Investigations Into Thomas Abbott's Brutal Death Were Botched by Phoenix Police; His Family's Convinced It's Because He Was Gay

The scene inside unit 313 at the Biltmore Terrace Apartments in Phoenix was gruesome.

A man's naked, bloated body was on the floor next to a bed.

He was on his back, and his badly bruised arms were frozen in front of his head. A substantial amount of blood from the man's nose and mouth had dried on the lower part of his purple face.

His body was bruised from head to toe. His lower lip was split open, though this was hard to see at first because of all the blood.

The ground-floor apartment was practically bare of furniture and other belongings, because the dead man had planned to leave for Dallas and a new life that day, May 30, 2009.

His name was Thomas Abbott, and he was a much-loved 48-year-old travel agent for American Express' high-end cardholders. He had been renting the apartment at 5110 North 31st Way since moving to Phoenix for the job about four years earlier.

Phoenix police responded to a 911 call at 6:30 p.m. and met with the man who found the body, Franklin "Skip" Buchanan.

Buchanan told them that he was an ex-roommate of Abbott's. He said he'd come by with another friend because Abbott wasn't answering his phone and let himself in through an unlocked sliding-glass door.

Abbott had suffered for years from liver failure and diabetes, Buchanan said, and recently started drinking alcohol again. It was all very unfortunate.

But Skip Buchanan didn't tell the cops he was the reason Abbott was planning to leave town, and that Abbott was frightened to death of him.

Abbott and Buchanan had been lovers for years in Florida, where they owned a home and a travel agency. But their union was turbulent, and Abbott fled that state in 2003, after Buchanan was arrested for assaulting him at their home.

But Buchanan joined Abbott in Arizona in 2008. Though they weren't romantically involved anymore, their financial and emotional ties ran deep, as did their dysfunction.

Police reports show Buchanan did tell the officers about an incident at Abbott's apartment less than month earlier, on May 2. Police then had responded to another 911 call from Buchanan's new boyfriend, who said a drunken Buchanan was pummeling Abbott in the face and stomach.

The beat cops had detained Buchanan but freed him after Abbott balked at pressing charges.

Tom Abbott decided after the May 2 incident to leave his $82,000-a-year job at AMEX and move to Dallas, where one of his sisters lives. He told confidants that his departure was a matter of survival — his own.

An investigator from the county Medical Examiner's Office took photos of Abbott's body at the scene. The investigator noted in a report that people with liver disease often bruise easily but that the extent and severity in this instance was noteworthy.

Criminal cases often are made — or lost — by how police process a scene. Officers are taught to err on the side of caution, to assume nothing until proven otherwise.

This didn't happen at the Biltmore Terrace Apartments.

Police didn't even assume this was a crime scene.

A man had ended up naked and dead on his floor, bloodied, bruised, and perhaps battered, but the Phoenix beat cops didn't call for a detective to come out and take a look.

The officers apparently didn't notice the blood spatter on a wall near the front door, blood smeared on a counter, blood on a towel, or blood in the toilet.

It would take 12 days for Phoenix police to finally search Abbott's apartment, long after troubling questions had arisen about Skip Buchanan and his tumultuous relationship with his former paramour.

By then, however, one of Abbott's sisters and his landlady had been inside the apartment with the permission of police, unintentionally compromising the scene.

The original police report of Abbott's demise called it a "presumed natural death," based almost solely on Buchanan's unverified account that night.

Buchanan had everything riding on how it all played out, including his freedom.

Evidence soon surfaced to suggest that Buchanan knew Abbott was about to remove him as sole beneficiary of his insurance policy, worth $162,000.

Other evidence reveals how angry Buchanan was with Abbott for his plans to end their long relationship once and for all by leaving for Dallas.

(Buchanan did not respond to requests from New Times for comment. In a July 2009 statement to police, he denied any involvement in Abbott's death. His attorney, Howard Gaines, also didn't respond.)

The lack of diligence by Phoenix police did not end on the night Abbott's body was found: The agency's tardy investigation also was less than stellar, with potentially key witnesses given short shrift, and critical evidence (including voicemail messages and cell-phone records) either unevaluated or never collected.

Police never drew up a detailed timeline of Buchanan's known whereabouts during the days before he found Abbott's body — which would have cast major doubt on Buchanan's various accounts to authorities.

It took a lawsuit about Abbott's life-insurance policy, pitting Buchanan against one of Abbott's sisters, to reveal much of what appears in this story.

