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Title: DNA Report Rocks Teen Slaying Case

Source: APBNews.com, Feb. 19th, 1999

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Results May Point to Transient, Not Girl's Brother
Feb. 19, 1999

By Randy Dotinga

ESCONDIDO, Calif. (APBnews.com) -- Prosecutors are sure that 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe's big brother and two of his friends killed the girl last year, stabbing her nine times in her bedroom in some occult ritual, leaving the words "kill kill" scrawled on her windowsill.

They say they have confessions and no one else in this San Diego suburb could have killed the girl. 

But a report of new DNA evidence linking an unstable drifter to the scene has cast doubt on the case, prompting lawsuits by the suspects' families and stirring up an already frenzied media. A judge has slapped a gag order on lawyers and this week threatened to move the trial elsewhere because of the intense publicity.

The girl's death
The tragic tale began Jan. 21, 1998. At about 6:30 a.m., the alarm clock in Stephanie's room went off, and her grandmother went in to check on it. As she opened the bedroom door, she found Stephanie sprawled on the floor. According to court documents, the grandmother ran toward the master bedroom shouting: "There's something wrong with Steffie. She's lying on the floor, and she's covered in mud."

Stephanie's parents ran into the room and tried to revive her. Stephanie's mother yelled to her son: "Please, Michael, please. You're the smartest person I know. Please help her."

Michael Crowe, a 15-year-old ninth-grader described as an "all-American boy" who school officials considered ready for college, responded: "Mom, I'm sorry. I don't know what to do."

Michael was soon arrested and charged with murder, as were his two friends, 15-year-old Joshua Treadway and 16-year-old Aaron Houser. All were considered top students at a local high school in Escondido, 30 miles north of San Diego. Houser got an A on a Geometry test that very day. Prosecutors say Stephanie's brother and Houser carved up the young girl while Treadway stood watch. The three are also charged with conspiracy.

Doubt crops up
Prosecutors portrayed the slaying as an open-and-shut case against three boys warped by an unhealthy passion for dark role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. They say Michael Crowe and Treadway confessed to the crime and implicated Houser after being told they failed a controversial lie detector test that analyzes voice patterns. Police found a knife at Treadway's home that they think is the murder weapon.

But doubt has cropped up, starting with one judge publicly saying the evidence against the boys is not convincing, and another throwing out the confessions. Then came a bombshell newspaper report just as jury selection started in the case against Treadway last month.

An anonymous source told The San Diego Union-Tribune Jan. 15 that a last-minute DNA test matched blood from the slain seventh-grader to tiny droplets found on a sweat shirt worn by transient Richard Tuite, a man interviewed by police but discarded as a suspect.

A history of trouble
Defense attorneys, who found the sweat shirt in evidence the police collected, have long tried to pin the case on Tuite, who has a record of drug abuse, criminal activity and mental illness. On the night Stephanie was murdered, he allegedly was seen knocking on doors and harassing residents in the neighborhood around the 18-acre Crowe property, asking for a woman named Tracy.

A DNA match could indicate that Tuite was present for the killing. Prosecutors have sent the samples to the FBI for more testing.

On Jan. 27, Tuite was sentenced to three years in state prison for attempting to rob a mobile home and for harassing two young girls on a bus. Both girls were near Stephanie's age.

"He stared at them so intensely that they both pulled their coats over their heads so he wouldn't look at them anymore," said prosecutor Katherine Flaherty. "He approached them and asked one of them to have sex with him." 

She called Tuite "dangerous."

A 'bumbling prowler'?
But if Tuite committed the killing, he did so without leaving signs of forced entry and without waking the five other people in the Crowe household at the time of her death. Police doubt he is capable of such a feat.

"I would have to characterize Mr. Tuite as the bumbling prowler," said Escondido police Detective Ralph Claytor in court testimony, according to a news report. "Nothing I saw in the reports would indicate the stealthiness to enter the house, kill Stephanie, get out and make sure there was no evidence."

On Jan. 28, two attorneys were appointed to represent Tuite, who is considered a "material witness" in the Stephanie Crowe case. 

Defense attorney Curt Owen said: "He doesn't have any involvement in that case whatsoever. He is a very young man who has some very considerable difficulties mentally. It appears to be highly unlikely that he would be capable of covering it up if he had [committed the crime]."

Families sue prosecutors, police
But still, on Jan. 21, after the explosive DNA test results were reported, Stephanie's family -- including her brother Michael -- filed suit against the county district attorney's office, the police departments of Escondido and Oceanside and several detectives. The suit accuses the authorities of coercing a false confession and hiding and destroying evidence. It also accuses police officers of humiliating family members during questioning by making them strip nude for photographs. The damages are unspecified.

Houser, Treadway and their families have also filed suits in recent weeks, and on Tuesday Treadway led the families in a prayer service outside of the county Hall of Justice, urging prosecutors to drop the charges.

At a Feb. 4 event, Cheryl Crowe, the mother of Stephanie and Michael, begged prosecutors to drop the case. "There's so much evidence, but they don't care," she said in a tearful plea.

No dates have been set to try her son or Houser.
Randy Dotinga is an APB News correspondent in San Diego (rdotinga@aol.com).
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