Stephanie Crowe

It was 6:30 am on January 21, 1998, when Stephanie Crowe's alarm went off, signalling the start of a brand new day. But that morning there was no one there to silence it. The noise roused Stephanie's grandmother, Judith, who padded down the hall to investigate. There, sprawled on the floor and in yesterday's clothes, 12-year-old Stephanie lay dead on the floor.

She had been stabbed nine times across her body and face, including two fatal wounds that were more than five inches deep. There were several hairs in her hand and a twig near the top of her head. Stephanie had said goodnight to her family at 9:25 the previous evening, and a later examination of her body concluded that she died no later than 12:30 am. Police combed through the Crowe's Escondido ranch house looking for clues and found bloody footprints on Stephanie's bed frame, door and her parents' hallway door. None of the entrances to the house had been forced open, and though investigators initially believed all the windows and doors were locked, it was later concluded that Stephanie's bedroom window and a door from her parents' room to the back garden were open. Despite extensive searches, the murder weapon has never been found.

When neighbours reported seeing a bearded man with dirty-blonde hair walking the streets the night of the crime, police immediately recognised him as Richard Raymond Tuite. The 28-year-old transient had many brushes with the law and had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The evening after the murder, Tuite was brought in for questioning and had fingernail scrapings and photographs taken. An examination revealed numerous scrapes on his body as well as a cut on the palm of his hand. Tuite's clothes were taken into evidence and he was released. When police approached him the next day, having forgotten to take his fingerprints, he was happy to oblige.

Over at the police station, however, detectives were following a different line of enquiry. It's common knowledge that most murders are committed by someone known to the victim, and with no sign of forced entry, police turned their attention to the Crowe family. Stephanie's parents, Steve and Cheryl Crowe, were high school sweethearts who had been married for sixteen years. Together they shared three children, Stephanie, Michael, aged 14, and Shannon, aged 10. Cheryl's mother Judith was visiting from Florida at the time of the murder. As officers began to interview the family, they became instantly suspicious of Michael. As well as appearing oddly unaffected by the murder, the young boy claimed that he had got up at around 4:30 that morning with a headache and went to the kitchen for some Tylenol and milk. Stephanie's room was directly in front of his, and her body was positioned in such a way that the door could not have been closed.

During the interrogation, Michael was subjected to a lie detector test called the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer, or CVSA, which showed signs of deception when Michael was asked if he knew who killed Stephanie. Though the CVSA is still used today, the manufacturer themselves admit that there is no independent research to show that it works, and a number of tests have found it to be no more reliable than the flip of a coin. Following almost ten hours worth of interviews over the course of two days, where police falsely claimed to have evidence against him, Michael was instructed to write a 'letter of forgiveness' to his sister. In it, he wrote: "I'm so sorry that I can't even remember what I did to you. I feel that it is almost like I am being convinced of this than really knowing it...I never ment (sic) to hurt you and the only way I know I did is because they told me I did." Following this supposed confession, Michael was arrested for murder and taken to Juvenile Hall, though he wouldn't be alone for long.

On January 27, 1998, the day of Stephanie's funeral, Suzie Houser reported a knife missing from her 15-year-old son Aaron's collection. Aaron had been one of Michael's best friends prior to a falling out the previous year. The missing knife was soon discovered at the house of Michael's best friend, 15-year-old Joshua Treadway. Treadway admitted to stealing it from Houser and was arrested on a charge of petty theft. He was questioned during an overnight interrogation that lasted for eleven hours. Despite preliminary tests showing no blood on the knife, police told Treadway that they believed it was the murder weapon and that they had evidence against both him and Michael. Two weeks later, Treadway was hauled in for another ten hours of questioning, and this time he confessed that he, Michael and Aaron had killed Stephanie together.

Left to right: Michael Crowe, Joshua Treadway and Aaron Houser
Left to right: Michael Crowe, Joshua Treadway and Aaron Houser

All three boys were charged with murder and sat in jail for six months waiting for their trials to begin. In January of 1999, however, everything changed when DNA testing on a shirt revealed three drops of Stephanie's blood. That shirt belonged to Richard Tuite. Perhaps embarrassed by how the case had played out, or perhaps needing more time to investigate, police did not arrest Tuite until 2002. On May 6, 2004, he was charged with voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to seventeen years in prison, and it seemed that Stephanie's killer had finally been brought to justice.

However, after two appeals claiming that the trial judge limited cross-examination of a witness, Tuite was granted a retrial in 2013. At the new trial, Tuite's attorneys argued that none of the 90 fingerprints taken from the Crowe home had belonged to him, nor was there any DNA evidence linking him to the residence. Tuite's previous conviction hinged largely on the blood found on his shirt, yet when it was tested three months after the murder, no such evidence had been found. Concerned that the blood may have got on Tuite's shirt through contamination of the crime scene analysis, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on December 5, 2013.

Stephanie's murder left anger and bitterness in its wake. It changed the lives of three young boys forever. For one vulnerable man, it meant nine years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Two decades have now passed since that tragic winter night when the Crowe family lost their daughter. But as the words etched on Stephanie's heart-shaped headstone remind us, 'so bright a light shall never truly fade away'.