A DEATH IN THE DESERT
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."
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.
"My immediate concern was him," Wolff says. "I didn't look at the gun. I should have looked to see whether anybody else was around."
Bill Grant did just that. After running to his fallen partner and feeling in vain for a pulse, Grant's police training took over. He drew his gun. "I felt like I was the only one really looking for a bad guy," he recalls.
The chief did another odd thing. Although he contacted the Pima County Sheriff's Office--routine in officer shootings--he apparently didn't want to make a big deal out of it. Sheriff's detective John Sanders remembers, "I overheard Chief Wolff say, `Well, all we need is one homicide detective,' which to us was very strange. Which means for some reason it wasn't unknown what had happened, or wasn't that important for whatever reason."
By the time Sanders showed up in Oro Valley--after Gravell had been taken away by paramedics--the cops on the scene had made several mistakes, perhaps following Wolff's lead in treating the death as a suicide:
Officer Ed Holdinsky grabbed Gravell's gun and moved it several feet from its original spot. Because of this, no one knows for certain exactly where Gravell's gun was in relation to his body. Holdinsky moved the gun, he wrote in a police report, "so it would not be kicked or moved around or dislocated from its original position." Holdinsky's mistake became even more glaring when an analysis of the weapon turned up only one identifiable fingerprint--Ed Holdinsky's.
At about the time Holdinsky was moving Gravell's gun, Oro Valley officer Joe Corona moved Gravell's portable radio from near the body to a curb. Corona's fingerprint was the only one identifiable on the radio, another mystery. Someone else apparently took Gravell's sunglasses from his face and placed them on his car.
Minutes after Gravell's body was taken away, a group of tourists from a nearby resort hotel trampled through the unbarricaded crime scene on horseback.
Within an hour after Gravell's death, police had already interviewed the people he'd seen that morning.
"He seemed better today than he had been," Oro Valley court clerk Joan Harphant told investigators. "It looked like he had some sparkle in his eye."
Another court clerk, Dottie Tucker, noticed Gravell had been a bit wobbly on his feet. But she also said the detective hadn't seemed unduly depressed.
Local magistrate Royal Bouscher, however, had seen things far differently. "I saw in Bill's eyes defeat," he told police. "I think Bill was a trifle weepy. He was not the same positive Bill Gravell that he's always been in the past."
SENIOR U.S. BORDER patrol agent Dave Lewis arrived at the death scene a half hour after Gravell called for help. He wanted to start tracking immediately, but sheriff's investigators asked him to wait until they processed the crime scene. That request seems absurd in light of the moved evidence and the tourists on horseback, but Lewis obeyed. While he waited, the tracking expert and author of the agency's manual on tracking overheard investigators speaking of Gravell's death as a suicide.
He said later there was more than enough lag time between the shooting and the arrival of police helicopters for a suspect to have been long gone. Finally, Lewis got the go-ahead to start tracking.
The first thing he did was to walk directly in front of Gravell's car. Police procedure says to keep a suspect in front of you during a stop. Lewis discovered small amounts of blood spattered in front of the car. A sheriff's detective said paramedics had carried Bill Gravell on a gurney to an ambulance in that direction. But Lewis' 25 years of experience in law enforcement told him this blood hadn't dripped off a stretcher. It was from a gunshot.
Lewis continued to walk in a line away from Gravell's car. He soon found distinct tracks in the dirt, about 25 feet in front of the car and about ten feet beyond the end of the pavement. The tracks indicated that someone had been walking away from the car toward a six-foot wall. That person had pivoted suddenly on his heel, Lewis said, before he got to the wall.
Much later, after seeing photographs of the distinctive pull-on shoes that Bill Gravell had been wearing, Lewis testified Gravell had been the one who had whirled around. On the other side of the wall was a pile of human feces and a dirty rag that someone had wiped himself with. Lewis later determined that the feces could not have been more than four hours old when he'd examined it. Could Gravell have relieved himself behind the wall moments before he killed himself?
But the pivoting footprint indicates he never made it to the wall. And, his wife says, Bill was an extremely fastidious person. She says she cannot imagine his doing something like that.
An attorney later asked Dave Lewis during Kathy Gravell's Industrial Commission hearing if there was enough evidence for him to conclude that someone besides Bill had been at the death scene.
"There was somebody else at the area, within an hour or two," Lewis testified. "Absolutely."
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.
However, the wounds caused by this sad affair still fester in her and in many at the Oro Valley Police Department. "I don't know if it was suicide or murder," says one officer. "We'll never know, will we? It's time to move on."
Kathy Gravell understands that sentiment. But she adds, "I have to do what I have to do." That means she'll be front and center next Tuesday when the Arizona Memorial Board considers what in the world to do with the strange case of Bill Gravell.
Moments before he died, Gravell radioed in for emergency assistance from a secluded parking lot near a trailhead in the Coronado National Forest.
Pima County sheriff's investigators had bungled the Gravell case badly enough to cloud many crucial details, probably forever. "I knew Bill for a long, long time, and my whole basis from the start was that he couldn't do it, he couldn't kill himself."
His hair fell out and he became a ghostly figure. The couple spoke of renewing their marriage vows in a ceremony a few weeks down the road. To Chief Wolff, Bill Gravell's death wasn't an unsolved mystery. It was suicide.
He requested backup in a disturbed, clearly frightened tone of voice. "Assist officer, assist officer. I need help!"
Minutes after Gravell's body was taken away, a group of tourists from a nearby resort hotel trampled through the crime scene on horseback.
"She said, `He just shot and killed a cop. Whatever you do, don't talk to anybody and don't tell anybody.'
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.