A newly obtained search warrant reveals new details about how San Diego Police came to accuse one of their own lab technicians and another man of the 1984 slaying of Claire Hough.
Fourteen-year-old Hough was found beaten with her throat sliced and left breast cut off on Torrey Pines State Beach. The county coroner determined she had died from manual strangulation, but an initial investigation turned up few leads and no eyewitnesses.
Since DNA technology was limited, for nearly 30 years, her murder remained a mystery.
But on Oct. 23, SDPD investigators announced they had identified two suspects in the case: Ronald Tatro, who died in a boating accident in 2011, and 62-year-oldKevin Charles Brown, who committed suicide on Oct. 21, 2014.
A December 2013 search warrant for Brown, his home and his vehicles — obtained by NBC 7 on Friday — lays out how police came to suspect the two in Hough’s death.
In July 2012, an SDPD detective revisited Hough’s case and submitted a new lab request to examine the evidence found from the beach crime scene, hoping the new technology would yield better results.
By November, it did. The state DNA databank matched Brown’s DNA to sperm found on vaginal swabs collected during Hough’s autopsy, and Tatro’s blood and DNA was found on the victim’s clothing, according to the warrant.
Digging deeper into Tatro’s background, detectives learned he had been a police officer in Arkansas for more than a year before he pleaded guilty to first-degree rape in 1975 in that state. After serving seven years of a 20-year sentence, he moved to San Diego in 1982.
He was on parole when Hough was killed, and about a year later, Tatro was convicted of an attempted rape in La Mesa. His multiple felony convictions meant he had to submit a DNA sample to police.
Brown, however, had to submit his DNA when he was hired as a criminalist at the SDPD, where he worked from 1982 to 2002.
Immediately upon hearing Brown’s DNA was a match, the search warrant says the lab manager investigated possible cross-contamination in case Brown’s DNA accidentally ended up on the vaginal swab while handling it in the lab.
The manager told detectives “Brown had no known contact with the evidence relating to this case and was never assigned to work with any evidence relating to this investigation,” the search warrant states. She said cross-DNA contamination was not possible.
A lab supervisor said Brown had a reputation of unusual behavior, often going to local strip clubs and boasting about it, according to the warrant.
Brown’s nickname around the lab was “Kinky,” one co-worker said, and retired detective remembered Brown asking a female SDPD records employee if she would be willing to pose for nude pictures, which she refused, the document says.
“Creepy” is the word another fellow criminalist used. She described an incident in which Brown offered to read a crime report out loud, something they would often do if reports were written in a funny way.
Instead, the report was about a violent sex assault case in which a man forced himself on two women. The lab employee said “the power the man was displaying over the woman was very clear,” according to police, and after that day, she felt uncomfortable around him.
The warrant states investigators believe Brown and Tatro possibly met while traveling in similar circles, such as in strip clubs.
The detective writing the search warrant explained why he thinks Brown’s sperm could not have gotten into Hough through consensual sex. He said an interview with her best friend revealed Hough was faithful to her boyfriend at the time, was not attracted to older men and would not have had sex with someone she just met.
“I believe the sexual intercourse Brown had with Claire Hough was not consensual and appears to be contemporaneous to the murder,” the detective wrote in the warrant.
Although the SDPD has maintained that Hough’s case is not related to that of 15-year-old Barbara Nantais, who died in a similar way on the same beach in 1978, the search warrant says detectives searched for any references to Hough, Nantais or her boyfriend, James Alt, in Brown’s Internet search history or emails.
But Brown’s widow Rebecca told NBC 7 on Friday the case police were building was more cover-up than crime solving.
“His DNA is in the lab. That’s how it got on the swab, right there in the lab, and they don’t want to admit to that because that would mean possibly they had cross-contamination issues in the lab in the 80s,” she said.
Her family attorney Gretchen von Helms says DNA methods were primitive when the evidence was collected in this case 30 years ago.
According to Rebecca, she knew about her husband’s trips to the strip club and his pornography but they were part of his single life. Such activities stopped before the two were engaged 22 years ago, she said.
She is determined to prove her husband innocent.