Dying For Love
It seemed at first that a sick, elderly woman had died peacefully in her bed after a memorably full life.
When Scottsdale police responded to the home of Katheryn Howard on the early afternoon of June 16, 2000, they got the basics from a close friend of hers named Chuck Pagano. He said the 87-year-old woman suffered from heart disease, and had been despondent over the recent loss of her beloved poodle. Pagano had come by to check up on her, and found her dead.
The next day, Howard's relatives came to town.
"We wanted to take care of what we needed to take care of, that's all," says Howard's great-niece Becky Hebert, a resident of Alexandria, Virginia. "What happened out there blew our minds."
Tucked in one of Howard's closets was her diary, which depicted a relationship with the 57-year-old Pagano far more intense and encompassing than any of them had suspected.
The diary recounted explicit details of her sex life with Pagano, a building contractor who had been her escort for years despite their 30-year difference in age. The family had thought he was a loyal but platonic friend of hers.
To their amazement, the survivors then learned that Pagano stood to profit handsomely from Katheryn Howard's estate, more than $1 million in property and cash.
Becky Hebert called the mortuary just in time to stop Howard's cremation, and requested that the body be taken to the Office of the County Medical Examiner for a belated postmortem examination.
Assistant medical examiner Arch Mosley says he was displeased, downright angry, actually, at the extra work. "I already had a doctor telling me she had a bad heart," Dr. Mosley recalls, "and it wasn't the first family that's ever been suspicious of a death of a loved one. When I see someone who's 87 roll in here, I just want to applaud. Hey! You made it to 87! Good job!'"
That day, the pathologist concluded Howard's demise had been caused by heart failure, and had been "natural."
But extraordinary events would transform the seemingly benign story of Katheryn Howard's passing into one for the ages, and the aged.
On February 21, 2002, Mosley officially reversed his opinion about the manner and cause of Howard's death. The pathologist now believes that Howard had been the victim of homicide, probably by suffocation.
"This is a murder case," he tells New Times. "I was led by my own professional integrity to change my opinion. Someone killed this woman."
If Katheryn Howard's survivors hadn't had time, money and determination to pursue their own investigation into her death, this case would have died as seemingly uneventfully as she had.
But even with Dr. Mosley's change of mind, no one has been charged with murdering the wealthy elderly woman -- yet.
Howard's family remains convinced that Chuck Pagano killed her. They believe he drugged her with Darvon, then smothered her.
Scottsdale police detective Sam Bailey, on whose desk the case landed, declined to discuss Howard's death, saying his work speaks for itself. Others in law enforcement who know of Bailey's reputation say he'd never intentionally do anything to let a murderer evade justice.
But the extensive record generated in the Howard case strongly suggests the detective was more intent on trying to disprove the family's theories of Pagano's alleged guilt than to advance his own investigation.
Pagano has denied any wrongdoing in interviews with police and attorneys. He could not be located for comment for this story. A landlord at his last known address, in Scottsdale, says he moved out months ago.
His alleged motive: money, something he needed desperately.
"Chuck knew he was in Katheryn's will, and she'd been known to change things if she got upset with someone," says another of Howard's great-nieces, Michele Russell, of Dallas. "And she was very upset with him just before she died. This guy was always broke -- though we didn't know that until later -- and Katheryn just wasn't dying. So he took things into his own hands."
Though Katheryn Howard's physical problems escalated as she reached her late 80s, she remained, by all accounts, mentally sharp until the end.
News of her death shocked family members with whom she'd been in regular contact.
"I know everyone has to go sometime, but we expected her to go on and on," says her sister-in-law Billie Mathews, an engaging resident of Dallas who is in her early 80s. "Her life was just so amazing."
Will Rogers, the Ringling Brothers, the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII), Amelia Earhart, Juan and Eva Peron, Jawaharlal Nehru -- "A very special man, deliriously handsome" -- Doris Day (with whom she shared a love of animals), Ron and Nancy Reagan.
According to the autobiography and her relatives, Katheryn Mathews was born into a humble farming family in the rural Hill Country town of Bangs, Texas, on October 8, 1912.
The youngest of Green and Minnie Mathews' 12 children, Howard wrote that she'd learned early "how to saddle and ride a horse." But she also did well academically, graduating high school at 16 as class valedictorian.
When Katheryn was 17, she married Jake McClure, then the reigning world champion calf-roper and all-around cowboy. She traveled the rodeo circuit with her new husband, and later recounted an early 1930s adventure in Arizona with cowboy humorist Will Rogers.
"I'm coming to Prescott to see you rope and meet your bride," the famed Rogers wrote to McClure, sending along a wedding present of $100.
"Well, it will be a pleasure and you'll sure like my girl," McClure responded. "She's like a thoroughbred filly -- high-steppin' and proud, but she wears harness good."
Photos taken at the time show a tall, willowy, regal-looking young woman who surely turned heads at the rodeo and elsewhere.
Jake McClure had put some of his winnings into 50,000 acres of range land in Lovington, New Mexico. The ranch was called Llano Estacado. He died there in July 1940 at the age of 38, when his horse flipped him headfirst onto a rock.
"It seemed incredible that a horse was the cause of Jake's death," Howard wrote. "But horses are unreliable, unpredictable, and I was cautious with every horse that I rode. Never let your guard down' was ever in my mind."
Perhaps with horses, but not, as it turned out much later in her life, with men.
