In late October 2006, the family filed a missing persons report with tribal police. It would be weeks before her body was found
Every March 21, Roberta Tortice says “Happy Birthday” to her youngest child — the same words she spoke when she first held the girl, her face flawless and beautiful.
But for more than a decade, she has seen Katherine “Kat” Tortice only in pictures. She’s wearing a light-colored dress at her eighth-grade graduation, sitting in a hallway outside her bedroom after claiming she cleaned it, getting ready to play basketball and in a red shirt while away at boarding school in Oregon.
“You see she’s always happy,” the proud mother says.
Those are the ways she remembers the 16-year-old who was killed and buried in a shallow grave on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in eastern Arizona in November 2006.
Roberta Tortice had suspected Kat’s then-boyfriend Andre Hinton was responsible but it wasn’t until a decade later that a federal grand jury indicted Hinton on a second-degree murder charge. Federal authorities have jurisdiction over major crimes on the reservation.
The 36-year-old Hinton pleaded guilty earlier this year to a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced Tuesday to eight years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release.
Prosecutors said presenting such an old case to a jury would have been risky as witnesses’ memories fade and documents are lost. They had no direct evidence against Hinton and worried a jury might not view the teenager who admitted to helping bury Kat’s body as credible, given his criminal history.
“I don’t think there’s any dispute this is a circumstantial case,” prosecutor Dimitra Sampson told The Associated Press. “It’s putting all the puzzle pieces together. No one was there except the two of them.”
Roberta Tortice and her family wanted Hinton locked away for life and for him to show remorse.
He said nothing about Kat or the crime at his sentencing.
“He killed my daughter, buried her and he’s getting (involuntary) manslaughter?” Tortice told The Associated Press. “That’s the part I don’t understand. But he’s going to face the true judge one day.”
Savannah Abraham, Hinton’s sister and one of Kat’s best friends, was torn yet made no excuses for him.
“I just hope he comes out better than when he went in,” she said.
In court documents, Hinton acknowledged striking Kat in the head. She lost consciousness but he didn’t seek medical attention. He and Charles Jones later buried her body, burned their clothing and ditched the digging tools in a pond near the highway.
Prosecutors said Hinton abused several women over the years, using his hands, a stove pipe, a stick and possibly an electrical cord as weapons. Court documents detail the women’s bruises, bleeding, swelling, scrapes and scars. Some were knocked unconscious.
The judge Tuesday took that history into account in sentencing Hinton.
His attorney, Mark Paige, argued in court that the death was an accident. He said Hinton was scared and wanted to call police but Jones dissuaded him.
It wasn’t uncommon for Kat to disappear with Hinton and return home with injuries, court documents state. Kat’s sister, Daisy, and her mother both told authorities Kat would cringe in pain when they hugged or touched her because of injuries that Hinton inflicted.
In late October 2006, the family filed a missing persons report with tribal police. It would be weeks before her body was found.
Roberta Tortice said she drove back and forth on a local highway for work not knowing her daughter was buried nearby. She and her late husband searched the woods in McNary and begged police to help, she said.
“They say time will heal, but you never heal from losing a child, especially when your child was brutally murdered,” Tortice wrote in a letter read Tuesday.
Authorities said Jones, the teenager who helped Hinton bury Kat’s body, led them to her grave after getting into a fight with Kat’s brother. White Mountain Apache police responded and looped in federal authorities.
But authorities didn’t have enough to charge Hinton and the case sat for years, although it was reviewed at times.
FBI special agent Scott Flake took it over in 2015. He re-interviewed Jones and heard details no one else would have known: the burial site pinpointed on a map, a half-eaten burrito in Kat’s pocket and the location of the digging tools.
An FBI dive team searched the pond in 2016 and found a rounded wooden handle where Jones said it would be. “A lot of things came together with a sustained push to see what was going on,” Flake said.
Medical investigators determined Kat died of bleeding in the brain caused by the hit to her head. Hinton’s explanations for her death didn’t match the evidence, they said.
After Kat’s body was exhumed from the frozen ground in December 2006, her family had a closed-casket funeral service. Hinton didn’t attend.
Roberta Tortice questions whether she did enough to protect Kat and whether her daughter called out for her. She closed her eyes tightly with Daisy at her side.
“I’m sure God needed her more,” Daisy said.
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Last Updated Jul 12, 2018, 6:42 PM IST