Investigation of police officer's death reopened
BALD HEAD ISLAND, N.C. (WTVD) -- The North Carolina coast is known for its beautiful beaches, and Bald Head Island is among the best. With million dollar mansions, it's a remote summer playground for the rich and powerful.
But in the fall of 1999, the island was where Loy Buff's long nightmare began. Back then, his daughter Davina Buff-Jones was just starting a new career as a police officer on Bald Head.
Buff told ABC11 she'd recently told him she'd stumbled upon its darker side.
"All this drug activity near the lighthouse," said Buff "The week she told me, she was killed."
Late on the night of October 22, Buff-Jones was out on patrol investigating a stolen golf cart.
In a recording of a radio call with her dispatch obtained by ABC11, Buff-Jones checked in from the base of Old Baldy, the state's oldest lighthouse, saying she'd encountered three people.
"Standby please, no reason to have a gun here on Bald Head Island. You want to put down the gun?" Buff-Jones is heard saying.
Seconds later comes a second transmission of Buff-Jones' last words.
"Come on, do us a favor. Put down the gun," she is heard to say.
Fellow officers rushed to Old Baldy and found the 33-year-old police officer dead. She was shot in the back of the head. The door of her SUV was open, and the headlights were on.
"They said it was suicide," here father recalled.
Buff told ABC11 he couldn't believe that was the official finding, especially after hearing his daughter's radio calls for himself.
But District Attorney Rex Gore ruled it a suicide based on autopsy results and the backing of the State Bureau of Investigation in Raleigh. He noted that the twice-divorced Buff-Jones had recently filed a harassment complaint against another island employee, had also recently been treated for depression, and had previously admitted to having suicidal thoughts.
Her father didn't buy it.
"She didn't commit suicide," Buff told ABC11.
Buff said the autopsy report showing where his daughter was shot was crucial evidence to him.
"Right in the back of her head, assassination style," he said.
After Gore closed the criminal investigation, the Buff family filed a civil lawsuit for the purpose of determining the cause of death. In 2003, a N.C Industrial Commission hearing resulted in a finding that the cause of death was homicide. The panel said it was highly unlikely Buff-Jones could have shot herself at the trajectory listed in the autopsy results. There was also no trace of gunpowder found on her hands.
Buff has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to clear his daughter's name - including hiring a private investigator and fighting the powers that be to get the initial prosecutor's ruling overturned at the highest levels. Buff told ABC11 he suspects there was a cover-up.
"They didn't want a police officer murder on their island to affect their real estate prices," he offered.
Buff also told us he blames Gore for his handling of the investigation. Gore refused to reopen the case even after the N.C Industrial Commission ruling. The same commission also awarded the Buff family $50,000.
But since then, the job of DA in North Carolina's Thirteenth Prosecutorial District has changed hands. Current District Attorney Jon David announced this month that he's reopening the investigation.
In a news release, David called Gore's unwillingness to take a second look at the case unfortunate.
"... this action on Mr. Gore's part lead many to conclude he was not acting in a fair and impartial manner. Regardless of the truth of this assertion, such a perception is damaging to the Office of the District Attorney," David wrote.
ABC11 contacted Gore for his reaction to the decision.
"I don't think it's a negative reflection on what my staff did during the investigation," he said.
Despite the rulings of panels that have examined the case, Gore defended his decision.
"At the time when we looked at the evidence that was there, it appeared to us that it was a suicide," he explained.
But, Gore admitted there were public relations concerns too.
"We felt that we should call it like it was, so folks on the island, and other places, shouldn't be worried," he said.
Buff said he doesn't care about public opinion. He cares about justice - long delayed - for his little girl.
"I'll be somewhat gratified if the information that comes out shows the corruption. That's what I want to see," he offered.
abc11 investigates, kelli o'hara
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