SPECIAL REPORT: KILLERS ON THE LOOSEby David L. Teibel on Apr. 17, 2000, under News
• Homicides solved here at a higher rate than U.S. average, but 1 in 5 cases still open.
DAVID L. TEIBEL Citizen Staff Writer
Tucson-area detectives haven’t made any arrests in the recent high-profile killings of a restaurant worker and a security guard, but they are bucking a national trend that indicates fewer homicides are being solved.
Investigators here are still looking for a major break in the March 20 killing of guard Grady M. Towers, 55, at Tohono Chul Park, 7366 N. Paseo del Norte, and the March 26 killing of assistant manager Robyn Hay, at the eegee’s at North Thornydale and West Ina roads.
But local figures show detectives here are doing a good job solving killings, compared with their counterparts across the country.
USA TODAY reported recently that the national solution rate for homicides was 69 percent in 1998, the last full year for which final nationwide statistics are available.
Locally, in 1998, Tucson police had a solution rate of 85 percent. The Pima County Sheriff’s Department rate for solving homicides for the year was 80 percent, according to the agencies.
Detective Sgt. Thomas Thompson, head of the Tucson police homicide detail, credited support from top commanders and good detectives for the generally good homicide solution rate at his department.
But, Thompson conceded, ”Some of it has to be circumstantial, luck of the draw.”
Sheriff’s Capt. Kathleen Brennan, head of the criminal investigations division, credited the great deal of attention paid by her department to the cases.
”We really focus on them and give an awful lot of attention to them,” she said. ”They are not ever routine as they are for some big-city agencies where they have hundreds a year.”
Looking at the percentage of homicides solved by detectives from 1990 to 1998, the only Sheriff’s Department figures immediately available, Brennan said, ”That’s good, considering the types of cases we get.
”We get a lot of the bodies dumped in the desert, sometimes so long ago all that’s recovered is a skull with a bullet hole in it.”
A lot of those bodies go unidentified, Brennan said ”and there is not a lot you can do when you don’t even know who your victim is.”
Arizona law enforcement, however, is not doing so well solving killings, according to figures from the state Department of Public Safety.
Solution rates statewide ranged from a high of 83 percent in 1977 to 1998′s record low of 56.9 percent.
Citing a study of homicide figures for 30 years until 1998, USA TODAY said that in 1968, 86 percent of all slayings were solved by police, but by 1994 just 64 percent were solved.
This is despite a drop in the rate of homicides from a high of 9.8 per 100,000 in 1991 to 6.3 now, USA TODAY said.
Cases are getting harder to crack, experts say, because more killings are committed by strangers, rather than by spouses or friends, USA TODAY said.
Robert Ressler, a retired FBI agent, told USA TODAY that another factor is that killers have become more sophisticated and know more about crime-solving techniques.
”I’m not sure that’s true,” the Tucson police’s Thompson said, in regard to Tucson cases.
In any given year in Tucson, about 25 percent to 50 percent of the killings are gang-related, about 20 percent stem from domestic violence, and in about 50 to 75 percent of the cases the victim and killer knew each other, which does make a case easier to solve, Thompson said.
And, Thompson added, ”I haven’t seen a sophisticated killer in Tucson yet, in the solved cases.”
The county’s Brennan agreed. ”Most of ours are the same thing they’ve always been, pretty gross as opposed to sophisticated.”
Also, she estimated that in some 80 percent of the county’s homicides, the killer knows the victim.
The figures from the Sheriff’s Department show that from 1990 to 1998 the clearance rate for homicide cases dropped, below the current national average of 69 percent just once – in 1996 – when it was 63 percent.
Other than in 1996 and 1994, when the clearance rates were 69 percent, Sheriff’s Department figures show the clearance rate was between 72 percent and 92 percent, averaging 77.4 percent for those nine years.
Thompson keeps murder statistics differently than DPS, logging the solved cases in the year in which the murder occurred, rather than the year in which it was solved, as DPS does.
From 1990 to 1998, an average of 79.5 percent of all homicides were cleared. Figures ranged from 86 percent in 1990 to 69 percent in 1994, he said.
Unsolved homicide survivors want to know why
DAVID L. TEIBEL Citizen Staff Writer
Tucson-area detectives are solving homicides faster than the national average, but Gail Leland takes no joy from that.
”I think our whole community should be happy with this, but when it is your loved one, these statistics are meaningless,” said Leland, founder of Homicide Survivors.
Leland started the support service for homicide victims’ families and friends after her 14-year-old son, Richard, was murdered in the summer of 1981. The case has not been solved.
Unsolved homicides haunt victims’ families and friends long after the crime, she said.
