Civil rights lawyer’s family sues APD and the city
We'll probably never know how Mary Han died, says attorney Rosario Vega Lynn. Her family will never know either, she adds. "That's the saddest thing, really."
The facts of her death will not emerge, she says, because they were lost in the chaos of a mishandled crime scene.
Two years ago in November, when Han's body was discovered in the seat of her car in her garage, evidence was trampled under the feet of 26 people who arrived at the scene of the crime, according to a civil lawsuit filed earlier this month in District Court. There were many irregularities in how Han's death was handled by the Albuquerque Police Department, the lawsuit states, with officers at the scene violating protocol.
The Department of Justice announced on Tuesday, Nov. 27, it will begin a federal investigation into APD. Among other things, the feds will be looking into whether officers adhere to the standard operating procedures on the books.
Han, who died at age 53, spent her career as a lawyer taking on city government and APD, fighting for civil rights. Among the many questions surrounding her death, Vega Lynn wonders why APD was the agency to handle the call in the first place. Why not the State Police or other law enforcement without such a clear conflict of interest?
"This lawsuit is for the purpose of getting answers, demanding accountability from our police and getting justice for Ms. Han.”
Rosario Vega Lynn
Vega Lynn says she's prepared to take the case all the way on behalf of Han’s daughter and sister. "This lawsuit is for the purpose of getting answers, demanding accountability from our police and getting justice for Ms. Han. If that means we go to trial, then we go to trial."
In Pursuit of Truth
Colin Baugh's dad went to law school with Han, and her daughter Katherine was Baugh's classmate from elementary through high school. "I was a frequent little character on the block," he says. "I appreciate from an adult perspective how she spoke to me." Don't slouch, he remembers her telling him. Look me in the eye. Help me understand what you're trying to tell me.
Han could cuss like a sailor, Baugh says, and she was unwavering in her pursuits. She fought for the underrepresented—homeless people, women abused by their husbands, women accused of prostitution whose rights she said had been violated by APD. She saw in people their overlooked characteristics, Baugh says.
"She knew everything about this place. That's not an understatement."
She rested little, and in her free time, Baugh says she loved precision work like making jewelry using particularly tiny beads. He says it's an indicator of her will and how she thought. "She was stringing together these impossible beads into works of art," which she readily gave away.
Han read constantly—newspapers, poetry, legal briefs. And she passed books to Baugh. He remembers one story in particular from a book she gave him about China invading Tibet in 1949. As thousands fled Tibet in a long march, one monk was going the other way. The monk explained to curious passersby that he was heading to the heart of the change to figure out why it had happened. The image suits Han and her determination in pursuit of the truth, Baugh says.
Han founded Susan's Legacy, a nonprofit that aims to help women battling mental illness and addictive disorders. She also established the Not-for-the-Top scholarship at the UNM Law School, which provided a full year of tuition for students who were not in the top third of their class. She was aiming to help people who were working hard but also facing hurdles in their lives.
"She knew everything about this place," Baugh says. "That's not an understatement."
An Unusual Scene
Deputy City Attorney Kathy Levy says the lawsuit is factually inaccurate, and the case is sure to be dismissed by the court.
There’s a long list of defendants, many of whom were at the crime scene but not police officers. On that list are city bigwigs, such as: former Public Safety Director Darren White, former City Attorney Rob Perry (who today is Albuquerque's chief operating officer) and former public safety spokesperson T.J. Wilham.
Chief of Police Ray Schultz is also named, though he wasn't at Han's house that day. He communicated via phone with the people at the scene, as well as with Mayor Richard Berry, according to the lawsuit. The Mayor's Office issued a statement explaining that due to the sensitive nature of Han's work, city personnel were sent to her house to handle media inquiries and ensure her documents were protected.
Han’s laptop was released to her law partner, Paul Kennedy, who had discovered her body. Kennedy was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez in September to temporarily serve on the state Supreme Court. The civil suit indicates Han sent Kennedy a text the day before she died saying she no longer wanted to be a part of the firm they shared, and he could have it.
When Cmdr. Paul Feist arrived at the scene, he immediately declared it a suicide, according to the lawsuit, though he was not the field investigator and was therefore acting in violation of APD standard operating procedures. People entered her home and rifled through her belongings without a search warrant, which would be required if the death were considered a suicide, the lawsuit states. Two rings that she wore every day—family heirlooms valued at more than $100,000—went missing.
Feist would be promoted a month later to deputy chief of the Investigative Bureau. He led the inquiry into the still unsolved West Mesa murders.
Details of Han’s death are inconsistent with suicide, the lawsuit states: she lacked the cherry red coloring associated with carbon monoxide poisoning; she had paid off a loan the day before she died and inquired about another; Han was wearing her glasses when she was found by Kennedy, which she only wore to read.
Sgt. Thomas Grover wrote in his police report that it was odd the car windows were rolled down, because in the six instances he'd seen of carbon monoxide-based suicide, the windows were up and the doors locked. "… Based on my training and experience, there was nothing that suggested this was an active effort of suicide on the part of Ms. Han," he wrote.
If it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone, Vega Lynn says. "Whatever it takes and for however long it takes, it won't stop until those people purporting to be public servants answer publicly for their actions."
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