Albuquerque Journal from Albuquerque, New Mexico on March 4, 1990 · Page 6
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Albuquerque Journal from Albuquerque, New Mexico · Page 6

Albuquerque, New Mexico
Issue Date:
Sunday, March 4, 1990
Page 6
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A6 ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL Sunday, March 4, 1990 Discrepancies Complicate Mountainair I Mystery CONTINUED FROM PAGE A1 a grand jury. ,". The Attorney General's Office has' declined to comment on any aspect of the continuing investigation. ; Ah FBI spokesman, however, said his agents have turned up no "credible" evidence of a homicide, or that a 'public official" was involved. Th'e FBI is reviewing the case for possible civil rights violations. Last week, a Torrance County grand jury said a subsequent grand jury should be empaneled as soon as possible to investigate Sandlin's "unfortunate death." The recommendations said the special grand jury should be assisted by a new agency the local district attorney's office and would investigate "various public allegations" that have surfaced about the case. "No one should infer that the grand jury has determined that any of these allegations are necessarily valid as a result of our making this recommendation," the grand jury foreman said in a letter, "but only that the grand jury feels that it is in the very best interests of the people of the state of New Mexico as well as Torrance County, that they be thoroughly looked into." ' After spending thousands of hours interviewing witnesses and chasing leads in the investigation of Sandlin's death, attorney general agents finally thought their efforts had paid off last fall. ' While interviewing someone on another topic, the questioning turned to Sandlin. , A written account of that interview prepared by an official in the Attorney General's Office says the person recounted a conversation in which a law enforcement officer from another agency said he'd killed Sandlin. According to this account, the officer said Sandlin had been walking around and sat down with his paperwork just prior to the shooting. Sandlin turned around and was killed, the person told investigators. ; The law enforcement officer "stated that if he had kept his nose out of things (he'd) be better off. (Sandlin) wouldn't have died," according to the account of the interview obtained by the Journal. Within days of receiving the statement and preparing to refocus the investigation, then-Assistant Attorney General James Scarantino was fired. Two agents on the case were reassigned. . It is unclear what action resulted from the interview. Attorney General Hal Stratton and Deputy Attorney General Steve Westheimer, who heads the criminal division, say they won't comment on the investigation because it is still active. W'estheimer has said, however, that Scarantino's firing had nothing to do with the Sandlin investigation. James Nelson, special agent in charge of the Albuquerque FBI office, said he couldn't confirm or deny whether his agents polygraphed the man named in the interview. He did say FBI agents traveled to Utah for interviews on the case. After Scarantino was fired, he and former Assistant Attorney General James Yontz issued a public statement saying evidence in the attorney general's files showed "people engaged in illegal drug trafficking conspired to kill Officer Sandlin." Both attorneys also said they were driven off the case and out of their jobs for pursuing the investigation too aggressively a charge denied by Stratton and Westheimer. About three weeks before his death, according to police reports, Sandlin stopped a Manzano, N.M., man named Melvin King outside Mountainair's Rosebud Bar and arrested him on charges that included driving while intoxicated. King said in an interview with the Journal last July that it was Moun-tainair Police Chief David Carson who arrested him and that "I wouldn't know Sandlin if I saw him." King, who said he hadn't been drinking, also said he thought Sandlin was in the police car with Carson. The next day, Sandlin, Carson and other officers searched King's rural home and recovered bags of marijuana worth about $50,000. A Mountainair police report states the 54 pounds of marijuana was packaged in individual plastic bags as if ready for sale. There were also 117 newly potted marijuana plants and a number of marijuana plants about 2 feet tall. Officers also seized weapons and explosives. Mountainair police stored the marijuana at the Torrance County Sheriff's Department in Estancia April 16 because there was no secure place to keep it in the Mountainair police station, Carson said. Reports show Sandlin and another officer transported the marijuana, which had been packed in four large trash bags. But when an agent from the Attorney General's Office traveled to Estancia on May 18, 1988, to view ' ' '" . "" ' : The Mountainair police station, the stash, three of the four trash bags were missing, according to an attorney general summary. Torrance County Sheriff Gary Watts, who was undersheriff at the time, told investigators the following day he had put the marijuana in a locked trailer cutside