Hard Life, Hard Death

Santa Rosa
We will not be fainthearted
in our search for the truth.
I shall plant a rosebush
of gentle radiant amber.
I will patiently care for it
until we find out what happened.
For now the answer is denied
by guilty silence.

--Tascha Boychuk, 1996, on the unsolved death of Amber Bass

Phoenix police detective Don Newcomer went to St. Joseph's Hospital on Valentine's Day 1994 to investigate the death of Amber Lynn Bass.

Paramedics had rushed Amber to the hospital after responding to a 911 call from the Oasis Apartments, 2402 West Devonshire. She suffered from a heart condition and simply stopped breathing, a frantic caller had told an operator.

Emergency-room doctor Jeff Hill pronounced Amber dead on arrival at 1:13 p.m. She was one month shy of her 6th birthday.

It seemed likely Amber's rare heart disease--restrictive cardiomyopathy--had been the culprit. But Hill's examination of the 32-pound child's body shattered that supposition.

The presence of blood around Amber's genitals was an obvious sign of foul play. A closer look revealed severe trauma to Amber's vagina and rectum.

Hill contacted Dr. Kay Rauth-Farley, medical director of St. Joseph's Child Abuse Assessment Center. Rauth-Farley rushed over as hospital officials also notified Phoenix police.

Detective Newcomer later described the scene inside room number six: "Amber was totally nude and had a tube protruding out of her mouth. There was dried blood around her mouth, vagina and anus. . . . [Dr. Rauth-Farley] told me that the victim had massive trauma to her vagina, and was bleeding from both the vagina and the rectal area. She estimated that the bruising occurred within the last 24 hours. She questioned how everyone missed the amount of blood which the victim had lost. She added that the victim's underpants and overalls were blood-stained."

Newcomer's thoughts that day wandered beyond his investigative duties.
"I looked at this little girl laying there," he says, "and I thought of my own young children, alive and healthy. It was over for Amber, just over. It was really sad--a nightmare."

The heartache was just beginning for Newcomer and others assigned the task of determining what had happened to Amber, and who had done it.

"When you know that a life was taken away by a homicidal act and you can't prove who did it . . ." says deputy county attorney Dyanne Greer, speaking generally. "I'll say this about Amber. There are cases that particularly haunt me--this is one of them."

Greer attended the girl's autopsy, a report from which suggests Amber had been penetrated with a blunt object--perhaps a gun barrel.

County medical examiner Philip Keen reserved judgment on the cause and manner of Amber's death for five weeks. On March 22, 1994, he concluded it was "natural," not homicide. He said the cause of death was "acute congestive heart failure."

Wrote Keen: ". . . Sometime shortly prior to [Amber's] demise, she had evidence of being the victim of a sexual assault, and there is historical and confirmatory toxicologic evidence of cessation of cardiogenic drug therapy resulting in death due to acute congestive heart failure. . . . The withdrawal of this drug is more likely responsible for the acute congestive heart failure than is the intervening event of sexual assault."

In other words, Amber hadn't been getting enough of her heart medicine before she died. Keen's use of the word "withdrawal" implied an intentional, reckless or negligent act. He seemed to say that Amber's death was as unnatural as a "natural" death can be.

If prosecutors can prove that, it may yet lead to criminal charges against Amber's legal caretakers. (See accompanying story.) So far, however, many factors have kept those responsible for Amber's injuries and death from justice.

Her complex case illustrates the struggles authorities often face in prosecuting violent crimes against children. From the start, police and prosecutors faced monumental stumbling blocks:

At least three adults had access to Amber in the critical hours during which she was sexually attacked and then died. But each denied wrongdoing. Short of a confession or a snitch, it was impossible to say who had violated her.

Complicating matters was the fact that Phoenix police allowed key suspects and others to prematurely gain access to what had become a crime scene. That, investigators concede, might have allowed suspects or their friends to hide or destroy inculpatory evidence.

That nobody has been held accountable criminally for Amber's demise is maddening. What eats at authorities is how valiantly Amber fought to make her way despite being surrounded by meth freaks and petty criminals. She will not be forgotten.

"This case has screwed up just about everyone who's come in touch with it," detective Don Newcomer says, "but we all have found ways of keeping her in our minds. She's never far from my thoughts. Never."