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."
Howard wrote a mini-autobiography in the late 1980s, dropping the names of friends and acquaintances that reads like a Hall of Fame of 20th-century icons.