Rebecca Brown was getting ready for work at her Chula Vista home on Tuesday, January 9, 2014 when detectives from the San Diego Police Department knocked on the front door.
Her husband, Kevin Brown, who had worked as a crime analyst for the San Diego Police Department for 20 years, opened the door. The detectives had questions for him about a homicide in 1984. Rebecca assumed it was a case that her husband had worked on. She paid no attention to it and left for her job teaching English literature at a Catholic school in Chula Vista.
An hour before the end of the school day, the phone in Brown’s classroom rang. Police detectives were on the other line. They told her to come outside. Once in the parking lot, officers handed her a copy of a warrant to search her car. They followed her to her house to conduct the search.
As she pulled up to her home, Brown saw 15 to 20 officers carrying boxes from her house and placing them into police vans. She met her husband, mother, and brother, who were living with the couple at the time, inside the couple’s living room.
The four looked over the search warrant for answers. It was sealed. She turned to her husband. The 61-year-old former forensic-lab worker said detectives were asking him about the murder of Claire Hough, a 14-year-old girl who was found bludgeoned and mutilated on Torrey Pines State Beach on August 24, 1984.
As the family talked, officers confiscated hundreds of items from the home, including laptops, Rebecca Brown’s classroom syllabus, teaching materials, her mother’s wedding pictures, her grandmother’s photo albums, a book of Christmas carols, a bookmark. In all, San Diego police officers took 14 boxes and three trash bags full of the family’s belongings.
That’s when it clicked. Kevin Brown, Rebecca’s husband of 22 years, was now a murder suspect.
Within eight months’ time, Kevin Brown went from a loving husband to a suspect in a brutal killing who hung himself from a tree in Cuyamaca State Park.
At the center of the case were minute traces of Brown’s DNA found on one of the two cotton swabs taken from Hough’s body, a swab that had been stored in the crime lab where Brown worked for 18 years after the murder.
Rhode Island girl found dead on San Diego beach
It was a grisly sight: 14-year-old Claire Hough’s body splayed out on a bloody towel between lifeguard towers 4 and 5 on Torrey Pines State Beach. A plastic radio, pack of cigarettes, and a pair of shoes were positioned next to her. The cause of death was ruled strangulation, but her face was bruised, her throat was cut, her vagina had been mutilated with a knife, and her left breast was amputated.
Hough came to San Diego from her home in Rhode Island to visit her grandparents. She had been at the zoo with them that day. Afterward, as she had done most every day of her visit, Hough went to Torrey Pines State Beach. She returned that evening at 8:30. She talked with her grandparents before going to her room. She was reported missing the following morning.
Police had no leads, no reliable eyewitnesses. They did, however, find similarities between Hough’s death and the murder of Barbara Nantais six years earlier. On August 13, 1978, the 15-year-old girl was found on the same stretch of sand, dead from blunt-force trauma to her head. Nantais’s body bore similar lacerations and a partially amputated right breast.
On August 25, 1984, the San Diego Medical Examiner’s office conducted an autopsy on Hough’s body. Staff took two samples on two sets of swabs from Hough’s mouth, vagina, and anus. One of the swabs was tested. There was no sperm. The numbers of acid phosphatase, an enzyme found to be of much higher concentration in semen than in vaginal secretions, was low, indicating no presence of semen on the swabs. The other swab was transported to the San Diego Police Department’s crime lab — where Kevin Brown worked — for storage.
Cold case stays cold
In 1996, San Diego Police Department cold-case detectives reopened the case. They interviewed witnesses and attempted to piece together the similarities between Nantais’s and Hough’s murders. No new leads developed and the case went cold.
Meanwhile, DNA testing improved. Law-enforcement agencies around the country turned to DNA testing to solve cold-case murders. New methods allowed forensic technicians to reproduce small traces of cells in order to obtain complete samples.
But the science isn’t perfect. Amplifying a small number of cell strains has its limitations. A study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology in 2013 found that “because it is highly sensitive, any form of contamination of the sample, even trace amounts of DNA, can produce misleading results.”
In 2012, cold-case detective Michael Lambert reopened Hough’s case. He ordered DNA tests on the second swab obtained during Hough’s autopsy and stored in the police crime lab. New results showed up. Samples of blood and semen revealed two new suspects.
Kevin Brown; nervous, nerd. Murderer?
“There’s no other way to say it. Kevin was a doofus, a nerdy guy who didn’t have a mean bone in his body. I say that out of love. We would joke about it. He was a normal, nerdy guy. Yes, he liked sex; same as every male that has ever lived. He wasn’t into anything kinky or weird, despite what police detectives say.”
Rebecca Brown sits at a table inside a downtown San Diego café. Her blue eyes are filled with tears. Her platinum hair is neatly combed. Her arms are speckled with small bruises and scabs. She picks at them as she describes her former husband.
The two met after their previous marriages failed in 1992. Kevin had placed a singles ad in the San Diego Union-Tribune. She answered the ad and met him at Seaport Village for a drink. She was 38, he was 40.
“It was what people did before Match.com and all these other internet dating sites. When I saw him I knew he was just an ordinary, nice, and kind person. He was kind of dorky, into science and math. I was energetic and outgoing, into literature. We were opposites in that respect but we leveled each other out. I got him excited and he calmed me down. He was a sweet guy, a bit socially awkward at times but just sweet. He was sensitive, just nice, definitely not some suave guy who went out and picked up women. We kissed that night, and I never heard music in my head during a kiss before. He converted to Catholicism, and we were married six months later.”
Brown opens up a photo album the cemetery compiled after her husband was buried. The pictures show a tall, slender man, curly hair sprouting up from a receding hairline.
“I mean, it’s pretty easy to see that he was a total nerd with a sweet sense of humor and not a mean bone in his body. He would be the last person ever to be suspected of a crime, any crime, let alone some awful murder. I never would have thought, and still don’t to this day, that he was guilty of anything, other than being normal.”
Brown worked as a criminalist on “criminalist row” at San Diego’s old police headquarters near Seaport Village from 1982 to 2002. “Criminalist row” was a large, open room lined with long tables.
Brown tested DNA samples, took pictures of crime scenes, and testified in dozens of cases. His job, says his widow, weighed heavily on him. He had visited therapists to try and cope with bouts of depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
“He was deeply affected seeing the things he saw at crime scenes. They hurt his soul. They tried to portray him as some misogynist who was into kinky stuff. That wasn’t him. I should know. I was married to him for 20 years. No, he was nervous. He had anxiety. He hated any kind of spotlight. He despised testifying for cases. He was a nervous guy, very private. From the day after the cops searched our house, that depression and anxiety grew. The cops knew it. They preyed on it as if they were on some television show. This is real life.”
Kevin Brown cannot be excluded as a suspect
In July 2012, the new DNA tests ordered by police detectives in the cold-case unit focused on the vaginal swab, the bloody towel, and Hough’s clothing stored inside the department’s property room. The items came back with three DNA matches. Sperm from Hough’s boyfriend at the time was found inside Hough’s underwear, underneath a panty liner. He was in Rhode Island at the time of his girlfriend’s murder, excluding him as a suspect.
The other match came from bloodstains found on Hough’s jeans. The blood was from convicted rapist Ronald Tatro. Tatro, 40 years of age at the time of Hough’s murder, was on parole in San Diego County on a first-degree rape conviction in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Six months before Hough’s murder, Tatro was a suspect in the murder of prostitute Carol Defleice on El Cajon Boulevard. In 1985, a year after Hough’s murder, Tatro was arrested and later convicted for attempted rape of a sixteen-year-old girl in La Mesa. Tatro died in a 2011 boating accident in Tennessee.
Detective Lambert then turned to the remaining DNA match. Traces of Brown’s semen were found on a swab from Hough’s vagina. Brown’s DNA profile had been logged into the police department’s system when he was an employee to identify possible cross-contamination issues.
On January 4, 2014, Lambert zeroed in on Brown.
He submitted an affidavit for a search warrant of Brown’s home for items pertaining to the deaths of Claire Hough and Barbara Nantais. At the time of Nantais’s murder six years earlier than Hough’s, Brown was a student at California State University at Sacramento.
To convince the judge of the need for a search, Lambert painted Brown as a quiet but disturbed sex addict who frequented strip clubs, watched pornographic videos, and took pictures of nude women. He interviewed a handful of Brown’s colleagues during his 20-year stint in the crime lab.
