SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Was Todd Murray murdered or did he commit suicide?
It’s a question that hasn’t been fully answered since his death in 2007, and now a new trial has been ordered to finally resolve the issue.
Monday, ABC4 reported on how he died fifteen years ago.
It began the day after Murray celebrated his 21st-birthday. “They had went to vernal bought some stuff and were returning to the (Ute Indian) reservation,” said his mother Debra Jones.
It was the first interview she granted to the media.
She said Murray was the passenger in a black sedan driven by his friend, a minor.
They were allegedly speeding when a Utah Highway Patrol trooper tried to stop them on Highway 40 in Uintah County.
They reached speeds of 115 miles-an-hour before entering the Ute Indian Reservation.
An off duty Vernal police officer was among those who joined the chase. The car got stuck on a dirt road. Murray and the driver went separate ways, according to Murray’s aunt.
“My nephew has his hand on the hood of the car and grabs his pants to keep them from falling because he didn’t have a belt,” said Deanna Hutchins.
The off-duty officer found Murray and there was gunfire.
“The suspect is down,” said the officer in a dispatch call obtained by ABC4. “He just shot himself in the head. (inaudible) We got the suspect. He shot himself in the head. I need some officers here.”
In court documents, the officer claimed Murray shot at him twice and he returned fire but never hit him.
“I told him ….put the gun down,” said the officer. “And then he pulled the trigger, and he just went straight down.”
Murray’s mother never believed that explanation.
“They said my son shot himself on the left side behind his ear,” said Debra Jones. “But he was right-handed. So I think that was physically impossible to do.”
A gun was found at the scene. The family claimed it wasn’t Murray’s.
“And then with the investigation still going on they destroyed the gun,” said Hutchins in disbelief.
Unhappy with the FBI investigation, Murray’s family filed two separate lawsuits over the next decade. But both were dismissed by federal judges in Utah. The ruling from the original lawsuit was upheld by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
But in documents filed by lawyers for the city of Vernal and the FBI, there were explanations for their conclusions.
For example, the medical examiner ruled Murray’s death a “suicide” and cleared the officer of any wrongdoing.
The gun was traced to the passenger who was a minor at the time and bought it illegally. The gun was “destroyed” after the rightful owner “pleaded guilty” to buying it illegally.
The FBI claimed “failure to collect evidence … is not (losing) evidence when the parties collecting evidence had no reason to believe litigation was imminent.”
In February, a federal court of appeals overturned the judge’s decision to dismiss the latest lawsuit and ordered there be a trial.
It’s something the family has been waiting on for 15 years.
“Justice had to be served because we know in our hearts that my son did not kill himself,” Jones said as she became emotional. “The evidence showed that there was no investigation that was done.”
In a prepared statement by Jeff Rasmussen, the family attorney with the Native Law Group in Denver, Colorado, he states:
“It now looks like, at long last, the case in the Court of Federal Claims is headed for a trial, in which (Vance) Norton and his fellow officers would have to testify under oath and attempt to explain the discrepancies between Norton’s story and the physical evidence: questions such as how did a right handed person shoot himself on the upper left side of his head without getting any blood on his left hand or on the gun that Norton claimed was used; why was the gun that Norton claimed Mr. Murray had shot found much farther away from his body than would be expected if it were a suicide, why did officers take Mr. Murray’s clothing off and then cut open his neck after he had died, what did they do with the vials of blood that they collected and then did not log into evidence. The federal officers will have to testify to their own false statement under oath that they did not know that litigation was pending, and to why they told Ms. Jones that they would thoroughly investigate the death of her son, when they had already decided not to gather the evidence that would have shown if Vance Norton had actually killed Mr. Murray. And the federal officers will have to testify regarding why they simply failed to investigate the death of an Indian and failed to collect the evidence that would be needed in order to determine whether the self-serving story of the only living witness matched to the physical evidence that was readily available.”
The FBI declined to comment.