McClure later became one of the first five honorees in the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. And just last year, the ProRodeo Hall of Fame inducted him during a ceremony in Colorado Springs.
Widowed at 28 (she never did have children), Katheryn continued to run the New Mexico ranch for years. In time, she met Frank Kemp, a Denver widower who was president of the mammoth Great Western Sugar Company.
After they married, the new Mrs. Kemp grudgingly sold Llano Estacado and moved to Denver, where she took on a new role as society matron.
One of Denver's most visible socialites in the 1940s and 1950s, Katheryn Kemp often was photographed with one of her dogs, usually a poodle she invariably named Chico or Perdita.
In 1949, the Rocky Mountain News ran photos of Katheryn and three other women on the bottom of its front page. The headline said, "Are These Denver's Prettiest Women?" The consensus of "experts" -- other socialites, actually -- was that Mrs. Frank Kemp was the prettiest.
The Kemps divorced in the 1960s, though they remained close until Frank Kemp died.
Katheryn traveled extensively, to faraway places both exotic (Nepal) and traditional (Europe). All the while, she continued to attract the opposite sex, even though she was nearing her 60th birthday.
"My Aunt Katheryn liked men and they liked her," says Becky Hebert, who was especially close to her great-aunt.
In the late 1960s, Katheryn met Tom Howard, another wealthy widower from Denver. In her autobiography, Katheryn described their seven years together as "sheer delight," highlighted by monthlong trips to Europe every September and a full social life at their homes in Denver and Scottsdale.
Tom Howard died in 1976, and Katheryn sprinkled his ashes at Denver's Hungarian Peace Park, where her survivors later would do the same with her ashes.
"I've had a happy-sad life, but no one can say I haven't lived," her autobiography ended. "Now I live with a precious little dog, near dear and beloved friends, and I'm thankful and grateful for the times I've had."
Though she didn't mention it in her book, Katheryn Howard had a new man in her life, Chuck Pagano.
She had met Pagano when she was 73. He was 43 at the time, then a trim, ruggedly handsome man with a thick mustache and a ready patter.
Pagano hardly was cut from the same success-driven cloth as Katheryn's previous husbands and escorts -- about all this failed businessman could do was to talk a good game.
"We were all pretty naive about the relationship," says Howard's great-nephew Quin Mathews, who owns a Dallas video production firm and teaches at Southern Methodist University. "We just thought it was a good friendship, even with the big age difference. We didn't know until after she died about the sex, the money, really much of anything about the guy himself."
Chuck Pagano was born in Pennsylvania on February 7, 1942. A search of public records in his native state elicited only a mention of his first divorce, in 1979, after 11 years of marriage.
It's uncertain when Pagano moved to Arizona, but his name first appeared in records at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office in 1984, the year his construction company got licensed by the state of Arizona.
The following year, Pagano won a bid to build a home in exclusive Echo Canyon, at the base of Camelback Mountain.
Its owner was Katheryn Howard.
"It was [the start of] a very long and very complex relationship," Pagano told Detective Bailey last September 4, according to a police transcript that is part of a 600-page report in the case. "She fired the architect at the beginning of the project, so she relied on me one-to-one and for every little thing. . . . She being a single lady, needed extra help. So we spent an awful lot of time together."
Pagano remarried in August 1985, to a woman three years younger than him. But that didn't stop him from starting an affair with Howard, according to her diaries and Pagano's interview with Bailey.
It's abundantly clear from her diary entries that Katheryn Howard had fallen hard for the contractor. But she learned in 1988 (from her maid at the time) that she wasn't the only wealthy Scottsdale woman with whom Pagano was having sex. Soon after confronting him and the other woman, Howard left for her second home in Carmel, California, writing in her diary that she never wanted to see Pagano again.
The late 1980s were a particularly tough time financially for Chuck Pagano. Maricopa County court records show numerous judgments and liens against Pagano and his business in the late '80s for unpaid bills. In November 1988, the Arizona Board of Contractors revoked his license.
Things got so bad for Pagano that his wife, Joan, insisted he sign a "post-nuptial" agreement. In that 1989 agreement, Chuck Pagano agreed to keep their bills separate from then on, and allowed Joan Pagano to reassume sole ownership of their central Phoenix home.
It wasn't as if Pagano was committing himself to a monogamous relationship with his wife. According to Howard's diaries, he kept trying to rekindle their connection. She fended him off at first, writing in early 1989 of their relationship: "It's all gone for me."
But Pagano was insistent. He pleaded with Howard in April 1989 to lend him money, which she refused to do at first. That summer, however, she started to allow Pagano to visit her in Carmel -- on her dime -- more than once.
"That man really turns me on," she scribbled in her journal after one visit.
Willingly, Pagano had become a kept man, with a wife on the side.
Though the affair was on again, Howard continued to express profound reservations about Pagano in her diary.
"He's got it made," she wrote after moving back to Scottsdale in the early 1990s. "He comes for dinner and sex with no obligation on his part -- no fun for me. . . . I'd like to end this affair, which has gone on too long."
But she didn't end it.
Though Howard long had enjoyed excellent health, her heart began to fail as she neared her 80th birthday in 1992. That January, she noted in her diary that Pagano had taken her to a hospital after her heart started beating erratically.
The next day, Howard instructed her attorney in a handwritten note to add Pagano as a beneficiary of her estate. He was to receive $100,000 from Howard's estate after she died.
