On the morning of 21 January 1998, a family of Escondido, California awoke and discovered the most horrifying and unbelievable scene. 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe, the middle child of three, was lying dead on her bedroom floor after being stabbed multiple times in what must have been a frenzied and terrifying attack. Her family, asleep in the same house, had heard nothing and there was no sign of forced entry into the home.

Within months her 14-year-old brother Michael Crowe and two of his friends would be charged with her murder, only for the charges to be dropped before reaching court after Stephanie’s blood was found on the clothes of a transient who was in the neighbourhood on the night she was killed.  While this evidence sent Richard Tuite to trial for murder twice, he would eventually be found not guilty and today the murder of Stephanie Crowe remains unsolved.

12-year-old Stephanie Crowe

12-year-old Stephanie Crowe

The murder case of Stephanie Crowe quickly became a complex investigation and not for the right reasons. The charges against three teenage boys, one of which her own brother, came after hours of intense interviewing by Escondido police where they were fed false information on evidence of their guilt, deprived of sleep and food and coerced to say they had planned and committed this murder in interviews eventually ruled as inadmissible.

When an individual is murdered inside their own home, homicide investigators search for any indications of what happened, any evidence which could shed light on who could have carried out such a crime and by what means. The lack of forced entry on that January night, along with no signs of any intruder promoted investigators to look at the immediate family members who were inside the home on the night of the murder.

It was determined that Stephanie Crowe had been killed between 10 pm and 11 pm the night before she was found. She had been stabbed multiple times with a knife with a 5-6 inch blade while lying in her bed and it is believed she crawled towards her bedroom door as she was dying. When she was found at 6.30am by her grandmother on the morning of 21 January 1998, she was lying on her bedroom floor just feet away from her open bedroom door, covered in blood.

Upon interview, Michael Crowe told police he had arisen from his bed around 4.30am to get painkillers for a headache. He heard nothing suspicious during the night and all bedroom doors were closed as he passed through the hallway. He was interviewed extensively four times and he maintained his story; he did not kill his sister or know anything about her murder.

An Act of Sororicide

The focus on Michael Crowe as a suspect seems to have been entirely circumstantial, mainly due to him being inside the home at the time of the murder. When Stephanie Crowe was found her bedroom door was open, prompting police to claim if Michael had passed her doorway when he got up in the early hours for headache tablets, he must have seen her body on the floor.  Michael Crowe, however, maintained her bedroom door was closed and the first he knew of her murder was when he was awoken by his father’s screams.

According to research by Professors Jennifer Peck and Kathleen Heide published in 2012 which studied incidents of siblicide over a 32 year period between 1976 and 2007 in the United States using data from the Supplementary Homicide Report, the typical profile of a juvenile who commits sororicide, the murder of one’s sister is; male, white, 15-years-old and younger and more likely to kill a sister younger than 17-years-old most often with a gun. They also report that on average, “more than 100 siblings are killing by their brothers and sisters in the US every year”.

Rivalry and arguments between siblings, battles for attention from parents, power struggles between siblings and dysfunctional and abusive homes puts juveniles at higher risk of killing a sibling and almost all incidents studied occurred due to ongoing conflicts between the siblings.  Police theorized that Michael Crowe hated his sister and there were jealousy issues between himself and Stephanie, something that Michael and his parents have always denied.

Stephanie's parents, Cheryl and Steve Crowe

Stephanie’s parents, Cheryl and Steve Crowe

A computer voice stress analyser was brought during police interviews and Michael was told the results showed he was lying. He was told the police had found blood and fingerprints linking him to the murder and suggested to him there was something in his subconscious mind that he needed to tell them. “I feel like I’m being treated like I killed my sister, and I didn’t. It feels horrible, like I’m being blamed for it.” he told police.

Investigators told Michael he may have killed his sister but have no memory of it. Looking for a confession, police were keen to pressure Michael into telling them what they thought was the truth, seemingly disregarding the fact this teenager was just 14-years-old and not an adult who could withstand such pressure. Michael continued to deny he had killed his sister, becoming increasingly distressed and questioning how he could have done it and not remember.

Police introduced the idea of two sides to Michael, a good and a bad, and it was the bad one that had killed his sister. Michael continued to be upset and protest his innocence. He was told if he confessed he would get help and support and not be sent to jail for what he had done. “If I told you right now, I would be lying. You’d find out eventually.” he repeated.

Michael, exhausted and terrified, eventually agreed with interviewers that if they are telling him he was the killer and they had found blood evidence in his room that he did it, he must have done but that he had no memory of doing so.  This agreement was taken as a confession to the murder of his younger sister and police then shifted their focus to finding the murder weapon.