the sheriff's department on May 13, according to a transcript of that interview. But other documents show investigators later received information indicating several garbage bags of marijuana matching the description of , that seized from King were moved out of Torrance County before Sandlin's death May 7. Watts, in a telephone interview from the sheriff's department Saturday, said it's possible the marijuana "never got over here." He said he never looked inside the garbage bags, didn't personally receive them and just assumed marijuana was inside. "I've got my doubts that it ever came over here, but I don't have any way to prove that and they (Mountainair authorities) don't have any way to prove it was here. That's the $64 million question as to whether it was ever even brought over here or if that was just dummy stuff (inside the bags)," Watts said. Watts said he moved all four bags from the indoor evidence locker to the trailer to make room for a proposed juvenile holding facility. Two of the bags had only stems inside, Watts said. The other two were sealed shut with wire ties and evidence tags. Only those two sealed bags turned up missing, Watts told the Journal. The nationally syndicated TV show "Crimewatch" quoted the Attorney General's Office last fall as saying "there is no relation between the policeman's death and the missing marijuana." By November 1988, all charges filed against King related to the traffic stop and the drug bust were dismissed, said former Assistant District Attorney John Leyba. An attorney general investigator interviewed King on March 16, 1989. According to a summary of the interview. King told the investigator he couldn't recall what he was doing the day of Sandlin's death, but "distinctly remembers he was not in Mountainair," the report said. King said he had nothing to do with Sandlin's death. "Mountainair One, Mountainair Four, respond to the office immediately." The radio call from U.S. Army Spec. 4 Eugene "Butch" Wright to Mountainair Police Chief Carson came as the sun was setting on the evening of Sandlin's death. Apparently nothing more was said to indicate Wright had just walked up to the second-floor police station and discovered Sandlin face down in a pool of blood, but still breathing. Within one minute, Carson arrived at the scene with Mountainair officer Edmundo Diaz. Four to 20 minutes elapsed before anyone called for an ambulance, according to handwritten logs of the police radio transmissions. Wright has said he found Sandlin about 7:45 p.m. Carson told investigators thai "?ht he arrived at the police station t 7:30 p.m., within one minute of receiving Wright's call. An ambulance wasn't called until 7:50 p.m., according to logs of police radio transmissions. Several people at the scene told investigators Sandlin was moaning, groaning or making breathing where Sandlin died the night of noises when they arrived about 7:51 p.m. to 7:55 p.m. Mountainair Mayor Richard Shovelin, an emergency medical technician, said he was the first paramedic to arrive. In a Journal interview, Shovelin said Sandlin had no pulse but was moaning and groaning. Diaz told investigators Sandlin was still breathing. Dr. Kris Sperry, who at the time was with the state Office of Medical Investigation, said Sandlin could have made breathing movements for up to 15 minutes after being shot. Though medical investigators can't determine when Sandlin died, Sperry told the Journal that Sandlin would have sustained irreparable brain damage and fallen unconscious instantly. Sandlin was pronounced dead at 8:12 p.m. by Dr. Robert Saul, who said the young man was dead by the time Saul arrived. Investigators tracked down a witness who reported hearing a single gunshot nearly one hour earlier at 7:16 p.m. Wright, then 21, was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, with Dolan Carson, one of police chief Carson's sons. He and Dolan arrived in Mountainair April 26, 1988, on military leave and stayed at the Carson home. They met Carson's three officers, including Sandlin, who had started work March 4. Wright, who was in military intelligence, liked to ride along with Sandlin on patrol in the town of 1,180. The day of Sandlin's death, Wright visited Sandlin at the police station and left at 6:40 p.m. to attend a talent show at Mountainair High School, he later told army and attorney general investigators. In a handwritten statement that night, Wright said he returned to the police station at 7:45 p.m. to ask Sandlin about riding with him that night. When he reached the top of the stairs he found Sandlin lying face down on the floor, his statement said. "I could here (sic) him breathing so I called his name. When he didn't respond I ran down to his unit and reached through the window, which was partially open and unlocked the door" to call Carson on the radio. Wright said in his statement that he waited outside the city hall police complex about 30 seconds until Carson arrived. "I then went upstairs with him (Carson) and he called Estancia," Wright stated. Estancia is the hub of law enforcement radio communications in Torrance County. There, a Torrance County dispatcher handles police radio traffic