"Such a dear man, and I think the world of him," she wrote in her diary that week.
It's uncertain what Chuck Pagano told his wife about his relationship with Katheryn Howard (he told Sam Bailey last year that Joan hadn't known about the sexual nature of the relationship until after Katheryn died).
What is known is that the lovers took extended trips together over the years, to Europe and around the States, and spent an inordinate amount of time together.
As their relationship endured, Howard included Pagano more and more in her financial plans. That was critical to Pagano, who admitted to Detective Bailey last year, "My business has been up and down all of my career . . ."
Court documents show that by 1996, Pagano had become the primary beneficiary of Katheryn Howard's estate -- which would be valued at $3.4 million before taxes after she died. That May, Howard signed a new will that left Pagano 40 percent of her trust, plus her cars, one of her two Scottsdale condos, and two paintings. And he still was to get her original $100,000 gift in cash.
Also in the mid-1990s, Howard started a joint bank account with Pagano. Each was supposed to fund the account equally, with the survivor -- odds obviously were with Pagano -- getting the money. (There was $102,000 in that account when Howard died, of which records show Pagano had deposited only $3,400.)
Around this time, Howard started paying Pagano $1,200 a month to "manage" her two condos. She did this even though she also was paying a management company to do the same thing.
In May 1997, Howard signed paperwork making Pagano her sole health-care power of attorney.
By then, she had introduced him to several of her closest friends, in Arizona and elsewhere. According to police reports and other sources, those friends considered Pagano a well-mannered, attentive man who treated Howard respectfully.
In July 1998, she made a handwritten addition to her will, saying, "At my final demise (and be sure I'm really dead), I do not want a funeral -- no ceremony, no viewing . . . I do want my remains cremated -- no casket . . .
"The ashes are to be scattered in Denver, Colorado, at Hungarian Freedom Park where my late husband Tom Howard's ashes remain. My dear friend Charles Pagano will direct these proceedings. God bless you all. See you in heaven."
In the months before Katheryn Howard was murdered, her life continued much as it had for some time.
She continued to meet weekly with her longtime bookkeeper Linda Hartrick, played the stock market, kept up with the news (she was a lifelong Republican), went shopping, ate dinners with Pagano and, sometimes, her friends, and doted on her pet poodle, the latest Chico.
Pagano separated from his wife in late 1999, and moved into one of Howard's condos, where his lover was paying him to live. He wasn't staying the night at her home on Ironwood Court as often as he once had, though the pair continued to see each other almost daily.
In the spring of 2000, Pagano began construction on a new bathroom next to the master bedroom in Howard's home. She told several people he'd promised that the project would take just a few weeks.
But months passed, and the end still wasn't in sight. Howard was a creature of habit who liked her world neat and orderly, and the messy construction project distressed her. For one thing, she had to stay in a small guest bedroom as the project sputtered.
"She was just beside herself," Howard's longtime housekeeper, Mary Mollere, later told Detective Bailey. "[On the Memorial Day 2000 weekend] she was just livid, said Chuck deserted her and . . . she was really, really, really upset."
Howard's heart still was troubling her despite having had a pacemaker installed in 1998.
Says Dr. Josef Gerster, who was Howard's treating cardiologist at the time of her death: "Katheryn really wasn't healthy, with her various heart diseases and other problems, and something could have happened any time. It didn't help that she didn't like to take her medication unless she really had to. But when I last saw her [in April 2000], she seemed okay, a happy, wonderful person."
Howard spoke often to Gerster and to her friends about her beloved dog. Her love of the black dog was palpable. She called 5-year-old Chico "my little boy," and he was always nearby, waiting patiently by the pool as Howard swam, watching television with her, or sleeping in her bed.
About a week before she died, Howard phoned Chuck Pagano on his cell phone in the wee hours, telling him she couldn't find Chico.
Pagano later told police he'd found the dog in the pool, drowned. He said he'd taken Chico to a veterinarian for cremation, even though he recalled that Howard had suspected a neighbor of foul play and wanted an autopsy performed.
Howard wrote in her diary that June 8: "Sad with grief over little Chico's death. C [Chuck] came for egg salad dinner. His favorite. He was in better mood. Last night he talked mean to me. Tonight sweet and kind. Very temperamental man."
The next day, however, she made this chilling observation: "He's in better mood, but I know he's tired of this association."
Later that day, Mathews wrote in her own journal (which she showed New Times) that Howard had asked how she and her children were doing financially, then had implored her to visit as soon as possible.
"Don't know why she asked questions," Mathews wrote. "She said she wanted me to come because she was going to make drastic changes in her life. She wanted me to take her to her lawyer's office when I got there."
On June 14, Howard again asked Mathews in a phone conversation to come to Scottsdale to help her make the unspecified changes.
"She didn't use Chuck's name, but who else could it have been about?" Mathews says now. "He was the biggest part of her day-to-day life, though we didn't know how big until after she died. I do know for a fact that she was very, very upset about how Chuck had messed up the construction at her house."
Katheryn Howard's last diary entry was dated June 14, 2000. "I cooked ham hocks and lima beans for [Chuck]. He came at 8:45. I was annoyed. He is killing himself for that darned construction business that doesn't pay him much. Work on my bath still going on. I'm going crazy."
The following day, June 15 -- the last day of Katheryn Howard's life -- her housekeeper has said she overheard Howard "having words" with Pagano on the phone.
