His searchlights blazing, Officer Scott Walters pulled up to the Crowe family’s house at the end of a long, T-shaped driveway. He was looking for a prowler, a Charles Manson look-alike who had peered through neighbors’ windows that night and entered one home, asking for a girl named Tracy. Two frightened neighbors had called 911.
A few minutes before 10, Walters watched from behind the wheel of his Escondido Police cruiser as the laundry-room door adjacent to the garage—the door the Crowes typically used—slowly closed.
Who shut that door? Wouldn’t a family member have come out to inquire about a cop car and its spotlights in the driveway?
Those questions didn’t concern Walters. He punched “GOA,” for “gone on arrival,” into his dashboard computer, and he drove away.
The family members—Cheryl and Steve Crowe; their son, Michael, 14; daughters Stephanie, 12, and Shannon, 10; and grandma Judith Kennedy—had retired for the night by 10 o’clock. They knew nothing about a prowler in the neighborhood, nor about the cop in his brightly lit cruiser.
Before long, Stephanie lay mortally wounded in a pool of blood on her bedroom floor. She’d been stabbed nine times as she huddled in bed under blankets and a comforter. By then, Officer Walters was long gone. Stephanie’s body was discovered the next morning when her grandmother looked in to see why the outgoing, popular child with the bright smile wasn’t responding to her alarm clock.
By 2 that afternoon, January 21, 1998, the above facts were clear to Escondido Police investigators. But the idea that they had failed to catch a deranged prowler, and now a young girl lay dead on her bedroom floor, was too horrible to contemplate, says the Crowes’ attorney, Milton J. Silverman. Far more palatable, Silverman says, was this conclusion: Stephanie’s killing was an inside job; somebody in her family had stabbed the girl.
Because of that assumption, the error-riddled investigation and the coercive interrogations it spawned, the city of Escondido faces a lawsuit potentially worth millions to the plaintiffs. The lawsuit, gutted several years ago by a San Diego judge, was resurrected in January by judges on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, who ruled that actions taken by police “shocked the conscience.”
“It was all done to protect the Escondido Police Department from the horror of not catching the prowler, Richard Tuite, and failing to prevent the murder of Stephanie Crowe,” says Silverman, one of San Diego’s more well-known attorneys, who gravitates to high-profile cases. But attorneys representing the police flat-out deny Silverman’s contention, insisting, even 12 years later, that detectives had good reason to discount Tuite as a suspect.
In the months to follow her daughter’s slaying, after her 14-year-old son and two of his pals had been jailed and charged with the crime, their mugs splayed across front pages and TV newscasts, Cheryl Crowe would bitterly observe: “We called 911 for help, and look what we got.”
Now she and her family may finally get the chance to have their day in court.
The killing of Stephanie Crowe was white-hot news, a stunning story that left people throughout the region sickened, angry and vengeful. The same reaction followed the murder in February 2002 of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam of Sabre Springs, and the sexual assault and slaying this past February of 17-year-old Chelsea King in Rancho Bernardo.
Suspects in such cases are instantly vilified, publicly condemned long before facts of the case emerge in court. (In the Danielle van Dam case, a neighbor, David Westerfield, was convicted and is on death row. A registered sex offender, John Albert Gardner III, pleaded guilty in late April to the murders of both Chelsea King and Amber Dubois.
Public outcry spurs the quest for justice, placing police under enormous pressure to crack the case. But sometimes they get it wrong.
In the years since the Crowe slaying, 208 men have been released from death row in this country, nearly all of the cases overturned because DNA evidence proved their innocence. About one in four of those men had confessed.
But why would someone confess to a murder he did not commit? The answer can be found in the sterile, windowless pressure cooker of a room inside police headquarters where suspects are interrogated.
The use of water-boarding, sleep deprivation, beatings and other methods by the CIA and military interrogators in the war on terror has spawned a national debate on the morality and usefulness of physical torture. Far less attention is paid to the psychological pain inflicted by relentless, accusatory questioning over many hours, in which police detectives may lie about evidence and use implied accusations and threats as verbal weapons.
These tactics often work well on the guilty. But confessions are sometimes coerced from innocent suspects.
“Police in this country used to beat people with rubber hoses. Now they’ve learned to stress someone to the point where they finally confess,” says Richard Leo, a law professor at the University of San Francisco and a nationally recognized expert in police interrogation techniques and coercion.
“If you watch the interrogation of Michael Crowe, he just mentally breaks down,” Leo says. “They literally crushed his world. They convinced him he’d done the worst thing he could have—murdered his sister. And now he was going to prison, where he’d be raped. Broken bones heal, cuts heal; I don’t know if this sort of thing ever heals.”
Once locked on to Michael Crowe as the killer, Escondido detectives paid only cursory attention to Tuite, the transient who’d eluded them but eventually was convicted of the crime. What they did, according to Silverman, was engage in a conspiracy to elicit confessions in order to convict Michael Crowe and two of his friends, Joshua Treadway and Aaron Houser, fellow freshmen at Escondido’s Orange Glen High School.
Only in Alaska, Minnesota and a handful of other places are police required by law to videotape confessions. Yet examining the tape is the best way to determine if a confession was coerced. Though not required, the Escondido Police did videotape the confessions of Crowe, Treadway and Houser, which was highly fortunate for them.
There are two types of false confessions elicited by interrogation, says Leo. One involves an innocent suspect who’s persuaded by his interrogators that he actually committed the crime. The other involves a suspect who knows he didn’t do it but is made to believe he has only one chance to tell his questioners what they apparently want to hear—to be spared from the most dire consequences.
Both types of false confessions occurred in the Crowe case.
Police questioned all members of the Crowe family on the afternoon of January 21, 1998. They also forced Stephen, Cheryl, Michael and Shannon Crowe to strip, and photographed them nude or partially nude, ostensibly to look for scratches or other defensive marks.
Michael and Shannon were taken from their parents and placed in the Polinsky Center for abused children. Then detectives took Michael away for questioning; Shannon was told her brother was “going on a field trip.”
Michael Crowe was interrogated without his parents’ knowledge. The boy, who had stayed home sick from school the day of the killing, repeatedly said he got up around 4:30 a.m., went to the kitchen for Tylenol and went back to bed. He awoke to his parents’ screams and saw his sister’s body soaked in blood. He described Stephanie as “the best person” and as kind and sweet; he said he loved his sister and was angry with whomever killed her.
The cops didn’t buy it. Escondido Detectives Ralph Claytor and Mark Wrisley took turns interrogating Michael. They also enlisted the help of Detective Chris McDonough of the Oceanside Police Department for his expertise in operating a “computer voice stress analyzer,” a machine that supposededly determines when a person is lying via changes in voice levels.
McDonough said the machine showed deception; was there something Michael wanted to confess? Again and again, the boy said no.
Then Claytor took over, telling the suspect that his sister’s blood was found in his room, which was a lie.
(Officers Walters, Wrisley and McDonough did not respond to interview requests. Claytor is retired and has moved out of state.)
Again and again Michael denied killing his sister; he said he didn’t remember anything about the crime and that “all I know what I did is what you told me. That’s all I know.
The detectives introduced the idea of a “good Michael” and a “bad Michael.” They said he was blocking the memory of stabbing her. They said he was young and would “get treatment” if he confessed, rather than be doomed to the harsh world of prison.
Ultimately, Michael conceded that he must have killed Stephanie, based on the evidence. He was handcuffed and taken to Juvenile Hall.
Finally, his parents, half-mad with grief and staying at a relative’s house, were called with news that a suspect had been arrested.
“Who is it?” Steve Crowe anxiously asked.
“Your son” was the reply.
Despite announcing the case had been solved, the police had no evidence against Michael Crowe other than his so-called confession. Notably, they had no murder weapon.
But follow-up questioning of his friends yielded what detectives believed was pure gold: Stephanie had been killed with a knife whose blade was 5 to 6 inches long; Michael’s close friend Joshua Treadway had such a knife.
A search warrant was served, and Treadway was brought in and interrogated overnight. Hours of denying he had any knowledge of Stephanie’s murder or anything to do with it gave way to the 15-year-old telling an elaborate story of plotting with Michael and another friend, Aaron Houser, to sneak in and stab Stephanie.
This “confession” was preceded in the questioning, which eventually totaled about 18 hours, by another failed truth-verification test conducted by Detective McDonough—and more lying to the teenage suspect. The cops claimed the knife had tested positive for Stephanie’s blood and that forensic examination of the wounds proved the knife, which Josh had actually pilfered from a collection at Houser’s house, was the one used to kill Stephanie. Those were lies. The cops also said that Houser and Michael Crowe were in a room down the hall ratting Treadway out, and that if he didn’t tell them how the killing went down, he was going to prison for murder.
Treadway proceeded to make up a detailed account of conspiracy and murder. He said Michael was jealous of his sister and wanted her dead; he and Houser agreed to help, and they plotted the killing during school lunch breaks.
On the night of the killing, Treadway eventually said, he and Houser sneaked out of their houses around 11:30, walked to the Crowe house, were let in by Michael, “did the deed” and walked home—nearly 7 miles round-trip. They each sneaked back into their houses undetected, got up for school about four hours later, aced their first high-school final exams, and nobody was the wiser. Treadway conceded that sticking the murder weapon under his bed in plain view was dumb.
