Death of an Informant

Donald Chaline died as he had lived: in a tangle of crime, alcohol and mystery.

She couldn't tell whether the conversation was friendly. "One time I walked by," she remembers, "and I heard Don say, 'That's just the way it is. That's what happened, and I can't help it.' They must have talked for two hours. And Don paid for most of the drinks, so he must have been into the guy for something."

After the stranger departed, Chaline settled his bar tab and returned briefly to Liars. The bartender there says when Chaline left for his townhouse around 2 a.m., he didn't appear drunk: "He had his snap and was making sense." Seven hours later, he was dead.

Just before 9 a.m. Sunday morning, one of Chaline's neighbors left her unit at the Maison De Ville townhouse complex and, while walking along an interior sidewalk, was stunned to find Chaline's body. He was lying face-up, and his feet were about three yards away from the staircase's bottom rung. His head was a few feet away from a white brick wall.

The Houston police were called, and they in turn notified the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office. According to a report by an investigator from the medical examiner's office, Chaline's front door keys were in his hand. He also had in his possession the remote control for his Blazer's alarm, $16.06 in cash and a small plastic bag of cocaine.

The investigator found "no sign of trauma" to Chaline's body, although the sidewalk at the bottom of the staircase is still stained with blood where the back of Chaline's head came to rest. A closer inspection at the morgue found that Chaline had suffered a fractured skull, and the cause of death was listed as an accidental fall.

Harris County's new chief medical examiner, Dr. Joye Carter, did not perform the autopsy herself, but she gave it a close review. She points out that all of Chaline's major organs, including his heart, were congested and enlarged. She suspects that he might have passed out or experienced some form of arrhythmia -- a scenario made more likely by the quantity of alcohol and drugs in his blood.

A toxicology report showed that Chaline had ingested a considerable amount of cocaine the night he died, and that his blood alcohol level was .07. Although that percentage is below the threshold of legal intoxication, Carter explains that it doesn't mean Chaline wasn't intoxicated when he fell -- if he didn't die immediately, his body would have continued to metabolize the alcohol in his system. Carter also says Chaline's head injuries -- the main one a fracture to the right side of his skull -- indicate a fall rather than a blow.

"The brain has the consistency of a very soft egg," she says while explaining his injury, known medically as a "contrecoup." "In falling, the brain will kind of bounce around and hit the inside of the skull. And that does leave a different kind of injury than if someone is hit directly on the head. You have the brain moving around and bouncing as the head hits the ground."

Carter says Chaline could simply have struck the hard pebblestone sidewalk or perhaps the cement bench at the bottom of the stairs. The bench, though, seems unlikely, since Chaline's skull fracture was on the right side of his head. Because he was still carrying birthday cake from Woo's party, his family -- as well as police -- believe that when he died, he was heading home, walking toward the stairs. That would have placed the bench on his left, not his right.

Still, homicide detectives also agree with the medical examiner that Chaline died as a result of a fall. Officer R. E. King, who inspected the crime scene, found no traces of blood on the cement bench or the brick wall. Police don't know what Chaline hit his head on.

In one respect, that's not surprising. Unlike cheese, crime scenes don't improve with age. Because the patrol officer who first investigated Chaline's death described what appeared to be an accident, homicide detectives were not immediately sent to the scene. King and his partner, Sergeant Larry Ott, were assigned to the case two days later after some of Chaline's friends called the homicide division and suggested that foul play might have been involved. In addition to inspecting the area where Chaline's body was found, the two detectives also interviewed several of the dead man's acquaintances. And their investigation led them to concur with the opinion of the medical examiner.

"This is a textbook example of an accidental fall," King says adamantly.

Out of loyalty to his old informant, Johnny Bonds -- now an investigator with the Harris County District Attorney's Office -- took some time to review the facts of Don Chaline's death. He found nothing to make him believe the death was a homicide, and he says he has great confidence in the homicide detectives assigned to the case.

"If somebody had been out to kill Don," says Bonds, "they would have done a better job of it."

Still, Bonds leaves himself a bit of wiggle room on the question. With as many enemies as Chaline had made over the years, Bonds concedes, there are plenty of suspects. If somebody did kill him, he says, that person will probably eventually talk about it. And when he does, police can only hope that an informant comes forward -- an irony Chaline might appreciate.

"It's going to take somebody making that phone call," Bonds says, "just like he did.

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