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.

The couple took advantage of Tucson, and discovered a new love there--opera. Life was going well. Then, in June 1988, doctors in Tucson gave the Gravells some dreadful news: Bill had cancer in his left lung and would have to undergo chemotherapy and radiation.

Even then, says his Oro Valley police partner Bill Grant, Gravell kept a remarkably upbeat public face. "He explained to me when he started his treatment that he was going to be the person that was going to win this battle," Grant said in a court deposition.

The doctors gave Gravell a one-in-five chance of surviving more than two years. But he worked as often as he could during the last nine months of his life, even in the midst of treatments that often made him violently ill. His hair fell out and he became a ghostly figure. In a kind gesture, Oro Valley police chief Werner Wolff--a pivotal figure in the still-unresolved clash over Gravell's death--shifted Gravell from patrol to less physically taxing duty as a detective.

At the end of 1988, Gravell's oncologist, Dr. Ralph Jackson, told him that the treatments appeared to have been successful. Gravell regained some of his strength and weight. His hair started to grow back.

Then, about six weeks before Bill Gravell died, he took ill again. Dr. Jeanne Foley, his psychological counselor at the time, noted on February 16, 1989, "Bill is dealing with new information that could either mean he has an ulcer or he has a new site for his cancer. He noted that he has been a fighter his whole life and has always The following day, Bill and Kathy Gravell went to Dr. Jackson's office. Jackson said later he was convinced Gravell's cancer had returned. If that were true, Bill Gravell could throw those one-in-five odds out the window. It would be a matter of how painful and how soon his death would be.

But Jackson says he did not tell the Gravells of his most dire thoughts. Instead, he told them preliminary tests had indicated one of three diagnoses: an ulcer, a gallstone or a recurrence of the cancer.

Gravell agreed to return the next day for tests that would cinch the diagnosis, good or bad. Says Dr. Jackson, "Bill's attitude was, `Okay, let's get to it. Let's get her done. Let's get an answer so we can figure out what's our next step.' And there was no indication on his part, `I've had enough. Let's call off this foolishness.' Nothing whatsoever of that sort."

Within a day of meeting with Dr. Jackson, Bill Gravell was a dead man.

IT'S NOT DIFFICULT to retrace Detective Gravell's last hours. As usual, he and Kathy drove to the police station by 8:30 a.m. He mentioned that he'd forgotten to bring with him a toy fingerprinting kit he'd bought as a joke for partner Bill Grant. But no matter, Gravell told his wife, he'd just pick it up at lunch.

At the station, he spoke with Grant for a few minutes--nothing out of the ordinary, Grant recalls--then he drove to the Oro Valley's Town Hall complex. Gravell left there at about 9:20 a.m. and drove onto the town's main road, U.S. Highway 89--also known as Oracle Highway. Gravell waved to another Oro Valley police officer soon before he turned into a trailhead parking lot a few hundred yards off Oracle, at the western foot of the Catalina Mountains.

It's a scenic area, and many Oro Valley officers had used the lot for years as a place to have a quiet smoke. Gravell parked his unmarked car, but left the motor running. It was a foggy morning. He called in his location on his portable police radio in a calm, coplike monotone, and mentioned the presence of an "illegal alien."

Fewer than five seconds after his first transmission, however, Gravell requested backup in that disturbed, clearly frightened tone of voice. "Assist officer, assist officer. I need help!"

Gravell's partner, Bill Grant, headed Code Three--sirens and lights flashing--toward the parking lot. "The tone of his voice, he needed assistance," Grant says. "I could feel there was something wrong. Knowing that he wasn't up in his health, I felt there was a possibility that if he ever got into a struggle with someone that he could be overpowered."

Chief Wolff also heard Gravell's plea for help. He rushed toward the site, knowing somehow, he said during a court deposition, "that I would find him dead, basically. It's nothing but a premonition. I had no facts to back that up. It's just a gut feeling."

Wolff reached the scene first. It was less than five minutes after Gravell's last transmission. Bill Grant and a third car carrying Oro Valley officer Ed Holdinsky and a police recruit were right behind the chief. Wolff says he found Gravell lying on the ground near his car in the fetal position. He saw the wound in Gravell's chest and felt his jugular for a pulse, but found none. Wolff admits he didn't look to see if a suspect was within sight. To Chief Wolff, Bill Gravell's death wasn't an unsolved mystery. It was suicide.

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