That case began in late 2009 after a suspicious insurance underwriter balked at cutting Buchanan a check.

The suit ended abruptly just last month, a few days after Buchanan declined to submit to a sworn deposition. Tom Abbott's sister, Elizabeth Viviano, who was the contingency beneficiary, will get the money, not Buchanan.

Abbott's other sister, Dallas businesswoman Martha Novorr, dug into every aspect of her brother's death during the civil case, and her results proved more fruitful in many instances than those of Phoenix police.

Unrepentantly biased against Skip Buchanan and down on the Phoenix Police Department, she tells New Times sarcastically, "If I wanted to get away with a murder, I think I'd kill a middle-aged gay guy in Phoenix, Arizona."

Novorr poses a rhetorical question: "Don't you think that if the police had seen a beautiful, naked woman bloody, bruised, and dead on the floor [who] was about to leave town to escape her abusive ex-boyfriend — and that [the] ex-boyfriend was the one who found the body — they might have called it crime scene?"

Dr. John Hu, a county pathologist at the Medical Examiner's Office, performed the autopsy of Thomas Abbott's body on the morning of June 2.

It was after the Memorial Day weekend, an especially busy time at the morgue. But Hu took time to read a two-page report on the Abbott case submitted by office investigator Rodney Newman.

Newman summarized what he had learned from the officers at the death scene: Abbott was an alcoholic who killed himself with booze.

Newman also mentioned the uncharged May 2 clash at the apartment involving Abbott, Buchanan, and Buchanan's boyfriend at the time, Patrick Roland.

"Frank Buchanan reportedly assaulted [Abbott] and was removed from the property and reportedly told not to come back," Newman wrote.

Pathologists gather as much information as possible before conducting an autopsy. Police detectives assigned to investigate a homicide routinely attend a victim's postmortem and alert the medical examiner to what they know.

A daily log from the Medical Examiner's Office shows Dr. Hu called Phoenix police before starting his autopsy of Abbott to ask about the May 2 assault.

Hu was put in touch with a domestic-violence detective, Gabriella Sikes, whose name was attached to the earlier case. But Sikes hadn't done anything with that case, and had nothing with which to assist the doctor.

No one from the Phoenix Police Department attended Abbott's autopsy.

Tom Abbott's liver was a mess, and Hu spent paragraphs in his autopsy report discussing it. The pathologist also took note of most but not all of the external injuries on Abbott's body (he didn't mention the badly split lip).

Twenty-nine bruises riddled Abbott's body and face, including a nasty one over his left eye. One bruise, a long, dark-blue one on Abbott's left forearm, appeared to have been caused by a pipe or another blunt object.

Hu took one month to issue his report.

He concluded that Abbott died because of bleeding in his brain (a cerebral hemorrhage) "most likely" instigated by the liver disease. Hu mentioned the likelihood of coagulopathy, a clotting disorder that can cause excessive bruising and bleeding, spontaneously or after an injury.

The doctor left open the possibility that Abbott might have died because of an assault or a bad spill: "Trauma (accidental fall or assault) cannot be ruled out."

Importantly, Hu also waffled on the manner of death, calling it "undetermined" instead of a homicide, a suicide, accidental, or natural.

It turned out that Abbott did have alcohol in his blood when he died, just above Arizona's legal limit for driving under the influence. However, police found no booze in his apartment when they finally searched it, a lingering mystery.

But alcohol didn't kill Tom Abbott, even if he had been drinking shortly before his death.

Detective Sikes got interested in the Abbott case after Hu called her.

She spoke with Abbott's next-of-kin Martha Novorr, who flew into town from Dallas shortly after learning of her brother's death.

"Thomas was minutes or hours from getting on that plane and getting totally out of Frank's life," she told the detective. "This was a domestic dispute with an out-of-control guy who is in dire financial trouble. His only way out was for Thomas to pass and . . . leave him that money."

The phrase "that money" was very significant: Novorr was referring in part to Tom Abbott's substantial life insurance policy, of which Skip Buchanan was sole beneficiary.

She also was talking about a joint bank account the two men shared, even though they hadn't been a couple in years. Buchanan transferred the entirety — almost $4,000 — into his personal account within hours after finding Abbott's body.

Buchanan also immediately tried, though unsuccessfully, to persuade Abbott's employers to send him his ex-boyfriend's final paycheck and other retirement benefits.

On June 10, 2009, Detective Sikes signed an affidavit for a search warrant of Abbott's apartment, seeking evidence that Skip Buchanan had assaulted Abbott.

During the search, police found the blood spatter on the walls and smears on the kitchen counter. Authorities didn't process the blood until February 2011 — it was Abbott's.

No evidence suggested Abbott spontaneously would have had spewed blood onto the wall as his brain hemorrhaged. But if the hemorrhaging was preceded by punches to his head, it might have been another story.

What police didn't find during their search also was curious: Abbott's wallet or passport was missing and never did turn up.

Thomas Abbott's brother says his upbringing in Tampa with three siblings was idyllic.

"We had great parents who loved us," says Lee Abbott, who still resides there. "You can't ask for much more."

Their father, Charles Abbott, owned a charter-airplane company, and his wife, Grace, was a physicist by training.

Tom was the youngest, a sweet-natured, sensitive boy with a dry sense of humor.

The Abbott parents died in 1980 within months of each other, Charles in a plane crash and Grace of liver disease. They were in their mid-50s.

Tom gravitated in his early 20s to a career as a travel agent in Tampa. He lived for a time with Lee, who says he learned belatedly of Tom's sexual orientation.

"He was very private, even with family," Lee Abbott says. "The information freaked me out for about a minute, and then I didn't care."

In the early 1990s, Tom introduced Lee to his new boyfriend, Franklin Buchanan Jr., known as "Skip."

No stranger to law enforcement, Skip Buchanan had earned a felony conviction for a 1989 assault of a Tampa-area police officer. He also had been convicted at least three times for drunken driving.

A construction worker by trade, Buchanan moved in with Thomas and Lee Abbott and stayed after Lee relocated. Thomas later added Buchanan's name to the deed to his house.

By 2000, Abbott had purchased the Tampa travel agency he'd managed for years. Skip Buchanan also worked there as an agent.

Though their relationship had its good times, it was marred by mutual heavy drinking and Buchanan's trigger temper.

In 2002, doctors diagnosed Abbott, then 41, with cirrhosis of the liver. The following February, physicians inserted a metal shunt into his liver so blood could bypass the diseased organ.

A doctor spoke to Abbott before discharging him after the surgery.

"It was stated that Mr. Abbott's relationship with his partner is the main reason for his stress and depression," the doctor wrote. "He has been advised by his friends and family and the counselor to get out of his relationship."

Abbott didn't listen.

On March 19, 2003, less than a month after the liver surgery, Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies responded to a 911 call from the home Abbott shared with Buchanan.

Abbott said Buchanan had been beating him up, and he agreed to cooperate with a prosecution on felony domestic-violence charges.

"The victim also stated that this occurs 'once a week' and 'after [Buchanan] has a drink,'" the sheriff's report said.

Buchanan was arrested, but he ended up back home with Abbott. Court records show Abbott declined to help prosecutors with their case, which was dismissed in July 2003.

Predictably, the cycle of abuse didn't stop. That August, Abbott revealed to family members that Buchanan again had assaulted him.

This time, instead of calling authorities, Abbott decided to run away. Lee Abbott says he drove his brother to the Tampa airport, where he boarded a plane for St. Louis — where their sister Elizabeth lived.

Abbott still was drinking heavily despite his cirrhosis and needed immediate medical care and long-term rehabilitation.

Back in Tampa, Buchanan had to run the travel agency alone, and it shut down a few years later. Their home was lost to foreclosure in 2008.

Abbott's health apparently improved during his year or so in St. Louis. He apparently quit drinking — mandatory if he wished to survive for long.

In 2004, Thomas Abbott took a job in Phoenix as an agent for American Express Centurion.

Well-mannered, erudite, and funny, he soon won the friendships of many work colleagues.

Abbott's medical records show he was off most of his liver medications by the end of 2007; he still was taking some to control his diabetes.

By all accounts, he still wasn't drinking.

American Express provides life insurance coverage to employees through MetLife. In October 2004, Thomas listed three people as equal beneficiaries: brother Lee, sister Elizabeth, and ex-boyfriend Skip Buchanan.

But in October 2006, Thomas named Buchanan as his sole beneficiary. His sister Liz became the contingency beneficiary, in the event Buchanan became ineligible or unable to collect the money.

In early 2008, Buchanan — without a driver's license (revoked because of his DUIs), saddled with a $22,000 IRS debt, and jobless — showed up at Tom Abbott's home in Arizona.

Abbott apparently wasn't involved romantically, and he and Buchanan were finished as a couple. But he offered Buchanan a couch to sleep on, and more:

Abbott agreed to pay Buchanan's cell-phone bill, added him to his gym membership, and opened a joint account with E-Trade, the online brokerage outfit.

With Abbott's help, Buchanan got a job at a Phoenix travel agency.

But Abbott confided in close friends about Buchanan and the nature of their relationship.

"When Frank moved here, Tom was very terrified," colleague Karen Griffin later told police. "I asked him why he was letting Frank live with him. He said, 'I didn't have a choice.'"

Abbott switched to the night shift, telling work confidants it was because he would be able to avoid Buchanan that way.

Abbott and Buchanan obviously were deeply connected on many levels, especially financially and emotionally.

In 2008, Patrick Roland was editor of Echo Magazine, the Valley publication that caters to the gay and lesbian community.

He and Skip Buchanan met that September and fell for each other.

Roland's apartment was about 15 minutes on foot from Tom Abbott's place, which made the relationship convenient for Buchanan.

Roland tells New Times that Buchanan soon began drinking to excess and beating him.

"A lot of the time it would be because he was pissed at Thomas for something," Roland says. "He would apologize the next day and promise to do better. I said sure. I was like a Stepford wife."

Buchanan moved in with Patrick Roland in March 2009.

Early that May, according to Roland, Buchanan learned that Abbott was contemplating a move back to Florida, where sister Elizabeth planned to return.

The possibility infuriated Buchanan, Roland says; Buchanan took it out on him on the evening of May 2, allegedly grabbing him by the throat at their home and hitting him with closed fists. (Buchanan denies this.)

Roland fled and went to Abbott's place. Buchanan soon tracked him there and got into the apartment, where, according to Roland, he went wild on Abbott — pounding him repeatedly in the face and midsection.

Patrick Roland called 911, and Phoenix police responded.

"They must have figured it was three fags acting up on a Saturday night," Roland says of the police response. "Frank wound up back at my place. I had to stay with Thomas, who was really hurting from the beating. It was all sick stuff."

Why didn't Tom Abbott press criminal charges against Buchanan or inform the police about their violent past?

"He was doing what I did and what other people do in domestic-violence situations," Roland says. "He was protecting the bad guy."

On May 4, Roland asked Maricopa County mental-health authorities to evaluate Skip Buchanan as a danger to himself and to others. Buchanan was hospitalized for one day. He soon was back at Roland's place, asking for forgiveness and swearing allegiance.

"Frank convinced me that Thomas was a hateful, devious person who was trying to break us up," Roland says. "I never spoke to [Thomas] again."

Abbott never worked another day at American Express after the May 2 incident.

Knowing of Buchanan's history with their brother, Abbott's sisters flew to Phoenix a week after the May 2 assault.

Martha Novorr says her brother was very ill when she arrived, unable to keep food down, badly bruised, and depressed. He promised to see a doctor for treatment, but apparently never did.

The sisters persuaded Abbott to escape to Dallas, where Novorr is an executive for an international fitness firm.

"Thomas told me, 'I'm afraid,'" Novorr recalls. "I said, 'Afraid of starting over? Of dying?' He laughed. 'I've lived about four lives already — I'm not scared of dying. I'm terrified of Frank.'"

Martha Novorr quickly found a condo for her brother to rent in Dallas.

Abbott decided to give away most of his belongings to friends in Phoenix, including one of his two cars, a Jaguar. He offered it to co-worker Karen Griffin and her husband, David, a sheriff's detention officer. He promised his flat-screen TV to another colleague, Mike Talley.

On May 27, Patrick Roland flew to Ohio for a few days. Buchanan asked him to leave his car keys, which was surprising because Buchanan didn't have a driver's license.

The next day, Thursday, May 28, Abbott finished packing his other car, a Mercedes, and paid a service to deliver it to Dallas.

Abbott booked his flight to Dallas for 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 30.

He informed his ex in a May 28 e-mail that Buchanan needed to sign a notarized letter allowing Abbott to remove him from their joint E-Trade account — which contained about $4,000. It's uncertain whether the men planned to split the proceeds.

Also on May 28, Abbott hired a driver to take him out for a haircut and manicure. He ate lunch at a favorite sushi restaurant. Later that afternoon, he signed over the Jaguar to David Griffin at his apartment complex.

About 9 p.m., Buchanan and a friend, Tom Kelly, showed up at Abbott's residence. Kelly tells New Times that Buchanan said he wanted to collect some things before Abbott left town.

Abbott phoned his friend Karen Griffin during the hour-long visit.

"He said, 'Frank is here,'" Griffin later told police. "And I said, 'Why? He really doesn't need to be there.' And he said, 'You talk to him.'"

She says she told Buchanan, "Frank, you're not supposed to be there. You're stressing him out; you're beating on him. You need to get out. You own nothing in that house."

Tom Kelly says he didn't notice any tension between Buchanan and Abbott and considered the visit a benign farewell between the pair. He says he took Buchanan home immediately afterward.

Buchanan's cell-phone records show that he and Abbott spoke later that night for more than an hour.

On the morning of Friday, May 29, a pair of housekeepers came by Abbott's apartment. One of them said during the civil case that Abbott was lying on the floor when they arrived, unwell and a bit disoriented.

The women helped him to the bathroom, where he crumpled briefly to the floor. He was wearing boxer shorts and a T-shirt, and neither noticed any bruising or cuts on his face or body.

They wondered whether Abbott was drunk but saw no sign of alcohol and smelled no booze on his breath. He later wrote them a check (including a $100 tip) and sent them off about noon.

Because police never retrieved Abbott's cell-phone records during their investigation, it's unknown whom he may have called from that point until he died.

But Buchanan did leave several voicemails for Abbott that day culminating in a significant call at 4:32 p.m. Martha Novorr says she and her college-age son listened to it a few days after Abbott's death.

She says Buchanan sounded extremely irate, saying he was leaving work early to come by Abbott's apartment — and warning Abbott to let him in.

Buchanan normally worked until about 6 p.m. Work records collected in the civil case show he left early that day, about 4:45 p.m.

It adds up to a likely one-on-one meeting between Skip Buchanan and Tom Abbott just 24 hours before Buchanan would find his former lover's body.

Novorr tells New Times that she played Buchanan's angry voicemails over the phone to Detective Sikes before mailing her the cell. Sikes' police reports note that she received the phone a few weeks after Abbott's death, but they don't mention the messages.

Novorr is convinced that Sikes failed to download the messages and also neglected to push T-Mobile to produce a copy of Abbott's cell records.

Asked about that by New Times, Sikes declined to speak for publication without permission from her supervisors, which she didn't get. However, a colleague of hers says Sikes claimed that Abbott's phone had no voice messages on it.

Someone is lying.

Buchanan has no alibi for about two hours after he left work that Friday afternoon, as no one is known to have seen or spoken to him during that time. This suggests he did go to Abbott's apartment, as he allegedly said he would on the 4:32 p.m. voice message.

If true, that would make Buchanan (with one possible exception) the last known person to have seen Abbott alive — and afforded him a window of opportunity to commit an assault.

The exception is Abbott's co-worker, Mike Talley, whose recent account in the civil case is described later in this story.

Tom Abbott's cell phone, by the way, still is in the PPD evidence room.

Skip Buchanan's cell records show that his friend, Tom Kelly, phoned Buchanan twice between 6 and 7 p.m. that Friday.

But he says Buchanan didn't answer or call back until about 9 that evening. Buchanan didn't use his cell phone during that stretch of about two hours, which ended about 8 p.m.

No one ever came forth to say he or she spoke to Tom Abbott on Saturday, May 30. That was the day Abbott was scheduled to leave Phoenix for Dallas at 3 p.m. Sister Martha says she'd already made plans to pick him up at the airport and get a late dinner.

Buchanan's phone records show he called Abbott three times that day without leaving a message, including one call when Abbott should have been airborne.

Tom Kelly was going to pick up Buchanan's boyfriend, Patrick Roland, at Sky Harbor about 7 p.m., and Buchanan asked to come along. But Kelly tells New Times that, at the last second, Buchanan said he wanted to stop by Abbott's apartment before heading to the airport.

"He was real vague, something about going to pick up a few things," Kelly says. "There was no sense of urgency at all, nothing about going to check up on Tom. I thought Tom was gone to Dallas by then. It was all a little confusing."

Kelly drove over to the apartment. Buchanan knocked on the front door — Kelly says he thought that was odd because Abbott was supposed to be gone — and then walked around the back to the sliding-glass door.

