Get News Delivered Daily
Daily roundup of San Diego’s most important stories (Monday-Saturday)
Interim DA Summer Stephan has defended her role in prosecuting three teen boys for the murder of 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe, and suggested major decisions were made before she joined the prosecution. But interviews with key players, media reports and court records shed light on how important she was to the case and what went wrong.
Summer Stephan could not be in a better position to win next year’s race for district attorney.
First, she is district attorney. County supervisors appointed her in June when her mentor, Bonnie Dumanis, resigned. In her campaign to win the position outright in 2018, Stephan’s received endorsements from powerful Republicans and Democrats. She has raised money and her profile in the media after a year of careful cultivation.
But one part of her biography looms large: The 1998 murder of 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe, a mystery that took down another former DA when Dumanis used it against him to win his job.
More specifically, hanging overhead is the prosecution of 14-year-old Michael Crowe and his two friends, which Stephan led before she and her office had to drop the case in disgrace.
Now the parents of Crowe have emerged as Stephan’s most passionate and compelling detractors in her bid to win a full term as district attorney.
They submitted to the County Board of Supervisors a scorching 22-page recital of ways Stephan allegedly mishandled the prosecution of their son, and they allege she’s the reason nobody stands convicted of the crime.
Stephan claims she only got the case after major decisions had already been made. The media, she alleged, unfairly blamed what went wrong on her. When evidence emerged that created reasonable doubt, she wrote, she dropped the case.
The interrogations and prosecution of the three teenagers became a model failure of national significance.
To find out the truth about Stephan’s role in the case, I interviewed former judges, her former boss and scoured media reports and court records from nearly 20 years ago. They all shed light on how important she was to the case and what went wrong.
But reading Stephan’s county application for the DA appointment, you wouldn’t know she led the charge against the boys for most of the case before the whole thing fell apart on the eve of trial in February 1999 in the face of new DNA evidence linking a homeless man to the murder.
One thing is clear: If Stephan had misgivings about prosecuting Michael Crowe and his two friends for the murder of Crowe’s little sister in 1998, she didn’t show it.
In the courtroom, in legal pleadings and in the media, Stephan was a dogged prosecutor and the face of the San Diego County district attorney’s criminal case, which charged teens Michael Crowe, Aaron Houser and Joshua Treadway with the murder of 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe in her bedroom on the night of Jan. 20, 1998, while the rest of the family slept. Stephanie was found stabbed to death the next morning by her grandmother, who was staying with the family.
Stephan, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed about her involvement in the case, citing “ethical limitations,” but a lengthy paper and video trail provides some clarity.
The timing and nature of Stephan’s involvement in the Crowe case is key to the dispute.
The Crowe family is accusing Stephan of lying in her recent application for the interim DA job.
Cheryl Crowe, Stephanie’s mother, tearfully told county supervisors in June as they were weighing Stephan’s DA appointment, “My daughter Stephanie is in a grave. She was murdered, and her killer got away with it. I think it would have been a lot different if Summer Stephan had not been assigned to the case. She spent a page-and-a-half in her application explaining how her handling of my daughter’s case showed how compassionate, ethical and competent she was. In truth, she was mean, unethical and incompetent.”
Stephan proactively decided to write about the case in her application for the district attorney appointment. She claimed she was late to the case.
“Another prosecutor initially was assigned the case when the murder first happened in January 1998, and that prosecutor in an entirely different division from mine brought murder charges against three young men and presented the case to a grand jury and obtained indictments. Six months later, when the case was facing significant issues, I was asked by my supervisor and then DA Paul Pfingst to step in.”
Her point on “six months later” appears to refer to the Grand Jury indictments of the teen boys. That would indeed suggest Stephan came to the case after it was well under way and after crucial decisions would have been made.
But a representative for Stephan confirmed “six months” actually refers to the murder itself, distorting the timeline and substantially moving up her involvement. The difference: Six months after the murder is July 1998. Six months after the indictments is November 1998.
Though the Grand Jury indicted the teens in May, news of the indictments was not known to the public until August 1998, after a judge decided the boys should be tried as adults. Six months later, in February 1999, the case was dropped.
“That’s false. She’s at the Grand Jury on the first day. That’s so misleading,” said Milt Silverman, the Crowes’ attorney. “The general gist of it is someone else messed the case up and she had to fix it, and the fact of it is, she’s at the first appearance of the 707 (hearing that determined the boys would be tried as adults) … Her trying to deflect blame onto somebody else is not correct.”
