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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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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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin