ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — So many years passed, so many anniversaries. The first one after her daughter was mysteriously murdered. The fifth one. The 10th. The 20th. The 25th.
No matter how many years, no matter the obstacles and unanswered questions, no matter the heartbreak, no matter the rage, writer Lois Duncan never stopped searching for her daughter’s killer.
“The same people who knew what happened back then still know what happened,” she told me in 2004 on the 15th anniversary of the night Kaitlyn Arquette, 18, was found, shot twice in the head, her car crashed into a pole near Arno and Lomas NE. “Loyalties change, intimidated people gain courage, lost people find God. That is what keeps us going.”
Duncan – author of 50 books, champion of crime victims, mentor and friend – kept on going until Wednesday, when she was found collapsed in the kitchen of her home in Florida. She was 82.
Those of us who knew her or followed her on Facebook had feared this day was coming. In December, she had leaned over, heard a pop and felt a searing pain in her back. Her spine had fractured, the splintered bone embedding itself in the degenerating spinal discs. Just last Monday, she was undergoing more tests to figure out what could be done to help alleviate the pain and rigidity in her neck.
“Getting old is not fun,” she joked.
Lois was weakened, but still resilient. In late May, she was meeting with a film crew about a documentary featuring Kaitlyn’s story as an example of an unsolved case in which allegations of corruption and a mishandled investigation arose.
“How common this has become,” she mused.
Lois had always maintained that Albuquerque police botched her daughter’s case, ignored obvious clues, refused to work with her private investigator and wrongly classified Kaitlyn’s death as a random drive-by shooting.
She believed her daughter was killed July 16, 1989, because she knew too much about an insurance scam her former boyfriend had been involved in. Kaitlyn, she insisted, was preparing to reveal the scam and its entanglement with Vietnamese crime rings and drug dealings involving some of New Mexico’s most high-profile citizens.
Her nonfiction book “Who Killed My Daughter?” was a best-seller and a withering attack on the Albuquerque Police Department. “One to the Wolves,” published in 2013, continued the saga of her search for answers.
Each time I wrote another story or column about Kaitlyn’s death, I contacted APD for comment. Sometimes, the response was a promise to reconsider the case or at least meet with Lois and private investigator Pat Caristo. Other times, the response was conciliatory but firm that the case was closed. One cold case detective said there was simply nothing more to be done.
Lois never believed that.
And she didn’t believe that other families whose loved ones had also been lost to homicide, especially those with no resolution, should fight their battle for justice alone.
In 2004, she joined together with the families of 23 New Mexico homicide victims to demand accountability from law enforcement agencies that they believed had botched the investigations into their loved ones’ deaths. She developed a popular website, Real Crimes, at realcrimes.com, posting more than 40 unsolved homicide cases as a way to give families a voice and to seek the answers that eluded them.
“I used to wake in the night to the sound of gunshots and Kait’s voice screaming for help,” she told me. “Now it’s a chorus of voices.”
Lois never publicly took the credit – she always refused to let me acknowledge her philanthropic efforts on behalf of crime victims and their families – but she also made it financially possible for those families and others to employ the private investigative services of Caristo, whom Lois had once called a “light in the darkness.”
“If she saw me as a light, she was a beacon,” Caristo said this week. “While Lois always wanted to know who killed her daughter, she spent as much time helping other mothers and others in varied and extraordinary ways.”
A few years ago, Caristo’s private investigations agency changed into a nonprofit service, then into the current Albuquerque-based Resource Center for Victims of Violent Death. The center has responded to more than 400 requests for information and referrals and has directly served 239 clients. Lois played a silent part of those efforts.
She may be remembered most for the stories she told in her beloved books, many of them suspense novels for young adults, many humorous tales for children. But I will remember her for helping others tell their stories of a son or daughter lost to violence, their cases lost in a system that does not always work the way we would hope.
Lois never missed a chance to encourage me in my writing. Since her death, I’ve come to realize how generous she was with her time and kindness to other writers and to her many readers. Her Facebook page is filled now with lovely tributes from them, along with those from the families of crime victims she stood with in solidarity.
Not long ago, Lois sent me an email that ended in frustration over how long she had been fighting for answers.
“Joline,” she wrote. “I am so … tired.”
She can rest now.
This July marks the 27th year since Kaitlyn’s death. I’d like to think Lois finally has her answers and, more important, that she finally has her beloved Kaitlyn back in her arms. I’d also like to think we are resilient enough to carry on her legacy of seeking that light in the darkness, that justice in death.
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.