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A DEATH IN THE DESERT

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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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin