Attorney: Cross-contamination led to claims lab worker murdered teen

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SAN DIEGO -- The DNA evidence linking a one-time San Diego police lab worker to the 1984 murder of a 14-year-old girl was likely the result of cross-contamination, an attorney for his family said Thursday.

Kevin Charles Brown, 62, was found dead of an apparent suicide at Cuyamaca State Park on Oct. 21. San Diego police said that at the time of Brown's death, preparations were being made to arrest him for allegedly taking part in the killing of 14-year-old Claire Hough.

The teen was found dead at Torrey Pines State Beach on Aug. 24, 1984. She had been beaten, strangled and stabbed, and one of her breasts had been cut off, authorities said.

In November 2012, cold-case homicide detectives uncovered DNA evidence that allegedly linked Brown and a second man, Ronald Clyde Tatro, to the slaying. Tatro was 67 when he died in a boating accident in Tennessee in 2011.

Brown worked in the police lab from 1982 until his retirement in 2002. He was not assigned to the Hough investigation, but attorney Eugene Iredale said Brown had been working while samples from the teen's body were in the lab.

It was also common practice in 1984 for lab workers to use their own blood or semen during examinations because commercial samples were unavailable, and to dry samples on swabs in the open air, Iredale said.

“His lab table was side-by-side with that of the analyst who was working on Claire Hough's case, and the fact is that it's highly likely that the result on the single swab of a tiny amount of Kevin Brown's DNA was not the result of it having been deposited on the body of Claire Hough at the time of her death, but as a result of cross-contamination,'' Iredale said.

Brown's widow, Rebecca Blakely Brown, describe her husband of 21 years as introverted, gentle and loving.

“He was not a rapist and a killer,'' she said. “He was a quiet good man who devoted his life to helping people -- and helping, he thought, by putting away bad guys and doing his job.''

On Wednesday, they filed a claim against the city of San Diego, alleging that Brown provided a DNA sample while employed by the SDPD because “cross- contamination is a well-recognized forensic occurrence.''

According to the claim, investigators deliberately caused psychological stress to Brown and his family, illegally seized “an enormous quantity'' of items, including family photos, a bible and a copy of the U.S. Constitution, and questioned witnesses in a suggestive manner.

Brown became “obsessed with the fear that he would be falsely accused and imprisoned pending trial,'' and as a result “committed suicide by hanging himself,'' according to the claim, which is a precursor to a lawsuit.

Attorney Gretchen von Helms, who represented Brown for about nine months, noted that he was never arrested. Brown became agitated after his family and friends were interviewed and his emotional and mental health deteriorated, which ultimately led to his suicide, she said.

He was also defamed after his death, von Helms said.

“That is not how we, as a society, want our criminal justice system to work,'' she said. “We do not want to have it in the hands of police and they can just decide who they think is guilty and hound someone into committing suicide so their job gets done.''

The Hough murder occurred six years after a similar killing at the same northern San Diego beach. In August 1978, 15-year-old Barbara Nantais was found slain with one of her breasts severed.

Analysts with San Diego police and the FBI had concluded that both girls were killed by the same person, according to von Helms. Brown's DNA was only found on one swab linked to one victim, she said.

It was unclear if Brown and Tatro were considered suspects in the earlier murder, as well.

Sarah Sapeda of City News Service contributed to this report.

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