It was unlocked, and Buchanan let himself in.

Tom Abbott's naked and battered body awaited him.

The police spoke to Kelly before allowing him to leave for the airport. Skip Buchanan stayed at the scene.

Back at home, Roland saw a hooked-up flat-screen TV, which Buchanan later told him had been a gift from Abbott.

Exactly when Buchanan collected the TV is a critical part of this case's timeline.

Buchanan told police that he never returned to the apartment after leaving on Thursday night with Tom Kelly. But Kelly insists that the TV was in the bedroom when they left.

So when and how did Buchanan get it over to Roland's?

Patrick Roland went to his car to pick up Buchanan at Abbott's apartment. But the vehicle wouldn't start.

Roland says it occurred to him later that Buchanan probably had used the car to get the TV and hadn't closed the hatchback properly, leaving on the backlight and draining the battery.

This had to have been after the Thursday-evening visit with Kelly, allegedly the last time Buchanan saw Abbott.

And that means Skip Buchanan was lying.

On July 15, 2009, Detective Sikes interviewed Buchanan at Phoenix police headquarters downtown.

"I can speak with you," he told Sikes. "I'm not a suspect in any foul play."

Perhaps not technically: But he definitely was what the police like to call a "person of interest."

Buchanan made these claims over the next two hours:

• The uncharged May 2 incident at the apartment had been all Abbott's fault, and no one had gotten hurt.

• He and Abbott had engaged in mutual combat in the past, but not since Buchanan moved to Arizona in 2008.

• The last time he'd seen Abbott was at the apartment on Thursday night, when he went there with Tom Kelly.

On the last point, Buchanan said Abbott had invited him to take the flat-screen TV.

"I said, 'No, I'll get that after you leave,'" Buchanan told the detective. "He said, 'No, take it now.'"

Sikes didn't ask any of the obvious follow-up questions about the TV.

About halfway through the interview, Sikes turned things over to Detective Troy Jacklin.

Buchanan kept insisting to Jacklin that he hadn't gone over to Tom Abbott's place on May 29, the day before he found the body.

He said he had left work early, and "I was probably angry that he was ignoring my phone calls" but thought it best not to visit.

Jacklin told Buchanan that he had listened to the May 29 messages on Abbott's cell phone — those heated voicemails Martha Novorr says she later sent to the police.

(Apparently, the detective was bluffing, or Detective Sikes' statement to a colleague about no voicemails being on Abbott's phone is incorrect. Clearly, Jacklin knew something about the 4:32 p.m. call.)

"How did I sound?" Buchanan asked the detective.

"You [sounded] very angry to me. The voicemail said you were coming over."

Buchanan said, "I never went over to Tom's house on Friday . . . I might not have felt like walking over there."

Buchanan repeatedly asked the detectives whether the medical examiner had determined an exact time of death. It was a weird question, but neither investigator asked him why he cared.

Near the end of the interview, Buchanan asked whether he was under arrest.

No, the detective replied.

In fall 2009, Skip Buchanan's attorney sent a demand letter to MetLife for the money from Tom Abbott's insurance policy.

The firm still balked at paying Buchanan anything because of ongoing questions about Abbott's death.

Buchanan sued MetLife for breach of contract in October 2009. That month, Detective Sikes transferred to the homicide unit, taking the Abbott case with her.

MetLife countersued Skip Buchanan in early 2010, which made Buchanan and Abbott's sister, Elizabeth Viviano (the contingency beneficiary), co-defendants for a time.

MetLife admitted that it owed someone the life-insurance money but would defer to a judge regarding whom, Buchanan or Viviano.

In October 2010, Viviano sued Buchanan in federal court for wrongful death.

"Buchanan had the predisposition, motive, and opportunity to cause Thomas' death," her attorney, Kevin Koebel, wrote. "Buchanan has a history and predisposition to violence. Buchanan killed Thomas."

In response, Buchanan's attorney, Howard Gaines, called the lawsuit "20-odd pages of fiction, fabrication, and malicious innuendo."

But Gaines was wrong. Over the previous year, Abbott's other sister, Martha Novorr, had spent endless hours doing much of the work that police could have and should have done months earlier — dissecting his shaky accounts, tracking down elusive witnesses, analyzing cell-phone records.

