Gila County sheriff’s investigators decided the evidence and the interviews didn’t match up with the reported suicide of Enessa Hamilton within hours of her May 11, 2007 death, but had to wait three, long, frustrating years to get enough results back from state and private crime labs to arrest her former boyfriend for murder last week.
Sheriff’s deputies arrested Lance Patrick Gomez, 41, in Prescott Valley in connection with Hamilton’s death. When the forensic evidence finally came in after a nightmarish delay, the tests suggested Hamilton did not fire the bullet into her chest from the gun found alongside her body in the back yard of the Deer Creek home she rented with Gomez, said investigators.
The long delay in waiting for lab tests for firearms, DNA and fingerprint evidence highlights the frustrating obstacles to obtaining even seemingly straight-forward forensic tests. Small police departments often must rely on the Arizona Department of Public Safety’s crime lab and sometimes out-of-state private labs for such tests.
“We have to wait until we have all the evidence before we make an arrest. When we make assumptions, we can really foul up people’s lives,” said one sheriff’s investigator, who asked that his name not be used because he didn’t want individual recognition for what was a team effort.
Two detectives in the sheriff’s Payson office handled the case, Jamie Garrett and George Ratliff.
Gomez’s arrest last week spurred anger from his friends and family, who said he had been hounded by Hamilton’s family, which had essentially forced the sheriff’s investigators to make the arrest.
A friend of Gomez, who asked not to be named, said Hamilton was depressed and suicidal and had repeatedly threatened to kill herself. She said Gomez was devastated by her death and tried to stop her from killing herself, but had failed.
Now as he planned his marriage to a woman in Prescott Valley, sheriff’s deputies swept in “out of the blue” to make the arrest, said the friend.
“No way that Lance could ever have done such a thing,” said his friend.
“If you knew him, you’d know it’s impossible. The sheriff is just responding to pressure from her family, who blamed him from the start. But he couldn’t stop her. He couldn’t.”
Investigators said that although Hamilton’s family did call frequently to see how the investigation was going, the calls from the family had no influence on the investigation, which relied on the accumulation of sufficient evidence to support an arrest.
The Gila County Sheriff’s Office has not yet released the investigative reports on Hamilton’s death and declined to detail the tests investigators based the arrest on prior to the release of those reports. However, on Monday, an investigator provided some detail on the reasons for the long delay in making the arrest.
Investigators said they thought the evidence made suicide unlikely from the first day.
The case turned on collecting evidence to determine whether Hamilton shot the gun and whether the nature of the wound and the spatter of blood from the wound were consistent with a suicide.
The investigator said Hamilton was found in the back yard next to the gun that fired the fatal bullet nearby. She was not wearing gloves.
The sheriff’s investigator declined to specify the precise tests conducted. However, the genetic, firearms and fingerprint evidence all suggested Hamilton did not fire the bullet into her own chest.
A variety of forensic tests might help establish whether someone shot themselves.
For instance, investigators could check the gun for fingerprints or for DNA evidence, which would determine who had held the gun.
In addition, a search for gunpowder residue and the blood spatter patterns could indicate whether the gun was fired into her chest at point-blank range or from a distance. That would include things like whether a spray of blood blown back from the wound at close range ended up on the muzzle of the gun and whether the lab found traces of gunpowder on her blouse.
Moreover, a person who fires a gun would also have traces of gunpowder on her hand.
Investigators almost immediately developed doubts about the reported suicide, said the investigator. “Things just weren’t adding up.” However, the sheriff’s investigators immediately ran into difficulties in getting the evidence they’d collected analyzed.
Most police departments, especially in rural areas, operate in a world far-removed from the high-tech, spare-no-expense world of the endless proliferation of CSI programs on television — where the most complex case gets resolved through intricate tests in an hour.
“I don’t even watch those shows,” said the investigator in disgust.
Instead, most police departments in the state send evidence to the state’s crime lab in Phoenix, which has suffered a 50 percent budget cut in the past two years.
DPS Scientific Analysis Superintendent Todd Griffith said he could not comment on a specific case, but that murders and violent crimes get top priority for analysis. He said the DPS lab does not do gunpowder residue analysis on the hands, because it is expensive and rarely done. However, he said the lab would do most of the other tests such a case might have required. He said it could take months to do all the necessary tests for a high priority case, but not years. The tests needed for a murder case could easily cost $50,000 to $100,000, which the state crime lab covers.
The Gila County sheriff’s investigator said the analysis from the state took five months, but the firearms test sent to a private crime lab in Texas took nearly two years to get complete results back. That included the time required to do an extra set of tests at the firing range to establish certain patterns from gunshots at different distances.
The investigator said that detectives called repeatedly trying to pry lose results of the tests from the private lab.
Members of Hamilton’s family eventually also began calling the lab, which finally produced the results on which the detectives based last week’s arrest.
In addition, the investigators sent DNA samples to the state crime lab, which took five months to conduct. Those tests also supported the eventual arrest of Gomez. “The investigation is not yet complete,” said the investigator, but with the tests finally returned “we had enough for probable cause. This is not like CSI,” said the investigator. “I have been told that a DNA report can be obtained in a week, but only if that’s all the lab has to do.”
Unfortunately, in a world of budget cuts, the long wait for results that can pose such an agony for the families of victims has become increasingly common.
“This has happened in many cases,” said the investigator.