Investigative

Nightmare in Sin City: How a rumor sent a teen to prison for murder

IT WAS ROUGHLY 10 p.m. in Las Vegas, on July 8, 2001, when a man rummaging through the garbage behind a bank just west of the Strip found the body.

Tossed behind a dumpster and covered in trash was a dead black man. Though he had no ID on him, police would soon learn that he was known on the streets as “St. Louis,” and, eventually, they would identify him as 44-year-old Duran Bailey, who had recently become homeless. He had been brutalized. Bailey’s skull was cracked, and his blood-caked eyes were swollen shut. Six teeth had been knocked from his mouth and were found scattered nearby. He had been stabbed repeatedly; the scene was soaked in blood. Most disturbingly, his penis had been cut off. It was found several feet from the body.

Duran Bailey mugshot

Duran Bailey mugshot

However gruesome, the murder scene was also rich with potential evidence: There were Bailey’s pants — likely pulled down by his killer, or killers. There was a piece of clear plastic that had been wrapped around his groin. Among the trash on or near the body was a clump of chewing gum, a condom wrapper, as well as several cigarette butts. There was at least one distinct set of bloody footprints inside the trash enclosure and leading away, toward the parking lot; beyond that, tire tracks, apparently freshly laid, running over a parking divider and disappearing toward the street.

There was also at least one video camera, at the ATM in front of the bank, as well as dozens of potential witnesses living in two large apartment complexes just north of the crime scene.

Nevertheless, the detectives assigned to the case were flummoxed. The lead investigator, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Detective Thomas Thowsen and his partner, James LaRochelle, arrived at the crime scene around 1 a.m. and left five hours later, as it was still being processed. They went back to the station, “put our heads together” and tried to figure out “what we had before us,” Thowsen would later testify.

They attended the autopsy later that day, where the medical examiner detailed Bailey’s extensive injuries: In addition to the head trauma and post-mortem amputation, Bailey’s carotid artery had been cut, and his anus had been slashed. Swabs taken from his penis and rectum would later be found to contain semen. No time of death was established.

Thowsen and LaRochelle visited the Nevada State Bank where Bailey had been found and learned that someone fitting his description was a customer there. They spoke to a security officer who said he had not seen any homeless people in the vicinity. They also spoke to at least one resident of the area — a woman who lived just to the north of the bank, in the Grandview Apartments, who approached the crime scene shortly after the detectives had left, asking what was going on.

But their official investigation then stalled. For the next 11 days, Thowsen and LaRochelle developed no leads in the case. The detectives could have pulled security footage from the bank or canvassed the neighborhood. They could have contacted Bailey’s known associates in order to retrace his final days. According to the official police report, they did none of those things. The murder of a homeless man, no matter how brutal, apparently was not a priority to detectives with a heavy caseload. The case seemed destined to go cold.

But then, on July 20, the police received a phone call from a woman in Pioche, a historic mining town three hours northeast of the city. Her name was Laura Johnson, and she asked whether the police department had, by any chance, found a man missing a penis. Johnson, who worked as a juvenile probation officer in Lincoln County, had heard something through the grapevine: A teacher friend, Dixie, had mentioned that her former student Kirstin had told Dixie that she cut off a man’s penis down in Vegas.

Thowsen and LaRochelle wasted no time. They hopped in a department SUV and hightailed it north along a two-lane highway into the desert mountains, toward Johnson’s home. There, she related the full exchange with Dixie. It was short on details, yet, according to the police report, she convinced the cops that they probably should not speak to Dixie directly. What if she warned Kirstin that police were asking questions? Thowsen and LaRochelle agreed, and apparently accepted at face value Johnson’s vague third-hand account. They left her home, and less than three hours after arriving in Lincoln County, arrested Kirstin Blaise Lobato.

kirstin-blaise-lobato-204x300

Kirstin Blaise Lobato

A bleach-blond, lanky 18-year-old who at the time of the murder weighed close to 100 pounds, Lobato made an odd suspect for such a brutal crime. She had just graduated high school, and although she admitted that she had recently spent time in Vegas, she had an alibi for her whereabouts at the time of the murder. Importantly, she had no clear motive for killing Bailey, a stranger, especially in such a violent way. Nor was there any way Lobato could be the source of the semen collected from Bailey’s rectum. In fact, when the results of forensic analysis came back from the crime lab, there was not a shred of physical evidence linking Lobato to the scene.

Yet, solely on the basis of a rumor, the state of Nevada would aggressively pursue a murder conviction of Lobato — and ultimately succeed. Today, following two trials, Lobato is imprisoned at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center in Las Vegas. Now 32, she has a number of staunch supporters — including local activists and a retired FBI agent — who insist that she is innocent, the victim of shoddy police work, an overzealous prosecution, a poor defense and a biased judge.