“Lab Supervisor Patrick O’Donnell stated he remembered Brown had a reputation of unusual behavior during the time of his employment,” Lambert wrote in the affidavit. “I determined additional follow up interviews needed to be conducted with former and current coworkers of Kevin Brown’s at the San Diego Police Department Lab…. O’Donnell stated he never associated with Brown outside of work and stated Brown’s reputation was only rumor to him.”
Lambert said Brown often made awkward jokes and once asked a female coworker to model for him for his photography group.
Another former colleague said she saw Brown leave the F Street Adult Book Store during his lunch hour. His zipper was allegedly down.
Fellow criminalist Annette Peer said one day Brown and a coworker watched a pornographic movie during work, though that coworker later denied it ever happening.
Lambert addressed the only other possible explanation for the presence of Brown’s DNA: cross-contamination. Lab manager Jennifer Shen told Lambert that cross-contamination was “not possible.” Brown had not worked on the case and therefore his DNA could not have been present.
Lambert revisited the DNA test conducted in 1984 by the medical examiner’s office and interviewed San Diego County chief medical examiner Glen Wagner.
“The Toxicology Report indicates the acid phosphatase present on the vaginal swab collected were 37m I.U. (International Units). Acid phosphatase is an enzyme present in seminal fluid and sperm and is also present in other fluid sources in both men and women. Dr. Wagner stated he was ‘reasonably certain’ that the acid phosphatase present was from a male individual. He also stated that acid phosphatase markers lower than 50m [International Units] is unreliable…. Dr. Wagner further stated there is nothing to dispute that the sex between Brown and Hough could have occurred at the time of Hough’s death and that, according to the totality of the case, Brown cannot be excluded as a suspect in Hough’s murder.”
The affidavit continued, “Based on the above mentioned facts, particularly the violent manner in which Hough’s ‘Levi’ jeans were torn, indicating they were forcibly removed, and Brown’s sperm in her vagina and not on her panty liner, I believe the sexual intercourse Brown had with Claire Hough was not consensual and appears to be contemporaneous to the murder. Furthermore, I think it is unlikely that Hough was raped on either Tuesday or Wednesday night by Brown, then [Hough] walks alone, in the darkness of night to the beach and is murdered by Tatro. I also believe this, in part, because I believe it is not likely that Claire Hough is raped by Brown and then on the same night, and in a separate unrelated incident, is murdered by Tatro.”
Lambert also believed Brown was following the case like the eponymous character on Showtime’s crime thriller Dexter.
“I believe Brown and Tatro possibly met while traveling in similar circles. Brown was open with fellow lab employees regarding the frequency in which he patronized the local strip clubs. It is commonly known among law enforcement, many times strippers often engage in prostitution.”
San Diego County Superior Court judge Frederick Maguire granted the search warrant on January 3, 2014.
One day after police confiscated the 14 boxes and 4 bags full of their possessions, Kevin Brown went to police headquarters for an interview. He denied knowing Ronald Tatro. He said he never knew, nor did he kill Hough. He suggested to detective Lambert that it must have been cross-contamination from when he worked in the lab. He said that oftentimes criminalists would air-dry swabs before placing them in storage and that back in the ’80s he and his colleagues often submitted samples of their own semen and blood to test the chemical reagents used in the tests.
Brown remained a suspect.
I was watching him die
Rebecca Brown recalls, “When [Kevin Brown] was in New Mexico he worked the huge prison revolt there. He was terrified of prison. Detectives knew what they were doing when they confiscated our belongings. It was a desperate attempt to try and find something, anything that would implicate Kevin and tie him to Ronald Tatro. And when they couldn’t find anything, they took our items, my family’s photo albums, to create stress and to cast doubt, and drive him to the point of cracking. That’s one thing they did right.”
Detective Lambert told Brown that he planned to return the remaining items by April 2014. April passed. Brown’s mental health deteriorated.
“He wouldn’t get out of bed,” says Rebecca. “He started taking sleeping pills and anxiety medicine. I kept trying to give him projects around the house, to keep him busy.”
In August 2014, Lambert told Rebecca that the items would not be returned until after the investigation.
Kevin’s behavior began to change. He pulled in front of a city bus one morning in August. The following month he backed into a parked car.
“The investigation was killing him,” says Rebecca. “He was always so put together and so calm. But, as the months passed, it was like I was watching him die. He turned into a zombie. We lived in a constant state of fear that cops would knock on our door at any minute, to search our house or arrest him for a murder he didn’t commit.
