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.

DAVE LEWIS' FINDINGS were provocative, if not smoking-gun material. But sheriff's investigators showed little interest, if their written reports are any indication. The report of chief investigator John Sanders--assigned to head a homicide for the first time--pays slight attention to Lewis. Sanders was apparently not interested in evidence of homicide: He gave short shrift to two telephone calls, one that mentioned the murder of a cop, a second that even gave an alleged killer's name.

Sanders claimed that the pivoting footprint was that of a police photographer, not Bill Gravell. The fresh human feces remained a mystery, Sanders admitted, but that didn't stop him from being certain that Gravell had killed himself.

Although Sanders says he didn't make up his mind about the manner of Bill Gravell's death for "two or three days," evidence is to the contrary.

On the night of Gravell's death, a Tucson supermarket checker named Eda Jarrett dialed 911. It was the first time in her life she had called the police. Around noon that day, Jarrett told the dispatcher, she had been making a call from a pay telephone in northwest Tucson. Another woman--whom Jarrett recognized as a customer at her store--had called someone from a telephone next to hers. Jarrett said she overheard the conversation.

"She said, `He just shot and killed a cop. Whatever you do, don't talk to anybody and don't tell anybody,'" Jarrett said. "She was very nervous and she was really shaking bad, and she looked real scared."

The woman hung up, Jarrett said, then walked into a nearby apartment complex. Jarrett later alleged that she hadn't even known about Bill Gravell's death when she dialed 911. Police operators that night routed her call to the Oro Valley Police Department, and dispatchers there immediately contacted Pima County sheriff's investigators.

John Sanders says he heard about Jarrett "a day or two" after her call. "I believe that she had overheard something," he says. But he didn't bother to write a report about the Jarrett lead until well after closing the case as a suicide weeks later. The lead soon was forever shelved.

Then, a week after Bill Gravell died, the Oro Valley Police Department received an anonymous call from a man who said he had vital information. The caller said he had overheard a man talking in a Nogales, Sonora, bar about being involved in the death of the "Oro Valley sheriff." The man's name was Juan Lucero Escalante, the caller said before he hung up. Sanders later admitted he had done little to follow that lead.

He was more convinced by assistant medical examiner Tom Henry's postmortem examination. Henry told Sanders that Gravell's autopsy showed cancer had invaded Gravell's brain, and perhaps caused the Oro Valley cop to take leave of his senses. That analysis was terribly flawed, Gravell's oncologist later testified.

But the sheriff's investigator and the coroner influenced each other. By May 1, 1989, Henry was ready to call Bill Gravell's death a suicide. "I think the information that I got from the sheriff's office was the major part of what made me list it as I did," Henry says.

Henry admits that Sanders hadn't told him about the tracker's curious findings or the telephone calls, except in passing. "I would admit it raises questions in my mind," Henry says. "I'm concerned whether [suicide] is a correct assessment of the situation."

But Tom Henry didn't change his mind--at least officially--and the Gravell case remained a suicide.

TUCSON ATTORNEY Michael Moeller says he was reluctant to take on Kathy Gravell's workers' compensation case when she came to him in 1989.

"I thought it was a loser, to be frank," Moeller says. "But the lady was so committed, so pathetic in some ways, that I told her I'd give it my best shot."

Moeller went to war against the Oro Valley Police Department and the Pima County Sheriff's Office. He called expert witnesses who quarreled with the official point of view. And, according to the state Industrial Commission's Judge Baum, many of his witnesses were extremely persuasive.

"I conclude that Mr. Gravell did not have either premeditated or `spur of the moment' suicidal intent when he was shot on March 28, 1989," Baum wrote in his decision last year. "In agonizing over this case, I read at least twice every one of the over 1,000 pages of testimony . . . It is this materially faulty investigation and resulting materially faulty conclusions which so weakened the case."

Judge Baum's watershed ruling opened many doors for Kathy Gravell. Senator Dennis DeConcini wrote to the Arizona Peace Officers Memorial Board, supporting the placement of Bill Gravell's name on the state's memorial. Kathy Gravell received $103,890 from the Department of Justice because her husband was "slain in the line of duty." Two life-insurance policies also netted Gravell another $12,500.

(Shortly after Bill's death, the Oro Valley Town Council had voted to give Kathy Gravell $7,500. Bill Gravell hadn't been in Oro Valley for the two years necessary to qualify for the payoff, but the council waived its requirement.)

Kathy Gravell left Oro Valley less than a year after her husband died. "I just had to get out of there before the anniversary of Bill's death came up," she says. She moved to the small town of Montrose, Colorado, where she is working as a secretary at a mental- health center.

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