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Title: Trial Begins In 'Dungeons & Dragons' Killing

Source: www.apbonline.com, January 12th, 1999.

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Brother, Two Friends Charged With Murdering California Girl
Jan. 12, 1999

By Randy Dotinga

ESCONDIDO, Calif. (APBnews.com) -- On a chilly morning in January 1998, the alarm clock went off as usual in the bedroom of 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe, a popular student and library volunteer.

Stephanie Crowe

It was about 6:30 a.m. in this suburb north of San Diego. Stephanie had about 90 minutes to get to first-period class at the local middle school. Stephanie's grandmother heard the alarm ringing and walked into the bedroom to turn it off. There, in the doorway, she found Stephanie's body, cold to the touch and covered with blood.

Stephanie's parents ran into the room and tried to revive their daughter, but it was too late. Stephanie had been stabbed to death during the night, somehow brutally killed as family members unknowingly slept nearby.

Nearly a year later, Stephanie's teenage brother and two friends are about to face trial, accused of working together to kill her. Jury selection begins Wednesday.

Troubled case

Prosecutors say the killing reflected a brother's hatred of his sister and three boys' interest in role-playing fantasy games like "Dungeons & Dragons."

The three youths maintain they are innocent. Their lawyers contend that the real killer is a transient who wandered through the neighborhood during the evening before Stephanie was killed.

Now, a year later, one of the most notorious killings in recent San Diego County history continues to haunt Escondido as the community and a local church struggle with how to handle the case.

All-American girl

According to friends and teachers, Stephanie was a model child. She was active in a local Methodist church and worked at the library, dressing up as Pocahontas and Guinevere during "Haunted Library" events. Just a few weeks before her death, Stephanie was named a volunteer of the year at the library and her name appeared in the local daily newspaper.

"She was the All-American girl next door," said the principal of her middle school two days after the killing, as she held Stephanie's library award, a piece of engraved glass shaped like a heart.

The killing was stunning news in Escondido, one of the nation's fastest-growing communities in the 1980s. A half-hour's drive north of downtown San Diego, it's a sprawling city known for its avocado groves, its warm summer weather and the nearby Wild Animal Park.

Despite its growth, Escondido has not suffered from major crime problems like some of its neighbors. Murders are still rare in this city of 108,165 people -- Stephanie's death was the only unjustified homicide reported in the city in 1998. It was the lowest homicide rate police officers could remember.

Brother arrested 48 hours later

As police investigators converged on the Crowe house on Jan. 21, 1998, they found no signs of forced entry and few clues.

In the first 48 hours after Stephanie's death, police made no arrests. But they did take her brother, 14-year-old Michael Crowe, and her 10-year-old sister into protective custody.

His sister got out, but Michael did not. He was arrested just two days after Stephanie's death. According to police, he admitted hating his sister and confessed to her killing.

Michael was in Juvenile Hall when 600 people gathered at the Crowe family's church to attend a memorial for Stephanie.

Two of Michael's friends, Joshua Treadway and Aaron Houser, were arrested a few days later. All three boys were students at the same local high school. They are each charged with murder and conspiracy and will be tried as adults. Crowe and Treadway are now 15; Houser is 16.

Two allegedly confessed

The three boys were not troublemakers in school. "They look like three precocious members of the academic decathlon team," columnist Logan Jenkins wrote in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

In fact, Houser got an "A" on a geometry final in an honors math class on the day he allegedly killed Stephanie. But prosecutors say the three boys used their intelligence and cunning to plan the death of a 12-year-old girl.

Prosecutors claim Michael Crowe and Treadway confessed to the crime and accused Houser of participating with them. Michael Crowe and Treadway allegedly confessed after police told them they failed a test involving a controversial device that claims to detect deception by analyzing voice patterns.

Houser denied being involved with the killing but did give police a detailed account of how he would have committed a murder.

Prosecutors allege that Houser and Michael Crowe killed Stephanie while Treadway acted as a lookout in the kitchen. Police found a knife at Treadway's home that they think is the murder weapon.

Obsession with role-playing games?

Prosecutors have also claimed that the killing was spurred by the boys' obsession with role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. At one court hearing, the owner of a game store testified that players get points when they "kill" people while playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Prosecutor Summer Stephan suggested that the words "kill kill," found on a windowsill in Stephanie's bedroom, were evidence that the boys were proudly proclaiming their victory in a game of death.

Michael Crowe's alleged animosity toward his sister is also considered a motive. A detective testified that after he arrested Michael Crowe, the teenager said: "You know, I really didn't like her."

Statements debated

Stephan told a judge in December that the confessions obtained during the voice analyzer interrogations should be allowed. The police, she said, followed proper procedure. 

"These were honest, not malicious officers who were attempting to do the right thing under the circumstances," she said.

But the defense has attacked the police, accusing officers of "bungling" the investigation and coercing the confessions. Defense attorneys also contend that the police ignored a prime suspect -- a transient who knocked on several doors in the neighborhood that evening. The transient has a criminal record and is awaiting sentencing in two unrelated cases.

Police interviewed the transient but did not arrest him in this case.

"Essentially, the police showed up on the scene of a crime and made a snap judgment," defense attorney Mary Ellen Attridge told APB News. "They said they're not going to have another JonBenet Ramsey case."

'Strong suspicion'

Judges have been sympathetic to the defense. After a four-week hearing, Judge Laura Palmer Hammes in August bound the three teens over for trial because there was a "strong suspicion" they committed the crimes. But she said she would have acquitted them if she had been in charge of a trial.

The defense's attacks upon the confessions hit pay dirt in December. In a stunning decision, a judge threw out the statements that Michael Crowe and Houser made to the police. The ruling appeared to severely weaken the prosecution's case.

Judge John M. Thompson ruled that Houser had not properly been advised of his Miranda rights to remain silent, and that Michael Crowe had been coerced by police. Thompson did allow some of Treadway's statements in which he details a plan to kill Stephanie. But Thompson said the statements can't be used against the other two defendants.

Lt. John Houchin, a spokesman for the Escondido Police Department, declined to comment to APB News because the case is nearing trial. But he told a reporter in August that the police investigated the case by the book. 

"We stand very firm behind what we did," Houchin said in an interview with the North County Times newspaper of Escondido. "We did what we're supposed to do. The motivating factor here is there's a 12-year-old girl who should be enjoying life. The investigators are her advocate.

"We feel firmly that the three arrested were responsible for the murder," he said.

Randy Dotinga is an APB News correspondent in San Diego
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