He wasn’t, however, a pathologist, an investigator or an expert on carbon monoxide poisoning.
Yet his assessment of Han’s death when he arrived at her North Valley townhouse just past 12:30 p.m. Nov. 18 appeared to set the agenda for the way authorities viewed her death and conducted – or didn’t – their investigations.
“Looks like an accidental suicide,” he flatly told the 911 operator after finding Han, a prominent attorney in her own right, awkwardly seated in her white 2006 BMW 330i parked in her garage. “She’s not breathing. She’s in rigor.”
When the operator pushed him to explain why he believed it was an “accidental suicide” he answered: “All I’m seeing is she’s in the car in the garage.”
Han’s family and close friends insist that it was no suicide. It’s also what most of you readers who contacted me believe.
Three weeks ago, I reported that an attorney for the Han family sent notices to the Albuquerque Police Department, 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.
Now comes word that the family has lodged a complaint against OMI with the state Board of Medical Investigations, alleging pathologist Dr. R. Richard Reichard and staff conducted a “perfunctory and misleading” investigation and showed unprofessional, insensitive and dishonorable conduct when dealing with family members.
The complaint, submitted Aug. 24, requests that the board order OMI to reopen the case, conduct a full investigation and amend the manner of death listed on Han’s death certificate to undetermined, accidental or homicide.
“The Legislature created OMI to function as an independent investigative body,” Han family attorney Rosario Vega Lynn said in a statement. “Its role is to preserve the integrity of the victim and fully investigate the circumstances of death without regard for race, creed, gender, color or politics. OMI failed Ms. Han by rushing to conclusions and not taking the time to ensure there were no stones left unturned.”
Hear the 911 call attorney Paul Kennedy made Nov. 18 concerning the death of law partner Mary Han.
Reichard and all OMI officials refused my repeated requests to comment on Han’s case or discuss the general aspects of classifying a death as a suicide. Kennedy also has not returned several calls.
In my Aug. 11 column on Han’s death, I told you how there had been no suicide note, no depression, no indication that anything was amiss in her life. In phone calls the night before her death, Han, a spirited and spry woman who had often taken on formidable opponents in court, including APD, had been happily talking about plans to visit her daughter for the holidays and working out in the morning to hone the six-pack abs she coveted.
She had taken Ambien to sleep and hydrocodone for a toothache that night. She may have consumed a small amount of vodka, a glass of which was found in her car.
Months before, Ambien may have been responsible for her “sleep-driving” to a gym, a friend said. Another friend insisted Han never drank.
In OMI’s autopsy report, there is no mention of the Ambien experience, no mention of her alcohol avoidance.
Nor is there mention as to how the carbon monoxide saturation found in Han’s body could have reached 84.8 percent – higher than medical journals have recorded, according to Vega’s claims against OMI.
Investigators did not assess the contents of the garage or analyze other chemicals that may have been present either in the garage or Han’s body.
They did not explain how her airway had not appeared irritated or her skin discolored to a cherry red – typical symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.
They had not tested the air for carbon monoxide.
They had not investigated how the car could have turned off by itself when it still had a half-tank of gas. They did not consider that advances in emissions controls in newer models such as Han’s BMW have made it nearly impossible for people to kill themselves with car exhaust, especially in a garage with the door to the rest of the house left ajar.
Because no authority beyond a 911 operator questioned Kennedy’s on-the-spot assessment that day, it may be impossible to determine whether Han died by accident (and, no, there’s no such classification as “accidental suicide”) or homicide.
This isn’t the first time OMI has been scrutinized for calling a death a suicide when there was plenty of evidence to the contrary had somebody just looked.
In May 2009, it ruled that Albuquerque animal activist Kari Winters had killed herself with a mixture of medications, basing this opinion in part on what appears to be a phony suicide note.
Reichard was the pathologist.
My March 2010 columns on Winters, which pointed out discrepancies in the case, prompted OMI Chief Medical Investigator Ross Zumwalt to email me about his interest in re-evaluating the case.
“As you know, the OMI is always willing to review additional information provided by the family or by law enforcement agencies regarding the manner of death in our cases,” he wrote.
But nothing happened.
Something did happen in the 2008 case of Albuquerque police Lt. Tom Parkins, but it took the hiring of a nationally known forensics expert to persuade OMI to change the manner of his death from suicide to undetermined.
Parkins had been cleaning his shotgun for a hunting trip, his truck already running outside, when the gun discharged.
In a stunning admission, Zumwalt later told the Journal he had never been “100 percent convinced” it was suicide.
Zumwalt isn’t talking now about the Han case.
Maybe it’s time he did.
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 ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal