When it was Yavapai County Sheriff Buck Buchanan's turn to vote at the meeting of the Arizona Peace Officers' Memorial Board, several Oro Valley cops shifted nervously in their seats.

"Some of us have become so concerned with the letter of the law that we have forgotten our own humanity," Buchanan said.

What was making these cops so uncomfortable? The issue in this unprecedented dispute in Arizona's law enforcement community was whether the board would add the name of Oro Valley detective Bill Gravell to the state's memorial for police officers who have died "in the line of duty."

Things were not going the way the cops from Oro Valley, a town of 5,000 just north of Tucson, had wanted. They didn't have anything personal against Gravell. To the contrary, Bill Gravell had earned the respect of hundreds of cops he had worked with during a quarter-century career.

To many cops in Oro Valley and Pima County, however, to honor Gravell would be to ridicule their conclusions about his death. Sheriff's investigators and a county medical examiner concluded that Gravell's death in March 1989--caused by two shots from his own gun into his heart from close range--was a suicide.

Gravell's alleged motive--he was dying of lung cancer and had tried to make a suicide look like murder to ensure death benefits for his widow, Kathy--was compelling. But enough questions remained about the veteran cop's death that a Tucson administrative-law judge ruled last year it was "an inexplicable and perplexing act." (New Times profiled the case on June 12.)

Because of the judge's crucial decision, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded Kathy Gravell $103,890 through a program to aid families of slain officers. Then she asked the Arizona Peace Officers' Memorial Board to honor her dead husband. It wasn't about money--the only financial benefits from a favorable board vote would be free tuition at a state university for Bill Gravell's youngest son.

A 3-3 vote of the board a month earlier had sent the delicate matter back into limbo until the July 9 meeting at the Attorney General's Office. Once again, Pima County sheriff's sergeant Tom Petropolous suggested several compelling reasons why Bill Gravell had killed himself. "I think it was somewhat successful or we wouldn't be here today," he said of Gravell's alleged plan to make his suicide appear to be murder.

Kathy Gravell's attorney, Mike Moeller, then spoke up. Moeller said that if the well-respected Petropolous had conducted the investigation and not a rookie homicide detective, "we wouldn't be here today.|.|. . The investigation did not produce overwhelming evidence one way or the other--that's what the Pima County Sheriff [Clarence Dupnik] said. Grave questions of doubt have been raised here, and if you're going to make a mistake, make it in favor of Bill Gravell."

Several members of the Oro Valley Fraternal Order of Police disagreed. "The Oro Valley department was quite appalled by the tie vote that came out of this committee last month," an Oro Valley sergeant chided the board, adding that it would be a "travesty" if Gravell's name were inscribed on the monument.

After Kathy Gravell made a final plea--"If there's one little shred of `maybe,' please don't shut Bill out"--it was time to vote. All nine board members were present.

Attorney General Grant Woods set the tone. "If I were to guess, I would say it is a suicide," Woods said. "But I have plenty of doubts, and it seems to me that we can give the same standard of reasonable doubt to a police officer who gave 25 years of unblemished service as we give to the worst of society."

Three of the law enforcement veterans on the board voted against Gravell, as they had a month earlier. Woods and the three other civilian members voted for Gravell. It was going to come down to the two cops who weren't at the earlier session--Yavapai County Sheriff Buck Buchanan and Tempe Police Chief David Brown.

After Buchanan lectured the audience on "humanity," he added, "I think it's unconscionable that we would sit as gods in judgment of Bill Gravell, especially with such a horribly deficient quantity of information [about Gravell's death]."

Buchanan's passionate speech clinched it for the pro-Gravell folks. Chief Brown followed with another yes vote. "If I thought for one minute that I was taking away from the honor of the people who are on that memorial, I wouldn't do it," Brown said. "But I really don't know what happened out there that day in Oro Valley."

The surprising 6-3 vote was official, but Sheriff Buchanan added one more thing. "Let the healing process begin," he intoned.

"C'mon," one of the defeated cops whispered to his pals in the rear of the room. "Let's get out of here."

"Some of us have become so concerned with the letter of the law that we have forgotten our own humanity."MDRV

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin