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Way Clear For Civil Trial In Notorious Stephanie Crowe Case

The cities of Escondido and Oceanside could be on the hook for millions in damages after the U.S. Supreme Court today refused to consider their appeal of a lower-court ruling in the notorious Stephanie Crowe murder case.

Stephanie Crowe
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Above: Stephanie Crowe

The decision means a civil lawsuit filed by families of then-teenage boys falsely accused of the murder is finally headed to a jury trial, or settlement.

It has been nearly 13 years since the 12 year old girl was found slain on her bedroom floor. Her brother Michael, then 14, and two high-school friends were suspected of the January 1998 stabbing.

Escondido Police detectives, joined by an Oceanside investigator, interrogated Michael Crowe, Joshua Treadway and Aaron Houser for many hours. Cheryl and Steve Crowe had no idea their son was being interrogated; none of the suspects was provided an attorney.

Michael Crowe suffered an emotional breakdown during his two marathon interrogations, which were videotaped. Detectives lied to him about the evidence, saying his sister’s blood was found in his room and she was clutching his hair in her fingers. (Lying to suspects is legal.) Eventually, Michael Crowe acknowledged he must have killed her, though he had no memory of the crime.

His best friend, Joshua Treadway, was arrested and interrogated over many hours on two occasions. After being fed details of the murder, as well as lies about evidence, Treadway eventually told detectives an improbable story. He said that he, Crowe and Houser plotted the killing during school breaks. Treadway claimed he and Houser walked several miles after midnight, helped Crowe kill his sister, walked miles home, sneaked back into bed and aced their first high school finals without anyone suspecting anything.

The three teens were jailed for more than six months in Juvenile Hall as the District Attorney’s office secured their indictments for murder from the county Grand Jury.

A Superior Court judge released the boys in July 1998 after reviewing the videotapes of their interrogations and questioning the legality of the interrogations. San Diego prosecutors proceeded toward trial, however. Then in January 1999, during jury selection, came a bombshell: Stephanie’s blood was discovered on the red sweatshirt worn the night of the killing by Richard Raymond Tuite.

A drug-addicted transient suffering from severe mental illness, Tuite was the subject of two 911 calls from neighbors in the hours before Stephanie’s killing. He was knocking on doors and peering through windows of homes in the Crowes’ neighborhood asking for a girl named Tracy.

Twice Escondido police officers were dispatched to the area, but Tuite was not apprehended. After Stephanie’s body was discovered, police located Tuite near a laundromat, questioned him briefly and confiscated his clothing, releasing him in police-provided sweat clothes.

With the revelation of blood on Tuite's sweatshirt, the case against the three teens fell apart. But it took nearly four more years for Escondido police to relinquish the investigation to the county Sheriff’s Department and for the San Diego District Attorney's office to turn it over to the state Attorney General.

By the time Richard Tuite was charged and brought to trial in early 2004, more blood was discovered on the hem of a jail T-shirt he was wearing under the red sweatshirt. His four-month trial ended in a conviction for voluntary manslaughter; he was sentenced to 14 years in state prison.

The Crowe, Houser and Treadway families all sued Escondido and Oceanside police, 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 against them at a 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 last January, a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals 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.’ ”

It is unclear when a trial date will be set for the Crowe/Houser lawsuit against the Escondido and Oceanside officers.

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