"I was in the kitchen, cleaning," Mary Mollere told Detective Bailey last year, "and she was talking to Chuck on the telephone. . . . And she slammed down the phone, and she said, Damn him.' I said, What's the matter? Are you all right?' And she says, I'm about to divorce Chuck.' And she was so angry."
Mollere said it was the only time she ever heard her employer of 10 years cuss.
The detective asked her, "Did she curse much on the phone or cursed after she hung it up?"
"So he wasn't like the brunt of anything on the phone. You were the brunt of it because you heard it after she hung up?"
"Yeah, I heard it."
Chuck Pagano has been consistent in what he's told attorneys, police and Katheryn Howard's survivors about her final hours:
He says he got to her home about 6 p.m. for a scheduled date at the Arizona Country Club, and had been surprised when the usually punctual Howard wasn't ready.
Though she told him she wasn't feeling well, the two decided to go out anyway. Pagano said Howard was wobbly as she tried to get out of the car at the private club, and needed assistance from a valet.
He said they sat near the piano player at the private restaurant, and Howard had told him during the meal that she felt reinvigorated. She proved it, Pagano said, by engaging in banter with the pianist, also a native Texan.
Pagano insisted that Howard drank just one gin martini during the meal, and ate her favorite dish at the restaurant, the chicken and dumplings.
He said he took Howard home after dinner, and she immediately went to bed, exhausted. Pagano decided to spend the night there on a couch just outside her bedroom -- the guest bedroom where she'd been sleeping during the protracted construction project.
He said he'd left for an hour or so. "I went down to the [condo] and got some underwear," he told Detective Bailey, "and brought back a beer from Circle K, I think, and so I probably got to bed by [midnight]."
Pagano said he'd looked in on Howard before going to sleep, then again in the early morning hours before leaving for a job.
Nothing, he repeatedly has said, seemed amiss.
Pagano said he called Howard twice that morning from his cell phone, and left voice messages, telling her he'd be happy to shop for her (New Times has heard those messages, which confirm his account of the calls).
Concerned that she didn't answer, Pagano said, he drove back to her home shortly after noon and let himself in.
Howard, he said, was lying on her back in her bed.
He could see she was dead.
Pagano said he touched Howard's face briefly with his hand, but never moved her body or attempted CPR.
Knowing a call to 911 would be futile, Pagano said he decided to call the office of Howard's cardiologist, Dr. Gerster.
Much later reported that Pagano informed him he was a friend of Howard's who helped her with day-to-day needs. Pagano told him Howard had suffered from heart disease and, Much recounted, "had several spells of blacking out three weeks prior."
The young officer noted (it's unclear if Pagano was his sole source) that Howard was on medications for her heart, for bladder control and for vaginal infections.
Finally, Pagano spoke about Chico's recent drowning, and how that had spun Howard into a depression.
Much noted that a sheet covered Howard up to her neck in the bed, and that her right arm was exposed along the right side of her body.
The officer pulled the sheet off the body and saw that Howard's left arm was bent and lying across her chest. She was wearing a pink, short-sleeved nightgown, which, as it turns out, was on inside out.
Much didn't note anything about Howard's feet hanging off the bed, or that a shower cap was tucked between her left shoulder and the pillow.
But another officer, E. Williams, did see those things (he just saw the right foot off the bed). More important, Williams also noted that Howard had deep, dark-purple bruises on her right wrist, her right outer forearm, and both shins.
Neither officer suspected foul play, though they followed procedure by asking a police photographer to document the scene.
Officer Much phoned Dr. Gerster's office from Howard's home. He spoke with the office nurse, who then contacted Dr. Fuad Ibrahim, another Scottsdale cardiologist who was covering for the vacationing Gerster.
According to Much's report, Dr. Ibrahim -- who wasn't Howard's treating physician -- said he'd sign paperwork to indicate that Howard's demise had been caused by her bad heart. Ibrahim did so later that day, even though he wasn't actually treating Howard.
Howard's body was taken that day directly to a mortuary for cremation, just as she'd requested in her will.
Katheryn Howard's survivors flew to Arizona after they learned of her death, coming in from Virginia and Texas.
Howard's great-nieces, Becky Hebert and Michele Russell, went to the Messenger Mortuary on the afternoon after they arrived.
Russell says she immediately noticed the ugly purple contusion on Howard's right arm.
"I didn't have any great suspicions at that moment," says Russell. "We just wondered where in God's name she had gotten such a nasty bruise."
That night, Howard's family took Chuck Pagano to dinner in Scottsdale. Howard's great-nephew Quin Mathews says Pagano spoke of her last hours in a manner he describes as strangely detached and almost rehearsed.
"Even then," he says, "I thanked him there for being such a good friend to Katheryn and how much that we as a family appreciated him."
Despite the compliments, Mathews and the other family members who had flown in (Becky Hebert and her husband David, Michele Russell, and Billie Mathews) had harbored deepening suspicions about Pagano since soon after their arrival.
It started after they noticed that valuable items seemed to be missing from Howard's home, including a prized sculpture of a bull that had sat prominently on a living-room mantel for years. Pagano told family members separately that he didn't know where the bull or any of the other items were, but his accounts seemed inconsistent when they compared notes.
Then they found Howard's diary, the explicit contents of which collectively had bowled them over.
On June 19, 2000, came another shocker.
