Family Of Stephanie Crowe To Finally Get Day In Court
It has been 13 years since the family of 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe found the child stabbed to death on her bedroom floor. They called Escondido Police for help; instead, they saw a horrific tragedy made even worse.
Police ignored a mentally ill prowler named Richard Raymond Tuite who had been scaring neighbors, two of whom reported him to police in the hours before the knife slaying. Police instead falsely accused Stephanie's brother Michael and two of his friends of the killing.
Now the cities of Escondido and Oceanside could be on the hook for millions in damages after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to consider their appeal of a lower-court ruling in the notorious case.
"We're going to trial," Cheryl Crowe, Stephanie's mother, said yesterday. "Finally they're going to have to answer all the questions we've been wondering, like what made you do this?"
Steve Crowe said he will never forget the call he got from an Escondido detective a few nights after Stephanie's murder. "They called me on the phone and said we've arrested the murderer of your daughter. And I said, 'Who?' And they said, 'Your son.'
"As if it wasn't bad enough having our daughter murdered, then all of a sudden they drop this on us."
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.
The Crowes' federal-court lawsuit claims violation of rights against self-incrimination, and against false arrest and prosecution, included in the 5th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The suit targets the Oceanside investigator and several Escondido detectives, including one who lied to the San Diego County Grand Jury about blood being found on a knife owned by one of the suspects.
Attorney Milton J. Silverman, who represents the Crowes, said he'll argue at trial that Escondido Police conspired to cover-up their own incompetency on the night of Stephanie's murder.
"They knew that but for their officer being too lazy to get out of his car, that little girl would not have been murdered," Silverman said. "So they decided to pin the case on Michael Crowe."
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, the teen 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 about 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 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.
Escondido City Attorney Jeffrey Epp continues to defend the actions of the police officers involved.
"I think the investigators were faced with a very difficult set of facts and circumstances," Epp said.
Asked how much Escondido and Oceanside might face in damages as the Crowe case moves toward trial or settlement, Epp declined to speculate. "Obviously, the more reasonable Mr. Silverman is, the less it would cost us. So, no, I couldn't give you any kind of number."
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.’ ”
The Crowe family has spent 13 years fighting for vindication for their son and redress for what happened to them. Michael today is 27, married and living in Oregon. A back injury has disabled Steve Crowe and Cheryl recently lost her job.
Stephanie's parents say they still think about their daughter every day.
"She's been gone now longer than she was alive," Cheryl Crowe said. "And maybe if Escondido had better officers that got out of their car, maybe she'd be alive."
A trial date is expected to be set soon for the Crowe/Houser lawsuit against the Escondido and Oceanside officers.