Billings family struggles for answers in 1976 death

2013-10-20T00:00:00Z 2013-10-21T15:05:06Z Billings family struggles for answers in 1976 deathBy GREG TUTTLE gtuttle@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

In the eyes of her family, Olivia Castro had every reason to live.

The young woman from a large Billings family had set a course in life. At 18, Olivia had decided she wanted to be a church camp counselor.

It seemed the perfect fit for the gregarious and devout young woman who was known in her South Side neighborhood as a defender of younger kids against bullies.

Her death by a gunshot on a cold February night in 1976 not only shocked her close-knit family, but it ripped them apart in a way that has never fully healed.

And 37 years later, the family is still searching for answers.

“We’re not looking for revenge,” said Christina Castro, Olivia’s younger sister who earlier this year set out to re-examine her sister’s death. “We just want all of this to make sense.”

No one in the Castro family wanted to believe that Olivia took her own life, as police determined shortly after her body was found in the front yard of a house on South 27th Street.

There is no dispute about the cause of her death. Olivia died of a gunshot to the right side of the head.

But doubts about the manner of her death – suicide, homicide or accident – have lingered with the Castro family.

Until recently, those doubts were little more than a shared sentiment among family members, a sense that some injustice was done and forgotten by everyone outside the family.

That changed in February of this year when Christina Castro received a copy of Olivia’s death certificate, a document no one in the family had ever seen.

While the Castros had been led to believe that Olivia’s death was a suicide, the death certificate indicated otherwise.

That information, coupled with a persistent rumor that a man had confessed to killing Olivia, was enough for the Billings Police Department to reopen an investigation.

“We’d sure like to figure it out ourselves,” said Lt. Jeremy House, one of the detectives assigned to the case.

***

Christina Castro was 12 when her older sister died. Their parents, Florencio and Dora Castro, had 21 children — 10 boys and 11 girls. Two died from natural causes at an early age.

Christina recalls Olivia, the eighth born, as “a defender of all” who stood up to neighborhood bullies. She found joy in music, playing the guitar and occasionally working as a DJ.

Olivia dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, but shortly before her death decided she wanted to become a church camp counselor.

Olivia was a lesbian, but her sexual orientation was never an issue among the large and accepting Castro family who shared a strong Catholic faith, Christina recalls.

Word of Olivia’s death reached the family in the early morning hours of Feb. 1. A police officer arrived at the house and asked Florencio and Dora to identify their daughter’s body.

“They told us she killed herself, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head,” Christina said. “I remember crying my eyes out and running to South Park and sitting there on a curb just crying. I couldn't believe my sister was dead.”

Christina’s aunt had also recently passed away, and the family planned a single service. It was during the funeral that one of Christina’s older brothers first voiced doubt that Olivia had killed herself.

“I remember sitting in the pew and my brother telling me she couldn't have killed herself,” Christina said. “We told him to let it go. It’s over. She’s gone.”

But he wouldn't let it go. He stood up, approached Olivia’s casket and lifted up the hair covering her right temple.

“He said, 'She was left-handed, and this gunshot wound is on the right side of her head,'” Christina recalls.

At the time, grief over Olivia’s death overwhelmed any suspicion about how she died among most of the family. Christina said her mother’s grief was so great that afterward she could no longer care for her family.

Her father began drinking heavily, Christina said, and the couple soon separated. They remained apart the rest of their lives, although they never divorced.

“She couldn't handle it, he couldn't handle it, and they couldn't deal with each other,” Christina said. “Everybody just fell apart.”

Several of the older children, including Christina, were sent to live with relatives in other states. Dora moved in with her mother, and together they took care of the youngest children. Christina returned to Billings from Idaho a few months later and started working to help the family.

Another sibling, Paul Castro, said Olivia’s death and its aftermath affected him into his adult years.

“I was 8 years old when it happened,” he said. “I grew up resigned to the fact that my sister killed herself. Later in life I tried it, too. I’m gay. She was gay. I know how hard it is.”

Florencio Castro died in 2000 at the age of 74. Dora Castro, now 83, said she never believed her daughter committed suicide. She does believe that the family’s Mexican heritage played a part in the inconclusive investigation.

“As far as I’m concerned, and I told them then, it’s just another Mexican, who cares?” Dora Castro said. “That’s the way it was.”

***

The recent death of another sibling had the effect of reviving questions about Olivia’s death.

Sylvia, the youngest of the Castro children, was diagnosed with liver failure last December. She died on Jan. 28.

During Sylvia’s last days when Christina and her siblings were at her bedside, Christina said she had a “spiritual awakening.” Sylvia told Christina she wasn't ready to die until Olivia took her hand.

“I started thinking, why is she bringing up Olivia now?” Christina said.

The answer came in a dream.

“I just remember sitting upright, and in the dream everything that has happened since Olivia’s death kind of makes sense, and all the dots are connected,” she said. “I went to the nursing home and I kissed (Sylvia) goodbye and I said, you can go home now, I know what it means now.”

Sylvia, who had slipped into a coma, died a few hours later.

For Christina, the message was clear: Olivia’s death wasn't a suicide.

It became Christina's mission to give her elderly mother some peace before she, too, passed away.

Christina began by talking to several of her siblings. It was then that she learned about a rumor that had circulated for years. The man who owned the home where Olivia died had confessed to a priest that he had shot Olivia, she was told.

The rumor fueled Christina’s desire to learn more, and within a few weeks she had requested Olivia’s death certificate.

When she received it, Christina knew she was on the right path.

*** 

Christina received Olivia’s death certificate in mid-February. She expected to read on the official document that the death had been ruled a suicide.

Instead, the record clearly showed that despite what the family had been told so many years ago, the coroner in 1976 had been unable to make a final ruling on Olivia's death.

The document listed the manner of her death as “undetermined.”

“It was like somebody just put a knife in you and took your breath away,” Christina said.

The document raised more questions for Christina. The coroner had not only been unable to reach a final conclusion on the manner of Olivia’s death, he had included on a separate document a diagram of the yard showing where her body was found, a task usually left to police investigators.

Notes on the document also indicate that a final ruling on Olivia's death was pending an inquest. But no such hearing was held, a note on the document indicates.

Christina also wondered why the coroner copied Olivia’s obituary on to one of documents. The obituary states in the first paragraph that Olivia died of a “self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

Finally, the documents also note that a .22-caliber shell casing was found in Olivia’s front left pocket.

Christina decided it was time to call the Billings Police Department.

*** 

Police Lt. Jeremy House and Detective Ken Paharik were assigned the task of reopening the Olivia Castro death investigation.

They started with reviewing the original case file, but digging it out of archives proved to be their first challenge. They eventually found the records on microfiche in a county office.

The officers had little to go on.

Christina had reported the rumor of a confession, ostensibly the new information that warranted a review of the case. She provided police the names of the man and the priest who took the confession.

After reviewing the microfiche file, several facts surrounding Olivia's death jumped out to the detectives.

First, the .22-caliber revolver had been moved after her body was found. According to statements, the gun had been taken into the house on South 27th Street where Olivia died in the front yard.

It also became clear that the officers involved in the original investigation had talked to a lot of people. There were as many as 40 people gathered at the house that night, they said.

No one reported seeing or hearing the fatal shot.

Complicating their effort, many of the possible witnesses have since died.

"Based on what I read, there was a night of partying," Paharik said of his review of the original reports. "I think everybody was partying. Some of these people who may or may not have known anything are (now) deceased."

With nothing obvious to work with from the reports, the officers turned their attention to sorting out the rumor of a confession.

House and Paharik first interviewed the priest. He denied having taken anyone's confession regarding the death of Olivia, and convinced the officers that had such a confession been made he would have reported it to authorities.

"He was very adamant," Paharik said.

After several failed attempts to talk to the man who reportedly made the confession, he arrived voluntarily at the Billings Police Department a few weeks later.

The officers described the man as emotional and forthcoming. He denied killing Olivia, and recounted with detail the events of that night as he recalled them.

"They had been partying that night and he had taken some kind of pill," Paharik said the man told him. "He passed out from the combination of the pill and alcohol in his vehicle in front of the house."

During the night, the man said, he awoke and found Olivia in the front yard.

"He thought at first she was passed out from alcohol," the man said, according to Paharik. "He saw a gun laying next to her, picked it up and went inside the house."

The man showed his brother the revolver, and the two decided to move Olivia inside the house. It was when they went to pick her up that the man said he noticed the gunshot wound.

A short scuffle ensued between the man and his brother, who wanted to take the gun and find who had shot Olivia. As a result, the gun was contaminated with fingerprints from several people.

The man said that after calming his brother down, they waited together for the police to arrive.

Paharik said the man's story was credible.

"I'm certainly not going into (the interview) thinking he's going to come out and just tell us the truth about everything," Paharik said. "I mean, there's no reason to believe that. But we have nothing to refute him at this point. If somebody came forward with some credible information, obviously that would make a difference."

While reviewing the case, the officers also learned that the original investigators had sent numerous items of evidence to an FBI lab for analysis, including the .22-caliber revolver. They said the reports indicate the lab found nothing significant.

House said he does not agree that the case was mishandled or that Olivia's death was not thoroughly investigated by his predecessors at the Police Department.

From some of the witness statements, it appears that Olivia may have fired the gun into the air earlier in the evening, the officers said. That could explain the spent shell casing found in her pocket.

And while it may be unusual for a person to use the opposite hand to fire a gun suicidally, it's not beyond the realm of possibility.    

House agrees that questions remain about Olivia's death.

"I understand it from the family's perspective," House said. "Look at all these questions that can't be answered."

With nothing more to go on, the officers said they have put the investigation back on hold.

***

Christina Castro said she is disappointed that the work by House and Paharik didn't resolve the family's concern. They continue to believe that Olivia did not kill herself.

Christina said she now hopes that someone with knowledge of what happened to her sister 37 years ago will come forward.

"I want people to know my sister didn't kill herself," Christina said. "I have faith and I have a strong belief. I just know in my soul. Eventually, the truth will set you free, and God is in control."   

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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