An attorney announced at the reading of Howard's will at her home that day that Chuck Pagano stood to collect about $750,000 as her estate's top beneficiary, plus another $300,000 or so in cash and property.
None of Howard's next of kin were desperate for money. Each describes himself or herself as "comfortable," "fortunate," "blessed."
But what they heard startled them.
(Among her other gifts, Howard left $25,000 to her bookkeeper and $20,000 to her housekeeper, as well as $515,000 to the Colorado Academy -- a private school in Denver -- and $51,000 each to four charities, including the Arizona Humane Society.)
David Hebert phoned Officer Much on June 20. Much wrote in a report, "David advised that he believed that there were a few suspicious details about the death."
The officer met with the family at Katheryn Howard's home that afternoon.
They told him about the recent spat on the phone between Howard and Pagano that the housekeeper said she'd overheard, and about the apparently missing valuables. Finally, of course, they discussed Pagano's excessively large inheritance.
Becky Hebert told Much that she'd already asked the mortuary not to cremate her great-aunt. Much agreed to complete a so-called "yellow tag," which would expedite the process of having Howard's body taken to the county's Forensic Science Center for a postmortem examination.
After about a week in Arizona, Katheryn Howard's survivors returned to their respective homes and jobs. But they didn't forget their loved one.
In the months that followed, they found themselves in unanticipated roles of amateur sleuths.
One unfortunate fact of life (and death) in large urban areas such as Phoenix, say experts both familiar and unfamiliar with Katheryn Howard's death, is this:
It's relatively easy to get away with murdering an elderly person. All a killer has to do is be careful not to leave obvious signs of blunt-force trauma, or have a track record of violence toward the victim.
And even when there is evidence of deep bruising, as assistant county medical examiner Arch Mosley saw immediately when he performed his postmortem of Katheryn Howard's body, there's still no guarantee that a full-fledged autopsy will follow.
The reasons for this are universal -- lack of funding and personnel.
Though the Maricopa County Medical Examiner processes more than 4,000 bodies a year, only about 60 percent actually are autopsied. Elderly folks who don't show signs of external trauma generally are not candidates for full-scale examinations, here or elsewhere.
The body of a dead person is like an encyclopedia of information and knowledge, and it can tell a world of stories to those who can "read" it properly.
But locally and elsewhere, according to four pathologists interviewed for this story, the elderly usually are not autopsied, nor is their blood tested for toxic substances, unless they have an unexplained injury or someone presents relevant information about their physical condition in the days before death.
"Bodies come to me frozen in time," Dr. Mosley says. "Unless someone tells me something, I won't know what a person was like the day before he or she died, or the day before that. That's what happened in this case, other than I knew that Katheryn Howard had a heart condition."
Still, Mosley's postmortem report indicates he'd observed things during his external examination that concerned him -- especially the presence of tiny hemorrhages under her lower eyelids. Called petechiae, the pinpoint hemorrhages -- which look like white dots -- often are telltale signs of death by suffocation or strangulation.
The presence of the hemorrhages had forced Mosley to do a full autopsy of Howard. Later in that procedure, he carefully dissected the muscles of her neck, but found no signs of strangulation.
The pathologist says he felt compelled to discuss the pinpoint hemorrhages in his report. At the time, he attributed the "dots" to eye caps that funeral officials had put into place in preparation for the cremation.
Mosley's external exam also had revealed deep purple bruises on Howard's right wrist, shins and other locations. He also had noted small red marks on her chin.
"Older people bruise easily," he tells New Times, "and that didn't strike me as that unusual. I just didn't have anything to go on about her recent history, and I had a cardiologist -- I thought it was her own doctor, not a fill-in -- telling me she had died of heart failure. That was golden to me at the time."
Mosley had taken blood from various parts of Howard's body, and sent it to the county's toxicological lab for testing. He then released the body back to the mortuary for cremation.
That day, June 21, 2000, the pathologist signed a death certificate that officially attributed the woman's death to heart failure. Like the on-call cardiologist, Dr. Ibrahim, he, too, called her demise "natural."
Weeks later, the results of the blood tests got back to Mosley, and they were very interesting: Katheryn Howard had Darvon in her blood when she died, and no one knew how or why it had gotten there.
Howard didn't have a prescription for the Darvon, and her aversion to taking medicine of any kind made its presence in her body a mystery.
The amount of the prescription painkiller probably hadn't been enough to kill Howard outright. But Darvon is known as a potentially dangerous drug for elderly people, especially those with heart conditions.
Howard's family and her cardiologist agree that Howard wouldn't have used Darvon without doctor's orders. And police hadn't found the drug at her home after she died.
The cardiologist, Dr. Josef Gerster, says he never would have signed a Darvon prescription for Howard: "No way. Impossible. No doctor that I know would prescribe Darvon to someone with Katheryn's medical condition. Very dangerous."
Darvon works as a sedative, and its effects greatly intensify with alcohol. Though Chuck Pagano would insist that Howard had drunk just one gin martini at the country club in her final hours, a restaurant receipt shows the couple ordered two gin martinis and two margaritas.
That's important, because experts say the amount of alcohol Howard drank in tandem with the Darvon surely would have had a significant effect on her physically and mentally.
The Howard family wouldn't learn about the Darvon for months after the testing was completed. They (and others who are considered experts in forensic investigation) would come to believe that Pagano secretly had dosed Howard with the Darvon -- either to weaken her or outright kill her -- then had suffocated her.