”Survivors continue to live with fear, paranoia, uncertainty,” Leland said.
On an intellectual level, she said, she is happy to hear that Tucson police and sheriff’s detectives are solving more cases than their counterparts around the nation.
”But,” she said, referring to her son’s case, ”on a personal level, you wish they could have done that back then.”
Leland said other relatives of victims whose murders have gone unsolved feel much the same.
”They feel frustrated, they feel forgotten, they feel hopeless,” Leland said.
”It’s the not knowing that is torture. The not knowing who did it or why they did it is what causes many emotional problems,” she added.
Leland’s son left home June 17, 1981, and never returned.
Leland searched frantically for him, put up posters in her West Grant-North Silverbell neighborhood and called anyone who she thought might have been able to help.
On July 24, 1981, a woman living near North La Cañada Drive and West Ina Road told deputies her dog had dragged bones and clothing into her driveway.
The remains were identified as those of Richard Leland.
There were no decent leads in the case, Leland said, adding the last lead in her son’s case went to detectives ”back some time in the ’80s.”
It did not pan out.
Detectives never found all of her son’s remains, Leland said, adding she was grateful they found some.
”Over the years law enforcement has developed better skills. They have better tools,” Leland said.
Who killed the people they loved?
PATTY MACHELOR Citizen Staff Writer
Lea Romero’s mother shook her awake early one morning five years ago and told her they had to drive to Tucson.
On the way down from Phoenix, the teen learned her eldest brother had been shot.
When they arrived at University Medical Center, Romero, 12, stood transfixed in the waiting room, watching as her mother spoke privately with police, then dropped to her knees and cried aloud.
Romero knows little more of her brother’s death today than she did that morning of Oct. 1, 1995.
Mary Jo Calanche, Jason Romero’s girlfriend, said that there were about 80 people at the South Sixth Avenue Chevron Station that morning when she and Romero stopped for gas.
According to Calanche, 21year-old Jason Romero was shot when he tried to intervene on his brother’s behalf in a fight.
”He pushed me and told me to run,” Calanche remembered.
As she dashed toward their vehicle, she heard a gun firing behind her, but she didn’t see who held the weapon.
Lea Romero hopes someone will come forward and give police the break they need.
”With all those people there, somebody saw what happened. I know somebody out there holds the key,” said Romero, now 17, who also is struggling with the murder of her mother in a Phoenix case that also remains unsolved.
Carol Romero, 41, and her boyfriend were shot to death in a home invasion Romero believes is linked to her mother’s boyfriend.
”It’s made it so much harder. My mom was the one who gave us strength and everything. I haven’t accepted that she’s gone,” she said.
Her father died in 1996 of prostate cancer, leaving Romero and her 20-year-old brother the survivors of a family that shrunk from five to two in less than five years.
A SON NEVER RETURNS
When Bob and Neva Stevens’ 13-year-old son didn’t come home for dinner one Sunday night more than 20 years ago, they called the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.
But the deputy she spoke with said officers couldn’t starting searching for him until 24 hours had passed.
Neva Stevens wishes she had been more insistent. She wishes she had yelled into the phone.
”I think the police should listen to the parents if the parents know their child well,” she said. Her son, she said, never missed a meal.
By Tuesday, Robert Craig Stevens hadn’t returned, and police helicopters began circling his South Side home.
The boy’s decomposing body was found a couple of weeks later, on Oct. 14, 1979.
The youngster’s body had been left about 400 yards from the Stevens’ home on South Downing Avenue.
Bob and Neva Stevens have never found out who murdered their blond, blueeyed son.
But they are relieved to learn about Amber’s Plan, a Texas program started here in February that puts out an emergency broadcast alert immediately if a child is believed to have been abducted.
”Thank God. Thank God,” Neva Stevens said.
Pima County Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael O’Connor said Craig Stevens’ case is still open, although because of its age, it’s reviewed only twice each year.
”I think you always hope somebody is going to start talking to the right person. You know, people brag about that . . . about what they’ve done,” Neva Stevens said.
Bob Stevens said he has ”pretty much given up hope” of learning what happened to his son.
”Of course, you see where things are solved after 30 years, so maybe there is some hope,” he said.
”Someday, I’d like know. I’d like to know who, and I’d like to know why.”
A BROTHER LOST FOREVER
Joan McKinstry looks forward to the day she learns what happened to her younger brother.
Thomas E. Stephenson, a 58-year-old deputy supply chief at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the youngest of 12 children, was murdered in August 1998.
McKinstry and her family know that much for certain. Otherwise, the case is a painful mystery.
