But in 2012, using dramatic advances in DNA technology, San Diego homicide detective Michael Lambert reopened Hough’s case and retested the evidence. The results were puzzling. He found DNA matches for two men who didn’t seem to have any connection or anything in common.
One was a convicted sex offender named Ronald Clyde Tatro, whose blood was found all over Hough’s jeans. The other was one of the police department’s own, a retired crime lab technician named Kevin Brown, who worked at the lab during the original investigation of Hough’s killing. A trace amount of Brown’s sperm, previously undetected, was found on the vaginal swab.
When police showed up to serve a search warrant at his house, the 62-year-old Brown, who had a history of anxiety and depression, told the officers it had to be mistake. Police pressed on with their investigation. Nine months later, Brown killed himself.
Now, Brown’s widow, Rebecca Brown, will tell a federal jury in California exactly what she believes drove her husband to suicide: an enormous error by the San Diego police. In a trial of her wrongful death suit against the city of San Diego that began Monday, Brown’s attorneys will argue that Lambert and the department refused to accept the most obvious explanation for how Brown’s semen ended up intermingled with homicide evidence. It wasn’t from raping a 14-year-old girl — but from accidental cross-contamination that occurred in the crime lab, they will argue.
Back in the 1980s, the lab’s male technicians kept samples of their semen on hand at the lab for use in quality-control testing. Kevin Brown had suggested to police that this must explain why a tiny sample of his semen may have accidentally ended up among the evidence in the Hough case, according to the lawsuit.
Police were unconvinced. For months, Brown’s mental health spiraled, until finally the pressure overtook him, Rebecca Brown says in the lawsuit.
“He was afraid they were going to arrest him, that he would be put in jail and subject to abuse, and he couldn’t stand it,” Eugene Iredale, the attorney for Kevin Brown’s estate, told The Washington Post in an interview this week.
A jury will be left to decide whether Lambert and the police department acted so recklessly that they caused Brown to commit suicide, as well as whether Lambert obtained a warrant to search Brown’s home under false pretenses.
Attorneys for San Diego and Lambert did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night. But the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that city attorneys said they “do not intend to argue” that Brown killed or raped Claire Hough. They will rest their defense on the absence of proof of contamination, demonstrating that the investigating officers acted in good faith.
“There is no question that this is a tragic case,” wrote Senior Chief Deputy City Attorney Catherine Richardson, the Union-Tribune reported. “A young girl was murdered. A former SDPD civilian employee committed suicide. But [the detectives] were doing their jobs.”
At the time Hough was killed in 1984, forensic technology was primitive, and DNA testing didn’t yet exist. The coroner looked for sperm on swabs taken from Hough’s body but found none, and the crime lab didn’t find anything conclusive either, according to the lawsuit.
Brown didn’t handle evidence in Hough’s case. But in a surprise admission on Tuesday, the former crime lab technician who did analyze that evidence, John Simms, said there is a possibility he could be responsible for contaminating the Hough evidence with Brown’s DNA, the Union-Tribune reported.
Back in that era, to test whether a substance was semen, technicians often practiced the chemical test on samples of their own semen to make sure the test was working as designed. The semen samples were kept in envelopes in the refrigerator and were “available for general use” by employees, Simms said.
Now he believes it’s possible he could have grabbed Brown’s semen from the fridge instead of his own, he said.
“I cannot be certain whose [semen sample] I used,” he said, the Union-Tribune reported. “I don’t want to believe I made a mistake, but I have to admit it’s a possibility.”
When Lambert began pursuing Brown in 2012, the city attorneys claim in court documents he was not aware of the protocols that Simms described in court and therefore not aware of the possibility of contamination. He claimed in an affidavit for a search warrant that he had been told by the lab manager that contamination was “not possible."
Iredale argues that was a lie that helped Lambert obtain a search warrant on false pretenses. The lab manager, Jennifer Shen, now says she never used those words.
San Diego police officers showed up on Brown’s doorstep in January 2014. They were looking for anything that could possibly connect Brown to the sex offender, Tatro, whose blood was found on Hough’s shorts.
During the sweep, they seized more than 20,000 photographs in albums that belonged to the couple and to Rebecca Brown’s 80-year-old mother, dating to the 1930s. They seized cameras and laptops and videotapes and family keepsakes. They even took copies of the Declaration of Independence and Magna Carta that Rebecca used for teaching high school students, according to the lawsuit.
Nothing they found indicated any connection between him and Tatro. Nor did anyone police interviewed recall ever seeing the two together, according to the lawsuit. But the investigation into Brown continued.
“From the day after the cops searched our house, [Kevin Brown’s] depression and anxiety grew,” Rebecca Brown told the San Diego Reader in a 2015 interview. “The cops knew it. They preyed on it as if they were on some television show.”
Kevin Brown became fixated on the return of the family’s possessions, his widow said in a court deposition. He started keeping a calendar in his closet. He marked off each day with a bold black X, for every day closer he came to getting back the 14 boxes of seized possessions, she said, and once they got the items back they planned to “rejoice in the end of this nightmare” by spending the night at a hotel. In his mind, she said, he believed that the return of the belongings signaled the end of the investigation.
“We felt when they returned these things and saw there was nothing there, they would definitely have to say: ‘Well, we thought we might find something. Obviously we didn’t, so it’s done,' " Rebecca Brown said in the investigation.
But that day never came. In September, Rebecca Brown came home on a Friday evening to find her husband in bed and a letter on the floor, next to a bullet. The letter began, “Dear Becky, Thank you for the last 20 years.”
Kevin Brown denied that it was a suicide note. His wife didn’t believe him.
She said she warned Lambert that the investigation was causing her husband to have suicidal thoughts and that they needed to return the family’s seized belongings immediately. The city denies Lambert was aware that Brown was suicidal.
If police ever planned to return the belongings, it would be too late.
On Oct. 20, 2014, Brown bought a rope at a hardware store, drove to the couple’s cabin in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and hanged himself from a tree.
Police, still suspecting Brown of murder, executed another search warrant at the couple’s cabin, hoping to find evidence. But Brown did not leave a note.
Four days after his death, police publicly identified him as a suspect in the cold-case murder of Claire Hough, along with Tatro. In a news release, police said he committed suicide just as “preparations were being made for Kevin Brown’s arrest,” generating headlines across the country and even in the British tabloids. To Iredale, the implication was clear: The police suggested he was guilty.
The headlines screamed, “San Diego police solve 1984 killing of teen at Torrey Pines State Beach,” as the Los Angeles Times wrote, and “Ex-crime lab tech dies before cops close in,” in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
When reporters tried to ask police how they believed Brown and Tatro were connected, they refused to answer.
Tatro was on parole in San Diego County at the time of the killing after his release from prison in Hot Springs, Ark., on a first-degree rape conviction, the San Diego Reader reported. He was also a person of interest in the murder of a prostitute in San Diego and, a year later, in 1985, was convicted of the attempted rape of a 16-year-old girl.
He died in 2011 at age 67.