The revelation about the Darvon solidified their commitment to keeping Chuck Pagano from profiting any more from Katheryn Howard's estate.
Pagano already had gotten $100,000 in cash, the Cadillac, the condo, paintings, and about $40,000 of the $100,000 account he'd shared with Howard. Her survivors hired a Phoenix attorney in late 2000, hoping to keep Pagano from getting the pending $750,000.
In late 2000, Becky Hebert also contacted a retired Virginia police detective named Joe Soos. "I saw this article in the Washington Post about a guy who investigates crimes against older people," she says. "It sounded just like he was talking about Katheryn."
Nicknamed "The Bear," Soos is a curmudgeonly gentleman who has a deep compassion for older adults and their vulnerabilities. He lectures around the nation about what he calls "Gray Murders -- Undetected Homicides of the Elderly."
Soos agreed to take a look at the Arizona case from afar. A few months ago, he summarized his thoughts about it in an e-mail:
"Complicated case? Nope. It's actually very simple. Katheryn was given Darvon in an attempt to debilitate or kill her. No one else could have given it to her but Chuck. Katheryn was subsequently asphyxiated. No other viable suspect could have done it except Chuck. By his own statements, Chuck was the only person with her during that time period. He is the only reasonable suspect based on motive, means and opportunity."
In early 2001, the Howard family's attorney wrote to Scottsdale police expressing their concerns about Chuck Pagano.
Police reports show Scottsdale detectives Sam Bailey and Jeff Lorzel were assigned to the case.
A few months later, in June 2001, four of Katheryn Howard's survivors accused Pagano in a Maricopa County Superior Court lawsuit of having "feloniously and intentionally" killed her.
The point of the suit was to keep Pagano from collecting any more money from Howard's estate.
Pagano's lawyer ridiculed the suit in court papers, calling it "frivolous." And, at first blush, it did seem like a waste of time and money.
For starters, when the survivors filed the suit, Arch Mosley, although he was beginning to believe Katheryn Howard had been killed, still listed her death as heart failure. It would be months before he would announce that, in his revised opinion, she had been murdered.
Detective Bailey's reports suggest that he wasn't enamored of the new assignment. For example, he met in the spring of 2001 with Mosley and the county's chief toxicologist, Norman Wade.
Bailey's report says Wade informed him that the amount of Darvon in Howard's body had been insignificant, barely detectable.
But Wade tells New Times that that's not what he told Bailey.
"Sam Bailey is a nice guy and a good detective, but he took what you're reading me from his [June 27, 2001] report way out of context," says Wade, who's been in the toxicology business for three decades. "I'm sure I told him you really can't explain the toxicity of [Darvon], that I've had cases of people taking it at therapeutic levels who were in serious jeopardy. I told him we just don't know what therapeutic is in an 87-year-old woman."
Even if Bailey had related Wade's comments accurately, he had missed an essential and seemingly obvious point: There should not have been Darvon in Katheryn Howard's body.
Still, Sam Bailey shut down his mini-investigation -- exactly two weeks after Katheryn Howard's survivors accused Chuck Pagano in civil court of murder -- saying that the medical examiner had not come up with anything that warranted spending more police resources on the case.
Even though the police had folded their tent, Katheryn Howard's survivors were just gearing up for battle on the civil front.
In the summer of 2001, they hired a who's who of medical experts -- pathologists and toxicologists with excellent national reputations -- to analyze the case.
"We wanted the truth, not yes-people," she says. "Yes, we had become convinced that Chuck had killed Katheryn. But we wanted to ascertain facts."
The experts included:
Dr. Jerry Spencer -- former chief medical examiner for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, and now Lubbock (Texas) County's chief medical examiner.
Dr. Ashraf Mozayani -- laboratory director and chief toxicologist for the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office, in Houston.
Dr. Al Poklis -- former chair of the toxicology section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and now a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"This is a fascinating case that grew more and more suspicious as new information came to light," Spencer, one of the nation's most renowned pathologists, tells New Times.
Spencer says he studied the Howard crime scene and autopsy photos, scanned the toxicological test results, and analyzed Mosley's first postmortem report.
Spencer says the bruising and marks would be "extremely suspicious" if authorities could confirm -- which they later did with Katheryn Howard's housekeeper -- that no one had seen those injuries around the time of her death.
Spencer's examination of the crime-scene photos also led him to conclude that someone "very likely" had moved Howard's body after she died.
He says photos taken of the body in her bed show that some pooling areas of her blood -- called lividity -- are inconsistent with how Scottsdale police first saw her on June 16, 2000.
After a person dies, gravity pulls the "loose" blood to the lowest part of the body. If, say, that person dies on his or her back, bluish-purple stains will start to appear there after a few hours.
In Howard's case, the death-scene photos distinctly show lividity on top of her left arm -- which is resting across her body -- instead of under that arm.
"That the body was moved is not a difficult call," Spencer says. "Clearly, Dr. Mosley didn't have the advantage of being at the scene or seeing crime-scene photos before he issued his opinion. I can see how he came up with his first opinion. . . . You have to go with what's in front of you at the time."
Dr. Ashraf Mozayani, an oft-published author from Houston, analyzed the test results of Katheryn Howard's blood.
"Darvon was like cyanide to this person," she tells New Times. "With her condition, it was one of the worst things she could have had. At the very least, it was debilitating her. You can kill someone with a little or a lot. This woman was being poisoned."
