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

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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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin