July 16, 2004

Albuquerque Tribune




In 1989 Kaitlyn Arquette was found dead in her car in Albuquerque with two gunshots to the head. Fifteen years and a string of police chiefs later, the crime remains unsolved. But the case has piqued the interest of a detective with the re-established Cold Case Squad.


By Joline Gutierrez Krueger

Tribune Reporter


Fifteen years later, and the shooting death of University of New Mexico student Kaitlyn Arquette might as well have been 15 minutes ago, the memory still sharp, the bullets still singing in the heavy air on that rainy July 16 night.


Fifteen years later and there are still no answers.


At least none that satisfy her family and an Albuquerque private investigator who continues to work the case on her own time.


The shooting, they say, may have been a glimpse, Arquette's glimpse, into a dark, disturbing and powerful Albuquerque underworld that may only now be coming to light.


"We are convinced that Kait was murdered because she knew too much," her mother, Lois Duncan, said from her home on the East Coast. 


In those 15 years, Duncan, a nationally noted author, has turned the agony of her daughter's death into a relentless quest for answers - not just for herself but for other families struggling to understand why justice has not come.  "I used to wake up in the night to the sound of gunshots and Kait's voice screaming for help," she said. "Now it's a chorus of voices."


Duncan's drive prompted her to write her 1992 book, "Who Killed My Daughter?"  It fueled the creation of the Real Crimes Web site, where families tell their own stories.

It helped bring about the New Mexico Justice Project, a collaboration of those families who, like Duncan, seek better accountability from law enforcement agencies.


Still, none of it has brought answers Duncan seeks.  And it has not given her the confidence to believe her daughter's killer will be caught.  "We not only lost Kait, we lost our faith in the 'great American justice system,' " she said.


Fifteen years later, Duncan still searches for the truth, for that one law enforcement agent who takes the case seriously and that one tip that breaks the case open.  Now, with the help of a new Cold Case Squad detective, it's possible she will get her wish.




They called her Kait, big and bold, her hair golden like corn silk, her smile like Sunday afternoon.  She possessed a confidence and a curiosity that earned her honor student status at Highland High School, where she graduated in spring 1989.  It may have also have led to her death two months later.


On the evening of the shooting, Arquette, 18, showed up briefly at her parents' Northeast Heights home.  It was a Sunday night. She was fine, her mother said, despite her breakup with her live-in boyfriend, a Vietnamese immigrant who spoke broken English and was several years her senior.


Arquette left their house around 6:15 p.m., telling her parents that she was off to a friend's house near Old Town for dinner.  The friend, Sharon Smith, later told Albuquerque police that Arquette did not arrive until 9:30 p.m.  Smith also said Arquette told her she had eaten dinner with her parents, police reports state.  Those missing three hours became the first of many unexplained bits of information that still don't fit together.


"There are all these pieces, interesting pieces, to all this, but I still don't know what it all means," said Albuquerque private investigator Pat Caristo, who has worked on the Arquette case since 1992.


Arquette left Smith's home around 10:30 p.m. and went east on Lomas Boulevard in her 1984 red Ford Tempo.  Neighbors in Martineztown, about one mile east of Smith's home, reported hearing three or four gunshots sometime after that.  Arquette, shot twice in the head, slumped helplessly in her car as it drifted across three oncoming lanes, leaving a two-block trail of glass from the driver's window.  The car continued up a sidewalk in front of small auto dealership and into a light pole near Arno Street, the car lights still gleaming and the gear inexplicably in park.


Albuquerque police Violent Crimes Detective Ronald Merriman, driving by at 11 p.m., reported seeing a "small car" parked near the Tempo, his report states. Witnesses described it as a primer gray Volkswagen Beetle.


"I thought it was probably people looking at cars," Merriman wrote in his report.


Perhaps he couldn't see Arquette crumpled across the front seats, two bullets in the left side of her skull.  He called in the scene as an accident without injuries.


But after another glance, he went back. This time he noted blood on the left side of Arquette's head. But he apparently did not see the bullet holes in her face, in the driver's window or in the exterior of the car.


Merriman's report said he called for medical assistance and backup.  But statements from two ambulance workers insist no officer was present when they arrived to transport Arquette.


"There was no one at the scene, as I recall," said Bette Clark, now chief of the Bernalillo County Fire Department, in a 1998 notarized affidavit.


"It seems to me that APD vehicles were arriving as we were pulling away from the scene," emergency medical technician Kathy Baca said in a similar affidavit.


The man with the Volkswagen - Paul Apodaca, 21 - told police he had just stopped to see what was going on. Police apparently asked little else of him and let him leave, reports indicate.  Two of Arquette's neighbors later told detectives three Asian men who were often seen at Arquette's apartment, friends of her Vietnamese boyfriend, were spray-painting a primer gray Volkswagen Beetle black in the apartment parking lot shortly after the shooting.


Police never again questioned Apodaca, in prison now since 1995 for raping a relative.


Arquette died at the University of New Mexico Hospital hours after she was shot.