She had shared everything with Gabriella Sikes and tells New Times that the detective often expressed optimism that an arrest and prosecution of Buchanan was imminent.

It wasn't.

The lawsuits stemming from Tom Abbott's death moved forward as the police investigation stalled.

Last December, county pathologist John Hu, who had performed Abbott's autopsy, agreed to meet with the Abbott camp — for a price.

Dr. Hu accepted a $570 check from Martha Novorr for his presence at the two-hour meeting, held at the county Medical Examiner's Office. (He later allegedly declined to cash another check from Novorr for $1,440.)

Also in attendance were Detective Sikes, Kevin Koebel (the Abbott family's civil lawyer), another attorney, and a medical doctor, the latter two from Dallas.

Hu studied a postmortem photo of Tom Abbott's battered face, which displayed the badly split lip. The other doctor present, Stephen Becker, tells New Times that Hu muttered something to himself.

"He said, 'Oh, I missed that,'" Dr. Becker recalls. "I told him that I come from Kentucky, and we call that a split lip from a blow, not a spontaneous bleed from a liver issue."

On May 9, Hu slightly revised his opinion, writing that "the cause of the hemorrhage is likely due to blunt force trauma from an assault by another person and/or falls," exacerbated by the liver disease.

This was different from what Hu had written in his 2009 report, when he said liver failure primarily had led to the brain bleeds that killed Abbott.

The pathologist wrote his new opinion on his own letterhead, not Maricopa County's, and specifically noted it was meant for the civil case.

Dr. Hu didn't officially change anything, including his frustrating conclusion that the suspected manner of Abbott's death was "undetermined."

For unspecified reasons, Gabriella Sikes left the homicide unit earlier this year and returned to patrol, which ended her involvement in the case.

This spring, the Abbotts' civil attorney took written declarations from key witnesses, including one from Mike Talley, Tom Abbott's colleague at American Express.

Detective Sikes had spoken to Talley by phone in a taped interview three weeks after Abbott's death.

Talley told Sikes that Abbott had visited his residence about two weeks before his death. He claimed that Buchanan, "his ex-partner, ex-lover, or whatever had beaten the shit out of him. He said, 'Look, he beat me up. Look at my face!' Those bruises, you could definitely tell they were within 24 hours."

It sounded as if Talley might have been confusing the May 2 assault with Abbott's death on May 30.

Sikes never followed up with Talley, a critical mistake in a case filled with them.

Last March, Talley signed a sworn declaration in the civil case that had scads more details than the Sikes interview nearly two years earlier.

Talley then claimed he last saw Tom Abbott less than 24 hours before Skip Buchanan found the body. That would make Talley the last person (other than the car-service driver, who supposedly drove Abbott home that night) known to have seen him alive.

Talley said his friend seemed fine at first, though he noticed a fresh bruise over an eye that Abbott apparently had tried to disguise with makeup. Talley said he also saw a long, deep contusion on Abbott's arm that also looked new.

In this version, Abbott told Talley that Buchanan just had assaulted him.

Talley said Abbott's speech became slurred during the hour-long visit continued and that his friend was disoriented by the end.

The difference in Talley's two accounts obviously was troubling. Was he exaggerating in his civil declaration to try to nail Buchanan?

A Phoenix homicide sergeant and one of his detectives revisited the Abbott case recently. They met with Talley on May 3, and a police report says he stuck to his problematic second story.

"Mr. Talley said it became confusing during his [2009] conversation with Detective Sikes," the report says, "and believed it must have been a miscommunication. Mr. Talley did concede that his recollection was more accurate a few weeks after the incident than almost two years later."

New Times sought an interview with Talley, but he canceled several planned meetings.

Just last month, Buchanan abruptly quit his legal fight to get the life-insurance money. He and his attorney folded just before he was scheduled to undergo a two-day deposition in the federal civil case.

The "settlement" means that Tom Abbott's sister, Liz, gets the $162,000 in life insurance.

Any criminal prosecution of Buchanan is unlikely at this point.

On May 18, Phoenix police Sergeant Michael Polombo wrote to Martha Novorr explaining why:

"Without any additional witnesses or evidence to conclusively determine the cause and manner of death, this investigation cannot be forwarded for criminal prosecution and will be reclassified as a death-unknown and closed.

"Ms. Novorr, I am very sorry for your loss of your brother and [for what] your family [has] gone through over the past two years. I know that you were hoping for a different outcome from the police investigation."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin