A complaint filed against the city of San Diego alleges a homicide investigator resorted to false statements and left out critical facts to obtain a search warrant in a 30-year-old cold case, leading to a suspect’s suicide.
In her most recent suit, Rebecca Brown names the city, San Diego Police Homicide Detective Michael Lambert and a District Attorney investigator as defendants.
She has previously filed a complaint against the San Diego Police Department to clear the name of her late husband, 62-year-old Kevin Charles Brown, a former SDPD criminalist.
"I wasn't believed and now I think I will be believed," said Rebecca in an interview Thursday. "Kevin will be believed. We will be able to show they had no right coming in this house; they had no right tormenting us, tormenting my husband until he took his life."
Investigators accuse Brown of working with another suspect, Ronald Tatro, in 1984 to strangle, beat and kill 14-year-old Claire Hough, whose mutilated body was found on Torrey Pines State Beach.
In late 2012, Brown became a suspect in Hough’s murder after the case was reopened. Investigators say they found Brown’s DNA – a “sperm fraction” -- on a swab taken from Hough’s body during her autopsy. Tatro’s blood was found on Hough’s jeans.
“Even though DNA extracted from blood left on Claire Hough’s clothing matched that of convicted rapist, Ronald Tatro, (homicide detective) Lambert decided to use unconstitutional methods to investigate Kevin Brown for a crime he did not commit and to attempt to connect Kevin Brown with Tatro, whom Kevin had never met nor seen,” the complaint alleges.
Click here to read the full complaint.
Lambert is accused of violating the Browns’ constitutional rights in the way he conducted his investigation, deliberately pressuring Brown and causing him stress. Though he knew Brown was a suicide risk due to depression, an anxiety disorder and insomnia, Lambert interviewed witnesses in a “misleading and suggestive manner” and refused to return “illegally seized evidence” taken from the Brown’s house in 2013, the complaint says.
Rebecca says Lambert seized irrelevant material, like her lesson plans and childhood memorabilia, that was beyond the scope of the “overbroad warrant,” and he did not return the evidence until November 2014. His motive, the claim alleges, was to make Brown falsely believe that the SDPD was about to arrest him.
“Lambert knew that the retention of the seized property would cause Kevin greater and greater anxiety and fear, because Kevin believed that even though innocent, if charged he would be unable to make bail and would be subject to physical abuse while in jail because of his former employment with the Police Department,” the complaint says.
Brown hanged himself in October 2014. According to his wife, Lambert knew suicide would look like a “tacit admission of guilt,” covering another alleged SDPD problem: cross-contamination.
Rebecca maintains that Brown’s DNA on the swab was a result of cross-contamination, not proof that he was the perpetrator. According to the court document, it was common for criminalists to use their own blood and semen to test methods in the SDPD lab when Brown worked there in the 1980s.
The lab technicians would also dry swabs in the open air, without guards to protect from contamination, the complaint says. Additionally, a 1984 coroner’s microscopic examination of the swabs found no sperm – a fact Lambert did not include in his search warrant application.
"It is going to end up vindicating him," said Rebecca. "I am standing up for him now because he was too sensitive a soul to live with this constant pressure, so much so that he is not here with us."
Lambert is accused of ignoring the possibility of contamination and instead distorting Brown’s past to suggest he had a sexual perversion. The SDPD had said cross-contamination is not possible in this case because Brown worked on firearms and narcotics crimes and never handled evidence in Hough’s death.
The complaint cites audits of other crime labs in Santa Clara County and Washington State, which have found instances of DNA switching and contamination by lab worker’s DNA. However, no examples from the SDPD were given.
“The San Diego Police Department has resisted the transparency displayed by many other crime labs, which have disclosed the results of audits and investigations of lab errors. SDPD has evinced a fierce resistance to admit to human error and the existence of cross-contamination in its lab,” the claim states.
The document details possible ways cross-contamination could occur in the SDPD lab in the 1980s.
In the complaint, Rebecca accuses the defendants on 10 counts, including wrongful death, negligence, wrongful detention of seized property, and seizure of property beyond the scope of the warrant.
NBC 7 has reached out to city attorneys for their response to the complaint. We have not gotten a response so far. The defendants have 30 days to respond to the civil suit.