Aaron Houser, though, in nine hours of interrogation, steadfastly refused to confess, despite being told that the truth test showed he lied and that he faced a murder charge and prison if he failed to come clean.
Treadway’s story, fantastic as it was, convinced the district attorney to take the case to a grand jury where, aided by a bit of perjured testimony from Detective Claytor, indictments were secured.
Though vilified for months in the press, the three boys saw the case against them begin to unravel in a series of court hearings. Still, they were headed toward trial in January 1999, when they were suddenly exonerated by a bombshell discovery—conclusive evidence the Escondido Police had missed.
On the day Stephanie’s body was found, police had picked up Richard Tuite, identified by witnesses as the prowler. A quick background check would have revealed multiple arrests on drug and burglary charges as well as a long history of mental illness and addiction. But Escondido detectives didn’t bother.
Instead, Tuite was briefly questioned and let go, though his clothing was confiscated. His filthy red sweatshirt was examined in Escondido’s rudimentary lab, and nothing of forensic interest regarding the Crowe killing was found.
But at the insistence of Treadway’s criminal-defense attorney, Mary Ellen Attridge, the shirt was sent months later to a highly regarded DNA lab in the Bay Area. There it was discovered that several drops of Stephanie’s blood, an extremely rare type, were among the many stains on Tuite’s shirt.
Six years after the murder, as Tuite was about to be tried by the California attorney general’s office following a fresh investigation by San Diego County Sheriff’s Detective Vic Caloca, more of Stephanie’s blood was discovered on the hem of an undershirt worn by Tuite on the night of the crime.
The Crowe, Houser and Treadway families all sued Escondido Police, Oceanside Officer McDonough and others involved in the botched investigation. They claimed their constitutional rights against unlawful arrest, unreasonable search and seizure and self-incrimination had been violated.
After several years of successful delaying tactics by the defendants, U.S. District Judge John Rhoades (now deceased) dismissed nearly all of the families’ claims. He ruled that because the boys’ statements had not been used at trial, they could not legally claim that their rights had been violated.The Treadways gave up. But the Crowes and Housers appealed.
In reinstating the lawsuit in January, the 9th Circuit judges said emphatically that Rhoades was wrong. In a strongly worded opinion, the three-judge panel concluded that the boys had undergone “psychological torture,” leading to murder charges against “innocent teenagers for a crime they did not commit.” The ruling states: “One need only read the transcripts of the boys’ interrogations, or watch the videotapes, to understand how thoroughly the defendants’ conduct in this case ‘shocks the conscience.’”
The defendants—the various detectives, the cities of Escondido and Oceanside and psychologist Lawrence Blum (who orchestrated many of the interrogation sessions)—have since asked for a rehearing before the full 9th Circuit Court. Should that fail, they could appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, settle or face trial.
Escondido officials insist their officers had good reason to believe that Michael Crowe was responsible for his sister’s murder. “There is no question our officers acted in good faith,” says Michael McGuinness, deputy city attorney for Escondido. “This case relates to whether our officers violated the U.S. Constitution and if so, what value that has.”
McGuinness emphatically denies the plaintiffs’ contention that the Escondido officers focused on Michael Crowe and his friends in order to bury their failure to catch Tuite and prevent Stephanie’s killing.
After 12 years, the Crowes are weary.
“When we heard that we’d won in the appeals court, our reaction was: Won what?” Cheryl Crowe says. “There are still going to be more delays.
“If we finally get our case to trial, will that be justice? They fought it all the way and continue to fight against the truth. They just compounded our tragedy. This has been a really scary education on how the criminal-justice system works.”
Cheryl says her son Michael, now 26, and his wife moved recently to Oregon, where he manages a sporting goods store. Joshua Treadway works in the computer-software industry, and Aaron Houser works now with autistic children.
Cheryl Crowe says she harbors no ill will for Scott Walters, who remains a traffic officer with the Escondido Police Department. “He told the truth at Tuite’s trial, whereas Detective Claytor lied and insisted Walters was at a different house that night,” she says.
“At least Walters manned up and told the jury he was at our house, saw the door close and admitted he did not get out of his car.”
Stephen Crowe says an apology and admission of what went terribly wrong in the case would have gone a long way.
“Justice is not measured by money,” says Stephanie’s father, now permanently disabled following a failed back surgery. “The people who did this to Michael and Josh and Aaron and to our family and their families—those people should have apologized long ago, and they should have lost their jobs.
“Although Tuite is in prison, you can’t say that there has really been justice in this case.”