Aaron Houser and Joshua Treadway, both 15-years-old, were friends of Michael and became involved in the investigation when Aaron’s mother reported to police that a knife was missing from her son’s knife collection, a knife that would later be found in the possession of Joshua Treadway and that police believed was the murder weapon. Both boys were subjected to the same intensive and prolonged interviews by police, depriving the boys of sleep and food as they had done with Michael Crowe.

After initially telling police he had stolen the knife from Aaron’s knife collection, Joshua changed his story and told them Aaron had given him the knife and told him to hide it. He eventually agreed with the detectives and told them the murder of Stephanie Crowe was planned between the three boys. Both Aaron Houser and Joshua Treadway were then arrested and charged with her murder alongside Michael Crowe.

Michael Crowe, left, Joshua Treadway, center, and Aaron Houser, right

Michael Crowe, left, Joshua Treadway, center, and Aaron Houser, right

In preparations for trial motions for all three boys were put forward that their confessions were false and had been coerced by Escondido police interviewers. The final decision by the judge threw out Michael’s confession and almost all of Joshua’s, agreeing that they should be excluded from trial due to the conditions the boys were interviewed under including the lack of sleep, the withholding of food and the police officers leading questions meaning these confessions were unreliable.

A Random Opportunistic Murder

The only factor that saved these boys from facing trial for murder was the discovery of blood spots belonging to Stephanie Crowe on the clothes of a man called Richard Tuite. 35-year-old Tuite was described by his defence attorney as “a transient, scraggly dude with a long beard and long hair.” with a long history of mental illness. He had been hanging around the neighbourhood of the Crowe house on the night of the murder, looking for a girl named ‘Tracy’, banging on doors, shouting at residents and generally causing a nuisance, prompting multiple 911 calls from neighbours.

Exhibiting “obsessive, delusional and rage-filled behavior” he was arrested and taken to the police station where his clothes were confiscated before he was released without charge. When defence attorneys for Joshua Treadway heard of his presence on the night and his arrest, they ordered his clothes to be tested resulting in the positive DNA match to Stephanie Crowe’s blood and his arrest for her murder.

Richard Tuite pictured in 2012

Richard Tuite pictured in 2012

During the six years that the case against Richard Tuite was being prepared for trial, all charges against Michael Crowe, Aaron Houser, and Joshua Treadway were dropped. After successful appeals and lawsuits brought against the Escondido and Oceanside police departments by the boys parents, in 2012 a judge formally declared all three boys innocent of the murder of Stephanie Crowe.

With the case focus now shifted from an act of siblicide by Stephanie’s older brother to a random opportunist murder by a local man Richard Tuite, it looked like the brutal murder of this 12-year-old girl inside her own bedroom would now be solved. Richard Tuite went on trial for murder in 2004 and was convicted of voluntary manslaughter receiving a jail sentence of 13 years. His conviction, however, was overturned by the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011, citing procedural errors over the questioning of a prosecution witness, granting Tuite a new trial.

In October 2013 his second trial began in San Diego with the prosecution highlighting he was in the neighbourhood on the night of the murder and behaving erratically, that he had in his possession when he was arrested the same distinct and uncommon brand of cough drops that had been in the Crowe household, and most damning to his case, the blood evidence on his sweatshirt and undershirt that matched the DNA of Stephanie Crowe.

A tidied up Richard Tuite at his re-trial in 2013

A tidied up Richard Tuite at his re-trial in 2013

In his defence, the court was told the blood evidence was due to contamination from the police at the scene of the murder who did not wear the correct protective forensic footwear and police handing of his clothing and not because Richard Tuite was Stephanie’s killer. They said all the evidence against Richard Tuite was circumstantial giving great doubt over the accusation that he murdered the young girl. He did not have access to the Crowe household they said with no sign of forced entry into the home and no forensic evidence such as hair and fibres were found at the crime scene matching Tuite despite his unkempt appearance.

They put to the jury that an erratic and delusional individual who crept into a house and killed a young girl is unlikely to have been able to do so leaving no evidence of himself, making no noise and escaping the house unheard and unseen. They argued that the perpetrator of this crime must have known the layout of the house to be able to enter the girl’s bedroom and not arouse anybody else in the household. They also suggested Stephanie Crowe was likely killed by two individuals, one to muffle her screams and ensure she was quiet and the other to stab her to death. After six weeks of evidence, the jury found Richard Tuite not guilty of voluntary manslaughter and he was released from custody.

Today, 19 years after Stephanie Crowe’s murder, no one has been convicted of ending her life in such a violent and brutal manner. The murder of this young girl remains unsolved with the case being remembered for the treatment of her brother and his two friends and the drama of the trials of Richard Tuite, rather than the death of an innocent 12-year-old. Stephanie’s mother, Cheryl Crowe, firmly believes Richard Tuite entered her home that night and murdered her daughter. “I’m sure they will regret their verdict once he kills somebody else,” she said after Tuite’s acquittal. “He’s already killed my daughter. It’s just a matter of time before he does it to someone else’s child.”