THE THAI CONNECTION

PROSECUTORS WILL SAY NARCOTICS PLAYED NO ROLE IN THE TEMPLE MURDERS. THE EVIDENCE SUGGESTS OTHERWISE.

After about 90 minutes of questioning inside task-force headquarters in downtown Phoenix, McGraw had implicated himself and several others--including Mark Nu¤ez, Dante Parker and Leo Bruce--in the killings at Wat Promkunaram. Nu¤ez, Parker and Bruce all eventually made statements implicating themselves and others in the murders.

Though the investigators believed there might be others involved in the crime who were still at large, they appeared to have apprehended the core conspirators and the triggerman. Bruce told investigators he shot them all with his brother's .22-caliber rifle.

Although Smith Thongkam's dinner was a success, his prominence was short-lived. On October 5, 1991, DEA agents from Los Angeles arrived in Phoenix to arrest him on the drug charges he'd been convicted of 13 years earlier. Lamthong Sudthisa-ard hadn't fled to Thailand, after all. He had simply moved 350 miles east, changed his name, and purchased a business. Apparently, after 13 years in the Valley, he felt secure enough to associate with high-ranking law enforcement officers and reporters.

On October 9, Thongkam waived extradition to California to face sentencing. Duane Brady, MCSO spokesman, told the press the arrest was unlikely to alter the course of the investigation. Task-force members thought they had broken the case on September 10.

And perhaps they had--though not in the way they expected. For the same day McGraw made his telephone call to Tucson police, another task-force investigator picked up a rifle later determined as the murder weapon. But it wasn't the rifle Leo Bruce claimed he used to shoot the Buddhists.

On August 20, security police at Luke Air Force Base stopped Johnathan Doody and Rolando Caratachea, two west Valley teenagers, for "suspicious activity." Inside Caratachea's 1972 Nova, they found a .22-caliber rifle. The officers told Caratachea to put the gun in his trunk and sent the boys on their way.

The next day, the same security officers spotted Caratachea and Doody in the latter's 1983 Mustang and again stopped them. According to court documents, they asked Caratachea about his rifle. He told them he had left it in the back seat of the Nova, which was parked in front of Doody's parents' house on the base.

Routine reports of the officers' contacts with the boys were forwarded to the task force.

On September 10--the same day McGraw called Tucson police--MCSO detective Rick Sinsabaugh interviewed Caratachea at the restaurant where he worked. Sinsabaugh told Caratachea his rifle might be involved in a case he was investigating. Caratachea agreed to turn over the rifle for testing, and the detective drove him from the restaurant to the Glendale apartment he shared with Johnathan Doody.

When Sinsabaugh retrieved the rifle, he noticed a sticky substance on the barrel he thought might be blood. Caratachea told him he had loaned the rifle to a friend who had returned it dirty. Sinsabaugh didn't ask who the friend was, and Caratachea didn't volunteer a name. (The sticky substance turned out to be residue from tape; Caratachea later told detectives that Doody and Garcia had tried to build a silencer by taping a hollowed-out potato to the end of the barrel.)

Also while he was at the apartment, Sinsabaugh spoke with Doody and Alex Garcia, who was there by coincidence. Doody told Sinsabaugh his brother had spent three weeks at the temple. Sinsabaugh would later note in a written report that Doody was "visibly nervous" and "shaking slightly" during the conversation, and that he avoided eye contact.

Sinsabaugh's report also includes the detective's version of a bizarre exchange with the then-16-year-old Garcia. Sinsabaugh wrote that a protective Garcia "confronted" him, claiming to be Doody's legal guardian.

Sinsabaugh submitted the rifle to the Arizona Department of Public Safety lab for comparative analysis. But, partly because the Tucson suspects had confessed to the murders, the rifle was treated exactly the same as the 75 to 80 other .22-caliber weapons collected by the task force. It was put in queue and the results on the weapon were not returned to the sheriff's office until nearly six weeks later.

Science couldn't match Leo Bruce's Marlin to the shell casings found at the scene. But on October 24, the crime lab informed the temple task force it had matched a weapon--Rolando Caratachea's weapon--to the crime. Caratachea's rifle was identical to Bruce's except its barrel was four inches longer and it held 17--instead of 13--rounds. Investigators found 17 spent shell casings on the floor in the room where the Buddhists were killed.

On Friday night, October 25, Johnathan Doody was arrested--in his ROTC drill-team uniform--before a football game at Agua Fria High School. Hours later, Alex Garcia was arrested at his parents' home.

With a sudden surfeit of suspects, the focus of the investigation shifted from trying to identify and arrest suspects to finding evidence that would link the Tucson men with the high school boys. And though Doody and Garcia both gave investigators several versions of what happened that night at the temple, neither implicated the Tucson men.

Investigators never came up with any physical evidence to link the Tucson suspects--who recanted their confessions almost immediately--to Doody and Garcia. And by the time County Attorney Rick Romley ordered them released from jail--on November 22, 1991--many of the task-force investigators had concluded none of the Tucson men were involved in the Wat Promkunaram murders.

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