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A DEATH IN THE DESERT

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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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin