Ronald Clyde Tatro (left) and Kevin Charles Brown
Ronald Clyde Tatro (left) and Kevin Charles Brown. Photo via

A retired San Diego Police Department criminalist committed suicide because homicide detectives improperly investigated him for the 1984 murder of a 14-year-old girl, an attorney representing the man’s widow said Monday, while a city attorney said the lead detective on the murder case investigated the criminalist based on the best information provided to him and was not responsible for his suicide.

Opening statements were delivered Monday in the federal lawsuit filed by Kevin Brown’s widow, Rebecca, against the city of San Diego and its police department, which she said pursued an investigation into her husband leading to his suicide in 2014.

Brown, 62, was suspected in the murder of Claire Hough, who was strangled and found dead at Torrey Pines State Beach in 1984. Brown hanged himself at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in October of 2012, which his lawyers said was a result of the investigation, as well as the seizure of numerous items of sentimental value from his Chula Vista home.

Rebecca Brown’s attorneys allege now-retired SDPD Detective Michael Lambert misled a judge when securing an affidavit for a warrant to search and seize property at Brown’s home.

The affidavit was secured on the basis of Brown’s sperm cells, which were found on a vaginal swab of Hough, though Rebecca Brown’s attorney, Eugene Iredale, said those cells were most likely transferred onto the swab via accidental cross-contamination.

Iredale told jurors that lab techs at the SDPD crime lab often used their own semen as control samples when conducting testing for the presence of semen.

Other DNA evidence found on Hough’s clothing pointed to another suspect, Ronald Tatro, who was previously convicted in several other rapes and assaults on women. Tatro, who died in 2011, was matched to several blood stains on Hough’s pants and a pubic hair found on her clothing, Iredale said.

The attorney said Tatro’s DNA was far more represented than the minute number of Brown’s sperm cells found on the swab, yet Lambert used the sperm cells and evidence that Brown had frequented strip clubs in the 1980s to suggest he worked in concert with Tatro in the killing.

However, no such connection between the men was ever discovered, nor was Brown ever connected to the murder.

Brown, who suffered from anxiety and depression, was “obsessed with getting his property back,” Iredale said, yet was unable to secure their return over the course of several months. Some of the items seized included around 30,000 photographs, newspaper clippings, and school yearbooks.

Iredale said the prospect of spending time in jail while fighting to clear his name and the property seizure was enough to push Brown to suicide.

The attorney said Lambert was aware Brown was suicidal and held onto Brown’s property “because he knew it would cause pain and hurt, because he felt he was going to break him down, he was going to crack the case.”

Deputy City Attorney Catherine Richardson said the trial was about what information Lambert had to work with at the time of his investigation, not whether Brown was guilty of Hough’s murder or even whether contamination caused his sperm to end up on the vaginal swabs.

Richardson said the items from Brown’s home had to be seized in order to prove or disprove a possible connection between Tatro and Brown, which would have dated back more than three decades, and that a rigid investigation was needed to prove there was no favoritism toward an SDPD employee.

“If he hadn’t investigated (Brown), then the police would have been accused of covering up for one of their own,” Richardson told the jury.

Richardson also said Lambert relied upon DNA experts when he wrote the affidavit and was not given all the information he needed.

The attorney said Lambert asked about contamination when presented with the evidence of Brown’s DNA, but was told by his sergeant that contamination was not possible. She also said Lambert was not informed that SDPD lab techs sometimes used their own semen for testing until months after the search warrant was secured.

Brown apparently also made several conflicting statements about whether contamination could have accounted for the presence of his DNA, according to Richardson.

The trial, which is being overseen by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw, is expected to last about two weeks.

— City News Service