A DEATH IN THE DESERT

BILL GRAVELL DIED OF TWO GUNSHOT WOUNDS TO THE CHEST. HIS FELLOW COPS SAY IT WAS SUICIDE, BUT HIS WIDOW--AND THE GOVERNMENT--DISAGREE.

Three weeks ago, Kathy Gravell stood beneath the Washington Monument and prepared to place a flower in a large wreath. The occasion was the tenth annual National Peace Officers' Memorial Day service. Kathy's late husband, Bill--a 49-year-old detective from a small town north of Tucson--was one of 153 cops being honored after being "killed in the line of duty."

The moment was bittersweet for Kathy Gravell, and not just because she'd lost her husband. She was at the ceremony by herself, without anyone from the Oro Valley Police Department for whom Bill had been working when he died in March 1989.

"I was crying for a lot of reasons," says Gravell. "I was so proud of Bill. The chief? He'd rather have been anywhere else in the world. I felt so alone."

As the solemn Roll Call of Heroes started, however, something gave Kathy Gravell reason to smile. "These two guys from the Arizona Department of Public Safety saw me," Gravell says. "As I walked up there with my flower, they were right there to escort me. I told them, `I didn't know anyone from Arizona would have anything to do with me anymore.' These very nice officers said, `We're behind you. Hang in there.' It meant so much to me, considering all that's happened."

The circumstances of Bill Gravell's death have been a battleground for police agencies, psychiatrists, pathologists and attorneys. The focus of the often-acrimonious debate is as clear as it is unusual:

Moments before he died, Gravell radioed in for emergency assistance from a secluded parking lot near a trailhead in the Coronado National Forest.

"Number one male appears to be an illegal alien," Gravell said over his portable radio. "Assist officer, assist officer. I need help!" he added in an apparent panic less than five seconds later.

Oro Valley's blues rolled in within five minutes. Bill Gravell was lying dead on the pavement outside his unmarked police car. He had been killed by two bullets fired into his heart from his own .38-caliber semiautomatic from very close range. A search of the area by land and air for a suspect proved fruitless.

Several weeks after Gravell was laid to rest in Alpine, Texas, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik announced ®MD120¯ Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 his department's conclusion: "We believe it is a suicide." However, he added uncertainly, "There's not a lot of overwhelming information or evidence one way or the other."

In support of that conclusion, the sheriff's investigators pointed out that Gravell was suffering from terminal cancer. Rather than face agonizing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he tried to stage what looked like murder while actually taking his own life. Some investigators speculated that if Gravell had succeeded on both counts--that is, killing himself on the job and disguising it as a murder--his wife would qualify for benefits she wouldn't get had it been a suicide.

Multiple-shot suicides are rare, a Pima County coroner said, but not unheard of. Because her husband's death had been deemed a suicide and therefore not "job-related," the State Compensation Fund rejected her claim when Kathy Gravell applied for benefits. She appealed and settled in for a hearing before administrative law judge Peter Baum. The hearing ended last year in a controversial ruling that has had wide implications for all involved.

Baum ruled in May 1990 that Pima County sheriff's investigators had bungled the Gravell case badly enough to cloud many crucial details, probably forever. The judge noted that some concrete leads had been ignored by sheriff's detectives eager to conclude that Gravell's death was a suicide.

Among the leads ignored was a telephone call during which a frightened woman was overheard mentioning a cop's murder only two hours after Gravell's death. Also ignored was evidence uncovered by an esteemed Border Patrol tracker. The Tucson judge didn't call Bill Gravell's death murder, but he wrote in his 26-page decision that it was "an inexplicable and perplexing act." The conclusions of the sheriff's detectives and others, Baum wrote, had been "materially tainted by inadequate factual foundation." Judge Baum awarded Kathy Gravell $577 per month for life, unless she remarries. Her attorney gets 25 percent of that--forever--which leaves her with $433 a month after taxes.

The national Fraternal Order of Police and the federal Department of Justice went a giant step further than Judge Baum. They awarded her $103,890 two months ago as part of a program to aid families of slain officers. And the Col 3, Depth P54.10 I9.14 six-year stint there. Gravell divorced his first wife and, in 1974, married Kathy. Over the next decade or so, the couple lived and worked in three dots on the Texas map--Kerrville, Milford, and Alpine.

In Alpine, Gravell ran for justice of the peace. He lost, and decided to move on. The town of Oro Valley seemed a fine place, close to Tucson, yet far enough away to maintain the small-town life he and his wife had become accustomed to.

Bill joined the 25-member force in October 1987 as a patrolman. Kathy was hired at the same time as a secretary. They soon felt comfortable in the town of 5,000 and its little cop shop. "I'm not saying that Bill thought it was perfect," Kathy Gravell says, "because he was such a perfectionist. But he thought it was a pretty darned good little department. And we loved the town."

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