The pressure on Chuck Pagano built as the family started to disclose in the civil suit what their experts were saying.
In late 2001, Pagano suddenly agreed to relinquish his rights to the estate's remaining $750,000. He quit the legal fight even though Katheryn Howard's death still was listed as "natural" and the Scottsdale police had stopped investigating the case.
That money later was split among the other beneficiaries, all but two of whom are family members (the other two are an elderly Denver couple), and, of course, the attorneys who had litigated the civil case against Chuck Pagano.
The out-of-court settlement ended that case. But Pagano was terribly wrong if he believed that running from the rest of the money would mean the end of his worries.
"Things can change as new facts and evidence are gathered," says Dr. Spencer. "It does happen. That's usually when the police can get very motivated. I'm not exactly sure what was happening out there in Arizona."
Arch Mosley says he'd known for months that he officially was going to change his opinion on how Katheryn Howard died.
He finally issued his bombshell report on February 21, 2002.
"An avalanche of circumstantial evidence made me rethink my earlier opinion," he says now. "It was very apparent to me that I'd made mistakes in my original examination, and that I had to correct them."
The "avalanche" included finding Darvon in Howard's blood.
"She was reported to have no prescriptions for this drug and a strong aversion to taking medications," Mosley wrote. "Surrepticious [sic] narcotic consumption is particularly suspicious in this case."
He said no one apparently had noticed the very visible bruises on Howard before she was murdered, which led him to conclude that they may have been caused by a "violent struggle" with someone at the time of her demise.
Mosley also backed off his "eye cap" theory of the pinpoint hemorrhages he'd found in Howard's eyes, writing that "after consultation with my colleagues, I now believe that this is not a possibility."
He added that "[The hemorrhages] in a body that also has unexplained bruises are most likely the result of strangulation and/or suffocation. It is more likely that the [little dots] are the result of suffocation."
Mosley tells New Times that his earlier analysis was "asinine and embarrassing. Those little hemorrhages just aren't caused postmortem, and I just should have known better. I was wrong."
The doctor says he personally contacted Becky Hebert in Virginia to tell her that he'd changed his mind.
"He told me to sit down, that he had some news for me," Hebert recalls. "I had no idea it was coming and I was absolutely amazed."
Mosley's amended opinion meant Scottsdale police had to reopen their own "investigation," which Sam Bailey abruptly had ended months earlier.
Bailey's reports indicate that deputy county attorney Noel Levy instructed him to try to interview key players in the case, especially Chuck Pagano, who still was living in Scottsdale.
Katheryn Howard's family also made the findings in their civil suit against Chuck Pagano available to Bailey. Unsolicited, Joe Soos sent Bailey his own analysis of the case, and made suggestions about how Bailey might bring Pagano to justice.
On August 27, 2002, Bailey interviewed Howard's housekeeper, Mary Mollere, for the first time. In response to a question from the detective, Mollere was adamant she hadn't seen any bruises on Howard in the days before the elderly woman died in June 2000.
"She had no bruises," she told Bailey, according to a written transcript of the interview. "She had good skin. She took very good care of her skin. And I've been an Avon representative for 27 years, and for as old in age as she was, she had the skin of a 60-year-old or lower."
Mollere said she'd seen photographs of Howard's body taken at the crime scene, and "there were a couple of things that weren't quite right."
"Yeah, there were some signs of some bruising and so forth on her arms, her legs . . . ," Bailey interrupted her.
"And she had no bruises [before]," Mollere told him.
This was an excellent piece of information, and one that readily could have been corroborated. But the detective never did interview the valet, waiter, or piano player at the Arizona Country Club, all of whom had interacted closely with Katheryn Howard during her final hours.
Those witnesses could have been very informative in helping Bailey to determine conclusively if anyone had seen the bad bruise on her right wrist or the more subtle red marks on her chin.
On September 3, 2002, Bailey interviewed Joan Pagano at police headquarters. (Pagano left a voice message for New Times last week, claiming that parts of a transcript of that interview -- which the paper had provided to her through her attorney -- were inaccurate. However, she didn't specify which parts, and said she didn't wish to discuss the case or her ex-husband -- "He stole 17 years of my life," she said.)
According to the transcript, Joan Pagano told Bailey she'd allowed her husband to move back in with her after Howard died, but the reunion hadn't lasted long.
Court records show she had filed for divorce just a few days before the interview. Joan told the detective she'd recently discovered that Chuck was having affairs with several Scottsdale women of indeterminate age. (Their divorce was final last February.)
Bailey asked Joan if Chuck had known for sure that he was a beneficiary of the Katheryn Howard Trust.
"He knew he was in her Trust."
"And how did we know that he knew?"
"Because she would tell him."
"And would he tell you?"
"Yes, he told me a couple times."
Joan claimed she'd heard her husband tell an attorney after Howard died that he'd been worried about a possible change in the will.
"I recall [Chuck] saying she was older and very sickly, and I don't think it [the will change] was really going to happen, but he was very nervous about it. . . . I never personally queried him about that."
"But [Howard] never came out in so many words and told anybody in the family," Bailey countered, sounding more like a defense lawyer than a cop.
Joan Pagano then made a curious admission about something she'd told her husband soon after Katheryn Howard died.
"I said, Chuck, while you're back there [at Howard's home], she probably had diaries, I'd get the diaries.' He says, Oh, no, they were just little books.' I said, If I were you, I'd get the diaries. They probably tell a lot of things.'"
Joan said Chuck often bought prescription drugs in Mexico, though she didn't know if he'd ever purchased Darvon there. She volunteered that she had Darvon in her home, but claimed Chuck "wouldn't know where I have it, unless . . ."
The detective never asked unless what?
Instead, he jumped to a big-picture question.
"Do you think he would have had any motive to harm Katheryn?" Bailey asked Joan. "Or could you picture him harming her?"
"Do I have to answer that?" she replied.
The detective didn't reply.
The day after he interviewed Joan, Sam Bailey had the opportunity to interview the only suspect in the murder case -- without attorneys present.
After a feeling-out period, Bailey asked Chuck Pagano if he'd known what Katheryn Howard had left him in her will.
"I didn't know anything about the Trust," Pagano replied, which was the opposite of what his wife had said the previous day.
"I knew that [Howard] was going to give me the car, and I knew that the joint account was mine, and that there may be some cash and the condo. . . . She never discussed the Trust with me in any detail."
"You had some idea, obviously, how wealthy she was?" Bailey asked.
"But I didn't know how wealthy," Pagano replied. "I knew she was wealthy, yes."
(In an earlier interview, the detective had asked Howard's bookkeeper, Linda Hartrick, if she believed Pagano would have known how "well off [Howard] was financially." Hartrick had replied, "He had to have known. You don't have property in Carmel, you didn't have property on Mummy Mountain, Echo Canyon, and you didn't have a $350,000, $400,000 house, plus buying a new Cadillac or Oldsmobile just because she liked the color of it every couple, three thousand miles, you know?")
Pagano said he'd read Howard's diaries while the civil suit against him was ongoing.
"I presume you read the diary?" he asked Bailey.
"Yeah," the detective answered. "I mean, I got other things than go through 10 years' worth of frickin' diaries."
Bailey asked a few questions about the puzzling drowning death of Chico the poodle.
"I know that they think that I killed the dog," Pagano replied, referring to Howard's survivors. "[They think] Don't you think it's a coincidence that Chuck was there and the dog died, and Katheryn died a couple days after?' I mean, when they told me that, I go, Holy mackerel,' you know."
He then asked the detective a direct question.
"Where do I stand?"
Bailey spent minutes answering, going into details that tipped Pagano to the direction the detective was taking the case -- nowhere.
He pointed out that the medical examiner had reclassified Howard's death "as a homicide and death due to asphyxiation. And obviously we don't believe that she asphyxiated herself. What the bottom line is that somebody is looking at a homicide or a murder, and somebody has to have caused that. Who the hell caused it . . . is what's been dropped in my lap, where do we go from here?"
As much as the detective blabbed, he inexplicably never asked Chuck Pagano what he'd asked the housekeeper -- whether Pagano had seen the bruises on Howard's body in the last hours and minutes of her life.
Whatever Pagano's answer had been would have been enormously important to the murder investigation.
Instead, Bailey seems to have bought Chuck Pagano's claims about having no idea he stood to reap a small fortune from Howard's death.
"Pagano only was aware of the amount of their joint account," the detective wrote in a report, "but it is totally uncertain what he knew concerning specifics of the Howard Trust."
Whether Pagano knew the exact sum coming to him matters little, investigator Joe Soos told New Times in a recent e-mail:
"It's like a bank robber who doesn't know exactly how much he's going to collect from a heist. He just knows he needs the money and he's going to make a bunch. What you had here was a detective whose heart wasn't in it and whose interview techniques were extremely poor. Bad combination."
In police reports completed last fall, Detective Bailey made it clear he'd again concluded he couldn't make a case against Chuck Pagano.
Last October 18, Bailey took about 45 minutes to present what he had to a committee of senior Maricopa County prosecutors. He was assisted by deputy county attorney Noel Levy, a veteran of dozens of murder prosecutions.
"We determined there was no reasonable likelihood for conviction based on the investigation that Scottsdale presented to us," says Bill FitzGerald, a spokesperson for County Attorney Rick Romley's office. "As you know, there is no statute of limitations in murder cases."
FitzGerald refused to allow Levy to be interviewed for this story about the nature of Bailey's presentation.
Katheryn Howard's survivors say they haven't given up hope that justice will be done in her case. To them, that would mean a successful prosecution of Chuck Pagano for first-degree murder.
"We loved our aunt very much," says Becky Hebert, "and what this guy did to her was so wrong, so evil."
In February, Dr. Mozayani -- the Texas toxicologist -- and Joe Soos will present their take on the Howard case at the prestigious American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual conference in Dallas. They've called their presentation "The Unnatural Death of Katheryn Howard."
Dr. Arch Mosley hopes to attend the conference.
"This case changed everything about how I deal with the elderly," the pathologist says, emphasizing the word "everything."
"I don't get a senior citizen in here with bruises anymore without demanding a satisfactory explanation from someone. Let's put it this way: I don't get the body of an elderly person in front of me without thinking about Katheryn Howard."
E-mail email@example.com, or call 602-229-8433.
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.
- Democratic "Dark Money" Group Finally Registers With Arizona
Thu., Dec. 10, 6:25pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
- ASU Writing Instructor Describes Her Cannabis "Overdose"
- Arizona Man Tries to Pick Up Girlfriend From Jail in Stolen Truck, Becomes Meme Fodder