”It’s been terrible. We keep hoping that we’ll hear some good news but there’s nothing,” McKinstry, 62, said from her home in Little Rock, Ark.
”I know the police are doing all they can to solve it. They’ve been willing to talk to us, but there’s nothing to tell us. I think it’s hard on them not to have anything,” she said.
Stephenson’s widow, Suzanne, was in Phoenix visiting a friend when the murder was committed. She has moved and could not be reached for comment.
Tucson police Detective Tom Thompson said Stephenson’s case is still open but would not discuss it.
The 30-year Air Force veteran was last seen on Aug. 16, 1998, playing golf at the base.
His decomposed body was found Aug. 22 in the trunk of his 1985 Nissan ZX, which had been towed to the Jim Click Nissan service center at the Tucson Auto Mall.
An unidentified man had called, said the car wasn’t working and asked to have it brought in, police said.
Police have not disclosed where the car was towed from and are not releasing the cause of his death, to protect the investigation.
Another mystery in the case is a phone call to the Stephensons’ Southeast Side home earlier that week from someone demanding $20,000. The caller was never identified.
Mystery also surrounds the heavily disguised person who tried to use Stephenson’s automated teller card twice within the first 24 hours after he disappeared.
The disguise worked well – police could not tell whether the person was a man or a woman.
Still, McKinstry has faith.
”We know that it’s going to be solved someday, and if it isn’t, whoever did it will be punished in the long run. God takes care of things like that,” McKinstry said.
A HUSBAND IS GONE
Since her husband’s murder, anger is sometimes the only thing that gets Janeen James through the day.
Leo James, 54, was found shot to death in his 1988 Cadillac on the Mount Lemmon Highway, about 1 1/2
miles from the mountain’s base.
Sheriff’s deputies believe the Sept. 17, 1998, murder may have been drug-related, but his widow believes it was a carjacking gone wrong.
”I don’t believe it had anything to do with drugs, but I think because of his past, that’s where they’re looking,” James said.
Officers believe James, who had a business restoring Cadillacs, sold cocaine on the side to a ”select clientele” of close acquaintances.
But James thinks the spotless car he was found in was the reason he was killed.
”I think something went wrong, and they couldn’t take it because of the white leather interior getting (stained with blood),” she said.
The murder reportedly happened between 2 and 5 p.m. – a time James believes someone was likely to have noticed something.
Still, Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael O’Connor said there are no suspects in the case.
James longs for some answers.
”I get angry when I think about it; that they’re out there living life, out there with sun on their faces, and my husband is buried in the ground,” she said.
GRAPHIC: Homicides 1990-98
Source: Tucson Citizen
GRAPHIC: The unsolved-homicide gap
Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics/USA TODAY
PHOTO MUG CAPTIONS: Citizen file photos
Cases still open
Oct. 1, 1995
Jason Romero, 21, was shot to death Oct. 1, 1995, when a fight broke out at a Chevron Station in the 3100 block of South Sixth Avenue. Romero’s girlfriend said he was trying to intervene in a fight when he was killed.
Aug. 16, 1998
Thomas E. Stephenson, 58, was the deputy supply chief at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base when he disappeared Aug. 16, 1998, after a golf game at the base. His decomposed body was found six days later in the trunk of his car.
Sept. 17, 1998
Leo James, 58, was found shot to death in his car parked alongside the Mount Lemmon Highway on Sept. 17, 1998. Detectives believe his slaying may have been drug related, but his widow believes it was a carjacking gone wrong.
Oct. 4, 1998
The body of Portia Maureen White, 32, was found Oct. 4, 1998, in a brushy area near a parking lot at Fourth Avenue and West Congress Street. The homeless woman had been beaten and stabbed.
Dec. 10, 1998
Crystal Lynn Matis, 41, was found slain Dec. 10, 1998, in a desert area called Three Ponds southwest of Tucson. She had been beaten and slashed in what a detective called the most brutal killing he had seen.
Grady Towers, 55, was found shot to death March 20 at Tohono Chul Park, where he was a security guard working the overnight shift. Detectives say he may have surprised robbers, who made off with between $100 and $1,000.
Robyn Hay, 50, an assistant manager at the eegee’s restaurant at North Thornydale and West Ina Road, was found stabbed to death March 26 in a robbery that netted her killer $800.
PHOTO CAPTIONS: XAVIER GALLEGOS/Tucson Citizen
Tucson police homicide Detective Lorraine Thompson and Sgts. Tom Thompson and Benjamin Jimenez look over an unsolved case’s file.
Pima County Sheriff’s Capt. Kathleen Brennan talks with Sheriff’s Detective C.J. Downing during a briefing on the Tohono Chul Park case.