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$7.25 Million Settlement Reached In Stephanie Crowe Murder Case

Stephanie Crowe
Stephanie Crowe

A settlement has been reached in the high-profile, 1998 Stephanie Crowe murder case. The Crowe family, whose son was falsely accused by Escondido police of killing his sister, settled today with the cities of Escondido and Oceanside for $7.25 million dollars.

The Crowe settlement follows a related settlement earlier this month by the family of Aaron Houser for about $4 million, according to a source with knowledge of the case. Houser was also falsely accused of Stephanie's murder.

The money will be paid by the cities' insurance carrier, not from taxpayer funds.


KPBS Editor Mark Sauer will be on Friday's show to talk about the settlement in the Stephanie Crowe case.

The federal court lawsuit claimed violations of constitutional rights against false arrest and imprisonment.

Despite the belated settlement, Stephanie's mother Cheryl Crowe told KPBS today that she still doubts Escondido Police regret the coercive interrogations, nor the arrests and jailing of their son and his two high school friends, Josh Treadway and Aaron Houser. The police, she said, targeted the teens without reason.

“They did it with malice. They knew what they were doing," said Cheryl Crowe, who has since moved with her family to Oregon. "We were ready to go to trial to prove that. And they never admitted they did anything wrong.”

San Diego Attorney Milton J. Silverman, who persevered to secure the settlement, said he believes that Escondido detectives focused on Michael Crowe because they could not face the fact that they failed to catch a transient -- a more likely killer -- after two Crowe neighbors called 911 to report him.

"The fact that the defendants haven’t admitted liability is their problem," Silverman said. "The one thing that I insisted on is that the settlement not be confidential.”

Escondido officials could not be reached for comment.


It has been nearly 14 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 initially accused of conspiring at school to carry out the brutal stabbing.

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

Michael Crowe, 14, 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 on videotape that he must have killed her because they said so, even though he had no memory of the crime.

His best friend, Joshua Treadway, then 15, 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, then 15, 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, however, after reviewing the videotapes of the videotapes and questioning the legality of the interrogations. Nevertheless, San Diego prosecutors proceeded toward trial.

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.

Tuite, a drug-addicted transient suffering from severe mental illness, was the subject of the two 911 calls from neighbors in the hours before Stephanie’s killing. He was reportedly 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 sweatclothes.

With the revelation of blood on Tuite's sweatshirt, the case against the three teens fell apart.

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 by sheriff's detectives and state prosecutors in early 2004, more drops of Stephanie's blood were 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 16 years in state prison.

But in another strange twist in a case full of them, Tuite last month had his conviction for killing Stephanie overturned by a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. On a 2-1 vote, the judges said that Tuite's trial was unfair because one peripheral witness among scores in the four-month case was not cross-examined by his attorneys.

Just shy of a year after Stephanie's killing, 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.’”

Meanwhile, Richard Tuite remains in state prison awaiting a new trial. It is unclear whether state prosecutors will appeal to the full 9th Circuit the panel's decision to grant him a new trial.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.