A partial record of the Grand Jury transcripts show Stephan was present at the May 1998 Grand Jury hearings, four months after the murder. The lead prosecutor at that time, Gary Hoover, later said in a 2003 deposition Stephan was there to observe and prepare to take over the case, so Hoover could handle another trial.
In her DA application this year, Stephan also deflected criticism about the handling of the Crowe case, saying she was put in “an extremely unfair situation of being handed someone else’s case months after critical decisions had been made.”
“Because I was the last prosecutor on the case, media accounts and others relate to me the questionable decisions that were made at the outset of the case,” she wrote.
Hoover may have been the lead prosecutor for the initial four months, but Stephan led the case for the DA’s office for the final nine months as trial preparations were under way.
Stephan was no bystander.
After Stephanie’s body was found, Escondido police quickly zeroed in on Michael Crowe and his friends, Houser and Treadway when no signs of forced entry to the home were found.
Police interrogated all three boys, then freshmen in high school, for hours. They questioned Crowe, still reeling from the horrific death of his sister, without his parents’ knowledge and without an attorney.
Under intense pressure – a 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeal panel of judges would later call the interrogation “psychological torture” that “shocks the conscience” – the boys separately came up with a story police wanted to hear. It was a plot to kill Stephanie.
But upon closer examination, the reliability of those confessions was iffy.
Crowe repeatedly prefaced his admissions with statements like, “If I tell you a story, the evidence is going to be a complete lie,” and, “I’ll lie. I’ll have to make it up,” and “I’m going to warn you right now. It is a complete lie.”
Details of their story didn’t match evidence at the crime scene, but then again, there wasn’t much tying anyone to the crime scene – making the confessions even more valuable.
Asked by police, “How many times did you stab her?” Crowe replied, “It’s going to be a lie. Three times,” according to court records. Stephanie was stabbed nine times. When police said, “Tell me what the truth is,” Crowe replied, “The only reason I’m trying to lie here is because you presented me with two paths. I’d rather die than go to jail.”
Even though the videotaped interrogations were the backbone of the DA’s case, the footage didn’t sit well with a juvenile court judge. She decided the teens should be tried as adults, but then released them from custody without bail.
Superior Court Judge Laura Hammes warned Stephan – the lead prosecutor at the time – the case had problems.
“I find a strong suspicion. It is a low level of a legal standard,” Hammes said, according to a court transcript of her Aug. 13, 1998, ruling. “It is nowhere near beyond a reasonable doubt. If this were a court trial, these boys would be not guilty.”
Stephan was defiant.
“I feel they are an extreme danger to the community,” Stephan said outside the courtroom, according to an Aug. 18, 1998, Union-Tribune article.
She was confident about not just Michael Crowe’s guilt, but his friends’ guilt too.
“I have plenty against the other two,” Stephan told NBC San Diego, according to a Dec. 17, 1998 newsreel. “I have the circumstantial evidence that this was an inside job. I have the murder weapon. I have the fingerprints of the accomplice on the murder weapon.”
Hammes, though, detailed how manipulative investigators had been with the boys.
Hammes also had problems with the early dismissal of a homeless man, Richard Tuite, reportedly bothering neighbors in the area the night of the murder. Prosecutors dismissed his involvement because of their theory the three teenage boys could gain access and murder Stephanie without waking up anyone else in the house.
Tuite, however, was not capable of the same thing, in part, because of his psychosis and drug problems, according to prosecutors.
The judge was suspicious.
“You can’t rationally draw that distinction,” Hammes said, according to the court transcript.
In an interview with Voice of San Diego, Hammes recalled Stephan being committed to the case against the teens.
“My sense from her in court was that she truly believes these boys were guilty,” said Hammes, who retired in 2006 after 22 years on the bench and 12 years as a deputy district attorney. “My sense was she did her utmost to get the boys sent to adult court for prosecution. She truly believed in the merits of her case at that time. She has been, as I have always known her to be, a zealous prosecutor.”
Stephan’s county application says, “I took it upon myself not to just accept the situation but to delve into every single report and piece of evidence in the case.”
Stephan dismissed concerns the confessions were coerced in media interviews.
“It is simply not reasonable to believe that a young man of Treadway’s intelligence and cunning would confess to a crime he did not commit,” Stephan said, according to a Nov. 29, 1998, Union-Tribune article. Stephan’s court brief said, “Crowe ‘masterfully attempted to manipulate the detectives’… That Treadway ‘was able to perform such a skilled acting job negates his claim that his will was overborne by police,’” according to the article.
