreds of thousands of dollars in missing money. They say he expresses a sense of concern and responsibility that the money disappeared under his watch.

The probe into the association's finances is still open and is being conducted by the Secret Service. They say Sponseller is not the target of their investigation. It has been more focused on the agency's former accounting director Rachel Duncan.

Court records show Duncan is currently being foreclosed on. She also filed for bankruptcy in 1998 and has been charged three times with submitting bad checks. Duncan had no comment Friday when approached by Fox News outside her home in Lexington.

The SC Hospitality Association launched an independent audit of its books last week. Sources close to their investigation tell WACH Fox that auditors have found multiple ways funds have been embezzled from the agency. The audit will likely be complete within a week.

The matter of the missing money is being handled as a separate issue from Sponseller's disappearance and apparent suicide.

According to Chief Scott, how the area in which Sponseller was found was accessed is currently unknown. By the amount of cigarrette butts in and around the room, it is believed it was used as a smoking area. Sponseller was a smoker. The room itself was not known for having traffic and was described as an electrical or utility-type room.

The room could not be accessed until Tuesday after the room's locks were re-keyed.

"Anything we do we learn from it and we definitely learned from this," said Scott. "We're not done. this investigation is still going."

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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