and keeps a handwritten log of incoming and "I could here (sic) him breathing so I called his name. When he didn't respond I ran down to his unit and reached through the window, which was partially open and unlocked the door" to call Carson on the radio. May 7, 1988 outgoing calls. No calls are tape recorded. There is no record of Wright's call to Carson that evening because car-to-car transmissions between law enforcement agents aren't noted on radio logs, Carson said in a recent interview. Wright's statement the night of Sandlin's death states: "I called Mountainair One, Dave Carson, and told him he was needed immediately at City Hall." Others who overheard the radio transmission confirm that's what he said, according to an internal attorney general memorandum. In police code, "Mountainair One" was Carson's unit and "Mountainair Four" was Sandlin's. Radio logs show the first indication that something was seriously wrong came at 7:50 p.m. when Diaz reported "an officer down" and asked for an ambulance. About the same time, logs show, Carson called the dispatcher with the same request. Wayne Granger, a medical investigator, reported that when he tried to question Wright that night, "he informed this investigator I had to advise him of his rights." About two weeks later, Wright underwent two polygraph examinations conducted by Jerry W. Gee, a special agent with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command at Fort Hood. Wright waived his rights each time and agreed to discuss the incident. Gee reported that during the sessions, Wright was untruthful when answering "no" to the following questions: Did you shoot Steve? Are you now lying to me about the circumstances surrounding Steve's death? Do you know for sure who shot Steve? Were you in that squad room when Steve was shot? Wright maintained he had nothing to do with Sandlin's death and didn't know how it occurred. In his initial interview with Gee May 25, 1988, Wright said he'd been at the local talent show with the Carson family and returned to the Carson home with Dolan Carson at about 7:15 p.m. Wright said he stayed there about 10 or 15 minutes before leaving alone to go to the police station. The following day, Wright returned and "the first thing Wright did after waiving his rights was to change his story about his being with Dolan Carson," Gee wrote in a report. Wright told Gee he drove straight to the police station from the Carson home at 7:15 p.m, the report shows. After two days of polygraphs and interviews, Wright returned May 27, 1988, to face a different interrogation. Gee set up an easel with butcher paper and wrote statements one by Eugene "Butch" Wright's handwritten statement one. Wright was instructed to tell Gee to underline statements with a blue pen if they were true, or a red pen if they were false. Gee wrote several statements about Sandlin's death and Wright immediately instructed him to underline them as being true. When Gee wrote "Body was found by Butch," Wright didn't answer. Gee reported telling Wright that his failure to answer meant he was being "untruthful" about finding Sandlin, or was at least withholding information. Gee then wrote that Wright was "scared." Wright told him to underline that in blue, meaning true. Wright said he had more to say about Sandlin's death that he hadn't previously divulged, but said he wanted to think about it and promised to return. On June 8, 1988, Gee again confronted Wright, asking the young soldier what would happen to him if he told the truth. "Wright, with some hesitancy, stated he would go to jail. He was then asked what would happen to him if he continued to lie about his incident. He stated, without hesitancy, he would go to jail," Gee wrote in a report. Wright again said he would be willing to return for more questioning. When he did so later that day, he told Gee he wanted to talk to him but had to see a lawyer about an unrelated matter. One hour later, Gee reported he received a telephone call from Westheimer and attorney general agent Bill Richardson. In the conference call, Gee reported, "Westheimer suggested my interrogation of Wright may be therapeutic in nature to Wright, which may be inhibiting his interest in speaking the truth. "Westheimer suggested I withdraw contact and have someone else inform Wright that the Attorney General's Office intended to pursue an indictment of Wright based on the information collected thus far." There is no indication that anyone else questioned Wright until Dec. 15, 1988, when Wright testified before a special grand jury empaneled in Estanica on another matter. Wright received "use immunity," meaning anything he told the grand jury couldn't be used to prosecute him. Westheimer questioned Wright for about four hours during the secret grand jury proceeding. Though Gee also went to Estancia to testify, he was never called. The grand jury disbanded without issuing indictments or mentioning the Sandlin case in its final report. Later, Wright was quoted as telling investigators, "You still haven't asked me the right question," an attorney general report states. Wright told the Journal in a 1989 telephone interview that his comment to agents