“The prospect that a mentally ill person entered the home, roamed the home, had a knife and was able to keep her from screaming or yelling, stab her to death and leave without waking anybody,” was “a stretch,” said Paul Pfingst in an interview. Pfingst was the district attorney and Stephan’s boss during the Crowe prosecution.
“I did not place trust in (Michael) Crowe’s confession, because I thought there was too much duress,” Pfingst said. “That’s why I wanted to see Treadway’s. I thought Treadway’s confession was credible and non-coercive.”
Ret. Superior Court Judge Bernard Revak recalls Stephan arguing unpersuasively in his courtroom to increase bail for the boys in 1998.
“She wanted high bail for these guys, but she could give me no good reason why,” Revak, who spent 20 years as a deputy district attorney and 25 years as a judge, said last week. “There was no reason to up it. These are young boys. They aren’t going to up and fly to Manchuria.”
As Stephan fought to get the boys sent back to Juvenile Hall, she expressed outrage.
“The grand jury indicted them for a brutal murder. How can they be out? How can our community be safe?” Stephan said, according to a Sept. 16, 1998, Union-Tribune article. “Their proper place is in custody until a jury hears the case.”
Stephan argued in court the teenagers “cold-bloodedly conspired, planned, plotted to kill Stephanie Crowe,” according to the same article.
Stephan was successful, and the boys were sent back to Juvenile Hall to await trial pending bail. Community members put up their homes as collateral to get the boys out months later, shortly before trial.
According to a Jan. 24, 1999, Union-Tribune article, Stephan also dismissed the prospect that Tuite murdered Stephanie Crowe at a court hearing in August 1998.
“Richard Tuite is such an easy target. If police were in such a hurry to solve this case, he would have been such an easy target. (But) he didn’t do it,” she said.
In her application this year to be interim district attorney, Stephan points out that she eventually pushed to drop the criminal case against Crowe, Treadway and Houser.
Tuite’s stained clothing had been in law enforcement custody all along. It was confiscated by police the same day Stephanie’s body was found, but an early chemical treatment that’s supposed to illuminate blood came back negative, according to the original crime lab technician.
Treadway’s defense attorney pushed to get it tested by a different lab, and Stephan agreed to share the costs.
This time, Tuite’s red sweater tested positive for Stephanie’s blood.
Suddenly, everything changed in the case. The district attorney’s office dropped the charges against the three boys in February 1999.
NBC San Diego asked Stephan at the time if she still believed the boys did it.
“What I do know, is that there is a significant body of evidence against these defendants,” Stephan said, according to a 1999 newsreel. “This is a real, true mystery right now, and I want to look at it that way and I don’t want to make up my mind. I don’t want to say, ‘They did it.’ ‘He did it.’ I want to find out what the truth is.”
“‘The right person needs to pay for it. … I want to have an answer. Everyone deserves an answer,” Stephan said, according to a May 1999 San Diego Union-Tribune article. “And, if the answer is that Tuite is the killer, what does that say about what has happened to the Crowe, Treadway and Houser families?” the paper asked. “That would be horrible,” Stephan said.
It is unclear whether Stephan still believes the boys killed Stephanie, but her county application says, “This case became a further motivation for supporting the creation of our office’s Conviction Review Unit.”
The district attorney’s office turned over the case to the California attorney general. That office believed the teens’ confessions were coerced and prosecuted Tuite for the murder in 2002. A jury found Tuite not guilty of murder, but guilty of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.
Tuite went free.
Tuite is now a high-risk registered sex offender for an unrelated charge. His last known address is in Spring Valley.
Separately, Michael Crowe and Treadway obtained rare declarations of factual innocence in 2012, legally exonerating them of the crime. The three families combined also obtained millions in settlement money from Escondido police and Oceanside police.
Revak, the retired judge and former prosecutor, said being found factually innocent carries a “tremendous amount of weight. That’s basically not guilty, factually innocent. That’s very weighty. You don’t just throw those out there. You have to have pretty good evidence that they were actually innocent of the charges.”
“Summer handled the case appropriately,” Pfingst said.
Pfingst said before Stephanie’s blood was found on Tuite’s clothing, Stephan “didn’t express any misgivings. … I think it’s fair to say she believed the evidence was compelling, that the three young men participated in the killing, largely based on Treadway’s confession, and the knife wounds and the recovery of a weapon.”
But Revak, a judge who conducted bail review for the boys, called Stephan’s efforts to distance herself now “chicken.”
“She had it within her power to go to Paul Pfingst and say, ‘This is a lousy case. We don’t have enough.’ She didn’t do that. But not only that, she was trying to be pretty aggressive in my courtroom in trying to increase bail,” Revak said. “I think she bears a lot of responsibility, because she came onto the case when there was obviously trouble brewing on the case. In other words, that case had problems. She had the opportunity to review the facts, the good and the bad, present it to Paul Pfingst and say, ‘We can’t present this without reasonable doubt.’ I have been in that position as a former DA. I had to do exactly that. It’s a difficult thing to do, but you’ve got to do the right thing.”
“Four months in a case of this magnitude is a long time,” said Stanford Law School professor George Fisher, a former prosecutor. “A lot of evidence is being gathered and organized. … It’s likely a fair deal of decision-making was accomplished at that point.”
That said, the final nine months, “that stage of a case is certainly important,” he said.
Fisher said the prosecutor has a “duty to re-examine the evidence in the case. If the evidence falls short of the threshold necessary to maintain charges, the prosecutor has a duty to drop that case. … If the confessions aren’t on their face bad confessions, it would be hard to say the prosecutor violated any of these standards by maintaining these charges.”
Ironically, in defending her decisions from the time, Stephan has to consider the very public criticism of the case by her friend and mentor, the woman who put her in a position to be district attorney: former District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.
Dumanis won the job in part by using the Crowe case to attack Pfingst. Now she’s tapped one of the leaders of that case as her successor.
Neither the Crowes’ recap of the case nor Stephan’s is perfect, said Pfingst, who now works in private practice as a defense attorney.
“They’ve got some things right and some things wrong. Summer has some things right and some things wrong. I don’t attach any blame or deception to either of them,” Pfingst said. “I think she (Stephan) doesn’t want to be in the position of contradicting Bonnie (Dumanis). And I think that speaks for itself, given the way she has moved into her office.”
Stephan also has the support of now-retired Oceanside police officer Chris McDonough, who has since moved away but was brought in by Escondido police to administer stress voice analyzer tests during some of the boys’ interrogations.
“Her characterization, I will tell you, is 100 percent accurate and credible,” McDonough said. “Summer Stephan was involved in telling the truth.”
Stephan wrote in her application, “I have never been found to have committed prosecutorial misconduct, let alone any kind of negligence, error or mistake in the handling of any case. This is a rare thing for a prosecutor trying and handling so many cases over so many years.”
Stephan was cleared of a defamation claim lodged in civil court by the Crowes for remarks she made about the evidence and interrogations on the CBS show “48 Hours.” She has never been accused of prosecutorial misconduct in the Crowe case in court.
But the Crowes now allege misconduct by Stephan in their letter to county supervisors objecting to Stephan’s DA appointment.
They claim exculpatory crime scene re-enactment photographs taken by prosecutors and not shared with their son’s defense attorney during the criminal case were discovered during the family’s subsequent civil case. Whether that amounts to prosecutorial misconduct is an issue that’s never been litigated.
“It is not true that any court or other governmental entity has ever found that Summer Stephan did not suppress exculpatory evidence,” said Silverman, the Crowe’s attorney.
Neither Stephan nor Pfingst answered questions about the photographs, which the Crowes say show their son could have gotten up for Tylenol and milk at 4:30 a.m. without seeing his sister’s body in the hallway, something prosecutors argued wasn’t possible.
In her only statement to Voice of San Diego, Stephan expressed her continued heartache over the outcome of the case.
“My heart goes out to the Crowe family for the loss of their daughter. I can’t imagine the depth of their grief that understandably endures 20 years after this terrible crime, and the additional pain of not having closure through the justice system. I’ve been able to help hundreds of families get justice over the last 27 years and I wish I could have done that for this family,” the statement, provided through a spokesman, said.
San Diego attorney Gary Gibson, a public defender for 25 years who recently went into private practice, said Stephan isn’t to blame.
“The person ultimately responsible for the case was Paul Pfingst,” said Gibson, who has tried more than a dozen homicide cases over the years. “Given the level of media scrutiny, it seems likely he would have been heavily involved in case-related decision-making, because poor case-related decisions would have affected him negatively in the future.”