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Forensic Foul-up 

How cops and coroners mishandled the death of a homeless man

Just below the northbound Highway 101 off-ramp to Los Osos Valley Road, on the southern outskirts of San Luis Obispo, there is an enclave of makeshift tents and lean-tos, carved-out shelters and hidden encampments.

click to enlarge BILL’S CAMPSITE : - (l-r) Bill’s tent, rusted mattress, white pad, and sleeping bag in the foreground. All are still there. - PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Photo by Christopher Gardner
  • BILL’S CAMPSITE : (l-r) Bill’s tent, rusted mattress, white pad, and sleeping bag in the foreground. All are still there.
#You wouldn’t know these shelters were here unless you had reason to look for them. Adjacent to San Luis Obispo Creek, amidst the thick brush and tall reeds, these personal sanctuaries have been scratched together by vagabonds and transients seeking refuge and protection. It’s a scary place, where it is hard to live, and, sometimes, too easy to die.

 It was there in the early morning hours of March 12, 2005 — almost one year ago, following a rare rainless night in what was a very wet winter — that three homeless men, trudging along a muddy path, stumbled upon the body of a man who lay face up, on the remnants of a partially burned mattress inside a large tent. His arms were crossed in a defensive posture over his face, and his tongue protruded from ash-covered lips.

 He was identified as 41-year-old Bill King, who at one time was a high school football hero and later the proud father of a baby girl. How Bill died is still a mystery, and, because of a string of irregularities in the handling of his body and in his autopsy, we — and more importantly, Bill’s father, 66-year-old John King — probably will never know, despite doing everything possible to get straight answers from the authorities. 

 The SLO County coroner’s office initially reported that Bill King burned to death, but later changed the cause of death to “undetermined,� and the principal detective on the case, SLO Police Lieutenant Steve Tolley, has asked officials associated with the investigation not to talk about it. As the cause of death is undetermined, there exists the possibility of foul play — especially once it was established that Bill was dead prior to the fire, and several of Bill’s friends have told his father that they think Bill was murdered.

click to enlarge FATHER AND DAUGHTER  :  Bill and his only child Holly, in the late 80s. - PHOTOS COURTESY THE KING FAMILY
  • photos courtesy the King family
  • FATHER AND DAUGHTER : Bill and his only child Holly, in the late 80s.
#That theory was dismissed by SLO police detective Scott Cramer, who admitted to King that there was talk on the street that his son had been murdered, but these were street people and nothing they say could be taken seriously.

 John King received the news about Bill’s death on March 14, 2005, two days after it happened. He was told his 41-year-old son died in a tent fire.

 King remembers his body began to shake; he collapsed into a chair, and wept. “It broke my heart,� he says. “It was the worst moment of my life. My only son was dead.�

  The distraught father immediately contacted the SLO County Sheriff’s office. “Detective Steve Crawford told me my son was unrecognizable,� King laments. “There was no point in my trying to see him. He said Bill was scheduled to be cremated almost before I could get there.�

 But the 66-year-old King was determined. “I called back and pleaded with them to give me time to drive there in my car,� he recalls. “They reluctantly told me ‘yes.’�

  King drove from his winter home in Arizona and arrived in San Luis Obispo in a matter of hours, shortly before Wheeler and Smith Mortuary in SLO closed for the day. “I held his face and kissed him goodbye,� he recalls, his voice shaking. 

GRIDIRON HERO :  Star football player in high school. - PHOTOS COURTESY THE KING FAMILY
  • photos courtesy the King family
  • GRIDIRON HERO : Star football player in high school.
#Questions about the investigation into his son’s death began to creep into King’s mind: “Why did Crawford say, ‘Bill was burned beyond recognition,’� King asks, “when his face was only blackened by soot?�

 That was only one of many questions that plagued him as he explored the campsite that Bill called home. A blue and red blanket hung on a rope, providing a sense of privacy from the ever-present barrage of autos that unknowingly pass by. Vinca vines covered in purple flowers provided further seclusion and a garden-like setting. As King looked on, a pair of monarch butterflies chasing one another passed his son’s partially melted tent and the remains of his charred bed, where his silhouette remained compressed into the rusted mattress springs. “There was no tape, no blocking off of the scene, and the area hadn’t even been cleaned up,� recalls King.

 Next to the tent he found Bill’s black down sleeping bag, hiking boots, and winter coat which were untouched by the flames, along with kitchen utensils and a half-eaten jar of peanut butter. King then grabbed a few of Bill’s belongings and headed back home.

According to numerous law enforcement and criminal investigators contacted by New Times for this article, including those engaged by John King and by SLO County Fire Marshall John Madden, the investigation into Bill King’s cause of death was mishandled and improperly conducted right from the start.

 The SLO County coroner’s report indicates that Deputy Coroner Will Birks arrived at the homeless encampment about 6 a.m., several hours after Bill’s body had been discovered. The report indicates that Birks was told by police on the scene that they “believed the decedent had fallen asleep on his mattress while smoking a cigarette, which fell and ignited the mattress, burning the decedent.� But Bill’s father, in an early call to SLO County Coroner Steve Harris, immediately disputed the conclusion that, as he puts it, “a 41-year-old man in good health let himself burn to death.�

 Investigators took 240 pictures, but never declared the area a potential crime scene, a possible violation of procedure, since the California code requires the coroner to inquire into and determine the cause of all sudden, unusual or unattended deaths, or deaths due to fire. Santa Maria police officer Bill Story, contacted by New Times, says, “Every such death is treated as a potential crime, and the scene is handled as a crime scene, until the coroner comes back with the cause of death.�

Bill’s belongings were left scattered around his makeshift home, and his partially burned mattress and tent were not checked for accelerants, such as gasoline. In other words, evidence that may have yielded clues to the death was either lost or ignored.

 Perhaps most disturbing is the conflicting information regarding the turning, moving and storage of the body. Bill’s body had been moved in a way that would prevent an accurate autopsy. Leland and Sandra Smith from Wheeler and Smith Mortuary, who were called to pick up the body, confirm what many local investigators staunchly denied for several months.

 “We were told to turn him over so pictures could be taken of his back and we were not told to turn him back over,� Sandra Smith says. “We only move the body when the coroner instructs us to. We turned the body over and transported it turned over.� Fire Marshall Madden, called to the scene because fire was involved, also says the body had been turned over prior to transportation.

 King sent a copy of the coroner’s report to his summertime neighbor Mickey Nelson, a coroner in Helena, Montana, who told King turning the body is unacceptable procedure: “The body was most certainly mishandled, turning it over and then leaving it that way for days. You disrupt evidence; think about gravity. It is ridiculous. I am upset if they don’t call me 10 minutes after a body is found.� Bill’s body lay face down on a slab at the mortuary for three days before Dr. Fred Walker, SLO County forensic pathologist, conducted the autopsy on March 15. 

click to enlarge JOHN KING:  Bill’s father with his pet turtle. - PHOTOS COURTESY THE KING FAMILY
  • photos courtesy the King family
  • JOHN KING: Bill’s father with his pet turtle.
 Mark Pazin, Merced County Sheriff-Coroner, when contacted by New Times, said storing a body for three days, when the cause of death has not been determined, is also unacceptable. “We try to flip the body ASAP, because it’s evidence. At the max, it’s a 24-hour turnaround,� he says. “Any department worth their salt would be suspicious until the cause of death is determined.�

 Sandra Smith explains the delay: “Walker is the local autopsy physician and only works a few days each week. Autopsies are often delayed for days.�

 On April 3, 2005, the coroner’s office informed King that “thermal burns,� i.e., burns caused from heat or fire, was listed as the official cause of death on Bill’s autopsy report. The coroner concluded that Bill had fallen asleep and burned to death.

 But Pazin counters that burns aren’t a cause of death. Fire Marshall Madden wasn’t satisfied either.

 King says, “Madden told me he disagreed strongly with the thermal burn finding and that on his own, without the knowledge of the coroner’s office, he sent information and evidence to a number of forensic specialists.�

  Among those to whom Madden sent evidence was Robert Kimsey, a forensic expert on time of death at UC Davis. One way time of death can be determined, he says, is by the presence of old and new maggots found in a dead body. Kimsey studied the maggot population in Bill’s body from photographs that Madden sent him of the scene and the autopsy, and found that older insects in Bill’s throat predated the fire. Since maggots don’t infest openings or cavities in burned or scorched areas, Kimsey believes that after Bill died, maggots were found in his body, then the fire occurred, then a second round of maggots infested his remains after the fire.

  “If flies lay eggs after a death due to a fire, I would anticipate they would all be the same age,� Kimsey says. “There is a significant difference in the maggot age, indicating a day and a half to two days between infestations, meaning that Bill was dead from a day and a half to two days before his body was burned.� SLO County Coroner Harris, says King, finally agreed (after a few phone conversations) that Bill could not have died from thermal burns.

Harris in fact then contacted Dr. Walker and asked for a re-evaluation of the autopsy information. Walker’s revised opinion, dated April 29, 2005, lists the cause of death as “undetermined.� According to King, Walker later told him: “We were unsatisfied with the final determination. The character of fire showed smoldering for some time. He was dead before the fire.� Then, King says, Walker startled him with the declaration,  “I shouldn’t be talking to you. Call the coroner’s office.� Upon hearing the verdict of “undetermined,� King became inconsolable and angry. “They have closed the files on my son. I get the impression they don’t care because he was a homeless person.�

John King has learned that his son most likely did not suffer a heart attack as many investigators still claim, nor did the two ailments in his medical history — seizures and diabetes — contribute to the cause. Toxicology reports revealed only trace amounts of alcohol and no evidence of drugs: the original conclusion that Bill was incapacitated due to alcohol and drug abuse was made before the toxicology report was completed.

 Detective Crawford has told New Times there is no cover-up. “He could have died from a heart attack and then dropped a cigarette and burned. There were some parts of the heart that were not looked at during the autopsy.�

 But Brian Tansky, an emergency room physician in Anchorage to whom King sent the autopsy report, found it to be inconclusive. “It didn’t make sense,� Tansky told King. “There was not sufficient artery disease to determine a heart attack.�

 King still is unclear as to the status of the case. Police told him in late April, after the “undetermined� finding, that the case was closed for lack of evidence. New Times called Lt. Tolley In January and was told: “We don’t have enough information to determine homicide. He could have died from natural causes.

We don’t have enough information to investigate, no evidence. The investigation is closed.� However, when New Times requested a copy of the police report in the same conversation, Tolley said, “It is an active case. We are treating it as a homicide investigation.� King grew more frustrated. “I can’t get a straight answer from the police department or the coroner’s office,� King complains. “All the conflicting statements, this thing really stinks.�

 Clouding this doubletalk further, in September several of the principals in the case, including Madden and Detective Cramer, told King they couldn’t talk to him because Lt. Tolley had issued a gag order. When New Times attempted to interview Madden, Cramer, and Walker, the investigators claimed to have been instructed by Tolley not to discuss the case. Tolley denies a gag order per se was issued. But as late as December, King says Tolley told him not to talk to anyone about the case except Tolley himself.

 New Times has recently learned that a new pathologist may be brought into the case, which suggests the heat is on.
 “Someone needs to say, hey, we messed up,� Helena Coroner Nelson says. “One can conclude if this was the governor’s son, it would have been treated differently.�  ∆

King Harris can be reached at [email protected]. Karen Velie can be reached at [email protected].

Bill King’s story
How Bill King ended up living on the streets wasn’t as mysterious as his death, but in the beginning it certainly didn’t appear he was headed down that road. 
 He was a star athlete and a popular student at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks, Alaska. “He was very handsome and outgoing and all the girls loved him,� says Loretta Miller, his mother. During his senior year, he began drinking with the other jocks, occasionally getting into trouble, and falling behind in school.
 After he graduated in 1982, Bill took odd jobs, but nothing seemed to stick. For several years he worked at Denali State Park, where he met Cheryl Prieor. The couple fell in love, moved in together, and had a baby girl, Holly. But the relationship faltered, and after a few years, Cheryl packed her things and moved to Seattle with Holly.
 The loss of his daughter hit Bill especially hard. He roamed throughout the West, finding solace only in drink, and eventually began suffering from alcohol-related seizures and problems with his pancreas.
   With help, Bill was able to stop drinking and found work during the next few years in Colorado. In 2001, he married a woman he met in Idaho but after less than two years of marriage, Lynette Gentry filed for divorce, and he went back to the bottle. In early 2004, he moved to San Luis Obispo looking for a fresh start. “He was trying to get his life back together,� says his dad. Bill checked himself into Sunny Acres, a clean-and-sober living facility for the homeless, but his rehabilitation proved short-lived. “Bill was an extremely nice guy, even when he was drinking,� recalls Richard Carroll, a former Sunny Acres staff member. “He usually only drank on the weekends, and he didn’t do drugs. Everybody liked Bill.�
 Later that spring, county officials condemned the unlicensed facility and a number of the residents, including Bill, wound up on the street.
 During this time, Bill would shower and do laundry at the Prado Day Center, which also provides the homeless and hungry with hot meals, mail service, lockers to store their belongings, and local phone service. King had used the message service to keep in contact with his son. 
 “He called me a few months before he died,� King says. “He told me, ‘If I live with you, I won’t drink or smoke.’ He was crying and I was crying and he kept asking me to forgive him. Like a little boy trying to please his dad, he kept telling me he was a good man; he helped the homeless, gave them blankets and told them about God. He said he was a failure in life. However, I feel it was I who failed him.� ∆


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