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George Garth

A 78-year-old man who died from a gunshot wound to the chest in September was not slain, as police initially thought, but actually committed suicide, according to an autopsy from the Hamilton County Medical Examiner's office.

George Garth was in poor health and had made statements that he was "ready to die," according to the autopsy, completed by associate medical examiner Steven Cogswell.

A devoted churchgoer and loyal friend, Garth suffered a contact gunshot wound to the left side of his chest. The bullet traveled down and backward, cutting through his heart and spleen, according to the autopsy. The bullet was found in Garth's back, lodged under his left shoulder.

Investigators have not found the gun used in the Sept. 22 shooting, Officer Rob Simmons said, and suspect someone may have removed it from the scene before police arrived at the home. He said no one has been criminally charged for removing the gun because it has not been found.

Garth's stepson, Ricky Harden, found Garth's body and reported it to police, records show.

The autopsy's findings are a new twist in an unconventional case — the first police officers to respond to the shooting on Sept. 22 did not realize Garth had been shot and treated his death as natural. Garth was found sitting on the living room floor, slumped forward, according to the autopsy. No one attempted CPR, and there were no signs of trauma or foul play.

It was not until attendants at John P. Franklin Funeral Home began to prepare Garth's body for burial that they discovered a "hole in his chest," prompting police to go back to Garth's home, set up a crime scene and begin a criminal investigation.

The reclassification of his death from homicide to suicide drops the number of homicides in Chattanooga this year to 32, compared to 30 in all of 2015.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas. Follow @ShellyBradbury.

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