Mary Han would not go gently when death came for her, those who knew her say.
She would not go quietly. She would not go without fighting as tenaciously as she had fought in the hundreds of civil rights, criminal and domestic violence cases she championed as one of Albuquerque’s most prominent lawyers.
They say she certainly would not have chosen suicide.
But police, they contend, were too quick to assume Han had killed herself by carbon monoxide intoxication Nov. 18, though an autopsy report had later concurred.
And they say she would have recoiled at the thought of high-ranking members of the Albuquerque Police Department – the agency she had often battled and belittled in court – swarming into her home and around her corpse.
What happened to Han before she was found dead in the garage of her North Valley townhouse still torments her family and friends; what happened afterward enrages them.
“The events of Nov. 18 were an abuse of authority in the form of active voyeurism,” said Rosario Vega Lynn, the family’s attorney. “Ms. Han deserved respect and dignity in death as in life, and we will stop at nothing short of that.”
This week, Vega Lynn sent notices to APD, the Albuquerque Fire Department and the state Office of the Medical Investigator informing them that the family intends to sue the agencies for failure to properly investigate Han’s death and ignoring or contaminating evidence.
“Mary fought against abuse of authority and violations of civil rights,” said Han’s elder sister, Liz Wallbro, breaking her silence about the mystery surrounding her sibling’s death as we sat in Han’s townhouse, only recently put on the market. “But what APD did was a horrendous violation of her rights and her privacy. It was a complete abuse of authority.”
Wallbro says APD acted inappropriately by allowing its top brass and City Hall officials to traipse in and out of Han’s home for what she contends was no other apparent reason than to gawk at and gloat over the death of a woman who had cost the city millions of dollars in lawsuits.
City officials disputed those allegations.
Among those at Han’s home that day were then-city public safety director Darren White and his spokesman, T.J. Wilham; APD Deputy Chiefs Beth Paiz, Paul Feist and Allen Banks; Valley Area Commander Rae Mason; then-City Attorney Rob Perry; police crime lab director Marc Adams; and four sergeants, including a designated APD spokeswoman.
APD field investigator Mike Muniz, who photographed the scene, remarked in a police report that he “immediately found it strange” so many police personnel were on scene.
It was, he said, the first time in his career he had to tape off a scene of an apparent suicide to keep people out.
Tim Lonz, one of two officers dispatched to the scene, said in a report that he found it “very unusual” so many officials were on hand.
Police Chief Ray Schultz, out of town on Wednesday because of the death of his mother, referred Journal questions to the City Attorney’s Office.
A statement issued by interim City Attorney Robert Kidd said that a large number of officials were sent to Han’s home because of her high profile, to deal with the media and to protect the confidentiality of any legal documents found in the home.
Yet none of the supplemental police reports filed by many of the officials at the scene that day mentioned those reasons.
Those supplements were not filed until after Wallbro filed a report on Jan. 26 – more than two months after Han’s death -concerning Han’s two missing diamond rings, valued at $50,000 apiece.
“She loved those rings and was never without them,” Wallbro said. “That day, from the moment I arrived, I kept asking about the rings and no one could tell me what happened to them.”
A second laptop and a set of prayer flags that hung across the gate to Han’s home also disappeared, the family said.
Death stirred questions
So what had happened to Han, a 53-year-old woman described as vibrant, happy, healthy, driven and anything but depressed?
Wallbro, who spoke to her sister on that last evening as she did every evening, said Han was jovial about plans to travel to California to visit her daughter for the holidays.
APD Sgt. Tom Grover, who called Han his best friend and big sister, said he spoke with Han around 11 that night. The two had made plans to work out at the gym around 6 the next morning and then later have lunch at Farina Pizzeria to celebrate Grover’s recent success as a student at the University of New Mexico.
Han had complained about a toothache but was otherwise in great shape. She ran several miles a day and was obsessed with developing six-pack abs, Grover said.
Han was taking Ambien, a prescribed sleeping aid; hydrocodone for the toothache; and a diet drug for body fat reduction, her family said.
When Han failed to show up at the gym the next morning, Grover called and left a text.
When she didn’t show up at work by noon, her longtime law partner, Paul Kennedy, told police he became concerned and drove to her home, letting himself in with his own key when no one answered.
Kennedy found Han in the garage, according to police reports. Her body was twisted awkwardly in the front seat of her white BMW, her bare feet were crossed and perched on the dashboard to the left of the steering wheel, her hands were clenched near her lap. A small, clear plastic bag, the kind that had once held fruits or vegetables, was tucked under one leg.
She wore black capri pants and a red T-shirt, no glasses, no makeup.
A glass filled two fingers high with what police suspected was Ketel One vodka teetered on the crowded console, though a cup holder on the dash was extended and empty.
On the passenger side of the car was a bathrobe with a prescription pill bottle inside, her gym bag, a bag with her work laptop and a grocery bag filled with persimmons, figs, seaweed, coconut water, protein shakes and packets of acai berry gel – after-workout treats she always packed for Grover.
The windows of her car were rolled down. Her car keys were in the ignition in the “on” position. The car was off, cold, the battery dead, the gas tank still half-full.
Missing from Han’s autopsy report is an explanation as to why OMI assistant chief medical investigator R. Ross Reichard called the cause of death suicide rather than accidental or undetermined – or, as family and friends have speculated, homicide.
No suicide note was found, and there was no despondency or history of depression.
“I argued with him (Reichard) and said, ‘You are wrong,’ ” Wallbro said. ” ‘If you knew her, you would not believe that. If you were halfway decent, you would not call us right before Christmas and bluntly assume she offed herself.’ ”
OMI director of operations Amy Boulé referred my questions to Dr. Ross Zumwalt, chief medical investigator. Zumwalt did not return my call.
Neither did Kennedy, Han’s longtime law partner.
Wallbro said she has decided to come forward now because she and others who knew and loved Han cannot shake the questions on how she died or what they see as the mishandling of her case and the miscreant behavior of APD brass.
“All this would have gone away if someone from APD had just said, yes, we made a mistake. We should not have been there gawking. We should have secured the scene. We should have done our jobs,” Wallbro said. “But no one did.”
The family is aware of Journal articles about a post to a Facebook page called “Fans of the Albuquerque Police Department” in which Han was wished good riddance by an officer after she died and waved off to a “special place in hell waiting for her.”
Mostly, though, Wallbro said that by speaking out the family hopes to make things right, or as right as they can be, to find peace, to join the growing chorus of citizens angry and upset with a police department they claim has lost its purpose and its principles.
Wallbro still talks to her sister every evening, though now it’s to an urn of ashes that she keeps in her bedroom.
Sometimes, Wallbro imagines what Han might be saying to her. Sometimes, she imagines her sister is screaming.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline Gutierrez Krueger at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal