News

A DEATH IN THE DESERT

Page 2 of 5

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."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin