CODY -- Relatives of a woman who was murdered two years ago by her estranged husband have filed a lawsuit against the town of Lovell, alleging that police knew the man was mentally unstable and should have detained him for evaluation.
Steven D. Lopez, 23, an active-duty U.S. Army sergeant who was absent without leave, shot and killed Brenda Davila Lopez, 22, before turning the gun on himself on Nov. 5, 2007.
The mother of Brenda Davila Lopez, Martha Davila, along with other Davila family members, filed the complaint in 5th District Court in Big Horn County on Tuesday, seeking unspecified damages.
Martha Davila is now caring for the Lopezes' son, 4, and daughter, 5, according to the complaint.
The complaint names as defendants the town of Lovell and Robert Bifano, who was then an officer with the Lovell Police Department.
"Plaintiffs are of the firm belief that at the time of his death, Steven Lopez was obviously mentally ill, emotionally distraught and presented a clear danger to himself and his family," the complaint states.
It alleges that Bifano should have detained Lopez for a so-called Title 25 emergency mental health evaluation during a meeting at the police station on Oct. 29, 2007.
It further states that police should have followed up to make sure that Lopez returned to Fort Bragg, N.C., and claims that Brenda Davila Lopez would be alive if not for the alleged negligence of police.
Title 25 of Wyoming's statutes provides a foundation that police and mental health professionals may use to temporarily detain and evaluate individuals who appear acutely mentally ill.
The complaint alleges that Bifano "knew the warning signs and risk factors which exhibited clear facts indicating that there was a high probability that Steven Lopez was a risk to himself and his family."
Sgt. 1st Class Clinton Ham, Lopez's supervisor at Fort Bragg, made several calls to Lovell police, seeking to locate Lopez.
"He's suicidal, and I don't want nothing to happen to this young soldier," Ham told a police dispatcher just a few days before the shooting.
"I don't want this dude to commit suicide or to kill his family, you know, and that's what's on our minds right now," he said to a dispatcher.
In audio recordings released by police of telephone conversations that Bifano had with Ham, Lopez and others, the officer's concern for the soldier is apparent.
The recordings detail how Bifano was frustrated and worried while working to untangle conflicting accounts given by family members about Lopez's location and mental state.
"Until I can actually talk to him and feel comfortable with it, I can't stop looking for him," Bifano told Lopez's father.
Bifano reached Lopez by phone at one point, and told him, "I am going to have to keep looking for you until I talk to you."
Bifano did not detain Lopez after a brief, voluntary meeting during which Lopez assured the officer that he would not hurt himself, according to the recordings. The shooting occurred six days later.
Under Title 25, an individual may be held for an emergency detention when police or a mental health examiner "has reasonable cause to believe a person is mentally ill."
If a person was detained, "but is no longer dangerous to himself or others, the person shall be released immediately," the law states.
A criminal investigation by the Army found that Lopez's medical records showed "no indicators of post-traumatic stress disorder and he was not prescribed any medication for PTSD."
Lopez had served in Iraq and Afghanistan before returning to Fort Bragg, and friends and family members said that he had trouble coping with events from those deployments.
Toxicology results showed that Lopez tested positive for prescription drugs, and an autopsy report by Dr. Thomas Bennett of Billings, Mont., lists alcohol ingestion as a "significant condition" for Lopez at the time of death.
Though listed as AWOL, Lopez was not flagged by the Army as a deserter, and no warrant was ever issued for his arrest.
Lovell Police Chief Nick Lewis declined to comment on the complaint.
Lovell Town Attorney Sandra Kitchen referred questions to an attorney for the state's local government liability pool, who did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
"My sincerest sympathies still go out to the families for their loss, but it would not be appropriate for me to comment further," said Bifano, who resigned from the Lovell Police Department to work as an officer for the Saratoga Police Department.
The plaintiff's attorney, Joey Darrah, of Powell, declined to comment.