Stephanie Houston

My daughter, Stephanie Houston, 27, died on February 27, 2000, in Belen, NM, after being run over by her boyfriend, Patrick Murillo. The State Police refused to investigate Stephanie's death as anything other than an accident, despite strong evidence that she was killed deliberately by a jealous lover who thought she was on her way to meet another man.

Patrick Murillo belonged to a band that was playing that weekend at the Red Carpet Bar. The previous evening Patrick -- furious at Stephanie for dancing with a platonic male friend, Reuben Chavez -- attacked her on the dance floor and had to be subdued by bouncers. On the night of Stephanie's death, Patrick attacked Reuben Chavez, and again bouncers had to intervene. Reuben left the bar to run an errand, and when he got back both Stephanie and Patrick were gone. As Reuben left to go home, he saw Patrick's truck with the trailer he used to transport band equipment pulled over on the shoulder of the road about one eighth of a mile from the bar with its lights off. Suddenly the tail lights flashed on and the pick-up shot forward at a high rate of speed for about 20 feet. By the time Reuben could get there, Stephanie was lying on the shoulder of the road behind the trailer, and Patrick was crouched beside her, saying, "What shall I do now?"

Reuben told Patrick to use his cell phone to call 911 and rushed into the bar to get help. The bartender, who was a nurse, raced out to perform CPR. Patrick would later confide to a friend that he had intended to leave the scene, but stopped when he saw people coming.

Nick Armenta, a patrolman with the New Mexico State Police, was first at the scene. His initial reaction was that the death was intentional. This is documented in the notes of Adele DeAnda, a field investigator for the Office of the Medical examiner, who wrote, "LE (law enforcement) believes it's intentional." The doctor who pronounced Stephanie dead at the hospital called the death in to OMI as a possible homicide.

However, when the criminal division of NMSP arrived, everything changed. If there was ever a guy who should not have been made scene investigator, it was Sgt. Mark McCracken, who was under investigation for the suspicious death of his own wife. On top of that, McCracken's buddy, Art Ortiz, who was a defendant in a civil suit for cover-up of the McCracken death, was dispatched to the scene as case investigator. McCracken and Ortiz must have felt like Patrick was a soul mate. They took him to the station, questioned him for a while, and then let him go. They even let him take all Stephanie's personal possessions like the keys to her home and vehicle. By the time her mother and I could get into her apartment, somebody had already been there (no forced entry, so the person apparently had a key) and turned the place upside down.

Patrick's story was that he and Stephanie argued, he let her out of his truck and was pulling away very slowly (about 5 to 10 miles per hour), when she suddenly decided to jump into the back of his pick-up, missed, and her head was crushed beneath the wheel of the trailer. NMSP accepted that scenario with little to no investigation. Although Patrick had admittedly been drinking all evening, he wasn't given a blood alcohol test for four hours, and by then his alcohol level was reportedly zero. Police didn't interview Reuben Chavez, the eyewitness, until four months later, and then they disregarded his statement. The pathologist, Dr. Kathleen Enstice, documented blunt force trauma to all of Stephanie's body, not just her head, and photos showed significant impact bruising above her knees, consistent with Patrick's ramming her with his truck. Yet the police report noted only the damage from the trailer tire. When examining Patrick's vehicle, all they did was look at the right side tires - no examination of the bumper, the undercarriage, or anything else that might have indicated that Patrick ran Stephanie down.

Within a day or so, Sgt. McCracken was making statements to the media that NMSP had fully investigated the case and was going to do a reconstruction, but it appeared that Stephanie caused her own death because she was falling-down drunk. (In truth, they had questioned no witnesses, had no intention of doing any reconstruction, and the toxicology test showed Stephanie's alcohol level as .047, which at her weight of 98 lbs. meant she had consumed about one beer.)

