A case to remember: Questions abound in Kaitlyn Arquette’s 1989 murder

Lois Duncan poses playfully with daughter Kaitlyn Arquette, who would have been about 12. Arquette was gunned down in her car July 16, 1989. COURTESY OF LOIS DUNCAN

I felt the odd compulsion last weekend to clean out the books in my son’s bedroom, stored there when the room was my study.

I was sorting the books when one paperback stopped me cold, my eyes affixed to its familiar cover.

The book was a 1992 edition of “Who Killed My Daughter?” by Lois Duncan. She had signed it, “For Joline in memory of Kait – Lois Duncan.”

In those frozen moments, I felt as if I could hear her voice speaking from the pages: “Remember. Keep telling this story.”

Crazy, I know. But if anyone has the fortitude to send messages from beyond the grave – she died in 2016 – it’s Lois.

Two days earlier, my colleague Elise Kaplan had broken the story about an arrest in an unsolved homicide from the 1980s. It wasn’t Kait’s case.

But Paul Apodaca, whom Kaplan reported as the 53-year-old man charged in the 1988 stabbing death of University of New Mexico student Althea Oakeley, was also the man Lois, her family, their private investigator Pat Caristo and anybody who knew anything about the case had repeatedly urged Albuquerque police to investigate in connection with Kait’s death.

He was there that rainy summer night, July 16, 1989, standing next to the red Ford Tempo smashed into a pole on Lomas near Arno NE.

Kaitlyn Arquette, a vivacious 18-year-old, was driving that car, heading home to her parents’ house before someone put two bullets in her head.

Detective Ronald Merriman, who passed by on his way to the Downtown police station, saw Apodaca there, a Volkswagen bug parked next to Arquette’s car.

Officer Mariann Wallace, the first officer dispatched to what Merriman inexplicably called in as an accident without injuries, saw Apodaca there, too, the Volkswagen bug gone.

Apodaca was gone by the time rescue and ambulance personnel arrived on scene. Police were gone, too, ambulance workers said in affidavits, leaving a crime scene unprotected and a young woman dying.

I have written numerous times over the years about how Apodaca had been right under decades of detectives’ noses. Yet no member of the Albuquerque Police Department interviewed Apodaca that night or any of the 32 years of nights since Kaitlyn was killed.

Until now.

The family of Kaitlyn Arquette lights a candle on the anniversary of the night she was shot and killed July 16, 1989. “We do it to bring light to her spirit and let her know she’ll never be forgotten,” says her mother, author Lois Duncan. COURTESY OF LOIS DUNCAN

On Tuesday, three days after I found Lois’ book, APD announced at a news conference that Apodaca had confessed to killing Kaitlyn. I could hear Lois again: Remember. Keep telling this story.

She would be telling it if she was alive today, reminding you of all the evidence and interviews they had amassed over the years, all detailed in her two books about Kaitlyn and a 75-page report Caristo had written and repeatedly attempted to give to APD investigators.

Caristo, she would remind you, even hand-carried a copy of the report to then-Chief Joe Polisar sometime in the 1990s only to be told by Polisar that the report must have gotten lost in the mail.

She would remind you, I think, that while everybody is hopeful that Apodaca’s confession will lead to an arrest and a conviction in Kaitlyn’s murder, too much skepticism and distrust of APD and far too many questions remain.

For too long, it was only Lois and her family, Caristo and a small cadre of reporters, myself included, asking the questions and seeking the answers – not APD.

“It’s been too many years since we’ve been trying to fill in those blanks by ourselves,” said Kerry Arquette, Kaitlyn’s older sister and the family member who has taken on her mother’s role as outspoken spokeswoman for the family. “Yes, this is a spectacular break in the case, and now we want to understand what happened to Kaity that summer night.”

Her father, Don Arquette, a usually reticent man, pulled no punches.

“I suspect that it will be a continuation of the half-truth and no-truth statements from the past,” he told me. “APD does not want to solve this case. Never has!”

It certainly has felt that way.

Every time I have written about Kaitlyn, I’ve asked APD about her case. In 1999, a decade after Kaitlyn’s death, then-Chief Gerald Galvin became the first – and I believe the only – chief to meet with the Arquettes and Caristo. The family was encouraged.

That same year, Detective Don Mayhew of the Cold Case unit told me he considered the case closed.

“We’re not going to look at it,” he said.

Damage to the left rear bumper and panel suggests that Kaitlyn Arquette’s car was rammed and pushed off Lomas into a utility pole July 16, 1989.