It is a “perfect storm of wrongful conviction,” says Lobato’s most dedicated advocate, Michelle Ravell. “Everything that possibly could have been done incorrectly was done incorrectly.”

A months-long reinvestigation of the case by The Intercept confirms that the investigation into Bailey’s murder was irredeemably flawed. It also reveals a far more likely theory of the crime, based on leads and potential suspects who were available from the beginning, that Thowsen and LaRochelle failed to pursue. Additional evidence suggests that the state has tried to to cover up its defective investigation — at the very least, by refusing to allow DNA testing of critical crime scene evidence. The Intercept’s inquiry indicates that the state’s gross mishandling of the case at every stage almost certainly sent an innocent woman to prison, allowing the perpetrators of the grisly crime to go unpunished for well more than a decade.

KIRSTIN BLAISE LOBATO, nicknamed Blaise, had a difficult childhood. Beginning when she was five years old, she was sexually abused over the course of a year by her mother’s live-in boyfriend. Lobato would later testify that, after being wrested away from her mother’s custody and sent to live with her father and his wife, she was assaulted two more times — first at 13 by a former boyfriend, and then at 17 by a friend’s father. The first two cases were reported to police, but, according to her family, neither attacker was punished. By the time she was assaulted for the third time, Lobato had already decided that the police could not — or would not — help her, and she did not report the crime.

Lobato’s family had tried to keep her safe. When she was 10 years old, they moved from Las Vegas to the tight-knit desert town of Panaca, a small Mormon outpost surrounded by mountains, just 19 miles from the Utah border. The community was welcoming, and Lobato, a friendly and inquisitive kid, fell in with a clique of children from the town’s prominent families, her stepmother, Becki, recalls.

budget-suites-540x365But it was the son of one of those prominent families, Becki says, who raped Lobato when she was 13, after which things began to disintegrate. Lobato took up with the “wild” kids, and was the target of bullying and gossip. She started using methamphetamine, just as her father and Becki had when times were particularly tough. Though she was a bright student who loved poetry — one of her pieces was published in a statewide literary journal of young writers — she suffered from depression and eventually left her high school, enrolling instead at the county’s alternative school, where she graduated in 2000, a year ahead of schedule. Eventually, in early 2001, she packed her car and looking to “make a life” for herself, skipped town. She headed for Vegas, where her meth addiction became full blown. Lobato moved from party to party, crashing where she could. By mid-May she was using all the time.

Lobato was in the middle of a meth binge and had not slept for three days when, in the wee hours of a morning just before Memorial Day – most likely on May 23, although the exact date remains unclear — she pulled up to a Budget Suites motel in a sketchy part of Vegas’s east side. She’d been staying with some folks who were living there. As she made her way toward their suite, Lobato was suddenly jumped from behind — “bum rushed,” she would later describe it.

The man was black, and large. He smelled like alcohol and dirty diapers. He pushed her down on her back, pulled up her miniskirt and pushed aside her panties. She struggled and began to cry, pleading with him to “stop, don’t,” she later testified. The man slapped her and said, “Shut up, bitch.” With his weight pressing down on her, she nevertheless managed to get her right hand into her back pocket, where she carried a small butterfly knife. She flipped it open, grabbed for the guy’s groin and slashed. He recoiled and she freed herself, running back towards her car. When Lobato looked back, she could see him on the ground, crying. She got to her car and sped off, shedding her clothes and possibly the knife — she doesn’t remember exactly what happened to it — as she drove. She arrived at the house of an ex-boyfriend, but he wasn’t home. She left her car in his driveway, with a note on the dashboard saying she would be back. From there, she ran to a nearby church and called the people she’d been with earlier. They picked her up. From there, the party continued.

She did not report the incident to police.

Even so, in the weeks that followed, Lobato brought up the attack a lot — both in Las Vegas, where she continued to use meth, and back in Panaca, where she eventually returned on July 2, to try to sober up.

During a drive to the Utah Shakespeare Festival in mid-June, Lobato described the attack to her friend Kimberlee Grindstaff, telling her that she had used her knife to defend herself, slashing the man somewhere near his groin. “I didn’t even get the impression the guy was hurt,” Grindstaff recalls. “I was under the impression it was enough for her to get away.”

Another friend, Heather McBride, heard a nearly identical version, saying that Lobato told her she used her knife to defend herself against the sexual attack and that she’d cut the man’s abdomen. “I remember asking, ‘Well, what happened?’” McBride tells The Intercept. “She said, ‘I didn’t stick around to find out.’”

The conversation with McBride took place on July 2 or 3 — McBride does not remember which — more than a month after the assault. Duran Bailey would not be discovered until July 8, eight miles from the Budget Suites motel. Continue here.

Written by Jordan Smith for The Intercept.

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