Stephanie's mother and I had never suspected how dangerous our daughter's relationship with Patrick had become. Now, suddenly, people were coming out of the woodwork with tales of such mind-blowing horror that we hired a private investigator to check out their stories. The facts that our P.I. uncovered left our heads and hearts reeling. Medical records chronicled a series of concussions, and one woman told our P.I. that she took Stephanie to the hospital five times because of beatings from Patrick. One time he put a phone cord around her neck and tried to strangle her, and twice he dumped her out of his truck in the middle of nowhere and she had to walk long distances at night to get home.

Like most battered women, Stephanie had hidden her horrendous private life from the people who loved her. But she had confided in her minister. The Reverend A.C. Miller told us that, three weeks before Stephanie's death, Patrick gave her a black eye and a concussion by hitting her in the head with his guitar, and that shortly before that he fractured her leg. (Stephanie had explained the leg injury to us by saying she fell off a ladder.) We also learned that Stephanie wasn't Patrick's only victim. His former girlfriend described to our P.I. how Patrick pushed her out of a moving vehicle when she was seven months pregnant with twins, causing her to miscarry, because she refused to perform oral sex while he was driving.

Since the police weren't interviewing witnesses, I decided to find out what I could on my own. I got names and phone numbers for a lot of people with information, including those who witnessed the beatings in the bar. One of those people said Stephanie left the bar on foot. If true, that meant she was never in Patrick's pick-up and was walking away from the bar when Patrick ran her down. Another person quoted Patrick as saying that he saw Stephanie walking away and was furious because he thought she was going to meet Reuben Chavez. That was a matter of seconds before he ran over her. I took that information to the State Police and to the Office of the Attorney General, but nobody wanted to look at it.

The strongest supporter of our cause was Dr. Enstice, who did the autopsy. Dr. Enstice was convinced Stephanie's death was a homicide and called the state police every few days, trying to get them to take action. They kept putting her off and wouldn't return her calls. The last time I went to OMI to talk with Dr. Enstice, I was told that she'd moved out of state. My heart fell into my boots at that information, because Dr. Enstice was all that had been keeping the case alive.

Nick Armenta confirmed that in a round-about way the next time I spoke with him. He said that, in his personal opinion, a jail cell would be far too good for Patrick Murillo, and he wished he could continue working on the case, but couldn't. Why couldn't he? Because someone higher up put a stop to him working on the case after Kathleen Enstice left OMI. Nick Armenta was only a patrolman, and Mark McCracken and Art Ortez left him holding the bag.

On March 14, 2000, Nick Armenta signed a statement saying to the best of his knowledge this was an accident. We would like to know why Art Ortez or Mark McCracken didn't sign that statement.

People tell me God will take care of this in the end, but that's not good enough for me right now. I want the Justice System to do what they get paid to do. Stephanie left us with a 10-year-old son to raise. If I didn't have my grandson who needs me, I would be tempted to deal with Patrick Murillo myself.

I've asked the State Police and the D.A.'s office to show me where this was an accident. But they've never attempted to do that. I told them, "If you can show me where this is an accident, I will go home and never bother any of you again." I have tried to look at this and see an accident. I have studied this every day, looking for an accident, and I see only cold blooded murder and a killer walking around with a smile on his face. On the date of Stephanie's funeral, Patrick was off playing music with a new girlfriend. God help that girl! I can guarantee the police won't.

 

Bill Houston

Update:

July 2004:  A jury acquitted Patrick Murrillo because the prosecutor did not utilize the available evidence.  According to a newspaper article:  "Two State Police officers took over this cold case and developed strong evidence against the defendant.  In addition, Houston's father hired a private detective, who discovered that her relationship with the defendant had revealed the defendant to be a violent, abusive man and that Houston, as late as two days before her death, had spoken to legal representatives about seeking a restraining order and had made an appointment with a domestic violence shelter.  There were witnesses available to testify that the defendant had beaten Houston the evening prior to her death and that she had made repeated visits to the emergency room because of other beatings suffered at the hands of the defendant."

None of that evidence was presented to the jury, and Stephanie's family had no way to compel the prosecution to give the jury the full picture.  Most tragically, the family has no way to fix these mistakes, because the defendant's double-jeopardy rights prevail, even when they are based on a trial where the prosecution fell down on the job.