Ex-Cop Indicted in Wife's Death

By Colleen Heild -- Albuquerque Journal Investigative Reporter.  November 1, 2003

Eight years ago, New Mexico State Police investigated the mysterious death of Melanie McCracken, the wife of a respected officer in the department.  The result: case closed.

 

On Friday, a Valencia County grand jury working with a special prosecutor took just 10 minutes to decide there was enough evidence to indict retired Lt. Mark McCracken on charges that he killed her and covered up the crime.

 

The indictment charges McCracken with the "willful, premeditated and deliberate" first-degree murder of 24-year-old Melanie McCracken at their Bosque Farms home. He is also charged with evidence tampering.

 

McCracken, who retired in August after 25 years with the State Police, is scheduled to surrender to authorities Monday. He has denied any involvement in his wife's death.  Melanie McCracken was found dead in the back seat of a family car involved in a one-car rollover off N.M. 47 north of Bosque Farms the evening of Aug. 5, 1995.

 

McCracken, now 41, told authorities he lost control while rushing her to the hospital.  He said he had found his wife of 18 months unconscious and unresponsive in the bedroom of their home, after an earlier disagreement.

 

Carolyn Nichols, one of McCracken's attorneys, said the grand jury never heard all the facts.  "I think there was a completely one-sided presentation to the grand jury. It's been said a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich, and I think that's what happened here."

 

Special prosecutor Randall Harris said no new evidence emerged but said none was needed.  "They just never seriously investigated this," Harris said. "Rule number one is you never, ever investigate your own agency, and that was where it started."

 

The indictment comes more than seven years after the state Office of the Medical Investigator ruled the death as "undetermined" and State Police and then-District Attorney Mike Runnels closed the case.  Runnels' successor, Lemuel Martinez reopened it shortly after taking office in 2001.

 

McCracken agreed to allow his wife's body to be exhumed nearly a year ago. Several months after the exhumation and a new autopsy, Martinez appointed Harris, who served 12 years as district attorney in Clovis, as special prosecutor.  "The moral of this story is there is no such thing as a perfect crime. There is such a thing as imperfect investigation," Harris said. "This case is about an imperfect investigation."

 

State Police initially investigated the case as an accident, then looked into whether Melanie McCracken committed suicide or took an overdose of drugs.  When State Police investigators questioned McCracken, they "never even read him his rights," Harris said.

 

State Police spokesman Lt. Robert San Roman on Friday defended the handling of the case.    "We feel that it was a thorough investigation and appropriate with the facts we had at the time," he said.

 

Active in traffic safety and anti-drunken-driving efforts, McCracken has been held in high esteem over the years. He was promoted from sergeant to lieutenant about three years ago despite the public controversy involving his wife's death.

 

Harris said the grand jury began looking at the evidence Thursday and heard from two witnesses before deliberating. McCracken didn't testify.  One of the witnesses was Dr. L.J. Dragovic, a Oakland County, Mich., forensic expert who concluded that Melanie McCracken died from asphyxiation or suffocation. District attorney investigator Larry Diaz was the other.  Nichols said four other pathologists who have looked into the woman's death found no evidence of foul play.

 

Harris also credited the efforts of Melanie's mother, Nancy Grice, who was suspicious of her son-in-law and pressed for an independent investigation.  "I'm numb," said Grice, an Albuquerque nurse, after the indictment was issued. "It's been eight long years."  Dissatisfied with the State Police inquiry, Grice ultimately filed a federal civil suit against the agency and McCracken. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount in 1999.

 

McCracken and others told State Police that Melanie McCracken had a terminal illness and seizures. Many state police officers, learning of her death, assumed she had died of natural causes. But the autopsy found no evidence of any such illness.

 

Grice and private investigator Mike Corwin became suspicious of McCracken after learning that he never called 911 after finding his wife unconscious.  Instead of using his patrol car, he put her into the family car to drive to the hospital. On the way, they would have passed the headquarters of a Bosque Farms ambulance service from which paramedics are dispatched. But McCracken never stopped.

 

McCracken said he was driving north on N.M. 47 when he looked in the back seat to check on his wife and the car veered out of control.  At the scene of the crash, McCracken appeared to be unconscious and was airlifted to University Hospital. But several witnesses said later they thought he might be feigning his condition.

 

The young woman was believed to have died before the crash, but no State Police investigator went to the McCracken home in an official capacity to look for evidence.  Bosque Farms police, who would have had jurisdiction, were not brought into the case.  No formal State Police search of the house occurred, although several of McCracken's friends from the State Police accompanied a part-time OMI field investigator into the house. Photos the investigator took at the home have disappeared.

 

After an autopsy couldn't determine how Melanie McCracken died, OMI chief Ross Zumwalt wrote a letter to the Department of Public Safety asking for an independent investigation.  In response, Runnels asked a State Police supervisor from Northern New Mexico to look into the case, along with a field investigator from the Santa Fe District Attorney's office.