SAN DIEGO (CN) – During terse questioning by a San Diego city attorney Tuesday, the widow of a crime-lab worker said she and her husband didn’t seek a court order for the return of their property seized in a cold-case murder investigation because the detective on the case told them it would be given back.
But the 14 boxes of personal items – including a Bible and religious paraphernalia and up to 30,000 family photos – were not returned until weeks following retired San Diego Police Department criminalist Kevin Brown’s suicide in October 2014.
Brown’s wife Rebecca sued SDPD cold-case detectives Michael Lambert and Maura Mekenas-Parga for seizing and holding the family’s personal mementos during their investigation of the 1984 unsolved murder of 14-year-old Claire Hough.
Trace amounts of Kevin Brown’s semen were found on a retested vaginal swab in 2012. Crime analysts never identified sperm on the swab until advances in DNA technology made it possible to do so.
Brown maintained the positive match was the result of cross-contamination because up until recently lab workers used samples of their own semen as a control when mixing chemicals to process and test crime evidence.
But Lambert said his supervisor told him lab workers ruled out contamination before the case was assigned to him in late 2012. He testified last week he never learned about the semen samples kept by crime lab workers until a member of Rebecca Brown’s family mentioned it to him during an interview.
Lambert also testified he knew within about a month of a search warrant being executed on the Brown home that none of the items seized tied Kevin Brown to Hough’s murder. But he didn’t authorize the return of the property and said in court Monday he believed Kevin Brown was involved in Hough’s murder at the time he killed himself.
During questioning Tuesday by Chief Deputy City Attorney Catherine Richardson, Rebecca Brown said she and her husband didn’t file a court motion for the return of their property because Lambert told her multiple times over the course of several months they’d soon be getting their things back.
Rebecca Brown said as the months went by without receiving their belongings back, her husband started crossing off the days on a calendar to mark the amount of time deputies held onto their items.
The couple believed once their property was returned it would mean Kevin Brown was exonerated of Hough’s murder and they could return to their lives, Rebecca Brown said.
“He was definitely upset the retention of our property made it look like he was guilty,” she told Richardson.
But Rebecca Brown didn’t keep copies of her husband’s calendars, cleaning out his closet within a week of his death.
“I wasn’t thinking what evidence I needed to pile up, I was just heartbroken,” she said.
Rebecca Brown said she thought she could request Lambert return the family’s belongings because she had asked for her computer to be returned in March 2014 and received it within two weeks.
She said in early summer 2014 she became more worried for her husband because he wasn’t getting out of bed. Her brother took away their guns.
“I knew maybe I wasn’t supposed to contact Lambert because we had an attorney, but things were getting really serious,” Rebecca Brown said.
She also disputed Lambert wasn’t aware that contamination could explain why Kevin’s DNA was found on the vaginal swab taken from Hough, since she said Kevin had told Lambert as much when the officer told Kevin his DNA was found on evidence. Kevin also told Lambert the evidence could have been planted.
But Lambert told Kevin Brown both those options were off the table.
Neither Rebecca Brown nor her husband raised the issue of the semen sample directly with Lambert, Rebecca testified, because “I assumed he knew it. He’s an investigator.”
When asked whether she’d contacted Kevin Brown’s doctors to tell them she’d found an apparent suicide note and bullet on their bedroom floor weeks before his death, Rebecca Brown said she asked her husband to talk to his doctors about adjusting his anxiety medication dosage.
“He did it himself, he wasn’t an invalid,” Rebecca Brown responded after Richardson asked, “You weren’t concerned enough to call his doctors?”
She added: “This was a very gentle person and it had put too much pressure on him.”
The plaintiff rested her case Tuesday afternoon, with the defense team kicking off with an expert witness. The trial was expected to last through the end of the week.