“One day, weeks before his death, I came back from work and Kevin was still in bed. On the floor by his bed was a bullet. There was a note thanking me for the 20 years of marriage. He thanked his priest and his friend. That’s when I really began to worry that he was going to kill himself. I called my brother and we removed the guns from the house, but I knew that he was slipping further and further away.”
On Monday, October 20, Rebecca returned home from work. Her husband was missing. His cell phone and watch were on his bedside table.
“My mom, who was living with us at the time, said he told her that he had some things to do. He didn’t come home for dinner. I thought maybe he was watching Monday Night Football with friends. I started calling neighbors and anyone else I could think of, and no one had seen him or talked to him.”
The following day, Rebecca called the California Highway Patrol. “I was sure he was in some car accident.”
He wasn’t. That day, Kevin drove to the couple’s cabin near Lake Cuyamaca where he put a chair into his truck. He drove on Highway 79 to a tree near mile marker 7.25 where he hung himself.
Rebecca later received a phone call that her husband’s truck was located near Cuyamaca State Park, a mile from the couple’s cabin. At 11 p.m., officers called to inform her that her husband’s body was at the medical examiner’s office.
One day after park rangers found Kevin’s body, the San Diego Police Department’s cold-case detectives and district attorney’s investigators continued to make their case.
District attorney investigator Sandra Oplinger requested a search warrant for the couple’s cabin. Oplinger wanted to search the premises for “evidence of monitoring the progress of the investigation of the murders of Claire Hough, Barbara Nantais, and anything related to the name of Ronald C. Tatro….”
As was the case in the previous search warrant, Oplinger failed to state that Brown was in Sacramento for college when Nantais was murdered. That same day, the San Diego Police Department issued a press release, naming two suspects in Hough’s death, Brown and Tatro.
A headline in a Los Angeles Times article read: “San Diego police solve 1984 killing of teen at Torrey Pines State Beach.”
Homicide lieutenant Paul Rorrison told the Times reporter he was “very gratified. It’s what we strive for. We work for the victims and the family. These cases don’t just go away.”
In late July 2015, Rebecca sued the City of San Diego, Lambert, and Oplinger.
“The search warrant and the illegal seizure of the property shows police were desperate to find something, anything to solve this case,” says Eugene Iredale, the attorney representing Rebecca Brown.“What Lambert didn’t write in his affidavit is that the other swab, the one not air-dried in the police crime lab where Kevin Brown worked, didn’t reveal presence of semen. That swab was taken at the same time from Claire Hough’s body but somehow was different. Was this just some magic swab that the DNA gravitated towards during the autopsy or was it because it was stored at the same place that Kevin Brown worked?”
I feel like I’ve been raped
Suzanna Ryan is an expert in forensic Serology and DNA analysis. Ryan has testified as an expert witness in over 70 cases throughout the country. She has seen numerous instances of cross-contamination in labs, and she disputes the San Diego crime lab manager’s statement that cross-contamination was impossible in this case.
“I can’t speak for every lab, but my experience in labs since 1999 is that lab technicians often used their own samples, whether it was saliva or blood, as positive and negative controls, to make sure that reagents are working properly. Many labs purchase semen samples from companies to conduct these tests. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that in 1984 some lab technicians were providing their own semen samples. In my experience, male employees are often asked if they will volunteer to provide semen samples as a positive control.
“It was a different world in 1984, in regards to DNA testing. We know for a fact that secondary transfers, or cross-contamination, occurs inside these labs. All you need is a small number of cells to get results, so to say that it was impossible for cross-contamination or secondary transfer to occur on a swab that was stored inside the police property room for nearly 30 years is misguided.”
Back inside the restaurant, Rebecca Brown sips on a coffee as she tries to turn off tears. She is heading to a parent-teacher conference at school and needs to “hold it together.”
Every so often as she describes her husband and the investigation, sadness sounds more like anger. “However awful this murder was, and it was truly awful, I feel like I’ve been raped. Police came into my life and confiscated my belongings. They accused my husband of being some sexual deviant and child killer. They came and went as they pleased like it was some sort of game. Kevin was a normal person and they shoved him into the grave and made me a widow. I can’t let this same thing happen to anyone else. Detectives, just like the real murderer in this case, need to be held accountable. That’s all I ask for.”