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Thursday, November 9, 2023

The Claire Hough Murder Case: A Saga of False Accusations and Suicide

     In early August 1984 14-year-old Claire Hough and her best friend Kim Jamer left their homes in Rhode Island for a two-week vacation in San Diego, California. The girls had arranged to stay at Hough's grandparents' house. The girls spent their days hanging out on Torrey Pines Beach not far from where they were staying.

     On August 24, a day after Kim Jamer returned to Rhode Island Claire Hough, still in San Diego,  slipped out of her grandparents' house to enjoy the beach at night where groups of teenagers sat around fires drinking beer.

     Claire Hough did not return to her room that night. The next morning a 61-year-old beachcomber named Wallace Wheeler came across her body. She lay dead next to her boombox. Covered in blood on a bloodstained bath towel her left breast had been cut off and her genitalia mutilated. Her killer had filled her mouth with sand. The murder knife was not at the scene and was never recovered.

     The San Diego County Coroner determined that Claire Hough had been strangled to death. The forensic pathologist reported that because he found no traces of semen on her body she had probably not been raped.

     Wallace Wheeler, the man who discovered the body immediately came under suspicion. He was a strange man who, after Claire Hough's murder, kept a correspondence with her parents. In his letters he wrote about his visions and dreams of the man who had killed their daughter. Without a confession, eyewitness or evidence physically connecting Mr. Wheeler to the murder he remained just a suspect. In 1988 Wallace Wheeler jumped to his death from the 13th floor of his apartment building. He was later eliminated as the killer through DNA analysis.

     In 1978, six years before Claire Hough's murder, another teenage girl had been murdered on Torrey Pines Beach. That victim had also been strangled to death, had her left breast cut off and had sand in her mouth. There was no evidence that she had been raped. That case was still unsolved. Because of the similarities in these two murders detectives believed they were dealing with a serial killer.

     After the Claire Hough murder months turned into years without an arrest. In 2012 a team of cold-case investigators were informed by a DNA analyst that bloodstains on Claire Hough's jeans matched the DNA of a man named Ronald Clyde Tatro. A year earlier Tatro had been killed in a boating accident.

     In 1975 Ronald Tatro was convicted of kidnapping and raping a girl in Arkansas. Following his parole in 1982 he moved to San Diego. Shortly after arriving in California Tatro lured a teenage girl into his van where he tried to subdue her with a stun gun. She escaped and notified the police. Tatro was arrested, confessed and went to prison for attempted rape. By August 1984, when Claire Hough was murdered on the beach, Ronald Tatro was out of prison.

     Detectives trying to connect Ronald Tatro to the 1978 murder of the girl on Torrey Pines Beach discovered that when that girl was killed he was serving time in Arkansas.

     Because Ronald Tatro was no longer living, the quest to bring Claire Hough's murderer to justice would have ended there. However, semen traces on a vaginal swab from the Hough murder matched the DNA of Kevin Brown. This was surprising for two reasons: according to the forensic pathologist in 1984 no semen traces had been found on the victim's body and Kevin Brown, at the time of Claire Hough's murder, worked as a technician in the San Diego Crime Lab. Because of the sensitivity of this revelation the authorities, pending further investigation, decided not to reveal it to the public.

     So, who was Kevin Brown? In 2002 Mr. Brown retired from the crime lab after 22 years on the job. The 65-year-old lived in San Diego with his wife Rebecca, a Catholic high school teacher who was several years younger than him. They were married in 1993. He had never been arrested.

     A background investigation of the murder suspect revealed that as a younger man he seemed, in the eyes of some, to be obsessed with sex. In fact, his fellow lab workers had nicknamed him "Kinky." A woman who worked with him in the lab told detectives that Brown had shown her a porn film that she described as "sickening." As an amateur photographer Mr. Brown supposedly liked to photograph nude women. However, after his marriage, Mr. Brown settled into to a quiet, conventional domestic life. People who knew him as a married man considered Kevin Brown a very nice person who was a bit of a nerd. Nevertheless, detectives on the case had convinced themselves that Kevin Brown had been some kind of sexual pervert.

     On January 9, 2014 San Diego detective Michael Lambert (who happened to be a former colleague of Brown's at the crime lab) and officer Lori Adams, showed up, unannounced at Kevin Brown's door to question him about the Claire Hough murder case. Seated in the living room with the suspect's wife looking on, the detectives asked Mr. Brown if he remembered the case. He said yes he remember the brutal murder on Torrey Pines Beach.

     The detectives showed Kevin Brown a photograph of Ronald Tatro. Had he ever met this man? Mr. Brown answered no. The detectives informed Mr. Brown that Ronald Tatro was connected to the murder through his DNA. And not only that, semen found at the murder scene had been identified through DNA as his--Mr. Brown's.

     If the detectives had hoped Mr. Brown would confess after learning that his DNA had been recovered from the Claire Hough murder scene they were disappointed. Instead, the suspect insisted that the DNA identification must have been a mistake. He had absolutely nothing to do with the girl's murder and wanted to take a polygraph test to prove it.

     Before the detectives left the suspect's house that morning they executed a search warrant. When they departed they were in possession of Mr. Brown's computer and other personal items.

     Later on the day of his confrontation with the San Diego detectives Kevin Brown took a lie detector test administered by a police department examiner. The polygraph examiner reported that Mr. Brown's response, when asked if he ever knew Ronald Tatro, was "inconclusive." Regarding the subject's denial that he had anything to do with Claire Hough's murder, the polygraph examiner labeled that answer "deceptive." In other words, according to the polygraph examiner, Keven Brown failed the test. While this result encouraged the detectives on the case it could not be used as evidence in a court. When informed that he had failed the polygraph test Kevin Brown knew that at some point he would be arrested for the 30-year-old murder of Claire Hough.

     In early October 2014, law enforcement authorities publicly announced that detectives had, through DNA analysis,  finally cracked the Claire Hough murder case. The suspect in the brutal murder was 67-year-old Kevin Brown, a former employee of the San Diego Crime Lab.

     On October 21, 2014, before police officers had a chance to come to his house and arrest him, Kevin Brown hanged himself.

     Rebecca Brown, in December 2014, brought a civil suit against the San Diego Police Department and others for falsely accusing her husband of murder. The false accusation had pushed the depressed and anxious man to suicide. The plaintiff accused homicide detectives of mishandling the investigation and lying to the magistrate who had issued the search warrant.

     In her lawsuit Rebecca Brown pointed out that in 1984 the forensic pathologist had not found any semen on Claire Hough's body. Moreover, detectives were never able to establish a connection between her husband and Ronald Tatro.

     Following Rebecca Brown's lawsuit, forensic experts reported that when Kevin Brown worked in the San Diego Crime Lab the place was horribly polluted and poorly run. Instead of purchasing bodily fluid specimens as control samples, male lab personnel, including Kevin Brown, submitted samples of their own blood and semen. This, along with other lax and sloppy lab procedures created the possibility of evidence contamination and co-mingling that could explain a false Kevin Brown DNA identification. In any case, had the case gone to trial, due to the conditions of the San Diego Crime Laboratory, the DNA evidence would have been inadmissible. Without the DNA there was no case.

     On February 23, 2020 in a San Diego courtroom the jury hearing the Rebecca Brown civil case against the police department and other defendants awarded her $6 million. In addition, Detective Michael Lambert was ordered to pay the plaintiff $50,000 in punitive damages for his role in the investigation. Rebecca and her attorney indicated, however, that if Michael Lambert apologized, they would reduce the amount he owed them. The detective refused to apologize so the punitive damages remained at $50,000.   

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