Marana death still a mystery - The Explorer: Import

Marana death still a mystery

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Posted: Thursday, September 18, 2003 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Ernest Frohlich drove his motor home to a Northwest bar to do what millions of other Americans did January 26 - watch the Superbowl, have a few drinks and enjoy a carefree Sunday evening.

The 56-year-old Frohlich was found dead inside his RV the next day, the big green and white motor home still parked near the Famous Sam's at Orange Grove and Thornydale roads where he spent his last night.

His death occurred less than 50 yards away from a Marana Police Department substation whose detectives would later investigate his death.

The case has stymied police and left Frohlich's family devastated and frustrated with the MPD. It's Marana's only homicide so far in 2003 and it remains unsolved.

Investigators have ruled the case a murder, but say it's still possible Frohlich's death may have been an accident. They're now appealing to the public to help identify a man they say may have information that could help solve what they admit is a difficult case.

Frohlich's family is also hoping information from the public may shed light on what exactly happened to him.

"They need to catch whoever did this," said Kimberly Frohlich, Ernest's daughter-in-law and the mother of three of his grandchildren. "My daughter is lost without her grandpa."

An image of the man police are seeking was captured on a surveillance camera at the Circle K on Orange Grove just east of Thornydale Road at 1:38 a.m. on Jan. 27.

The man appeared to be white or Hispanic with a shaved head and thin mustache, and is seen in the video tape wearing dark pants and a black shirt with a Polo logo.

Investigators stress the man is simply sought as an investigative lead who might be able to provide more information about Frohlich's final moments.

"He was in the area, he was obviously seen going inside the Circle K at about the same time that Famous Sam's was closing," said Sgt. Tim Brunenkant, who oversees MPD's Criminal Investigation Division. "We have information from witnesses inside Famous Sam's that he may have been speaking with Frohlich inside Famous Sam's. The descriptions kind of match, so putting two and two together, this guy may have been involved, possibly. At this point he's just an investigative lead."

The mysterious death of Frohlich left police with no eyewitnesses and little in the way of physical evidence, Brunenkant said.

Nothing was taken from Frohlich or the RV, and police have ruled out robbery or burglary as a motive.

If he was murdered, police have also ruled out any of Frohlich's friends or associates as suspects.

"There's nothing in his background at this point and we haven't found anybody that may have had an association with him before," Brunenkant said. "It may have been a stranger."

Brunenkant refused to reveal the nature of Frohlich's injuries or say exactly what caused his death.

"He could have fallen down, but we don't know until we identify this investigative lead to clarify this. And that's the reason we're not releasing the medical examiner's report. We don't want to give up our hand," Brunenkant said. "There was some trauma that we had seen around the trailer and that's why it's an open case. The investigative lead may know how that happened.

"We don't know if (the injuries) were self inflicted or trauma. That's why we want to talk to this person. He may know something or have seen some type of argument occur inside Famous Sam's or outside that may have led to these injuries - or he may not have."

Brunenkant said the exact nature of Frohlich's injuries, and even the cause of his death, may be information only his killer knows.

MPD refused a request filed under Arizona's Public Record Law by the Northwest EXPLORER for the autopsy report conducted by the Pima County medical examiner.

Pima County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Bruce Parks said he also would not release the report until he had a chance to consult with Marana detectives.

Frohlich, who lived in the 12000 block of North Puma Road northwest of Marana, had taken the RV to Famous Sam's so he could sleep in it if he had too much to drink. He didn't want to drive home impaired.

Frohlich's wife saw the RV still parked near the bar the following afternoon and she alerted police after she found his body inside.

According to the police report, Frohlich was found face down between the driver and passenger seat inside the unlocked RV.

Brunenkant said the Marana police substation, located in the same strip mall as the Famous Sam's, was closed during the evening except for officers going in and out to complete paperwork or use the restroom. None of the officers on duty that night apparently saw anything unusual at the bar or around the RV.

Frohlich, who leaves behind three grown sons and four grandchildren in addition to his wife, was described in his obituary as always smiling and generous. He was retired from the U.S. Navy and worked as an auto mechanic.

"He helped everybody out. He did mechanical work, he did welding, he did whatever people needed to be done and people would pay him to help them out," Frohlich said. "My daughter and he were always together. He was always giving her horseback rides. They were always doing something. He wasn't around for another one of his grandchildren's first birthdays in February."

The family is angry that MPD has not kept them informed about the case, Kimberly Frohlich said. She was surprised when a reporter told her MPD was seeking information about the man seen at the Circle K.

"They won't tell my mother-in-law anything and they won't tell anybody else. We've tried to contact them before, but you never know if they are going to call you back and half the time they don't," Frohlich said.

She said the family is also angry that MPD his still holding the RV and all of its contents as evidence. The family has not been told when the vehicle will be released from an impound lot.

"We would like to get the motor home back and get the rest of the contents out. We managed to get some things out of there before they took it, " Frohlich said.

Ernest Frohlich's widow did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Marana is not a town that sees many homicide investigations. The town had no murders in 2002, one in 2001 and another in 2000.

An Arizona Department of Public Safety review in March of a homicide investigation conducted by MPD in 2000 found 28 problems in how detectives handled the case.

The Marana investigation involved a man who died while struggling with bouncers at a popular nightclub. No charges were ever filed in the case. The DPS review was prompted by a series of investigative stories published in the EXPLORER in 2002.

Brunenkant said he's depending on the public's help to solve one of the most difficult death cases the MPD has encountered. He believes the key may lie with identifying the man seen in the surveillance photo.

"If anybody has any information, even if they heard someone talking about it after the fact, they should call. We're asking the public for help. Somebody knows who this guy is," Brunenkant said.

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