By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
By Pete Kotz
By Monica Alonzo
By New Times
And that means Skip Buchanan was lying.
On July 15, 2009, Detective Sikes interviewed Buchanan at Phoenix police headquarters downtown.
"I can speak with you," he told Sikes. "I'm not a suspect in any foul play."
Perhaps not technically: But he definitely was what the police like to call a "person of interest."
Buchanan made these claims over the next two hours:
• The uncharged May 2 incident at the apartment had been all Abbott's fault, and no one had gotten hurt.
• He and Abbott had engaged in mutual combat in the past, but not since Buchanan moved to Arizona in 2008.
• The last time he'd seen Abbott was at the apartment on Thursday night, when he went there with Tom Kelly.
On the last point, Buchanan said Abbott had invited him to take the flat-screen TV.
"I said, 'No, I'll get that after you leave,'" Buchanan told the detective. "He said, 'No, take it now.'"
Sikes didn't ask any of the obvious follow-up questions about the TV.
About halfway through the interview, Sikes turned things over to Detective Troy Jacklin.
Buchanan kept insisting to Jacklin that he hadn't gone over to Tom Abbott's place on May 29, the day before he found the body.
He said he had left work early, and "I was probably angry that he was ignoring my phone calls" but thought it best not to visit.
Jacklin told Buchanan that he had listened to the May 29 messages on Abbott's cell phone — those heated voicemails Martha Novorr says she later sent to the police.
(Apparently, the detective was bluffing, or Detective Sikes' statement to a colleague about no voicemails being on Abbott's phone is incorrect. Clearly, Jacklin knew something about the 4:32 p.m. call.)
"How did I sound?" Buchanan asked the detective.
"You [sounded] very angry to me. The voicemail said you were coming over."
Buchanan said, "I never went over to Tom's house on Friday . . . I might not have felt like walking over there."
Buchanan repeatedly asked the detectives whether the medical examiner had determined an exact time of death. It was a weird question, but neither investigator asked him why he cared.
Near the end of the interview, Buchanan asked whether he was under arrest.
No, the detective replied.
In fall 2009, Skip Buchanan's attorney sent a demand letter to MetLife for the money from Tom Abbott's insurance policy.
The firm still balked at paying Buchanan anything because of ongoing questions about Abbott's death.
Buchanan sued MetLife for breach of contract in October 2009. That month, Detective Sikes transferred to the homicide unit, taking the Abbott case with her.
MetLife countersued Skip Buchanan in early 2010, which made Buchanan and Abbott's sister, Elizabeth Viviano (the contingency beneficiary), co-defendants for a time.
MetLife admitted that it owed someone the life-insurance money but would defer to a judge regarding whom, Buchanan or Viviano.
In October 2010, Viviano sued Buchanan in federal court for wrongful death.
"Buchanan had the predisposition, motive, and opportunity to cause Thomas' death," her attorney, Kevin Koebel, wrote. "Buchanan has a history and predisposition to violence. Buchanan killed Thomas."
In response, Buchanan's attorney, Howard Gaines, called the lawsuit "20-odd pages of fiction, fabrication, and malicious innuendo."
But Gaines was wrong. Over the previous year, Abbott's other sister, Martha Novorr, had spent endless hours doing much of the work that police could have and should have done months earlier — dissecting his shaky accounts, tracking down elusive witnesses, analyzing cell-phone records.
She had shared everything with Gabriella Sikes and tells New Times that the detective often expressed optimism that an arrest and prosecution of Buchanan was imminent.
The lawsuits stemming from Tom Abbott's death moved forward as the police investigation stalled.
Last December, county pathologist John Hu, who had performed Abbott's autopsy, agreed to meet with the Abbott camp — for a price.
Dr. Hu accepted a $570 check from Martha Novorr for his presence at the two-hour meeting, held at the county Medical Examiner's Office. (He later allegedly declined to cash another check from Novorr for $1,440.)
Also in attendance were Detective Sikes, Kevin Koebel (the Abbott family's civil lawyer), another attorney, and a medical doctor, the latter two from Dallas.
Hu studied a postmortem photo of Tom Abbott's battered face, which displayed the badly split lip. The other doctor present, Stephen Becker, tells New Times that Hu muttered something to himself.
"He said, 'Oh, I missed that,'" Dr. Becker recalls. "I told him that I come from Kentucky, and we call that a split lip from a blow, not a spontaneous bleed from a liver issue."
On May 9, Hu slightly revised his opinion, writing that "the cause of the hemorrhage is likely due to blunt force trauma from an assault by another person and/or falls," exacerbated by the liver disease.
This was different from what Hu had written in his 2009 report, when he said liver failure primarily had led to the brain bleeds that killed Abbott.
The pathologist wrote his new opinion on his own letterhead, not Maricopa County's, and specifically noted it was meant for the civil case.
Dr. Hu didn't officially change anything, including his frustrating conclusion that the suspected manner of Abbott's death was "undetermined."