An Officer and a Killer

Ralph Lawrence was headed for disaster. His fellow cops knew it. His final victim didn't.

Lawman Ralph Andrew Lawrence was primed to kill on that spring evening in 1986. In his mind, his enemies had conspired to ruin him--starting with waitress Sharma Bethel, an ex-girlfriend from the southeastern Arizona town of Willcox.

Lawrence had figured his troubles with Bethel were ancient history. That stuff had happened back when he was a Cochise County sheriff's deputy. But the Arizona Department of Public Safety had fired Lawrence after it accidentally learned about the three times in 1982 he had kidnaped Bethel.

Lawrence couldn't believe it. He hadn't been charged, and as far as he knew, no one had even filed police reports about the incident. DPS fired him anyway.

It was time to exact his revenge.
Lawrence grabbed his .357 Magnum and stormed out of a friend's house in Tucson. He shouted something about going to Willcox--eighty miles east in Cochise County--to take care of business.

The friend called Cameron Morran, a Cochise County sheriff's deputy who also knew Lawrence well. Morran drove to Interstate 10 and waited for Lawrence to drive by. Morran flagged him down, and they drove their cars to a parking lot to talk. As cops and cabbies often do, the two talked while they sat in their cars with the motors running. Lawrence's gun was on the passenger seat of his Mustang.

He told Morran he was on his way to gun down Sharma Bethel. And he planned to murder the DPS cop who had set his firing in motion. He also had it in for a sheriff's deputy or two.

"I told him, `Hey, you were a good cop. At least I thought you were,'" Morran recalled in a recent deposition. "`If you ever want to get back in this business, doing what you're doing now is not going to get you anyplace. You've still got a chance at it.'"

Apparently calmed after more than two hours, Lawrence returned to Tucson. Morran didn't speak with him for a few months, though he heard his pal landed a job with the Springerville Police Department.

Then Morran learned in early July 1986 that Lawrence had been arrested for shooting at a woman up in Phoenix. Soon after that, Lawrence--out of jail awaiting trial--looked up Morran in Cochise County.

It was self-defense, Lawrence told Morran. This woman he'd been dating, Kathy Buyse, had pointed a gun at him, Lawrence claimed, and then had tried to run him down with her car. He'd shot at her and her new boyfriend to save himself.

"He says, `Mo, I've got to kill that bitch,'" Morran recalled. "I said, `Ralph, we have been through a conversation like this once before. I don't want to hear it.' And he smiled and said, `Yeah, I guess so.'

"It wasn't like the first time. He was reserved and calculating, like he had already made his mind up about something. I had no idea, even in my wildest dreams, that he was actually going to go through with something like that."

A month later, Lawrence went through with it.

SOMETIMES, WHEN COPS go bad, their bosses call press conferences and denounce them as rogues. That's what DPS did last fall when patrolman Martin Mix was fired after having sex with a motorist.

But Ralph Lawrence is the ultimate rogue cop, and none of his former bosses at five Arizona police agencies wants to call attention to it.

Lawrence murdered Kathy Buyse, a divorced 21-year-old mother, on August 22, 1986. The fatal bullet blasted her in the face on the front porch of her mother's home in Peoria. It was the second time in two months that Lawrence had tried to kill Buyse.

Arizona authorities are protecting Lawrence these days. In 1987, they moved the ex-cop (who had pleaded guilty to first-degree murder) to an out-of-state prison, where fellow inmates wouldn't have heard of him. He's to be locked up until at least 2031, when he'll be 73.

But only now, through a lawsuit filed by Kathy Buyse's mother against the state of Arizona, Cochise County, and the town of Eagar, is Lawrence's protracted tale of terror being pieced together.

Slated for trial this year, the suit claims Kathy Buyse would be alive if not for the cops' staggering negligence. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Stanley Goodfarb says the case is "on the leading edge or beyond what seems to be the law on the obligations of a police officer to potential victims of crime."

It turns out that police agencies did their best job of protecting Lawrence before he killed Buyse. And that has various officials scrambling for explanations. They acknowledge the tragic events that led to Buyse's murder, but deny responsibility for it.

"Nobody I talked to at our place is aware of the suit," says the chief DPS spokesman, Sergeant Allan Schmidt. "I know very little about the case other than what I read in the paper; that is, that the guy didn't know what to do when his girlfriend broke up with him. I don't know anything other than we fired him at some point before he murdered the girl." Court records and interviews by New Times indicate that Arizonans should be asking how many rotten apples have become cops because of woeful background screenings and deficient certification. And they should be asking how far cops will go--for whatever reasons--to protect their own.

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