Josh Vihel, 16, died at a party in Albuquerque on January 10, 1998. The official cause of death was "alcohol poisoning," but the fact that Josh had a bruise on his forehead, that his nose was leaking blood, and that money was missing from his wallet caused the Vihel family to suspect foul play. They also questioned the fact that Josh's body was carried out of the party house and taken to the apartment of one of the partygoers, who didn’t report the death until the next afternoon. The first officer at the scene called in a report of a "suspicious death," and Violent Crimes and Criminalistics were dispatched to the scene.
An informant contacted the Vihels with information that GHB (date rape drug) had been slipped into Josh’s drink and caused him to lose consciousness, after which he was robbed and carried off the premises in either an unconscious or dead state. Since all traces of GHB leave the victim's system after twelve hours, that drug would not have shown up in Josh's autopsy.
The Vihels provided APD with contact information for people who had attended the party, but police never interviewed them, nor did they interview the people who gave the party, claiming they couldn’t find the house. Josh's sister, who was attending law school out of state, flew home to conduct her own investigation. She located the house with no problem and interviewed the neighbors, who told her that Chris and Scott Leonard, the men who owned the house, threw frequent parties where they charged cover fees and sold liquor and drugs to minors. One neighbor claimed to have called in four complaints about those activities, but said the police had done nothing. She described a traffic accident caused by two young intoxicated girls leaving one of the Leonards’ parties, and said police didn't follow up on that either.
Josh’s mother questioned APD Detective James Torres as to why APD would not interrogate the Leonard brothers. Torres told her that "the old district attorney," (Bob Schwartz), had advised against that. The Vihels found that confusing, as Bob Schwartz had been out of office for a year at the time of Josh’s. In a report on March 15, 1998, Detective Torris stated, "This case will be considered closed, unless additional information is developed." In that same report, Torris stated that there was "no sign of blunt trauma," directly contradicting the report filed by the first officer at the scene, who noted a bump on the victim’s head and stated, "Due to the possibility of head trauma being the cause of death, a Criminalistics call out was made."
The Vihels retained an attorney to file a civil suit against Chris and Scott Leonard. The attorney was so convinced of the strength of the case that he took it on a contingency basis. Then he started ducking the family’s phone calls. When they finally were able to get through to him, he announced that he no longer had time to work on Josh’s case. He said he was sorry and would offer his findings and all the documents the family had provided him to another attorney, if they found one, and would help in any way he could.
The Vihels pursued several other major law firms in Albuquerque, but kept feeling there was something strange about the way they were received. Finally one lawyer told them that the original attorney was waving colleagues off, telling them he had "made a terrible mistake ever taking this case." When the family attempted to contact the attorney to complain about his unprofessional conduct, they were informed that he was dead. (An alleged accidental drowning).
The Vihels renewed their search for a lawyer, and finally found one. The Leonard brothers wanted to settle out of court for the amount that was covered by their house insurance, but the Vihels insisted on taking their case to court, as their sole reason for filing the lawsuit was to obtain information about their son’s death. There was no question about guilt. The defendants admitted to throwing regular parties at their home with minors drinking in their presence. Some of the teenage partygoers testified as reluctant witnesses, but once on the stand, their testimony was damning to the brothers. In the course of the hearings and depositions, the Vihels learned that most of those parties involved videos, and that a video had been taken at the party at which Scott died. Not surprisingly, that video was now missing.
In a deposition, Chris Leonard stated that he had several friends and a cousin on the police force. "I’ve always found it best to get to know the officers involved in whatever situation I’ve asked them to come to," Leonard stated.
Since police maintained that they could not locate the young man that tipsters had identified as the person who put GHB in Josh’s drink, beat and robbed him, and prevented others from rendering aid, the Vihels’ attorney went out and found him. That suspect denied the allegations, and the fact that the autopsy report gave the cause of death as alcohol poisoning made it impossible for the family to press charges.
With all other avenues closed to them, the Vihels agreed to settle with the Leonards for $100,000. After paying their attorney and splitting the remainder of the money with immediate family members, as required by law, Josh’s parents used the rest to send Josh’s girlfriend to college.
What did all of this effort accomplish?
"Certainly, this will not bring Josh back, as we desire everyday of our life," says his mother. "But it did stop the Leonard brothers from throwing those parties. It drove a wedge between the brothers. It made Josh’s killer nervous. And it helped Josh’s girlfriend with her schooling. Josh would have liked that.
"Had the police immediately investigated as we thought they would … Had they immediately questioned people who attended the party before memories altered or dimmed … Had they pitted brother against brother early on in testimony … And had we known enough to obtain a separate autopsy report and not had Josh’s body cremated, perhaps we could have proved his death was not just from drinking. People ask us why we didn’t file a suit against the police department that existed in 1998. We didn’t have that option. By the time we realized the police weren’t doing their job, the statute of limitations for misfeasance and/or malfeasance had run out."