Albuquerque Journal

Sunday, March 16, 2003

 

FAMILY PUSHES FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION INTO DEATH

 

By Katie Burford

 

Stephanie Houston was run over on a dark stretch of road north of Belen three years ago. The 28-year-old convenience store manager from Socorro died en route to the hospital.

 

The man behind the wheel that night was Houston's boyfriend, 38-year-old Patrick Murillo a plumber and part-time musician who was married and had children. Murillo and Houston had been having an affair for several years, and the two had argued immediately before the fatal incident. He told police she refused to get in the truck with him, slammed the door and stormed off. Murillo told officers she apparently tried to grab the back of the pickup as he drove off, then fell and was run over by the trailer he was pulling.

 

Police concluded Houston's death was an accident. But Houston's family has pushed for more investigation. Her friends told authorities she had been abused by Murillo. And medical investigator Kathleen Enstice concluded in the autopsy report that "many of the circumstances surrounding (Houston's) death are unclear and raise the question of whether (it) ... was intentional."

 

Autospsy results found evidence Houston had taken cocaine and a barbituate. Her blood-alcohol level was 0.047 percent the legal limit for drunkenness is 0.08 percent. Murillo told police he'd been drinking that night, but a blood sample tested negative for alcohol.

 

Two district attorneys have looked into the case, but neither found enough evidence for further action. The case is now under review by the state Attorney General's Office.

 

Murillo did not respond to calls seeking comment.

 

Michael Corwin, a private investigator hired by Bill Houston, Stephanie's father, contends State Police did a cursory investigation, interviewing only Murillo immediately after the accident.

 

"Their not doing work is what's critical," he said.

 

Lt. Robert Shilling, State Police spokesman, said the investigation was by the book.

"Procedurely speaking, it was a pretty thorough investigation," he said.

Houston was killed Feb. 27, 2000, in front of the Red Carpet Lounge, a roadhouse where Murillo's band "Nightfall" was playing. But it is in Socorro, where Houston and Murillo grew up, where questions swirl about what happened that night.

 

Sally Padilla, a friend who worked with Houston at a Socorro convenience store, remembered when Houston and Murillo started seeing each other. "She comes in one day (with a picture of Murillo's band) and says guess which one I'm seeing," she recalled.

Houston told Padilla that Murillo was married, but "they're separated and they're going to get a divorce."

 

Padilla, a licensed private investigator, eventually left her part-time job at the store for a full-time post at the District Attorney's Office in Socorro. Houston was managing two Socorro convenience stores at the time of her death.

 

The last time Padilla saw Houston was Feb. 23, 2000, four days before she died. Houston told Padilla that she and Murillo had a fight and she was interested in getting a restraining order.

 

"I recommended that she could go to El Puente (a battered women's shelter)," Padilla said during a recent interview at the Deschamps Law Firm, where she now works. Houston said she wanted to think it over. "She was going to let me know on Monday what she was going to do," Padilla said.

Corwin said Houston's fatal weekend began on Friday when Murillo, Houston and her 10-year-old son drove to Belen in Murillo's pickup truck, pulling a trailer full of equipment. Houston dropped her son off at a relative's for the weekend. She and Murillo stayed at a motel.

 

Murillo's band played Friday and Saturday night at the Red Carpet Lounge. On Saturday night, Houston ran into a friend, Ruben Chavez, at the lounge and they danced. According to an investigation report by State Police Special Agent Art Ortiz, Murillo told police that Houston did this to make Murillo jealous.

After the show, Houston and Murillo argued outside the bar. Refusing to go with him, Houston walked across the highway and headed south on the shoulder. Murillo told investigators he followed her in his truck and tried to persuade her to get in. Instead, he said, she opened the passenger-side door, grabbed her purse and slammed the door.

 

According to a police report, Murillo said he "started driving the vehicle forward, and as the vehicle was passing, Stephanie apparently grabbed onto the right rear of the pickup, possibly trying to get in the back, and fell. Stephanie was then run over by a trailer tire."

Murillo told police he heard Houston throw her purse in the bed of the truck before she was run over.

 

Moments before the accident, Ruben Chavez, driving the opposite way, saw Murillo's truck on the shoulder and made a U-turn. While coming up behind Murillo's vehicle, Chavez wrote in a brief statement attached to police reports, that he saw the truck "jump about 15 to 20 feet." He approached and found Murillo holding Houston. Murillo called 911, and Houston was transported to the University of New Mexico Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Murillo was questioned and released. He told police he had a few beers, but a blood test, taken more than three hours after the accident, showed no alcohol in his system. The truck and trailer were towed to a lot in Los Lunas. After tire impressions and Houston's purse were collected from them, the vehicles were released to Murillo.

 

Murillo told investigators he had "been having an affair with (Houston) for the past four years. (He) said he had been planning to tell his wife about the affair and was going to file for a divorce, however, he continued to delay telling his wife because of their children."

 

Autopsy results show Houston suffered a severe skull fracture, a broken arm, blunt force trauma to her chest and abdomen and abrasions on her legs. Alcohol was present in her blood and she tested positive for cocaine and Fiorinal, a barbituate.

 

Medical investigator Enstice wrote that the circumstances surrounding the death were "unclear." She classified the manner of death as "undetermined." Enstice now works at the University of South Alabama. When asked for comment on her findings, Enstice responded by e-mail that she "would like to" but first wanted to speak with the New Mexico Attorney General's Office. "I do, however, have concerns that her death was not accidental," she wrote.

 

Corwin questions how Houston could have suffered injuries on so much of her body if she had been run over only by a trailer tire.

 

State Police Lt. Shilling said investigators did a thorough inspection of the vehicle and "there was nothing to indicate she was struck with the truck and not the trailer." Ortiz, through Shilling, declined to be interviewed for this story, as did State Police officer Nick Armenta, who wrote the accident report, and State Police Sgt. Mark McCracken, who is listed as the scene supervisor.

Bill Houston said it wasn't until after the accident that people who knew Stephanie started telling him she was abused. He obtained copies of his daughter's medical records that included a Jan. 30, 2000, trip to the emergency room for a head injury. She told the doctor she was knocked unconscious by a fall, but she told others she was attacked by a drunken customer at the store. Houston did not file any police reports against Murillo.

 

There are police reports on file in which another woman claimed she was assaulted and threatened by Murillo. No charges were filed in connection with these reports.

 

Houston's father said that in the months following his daughter's death, he made numerous trips to the State Police office in Los Lunas to bring them statements and other information indicating a history of abuse.

 

Six months after Houston's death, Officer Armenta, at the request of Assistant District Attorney George Heidke, conducted additional interviews. In those, friends and former co-workers said they frequently saw Houston with bruises. A domestic violence counselor at the local shelter said Houston came there for counseling, a police report states.

 

Bill Houston hired Corwin in late 2000, and they have pushed authorities to pursue the case. His appeals made some headway in 2001, when a new district attorney for the 13th Judicial District took office. Lemuel Martinez agreed to have his office review the case.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Frederick Howden said more interviews were conducted but again prosecutors concluded that "there wasn't sufficient evidence to move forward."

Houston continued to press, so Howden turned it over to the state Attorney General's Office.

Since Stephanie Houston's death, further tragedies have befallen her family. Her son's father died about a year ago. Her younger sister, Crystal Lee Caldarella, was found dead in her Socorro home on April 16, 2001; an autopsy concluded that it was not clear whether her death "was due to trauma or drug intoxication."

 

Stephanie's mother, Joyce Fisher, said her grandson remains devastated by the loss of his mother. "He's angry because she's gone," she said. "He feels like maybe he could have put a stop to it."