Duncan originally believed her daughter was killed because she was planning to expose an interstate car insurance fraud ring her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend and his cronies had thrust her into.  Her book details how the scam involved collecting insurance money after staging crashes in rental cars.  She learned Arquette had witnessed her boyfriend stage  one of those crashes on a trip to Disneyland.


But police never paid that theory heed, she said.  Instead, they told her Arquette's death was the result of a random drive-by shooting.


They appeared to be right when three young men were arrested in connection with Arquette's death six months after the shooting.  The men shot her on a dare, the state's star witness said.


But 10 days later, all charges were dropped against the men when it was learned the star witness had been incarcerated at the Youth Diagnostic Development Center and could not have seen or spoken with them that night.  The would-be witness later told a reporter police bullied him into fingering his pals.


Ten years later, though, police appeared to stick with that theory.


"The case has been solved," Detective Don Mayhew of the department's Cold Case Squad said in a 1999 Tribune article. "We're not going to look at it."


In a 2001 Tribune interview, Cold Case Detective Paul Jassler echoed Mayhew's sentiments.  "That has never been a cold case," he said. "It has never been part of our files."


And in a Tribune article in January, Albuquerque police homicide Sgt. Carlos Argueta explained the Arquette family may not understand why the case cannot be pursued further because of the high emotions involved.  "It is hard sometimes to explain why a case is investigated as it has been, or what we believe happened," he said.




Four Albuquerque police chiefs and dozens of detectives have come and gone since Arquette's killing. Most have refused to meet with the family. None has furthered the investigation.  Nothing has happened.


But that may be about to change.  Last month, Chief Gilbert Gallegos announced he was re-establishing the Cold Case Squad, which went defunct in 2002.  Already, the two-detective unit has 178 cases to delve into.  One of them is Arquette's.


"It's absolutely an open case. It absolutely will be worked," Cold Case Detective Don Roberts said. "It's of great interest to me. It's on my desk right now. It's probably the biggest case that I have."  Roberts said he has already read through the thick case file, posing questions to himself, scribbling notes that span half a legal pad.  "It's somewhat becoming one of my 'hobbies,' " he said.


Unlike many of his predecessors, Roberts said he is ready and willing to meet with the family and private investigator Caristo.


Gallegos is also not entirely disproving of taking another look at the case.  "That one in particular has been looked at and will continue to be reviewed as we go through the process of looking at the many cold cases," Gallegos said.


Caristo has heard all this before.  "So many of them read my investigation and are appalled at how the case was handled," she said. "But then something stops them, something happens to end their interest. Then it's over."


Still, Caristo said she is ready to meet with Roberts, share her years of investigation and hope something will be done.  "As long as there are unanswered questions I will continue to try to answer them," she said. "This case will not go away."




What did Arquette know? What had she seen that could have cost her her life?


The answers, Duncan now believes, went much further than car insurance fraud.  "We received information from several unrelated sources that Kait was playing a dangerous game of Nancy Drew," Duncan said. "Certain members of her boyfriend's group allegedly leaked information about the New Mexico drug scene that Kait was attempting to verify."  The information involved the use of drugs by prominent New Mexicans, Duncan said.  "Some of the activities that led to her murder may be ongoing today and connected with other crimes and deaths," she said.


Caristo agrees that Arquette's death was intentional and likely because of something she knew.  "Somebody wanted Kait dead or scared," she said.


Caristo can recite most of the disturbing details of Arquette's case by heart. She keeps finding more details even after 15 years.  Earlier this year, she brought her private investigator apprentices to an old mechanics shop at 824 Arno St. N.E., a place she said had been a notorious hangout for rogue cops in the 1980s.  The building is near where Arquette was shot, and it’s the location where witnesses saw a VW Beetle try to take refuge after fleeing the crime scene. It's torn down now, but as her students wandered through its hull one of them found an old check.


The cancelled check was made out to Sharon Smith, the new friend that Arquette went to see on the night of her death – the woman who gave her written directions to her home, routing her through the neighborhood in which she was shot.  Maybe it means something. Maybe nothing. For Caristo, the work continues.


For Duncan, it continues as well as she goes on, searching for answers. 


"Kait is just as dead today as she was 15 years ago," she said. "The same people who knew what happened back then still know what happened. Loyalties change; intimidated people gain courage; lost people find God. That hope is what keeps us going."


POSTSCRIPT by Lois Duncan Arquette:


In June 2004, KRQE-TV in Albuquerque released information from a confidential narcotics report about drug activities of Chief Judge John Brennan and other prominent judges, attorneys, and members of the NM state legislature that date back to before Kait’s murder.  Other victims whose cases are featured on this web, (Peter Klunck, Ramona Duran, Stephen Haar, etc.), were killed immediately after telling people they feared for their lives because they had information about VIPs in NM who were involved in the drug trade. If this was what Kait found out about, the information in this long-buried report might turn out to hold all the answers that we and so many other NM families have been searching for.