was misinterpreted. "It wasn't quite like that. (That remark) could be taken many ways," he said, adding that it wasn't meant to indicate he was withholding information. Asked to elaborate, Wright declined, saying, "It's something I'd rather not discuss over the phone." Wright couldn't be reached for comment for this story, but during the previous interview he said he had nothing to do with Sandlin's death. Wright and Gee were transferred to Korea last summer. The day before Sandlin's death, Tom Gillespie, director of in vestigations for the Attorney General's Office, and State Police Lt. Mark Radosevich spent several hours in Mountainair following up citizen complaints. Radosevich, now a captain, said in a recent interview that allegations against Mountainair police included improper handling of evidence and excessive ticketing of motorists.' Gillespie and Radosevich talked to Carson, Diaz and Sandlin that day. Radosevich said he and Gillespie also inquired about the pending drug charges against King. Radosevich said he and Gillespie found some "problems" but didn't have authority to order Carson to change procedures. Radosevich said they simply made suggestions. Carson, in recent interviews, denied any evidence or property was handled improperly. On the afternoon of his death, Sandlin told a friend he had met with Carson and Diaz and was told to "mellow out" because he was issuing too many traffic citations. Friends who spoke with him that afternoon said he was angry but not depressed. In a Nov. 11, 1988, interview with AG's investigators, Carson was quoted as saying he told Sandlin he was "too aggressive in writing traffic citations and the department was receiving complaints." Carson, in a recent interview with the Journal, said he never told Sandlin he was writing too many tickets. He said he told Sandlin he couldn't be on patrol all the time and "try to catch everybody." Carson said he suggested Sandlin return to work at the police station. "What I said was, I had talked to him about working too hard," Carson said. "I said 'You guys have got all kinds of things going on, you've got a dance tonight.' ... I said 'I'm sure the office needs some attention and stuff. Why don't you and Frank spend some time up in the office getting caught up on your paperwork.' " "Frank" was Frank Piehler, the fourth Mountainair officer, who wasn't scheduled for duty until later that evening. Both Piehler and Sandlin were assigned to provide security at a town dance later that night next door at the community center, while Carson said he and Diaz were to patrol the town. During his November 1988 interview with investigators, Carson was asked about his whereabouts in the hours prior to Sandlin's death, according to a summary of that interview. Carson said he met with Sandlin and then went home to "lay down" about 3 p.m. that day, and got up at 6 p.m. and left his home to start patrol. The report says Carson told investigators that at 6:45 to 6:46 p.m. he drove to the community center, which shares a parking lot with the police station. Carson said he thought the talent show was to be held there but realized it wasn't, and he said he didn't go into the building. He said he then drove to the high school, about a mile away. Carson said he talked to his wife and the mayor at the talent show and left at 7:05 p.m, the summary of his interview states. The report quotes Carson as saying his "next recollection was arriving at Eddie Diaz's residence at 7:30 p.m. to pick Diaz up to patrol with him." "Carson was questioned about his whereabouts and activities between 7:05 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.," the summary stated. "Carson said that he must have experienced a black-out because he couldn't recall where he had been or what he had done during this 25-minute period." Carson told the Journal last week he never made any statement about blacking out or being unable to recall. Nelson, of the FBI, said Carson's statement quoting him as saying "blacked out" didn't mean he lost consciousness, but meant only "that he couldn't recall minute by minute everything he'd done . . . and that's a big difference from his blacking out." Months after Carson's November 1988 interview, investigators lo-; cated witnesses who say they saw what appeared to be Carson's police car parked outside the police station before 7:30 p.m. about the ; time Carson said he received Wright's radio call. Investigators located one witness who claimed to have noticed Carson driving north of the police station , about 7:20 to 7:25 p.m. He said he saw Carson speak into his police radio microphone and drive at high : speed to the police station. The witness didn't mention seeing . anyone else with Carson, according to the summary of that interview. . The witness said he then passed by the police station and noticed Carson's car parked at an angle about 5 feet from the curb. The witness added he hadn't, thought to contact investigators' about the information because he had been left with the impression that the Attorney General's Office considered the death a suicide. MORE: See DISCREPANCIES on PAGE A7

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