In 2001, Cold Case Detective Paul Jassler echoed Mayhew’s sentiments:

“That has never been a cold case. It has never been part of our files.”

In 2004, Violent Crimes Sgt. Carlos Argueta blamed the family’s emotions for not understanding why the case was going nowhere.

“It is hard sometimes to explain why a case is investigated as it has been, or what we believe happened,” he said.

But later that year, Cold Case Detective Don Roberts told me he was willing to meet with the Arquettes and Caristo. He had already started digging into Kaitlyn’s case, contacting Merriman, the first officer on the scene that night, and scribbling notes covering half a legal pad. He also planned to interview Apodaca.

Kaitlyn’s case, he said, had become a hobby.

“It’s absolutely an open case. It absolutely will be worked,” he said. “It’s of great interest to me. It’s on my desk right now. It’s probably the biggest case that I have.”

Once again, though, nothing happened.

In 2007, Detective Rich Lewis, one of the best investigators I’ve ever met, stunned me when he told me he could find nothing more to do with Kaitlyn’s case.

“As for Arquette, that case was completely reviewed within the last couple or three years,” he said.

And in 2019, the 30th year since Kaitlyn’s death, APD gave me the same old conciliatory song: “The case has been worked by many cold-case detectives throughout the years. The case remains active in a status of pending further leads, and as those leads become available, they are investigated. While it has been 30 years since this murder, detectives do not give up. They are committed to finding justice for victims and their families.”

Blah blah blah.

Paul Apodaca

Had police interviewed Apodaca that rainy night, they might have learned something. They might have seen that his criminal record detailed a violent history, especially toward women.

They might have followed up on reports from Kaitlyn’s neighbors that they had seen three men who may have been acquaintances of her boyfriend spray-painting a Volkswagen bug in her apartment parking lot shortly after the shooting.

They might have interviewed Apodaca while he was in prison for raping his relative in 1995, supposedly to get into prison to be near his brother, Mark Apodaca, who had been convicted of the murder of 17-year-old Adam Price in 1992.

Caristo interviewed him then.

They might have interviewed Caristo about the check she and her private investigator apprentices found in 2004 in the hull of what had been a mechanics shop at 824 Arno NE, just feet from Kaitlyn’s crashed car. In the 1980s, it had been a notorious druggie spot and it was the place Apodaca told Caristo he was going the night Kaitlyn was shot.

The check bore the name of the friend Kaitlyn had visited just before she was shot.

Lois never gave up telling everybody that, and I have always agreed that APD has never handled this case or this family right.

Years ago, Lois entrusted me with a DVD. She admonished me not to tell anybody I had it, not to watch it unless something bad happened to her. The DVD, a two-hour rundown of the evidence amassed in her daughter’s case, was her insurance that her story would survive if something nefarious happened to her.

Robin Arquette-Burkin places a bouquet of flowers at the gravesite of her late sister Kaitlyn Arquette, who was killed in Downtown Albuquerque. Looking on are from left brother Donnie Arquette, sister Kerry Arquette, and father Don Arquette. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Imagine that. She lived with the fear that she had angered powerful folks who might harm her because of what she knew and what she said, yet that fear did not stop her.

“My mother was a little bird of a dreamer and all she wanted to do was write her novels,” Kerry Arquette said. “She was non-confrontational. But because of Kait’s case, she had to morph into a mama bear. She had to fight. Eventually, it killed her. But she died still fighting.”

Kerry was in Spain walking the famed religious pilgrimage trail, El Camino de Santiago, when she got the call about Apodaca.

“It felt like of all the times to break this news,” she said. “It just seemed very appropriate.”

She and her husband arrived home the night before the Tuesday news conference, which she found too self-congratulatory.

“I think a little more humility would have been a far grander thing than bravado,” she said. “It would have been nice for APD to say, ‘Look, we dropped the ball back then, but now we are on it.'”

Still, she said she is pleased with the contact she has had with Detective Jodi Gonterman, who is handling the case, because finally someone is handling the case. Gonterman is asking questions, following leads, keeping the family informed, treating the family with respect and interviewing Apodaca at last.

And maybe, like Chief Harold Medina said at the news conference, he can’t speak for how the investigation was conducted in the past, but he can make sure his investigators do a thorough job now.

Because I’m not the only one who hears Lois’ words: Remember. Keep telling this story.

Because we will.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.

 

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