NOT CARVED IN STONEARIZONA'S MEMORIAL BOARD FIGHTS OVER WHETHER TO HONOR A DEAD COP
Kathy Gravell woke up last week in the Motel 6 on East Van Buren Street. She put on a pretty flowered dress and drove her red Toyota a few miles west to the Attorney General's Office. Kathy admitted she was a nervous wreck.
"I want to put this thing behind me, but they just won't let me," she said.
Kathy was in town for a meeting of the Arizona Peace Officers' Memorial Board. Her mission? To convince the panel of cops and citizens--chaired by Attorney General Grant Woods--to put her late husband Bill's name on a statue listing Arizona cops "killed in the line of duty."
She knew it wouldn't be an easy task, but she steeled herself as she sat down in the front row.
Kathy, 49, lives in a small town in Colorado, where she has been working as a secretary at a mental-health center. Until March 28, 1989, she had been a cop's wife for much of her adult life--and had worked in law enforcement herself as a records clerk at various police agencies around the Southwest.
Everything changed, however, on that foggy March day in the town of Oro Valley, a few miles north of Tucson. (See New Times, June 12.) Her husband, Bill, a detective with the Oro Valley Police Department and a cop for a quarter-century, called for emergency assistance on his police radio from a fairly remote location outside the town of 5,000.
"Number one male appears to be an illegal alien," Gravell said over the radio. He added in an apparent panic a few seconds later, "Assist officer, assist officer. I need help!"
By the time help arrived five minutes later, Gravell was lying dead on the pavement outside his unmarked police car. An autopsy later revealed that two bullets from Gravell's own .38-caliber semiautomatic had been fired into his heart from close range. Multiple-shot suicides are rare, the county coroner said, but not unheard of. Investigators concluded that Gravell had killed himself. A county medical examiner agreed. Bill Gravell, they speculated, had tired of his yearlong fight with lung cancer and had shot himself twice in the chest in an effort to make it look like murder--leaving his wife eligible for death benefits.
The Arizona State Compensation Fund turned down Kathy Gravell because her husband's death had not been "job-related." She appealed, and a Tucson administrative law judge ruled last year that sheriff's investigators had bungled the case and had ignored some possibly concrete leads. Judge Peter Baum didn't call it murder, but he said Gravell's death was "an inexplicable and perplexing act" in awarding Kathy Gravell the financial benefits she previously had been denied.
This ruling was an unexpected blow to the reputation of the Pima County Sheriff's Office--whose homicide investigators, incidentally, generally receive high marks for their abilities.
Then, a few months ago, the Department of Justice awarded Kathy $103,890 through a program to aid families of slain officers. And the national Fraternal Order of Police allowed Bill Gravell's name to be placed on an honor roll in Washington, D.C. In May, Kathy attended a service at the Washington Monument at which Bill Gravell and 152 other deceased cops were honored for having died "in the line of duty."
That was the backdrop for what proved to be a highly charged, often emotional meeting at the Attorney General's Office. It was one thing for someone in Washington, D.C., or a judge in Tucson to rule in Bill and Kathy Gravell's favor. But a majority of the Arizona Memorial Board is connected to local law enforcement--a vote to honor Bill Gravell could be perceived as a direct slap at those who investigated his mysterious death.
Only six of the nine voting board members showed up for the session. Three were cops or retired cops.
Pima County sheriff's sergeant Tom Petropolous argued passionately that the evidence clearly indicated a suicide. Kathy's lawyer, Michael Moeller, countered, "Bill Gravell may have committed suicide, he may have. I don't know if we'll ever know the answer or not."
Kathy Gravell stepped to the podium. Her whole body seemed to shake beneath that colorful dress as she struggled to get the words out. "Try to look into your own hearts," she told the board. "You probably all have a picture in your wallet or on your desk of your wife or husband or your child. Try to think of that person that you love suddenly and violently dead. There are absolutely no words to tell you how painful it is--a pain that doesn't go away. Let me start my healing."
Tucson police officer Rusty Carstens--the outgoing president of the state's Fraternal Order of Police--fired back, "I have talked to members of the Oro Valley Police Department and the sheriff's department, and none of them has ever spoken badly of Mr. Gravell. They had the utmost respect for him. However, they do not feel that his name should go on the memorial."
"Where are they?" Kathy's lawyer shouted from the audience.
Said former DPS lieutenant Ron Young, his voice as chilly as the air conditioning in the attorney general's hearing room, "I have heard nothing here today that would cause me to change my original vote." That was a resounding "no" to Kathy Gravell's request to honor her late husband.
Few in the room expected Joe Easton to disagree with that. Easton, a special assistant with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, is a bureaucrat who doesn't rock the law-enforcement boat. But this time, Easton voted his conscience.
"I have to ask myself what is right and just in this particular case," Easton said. "The element of doubt would be substantial. There is a grave question in my mind as to whether Officer Gravell actually killed himself or was killed. If I'm to make an error, I would prefer to err to Mr. Gravell."
Grant Woods spoke up. As a politician, he's supposed to handle delicate situations such as these with aplomb. He did his job very well.
"The way I understand this memorial is that it's most meaningful to the families of fallen police officers," Woods said. "There are substantial doubts here. We're not here to make a final conclusion if this was a suicide or a homicide. We're here to make a decision as to whether this matter ends for this family and maybe the healing process can begin." Woods concluded by quoting a line from a play titled, I Never Sang for My Father: "`Death ends a life, but does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the mind of the survivor, searching for a resolution they may never find.' That's probably what the last several years have been for this family."
It was time to vote. Three--Woods, Easton, and Cyndi Calender, from the Arizona Fraternal Order of Police Auxiliary--voted to put Bill Gravell's name on the memorial. Three--Carstens from Tucson, Ron Young, and DPS Major Deston Coleman, subbing for DPS director Rick Ayars--voted no.
Woods looked down at a sobbing Kathy Gravell. He promised he'd convene a meeting of the full board within a month to resolve the sticky matter once and for all.
"I'm sorry the family has to have this drawn out even longer," Woods said.
None of the cops who voted against Bill Gravell approached Kathy during the recess. They quickly left the room.
Kathy Gravell spent the night in Tucson with a friend--the widow of a federal agent whose name does appear on the Arizona honor roll of those "killed in the line of duty." Then Kathy drove back to Colorado in her little Toyota.
"I'll be back to see this through," she said. "I'll always be back."
A vote to honor Bill Gravell could be perceived as a direct slap at those who investigated his mysterious death.
"Bill Gravell may have committed suicide, he may have. I don't know if we'll ever know the answer or not."
"Try to think of that person that you love suddenly and violently dead.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.