Stephanie Crowe was only 12 years old at the time of the case. She lived with her parents, grandmother, and two brothers in Escondido, California.
The girl’s grandmother had the habit of waking her up early, and it was no different on the morning of January 21. Upon entering the room, she noticed that her granddaughter was lying on the floor, and as she approached, she saw that her body was drenched in blood.
Stephanie had been stabbed eight times, and nothing indicated forced entry or burglary. The victim’s bedroom window was unlocked, but there were no footprints or traces of dirt suggesting an intruder.
The door to the parents’ balcony was also open, but it was customary for the family to keep it slightly ajar.
The police were called immediately, and no murder weapon was found at the scene. Bloodstained clothing or items that could contain evidence of the crime were also not found.
The clothes worn by everyone in the house that day were confiscated, and their bodies were examined for injuries. The parents and grandmother were accommodated in a hotel, while Stephanie’s siblings were taken to a government shelter. The parents did not see their children for two days.
Stephanie’s 14-year-old brother, Michael Crowe, was interrogated for hours by the police using the Reid technique without the presence of either of his parents or a lawyer.
Reid Technique: The technique is known for creating a high-pressure environment for the interviewee, followed by sympathy and offers of understanding and help, but only if there is a confession. Critics argue that the technique results in an unacceptably high rate of false confessions, especially from young and mentally disabled individuals.
Michael Crowe became the main suspect of the police. The crime scene seemed to suggest that the perpetrator knew the house and the victim, and was able to move in the dark without making any noise. Acquaintances said that the boy appeared distant after his sister’s death and showed no tears or sadness.
The police interrogation may not have followed the best approach. The officers even lied to Michael, claiming they had DNA evidence that made him guilty and that he had failed a supposed “truth test,” in addition to saying that his parents believed he had killed his sister.
Michael denied any involvement hundreds of times, but at a certain point, he ended up confessing. He admitted to committing the crime but said he couldn’t remember the details, as if he was out of his senses at the time of the murder. That’s why it’s important to understand how a criminal process works.
Joshua Treadway and Aaron Houser, the brother’s friends
Michael Crowe’s 15-year-old friends, Joshua Treadway and Aaron Houser, were also interrogated by the police. Houser was a knife collector; his parents noticed that one of the items was missing from his collection.
The next day, the missing knife appeared at Joshua’s house. When questioned, he said he had borrowed it from a friend. He was continuously interrogated for eleven hours, from 9 p.m. that day until 8 a.m. the next day, with the police claiming that the knife was the murder weapon despite there being no DNA evidence.
They interrogated him again two weeks later in a new 10-hour interview, during which Joshua gave a detailed confession of his involvement in the murder with the other two boys. He was then arrested.
Based on Joshua’s confession, Aaron Houser was also arrested and interrogated. He did not confess and denied any involvement but provided a “hypothetical” account of how Stephanie Crowe could have been killed.
Richard Raymond Tuite, a schizophrenic neighbor
The morning after the murder, the police also interviewed Richard Raymond Tuite, a 28-year-old man with schizophrenia who had been seen in the Crowe’s neighborhood on the night of the murder, knocking on doors and looking through windows. Several neighbors called the police to report a suspicious person.
He had an extensive criminal record, regularly roamed the streets of Escondido, and did not receive treatment for his mental disorder. His clothes were collected, there were scratches on his body, and a cut on his hand.
However, he was not considered a suspect. The police believed that he was simply suffering from the symptoms of his illness and would be incapable of harming a child. The focus of the police was entirely on Michael Crowe.
The three teenagers were charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder. A judge ruled that they should be tried as adults.
DNA tests found three drops of Stephanie’s blood on a shirt belonging to Richard Tuite. Despite the defense claiming “contamination due to careless police work,” this completely changed the course of the case.
On the first day of the trial, Richard Tuite left the courtroom for lunch, and while eating, he managed to free himself from the handcuffs and left the court, boarding a bus. He was caught hours later.
During the trial, the prosecution linked Richard Tuite to Stephanie’s murder, presenting circumstantial and physical evidence, including evidence that Stephanie’s blood was on his clothes. The court sentenced Richard to thirteen years in prison. He later had an additional four years added to his sentence due to his escape attempt.
The families of the three boys sued the cities of Escondido. The Crowes reached a settlement of $7.25 million in 2011. In 2012, Superior Court Judge Kenneth So made the rare decision that Michael Crowe, Treadway, and Houser were innocent of the charges, permanently dismissing the criminal case against them.
Richard Tuite appealed his sentence multiple times, alleging investigative failure, violation of fundamental rights, and issues with DNA evidence. He was granted a new trial, which began on October 24, 2013.
In his closing arguments, his lawyer told the jurors that Richard Tuite was never inside the Crowe’s house, and even if he were, he wouldn’t have been able to find Stephanie’s room in the dark.
Furthermore, investigators did not find his fingerprints or DNA in the residence. He also stated that Stephanie must have been held down under a comforter to keep her quiet while someone else stabbed her.
Experts testified that the bloodstains on Richard’s shirts were not there when they were originally evaluated.
The prosecution argued in their closing statement that Richard Tuite was in the vicinity of the Crowe’s house on the night Stephanie was killed. He was knocking on doors and ended up entering the residence because he was looking for a woman named Tracy, with whom he had a falling out after the end of a relationship.
On December 5, 2013, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty for Richard. A juror stated that there was no evidence that Tuite was in the Crowe’s residence that night, and the jurors were concerned that the victim’s blood might have gotten onto his clothes through contamination, which was the most significant factor influencing their decision.
The case of Stephanie Crowe remains unsolved to this day.