ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nearly four hours after prominent civil rights attorney Mary Han was found dead in her North Valley townhome, rumors swirled about what had happened, what was happening at her home.
Albuquerque police officer Timothy Lonz, one of two officers initially dispatched to her home just after noon Nov. 18, 2010, sat in his squad car and typed a response on his mobile computer, or KDT, to a curious fellow officer:
“Don’t wanna type anything on the KDT to get sued for.”
But what transpired in those nearly four hours after Lonz arrived at the home on Colonnade Court NW was enough for Han’s family to contemplate a lawsuit.
This week, after months of legal wrangling and a challenge from Deputy City Attorney Kathryn Levy in open court to get on with it, a lawsuit has been filed by Han’s family against the city of Albuquerque.
The lawsuit alleges that because of negligent supervision and investigation by the Albuquerque Police Department, Han was deprived of her rights when her home was unlawfully searched, her property unlawfully taken and her death improperly and incompetently investigated, with much of the evidence that could have unraveled the mystery surrounding her death spoiled.
Han, 53, was found propped in the front seat of her car parked in her garage. Officials deemed the death a suicide by carbon monoxide intoxication, but Han’s family and others say her death was not by her own hand and was never properly investigated.
Defendants names in the 35-page lawsuit, filed Thursday, include Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry, then the city attorney; former city Public Safety Director Darren White; APD Chief Ray Schultz; APD Deputy Chiefs Paul Feist, Allen Banks and Beth Paiz; three APD sergeants and eight other APD employees, including Lonz.
The lawsuit details what the family claims are numerous violations of APD standard operating procedures, crass and unprofessional behavior among the city’s elite and new troubling information concerning her death.
Lonz’s typed KDT response is one of the new details and allegations included in the lawsuit. Among the others:
⋄ The night before Han was found dead, she had sent a text message to longtime law partner Paul Kennedy (who this week lost his bid to keep his position on the state Supreme Court) that she no longer wanted to be a part of their law firm and that he could have it.
Kennedy was the one to find Han dead and told a 911 dispatcher that her death was an “accidental suicide.”
⋄ Kennedy was allowed to leave the scene without providing a recorded statement, a violation of APD procedure. Kennedy eventually returned to Han’s home, gave a statement and was given Han’s laptop, even though he was not next of kin and had no permission from the family to have it.
⋄ Two diamond rings Han always wore disappeared the day she died. The rings were family heirlooms valued at $100,000. Kennedy is alleged to have told Han’s sister that “the cops took the rings.” APD did not investigate despite the sister’s repeated insistence. She was forced to file a police report Feb. 1, 2011. The rings are still missing.
⋄ Han was wearing glasses when she died, although she used them only for reading.
⋄ Han’s body was removed from the car, laid on the garage floor and photographed. Moving the body before an investigation is conducted is against APD protocol.
⋄ APD homicide detectives were at an FBI training conference in Albuquerque, but none was called to the scene.
⋄ Twenty-six people — more than had been originally believed and including top brass from APD and the city — were allowed to walk around Han’s home, destroying the scene preservation and preventing an effective investigation from being conducted.
The lawsuit specifically takes aim at Feist, then the commander of APD’s Scientific Evidence Division. According to the lawsuit, Feist violated department guidelines by declaring Han’s death a suicide less than five minutes after he arrived at the home, failing to call the major crime scene team under his command to investigate, allowing unauthorized personnel to enter the home and view Han’s body, failing to follow procedures for investigating an unattended death — which, under APD standards, should be treated as a violent crime.
Despite the number of APD supervisors at the scene, no one appeared to take command or conduct a proper investigation, the lawsuit claims.
“APD allowed over two dozen people to trample through the scene and conduct illegal searches on the property, and there has yet to be any accountability for that,” said Rosario Vega Lynn, attorney for the Han family. “This lawsuit will also investigate and determine accountability for these undisputed facts.”
City attorney Levy provided this statement Thursday:
“It is clear the lawsuit does not state a cause of action under the Tort Claims Act of New Mexico. It is factually inaccurate, and we are confident the court will dismiss the complaint.”
Kennedy did not respond to attempts to contact him.
Had Han’s death actually been a suicide, APD would have lacked authority to go through her purse and other belongings, wander through her home or remove property without probable cause or a court order, the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit also calls into question the theory that Han died as a result of the carbon monoxide from her car’s exhaust. An autopsy report indicates Han’s carbon monoxide saturation level was 84.8 percent — an extraordinarily high amount that should have raised eyebrows and prompted further investigation.
Though her car was parked in a garage, a door to the home was open, all car windows were rolled down and the car battery was dead, but the gas tank half-full.
The vehicle, a BMW 330i, had a carbon monoxide detector that would have turned off the vehicle before toxic levels were reached. One sergeant remarked that Han’s skin was not the cherry red color typically seen in carbon monoxide victims.
Lonz, the lawsuit says, repeatedly complained of smelling carbon monoxide but at no time was a meter reading of the air taken. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas.
The lawsuit also says Lonz expressed concerns to his sergeant that the deputy chiefs were about to “push themselves in” to Han’s home and would be “tromping through the scene.”
Those top officials, the lawsuit says, did push their way in “for no official purpose than to stare at Ms. Han.”
The city has previously said that the reason for the top brass being on the scene was to protect sensitive legal work and to answer media questions. Much of the legal work Han engaged in involved millions of dollars in litigation against APD, including a pending complaint against Banks, one of the deputy chiefs at the home, the lawsuit says.
Reporters’ questions at the scene were handled by a public information officer, not the top cops.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages and punitive damages, but that in some respects is the easy part.
What is not so easy is to get answers as to how Han died and how her death was treated.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal