Shattered Justice by John Philpin by John Philpin - Read Online
Shattered Justice
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A family's horror— one child murdered . . .another destroyed.

The Crowes’ neighbors in the peaceful middle classcommunity in San Diego’s North County were shockedby the savagery of the crime—a young girl murdered,stabbed repeatedly, in her own bed in the dead of night.The lack of any evidence of forced entry led the Escondidopolice to their inevitable conclusion: someone in the familywas responsible for 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe’s slaying.The investigation quickly zeroed in on the victim’s olderbrother, Michael, and two teenage friends—three lonerswho enjoyed inhabiting dark fantasy worlds of quests andviolence. Through efficient, by-the-book police work, theboys were broken down and ultimately confessed. The onlyproblem was the detectives had gotten everything wrong . . .

Shattered Justice is the riveting and disturbing trueaccount of a horrific tragedy and the terrible crimethat followed—a nightmare of four innocent livesshattered, one by a killer’s blade, three byobsession and twisted law.

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780062097026
List price: $6.99
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Book One

The Horror

"And much of Madness,

and more of Sin,

And Horror the soul of the plot."

—Edgar Allan Poe

Chapter 1

He paced and talked, jabbed a fist into the air, and waved his arms in wild, wide arcs. His long, disheveled, dirty blond hair fanned when he spun around to walk back to where he had begun.

The man was alone at the bus stop on the corner of Date and Grand. He was one of Escondido’s homeless men, many of them mentally ill, drug-addled ex-cons— scruffy, layered in soiled, shabby clothing. He wore a jacket over a purple shirt over a red shirt, and his legs were bulked with multiple pairs of pants. The southern California days were comfortable enough, but the nights were cold. It was Tuesday, January 20, 1998, late afternoon.

He held something in his hand, a pointed object ten inches long. When he punched the air, the fading light caught the object, but not quite enough to determine what it was.

This guy was a familiar figure at the library on Kalmia where he would emerge from the shadows to panhandle patrons intent only on getting home to crack open the latest by Alex Kava or John Grisham. Usually he asked for a dollar, but took whatever he could get.

This particular evening, he waited for the bus that would carry him into the rural area of Valley Center Road and Orange Glen.

The Ranch was a collection of adobe brick buildings off Valley Center Road.

Shortly after seven that evening, Dannette Mogelinski and her three-year-old daughter sat on the sofa watching TV in their living room at The Ranch. Her fiancé, Frank Romanelli, used the computer.

Mogelinski responded to a knock on the door. It’s open, she called. Come in.

A bearded man in a flannel shirt and worn jeans opened the door and stood at the threshold. His eyes bulged like Charles Manson’s eyes, Mogelinski thought. He was dirty, grubby, and he frightened the young woman.

There was something not right about the guy. Was he crazy, drugged out? Mogelinski did not know. But she did know she was frightened, and she knew she could not pull her gaze away from his eyes.

She pushed herself from the couch. Can I help you? she asked.

Is Tracy here? the man asked. I’m looking for Tracy.

His face and neck were wet with sweat, as if he had just run a long distance.

No. There is no Tracy here, she said.

Do you know where I can find her?

I don’t know of any Tracy.

But are you sure she’s not here? She might come back.

He gazed around the room like he was casing the place, staring at a rifle on the wall above Frank Romanelli’s head.

I don’t know who you are talking about, Mogelinski said. No Tracy lives here. She then made her way over to the man.

He stepped back as Mogelinski closed the door. She returned to her daughter as the door opened a second time.

Are you sure? the man asked.

I’m sorry. I don’t even know who you’re talking about.

Tell her Richard stopped by, he said.

This time when she closed the door, she locked it.

Sheldon Homa sat on his sofa watching TV in the one-room modified garage at 22015 Valley Center Road. At seven-thirty twin pit bulls in a pen at the rear began a furious barking. Homa’s son Shannon lived in the main house. The dogs were his, and they often became disturbed when coyotes moved down the hills and through the surrounding woods.

In a window beyond the TV, Homa saw a man looking in. His long, unkempt hair gave the guy a wild look. Homa grabbed an ax and went outside.

What are you up to? he demanded. I was over there, he said, pointing in the direction of The Ranch. I’m looking for Tracy. They said she might be here.

The man talked fast and gazed everywhere except at Homa. His hands and arms were in constant motion, his eyes darting in one direction then another. He looked as if he had been on the streets for a while— soiled red sweatshirt, tangled hair, beard—like he was tweaking, running for too many days on methamphetamine.

That’s bullshit, Homa said. Tracy don’t live here. They wouldn’t have told you that. You got no business here. Get off the property.

Homa watched the man turn and walk slowly toward Valley Center Road, then went to talk to his son.

There was a squirrely guy at my window, Sheldon Homa told his son, and described the trespasser.

Shannon and his girlfriend Dawn wondered if the guy might be someone they knew, or at least might recognize. They jumped into their pickup truck and drove along Valley Center Road, where they saw the man Sheldon had described—long, stringy hair and a beard, red sweatshirt, undershirt hanging out.

Shannon drove slowly past the Lutheran church as the man ducked into the bushes. He turned and pulled into the church parking lot, where kids were playing. He felt he should notify someone about the man, especially with children outside and vulnerable, so he entered the church and left word.

As Shannon and Dawn drove home, they passed him again, standing on Valley Center Road, arms spread in the air, staring at the sky like he was talking to God, maybe arguing with God. He began to spin in place, taking mincing steps, spinning faster and faster, whirling. His eyes were vacant, like there was something going on in his head, something only he knew about. He looked like a malevolent, dirty Jesus, spinning, his glassy eyes giving way to a glare of fiery rage.

The couple arrived home and called 911. The call was logged at seven-fifty that evening.

Sharon Thomas drove to the Lutheran church to pick up her son. As she pulled into the parking lot, a transient-looking man ran through screaming and cursing. You fucking bitch, he yelled. You’d better never do it again.

He might’ve been stoned or drunk, she thought, but he was definitely violent acting.

She rolled down the window and called to the man, Oh, come on. You’re in a church parking lot.

He ignored her. When she left the church, he stood at the curb in silence.

Ten minutes after arriving at their trailer on the Gary West property, Patrick and Misty Green were startled by a pounding on their door.

I want to see your daughter, a transient-looking man called through the door. This is Richard.

The Greens’ daughters, twelve and nine, were over in the house with their grandparents, the Wests.

Open the door, the man demanded.

Theirs was a long driveway, dark. No one walked up there at night. Misty was frightened. Maybe the guy was casing the trailer, planning to break in. She grabbed her cell phone, called her father, Gary West, and told him about the man. Patrick Green grabbed his gun.

When the man approached the main house, the Greens followed. Gary West flashed a light in his face and told him to leave, to get off the property. The man didn’t move, his hands stuck in his pockets. Misty worried that he might have a weapon. It didn’t seem to matter to the man that there were three of them. He spoke slowly, his reactions off, like he was drugged out.

She’s here, he said. I want to see her.

There’s no one here you need to see, West told him. You’ve got the wrong house.

Finally, he turned, hands still in pockets, and walked slowly into the darkness and down the driveway.

They called the police. The call was logged at 9:28. A cruiser prowled their yard forty-five minutes later, turned and slowly disappeared down the long drive that led directly to their neighbors’ drive, and to Valley Center Road.

Cindy Ames and Elizabeth Miller were on their way to Pechanga Casino in Temecula after midnight when they saw a man standing at the side of Valley Center Road. He was not on the dirt shoulder. He stood on the pavement, and he was not hitchhiking or flagging help for a disabled car. Ames stared at the man, a stranger, unmoving, gazing across the road and up at the groves like he was watching a spacecraft land. He did not look at their car, did not reflexively back away from the road. He was a statue in the night—rigid, hands in pockets, staring. Long hair, scruffy beard, red shirt, blue windbreaker.

They’re out in force tonight, Ames said to her friend.

Chapter 2

As the transient left the Lutheran church near eight P.M. , Cheryl Crowe answered her phone. The Crowes’ home was a ranch house on the hill off Valley Center Road, nestled among the avocado groves. Their nearest neighbor was Gary West. His driveway began were theirs ended.

The call was from Joshua Treadway, a friend of her fourteen-year-old son Michael, who had been home sick from school that day. Josh wondered if he would make it in the next day for finals. Mrs. Crowe took the phone to Michael. As she returned through the hall, she noticed twelve-year-old Stephanie talking on her own phone in her bedroom.

At nine P.M., Stephanie and Michael sat on the living room floor watching Home Improvement on TV. Their grandmother, Judith Ann Kennedy, and their ten-year-old sister Shannon, sat on the sofa and watched too. Michael and Stephanie were tickling each other and giggling. Annoyed because they could not hear the TV show, Shannon Crowe and her grandmother went to the bedroom they shared.

When the program ended at nine-thirty, Michael went to his room and locked the door. Stephanie walked to the end of the hall and tapped on her parents’ door. Her father, Stephen, was asleep. Her mother was dozing.

Good night, Stephanie said. I love you.

The girl still wore her school clothes—jeans and a purple shirt. She went to the hall bathroom and brushed her teeth, then walked the length of the house to the laundry room to retrieve her red nightshirt.

At four-thirty A.M., Michael awoke with a pounding headache. He walked to the kitchen and took two Tylenol with a glass of milk, then returned to his room.

The house was silent.

Chapter 3

The telephone was a Christmas gift, and it came with a headset for hands-free talking. Her parents had also given her a phone line of her own. The wire snaked through her window, leaving a narrow gap, just enough for the chill night air to cool her bedroom.

Stephanie Crowe talked to her friend Angela several times on the afternoon and evening of January 20, 1998—about boys, who liked whom, the movie Titanic—issues of concern to any twelve-year-old girl. The hours of phone talk each night did not interfere with her grades at school. Stephanie was a top student in her gifted-and-talented program, winning awards for achievement in school, and community awards for volunteering at the Escondido Public Library. She was active in her church, the First United Methodist in Escondido. Angela attended the same church.

The two girls planned to talk again later, as they often did, into the late hours of the night.

Near ten o’clock Stephanie retrieved her red night-shirt from the basket of clean laundry at the far end of the house. The family considered the south door at the laundry room and adjacent to the garage their front door. They seldom used the formal living room door.

Shortly before ten, a police patrol car turned around in their driveway. As Stephanie grabbed her nightshirt, she may have seen the lights from the car, or she may have been checking on her cats—kitty patrol, her mother called it. Whichever the case, when Escondido officer Scott Walters saw the south door, it was open. The motion-activated light above the garage switched on. Walters saw light inside the house and watched as the door closed. He turned and drove down the driveway.

It would not have been unusual for Stephanie to close the door and fail to turn the locking button on the knob. The house was located in a remote area, and the Crowes saw little need to be concerned about door locks.

Stephanie returned to her bedroom. Her parents slept in the adjacent room, their TV on. Her grandmother and sister were asleep in their room diagonally across the hall, and her brother in his room directly across the hall. Waiting for her friend to call, she switched off her light, curled onto the bed and, still clothed, pulled up her quilt against the cold.

After ten o’clock there was a pounding noise somewhere in the house. Her mother heard it through her sleep and thought it was part of a dream. Half asleep, her brother heard it too, and when the pounding stopped, decided someone in the house had tended to it.

Then the night was still.

Stephanie would not have heard the family’s front door open and close a second time, the knob button snap into locked position, the dead bolt engage. Somone moving from the doorway into the kitchen, illuminated by the light over the sink, would not have roused her.

The house was a simple rectangle—the garage and laundry room, the living room ahead to the right, the computer area ahead to the left, the hall leading to four bedrooms straight ahead. A brief circuit of the exterior was enough to understand the layout. The first room on the left was where Stephanie had fallen asleep while awaiting Angela’s call.

How deep was Stephanie’s sleep? Did she know when her door opened, when someone entered her room and walked to the bed? Did she stir then, gaze upward, or did she continue drifting more deeply into sleep? Would she have known if an intruder spoke to her, whispered a name?

She knew when the knife penetrated her skin. She struggled, squirmed, tried to avoid the blade as it struck again and again—deep cuts, savage slices. Pain ripped through her body—the blows from a knife slammed to the hilt. Then the attack ended.

As quietly as the night beast had arrived, he was gone.

For several moments Stephanie lay still. Then she pushed back the quilt and fought to a sitting position on the side of her bed. She reached for the bottom bedstead, moving slowly along the edge of the bed, holding herself there, until she fell to the floor.

She crawled inches at a time in the darkness, extending her arm and grasping the bottom of the door with slippery, bloody fingers.

It was there on the floor in her room where twelve-year-old Stephanie Crowe died.

Chapter 4

Escondido, California, lies nestled in the hills eighteen miles from the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by avocado and citrus groves. It is a middle-class city, roughly half white, half minority. In the nineteenth century the land that would become Escondido was included in a grant, Rancho Rincon del Diablo, the Devil’s Corner. Because the area was no longer controlled by the Mission San Diego de Alcala, it was considered without the blessing of the Church. Today, houses of worship rival the number of gas stations in the city.

Judith Kennedy opened her eyes, glared at her bedside clock, and wondered why she was awake at six-thirty in the morning.

A pea-soup fog of partial wakefulness lifted slowly. The intermittent electronic whine that had jarred her from sleep was not her alarm clock, but her grandaughter Stephanie’s in her room across the hall. The twelve-year-old had school that day. Seventh grade. Hidden Valley Middle School.

Judith waited, expecting Stephanie to slap her hand on the clock and silence it—just as she did every morning—but the noise continued.

Finally, Judith slipped out of bed, donned her bathrobe, and crossed the hall. With the exception of Stephanie’s clock, the house was silent, other family members still asleep.

Stephanie was never late for school, she thought as she pushed the child’s bedroom door.

Stephanie Crowe lay on the floor on her right side, her face covered with what Kennedy thought was mud. What was she doing there? Why hadn’t she switched off her alarm? Where did she get all that dirt, and why was she not moving?

Judith stepped through the doorway. Her psychic haze lifted suddenly and totally, as if blown away in a gust of gale-force wind screaming in from the Pacific. Stephanie was not moving at all, not even breathing. The dark, crustal matter on her face was not mud, but black-dried and deep-crimson-drying blood.

Judith screamed.

Cheryl and Stephen Crowe slept in their room adjacent to their daughter Stephanie’s. Judith Kennedy’s scream yanked them from sleep. Stephen pulled on his Levi’s and ran into the hall with Cheryl a half step behind him.

Something is wrong with Stephanie, Judith said, her voice trembling, her eyes wide. She’s covered with blood.

Stephen Crowe tried to lift his daughter from the floor. Stephanie was rigid, as if she did not want to be picked up.

Judith ran into the master bedroom to use the phone. Stephen grabbed Stephanie’s phone and punched in 911. The dispatcher told him that someone else was already calling about his daughter on another line.

Cheryl Crowe lowered herself to the floor and covered her daughter with her body. Stephanie was cold, and Cheryl wanted to make her warm. Someone had to do something, she said, then said it again.

When her fourteen-year-old son stepped into the hall from his room, she screamed, Michael, you’re the smartest one in this house. Please do something!

Michael saw his sister, saw the blood that obscured her face, and caught a glimpse of the room beyond. There was blood on the floor, the bed, the bedpost. Michael had no idea what to do. He turned away, following his grandmother to the living room.

Ten-year-old Shannon emerged from her room, rubbing sleepy eyes and wondering why everyone was shouting. Frightened, she tried to avoid glancing into her sister’s room, and ran to be near her brother.

Stephen Crowe told the emergency operator there was something terribly wrong with his daughter, then he gave the phone to Judith, who had returned to the hallway outside Stephanie’s room, and said, I’m going down to the road.

He was concerned that the rescue team might not be able to find their home, secluded in the avocado grove on the hill. This was Valley Center Road in rural Escondido—miles of farm country, homes hidden among the trees, streets poorly marked.

At the rear door, he grabbed the doorknob, but the door refused to open. He tried a second time with the same result, only then noticing that the dead bolt was locked. Through the morning’s chaos, Stephen Crowe remembered this because the family never used the dead bolt, never bothered about the locks at all.

Twelve minutes after the emergency call, the rescue unit arrived. Stephen Crowe led the two paramedics, Steve Mandich and John Peters, into the house and along the dimly lighted hall.

Cheryl Crowe, on her knees, crouched over her child. She looked up as Mandich and Peters arrived.

Oh my God, Crowe kept repeating. You’ve got to help her.

Mandich said, Ma’am, I can’t help her unless you move.

Cheryl got to her feet, and Peters directed her and Stephen down the hall. Cheryl sat with her two other kids and her mother. Stephen continued to pace and cry uncontrollably.

Two uniformed police officers, Johnny Johnson and Johnny Martin, arrived at six-fifty. Martin escorted the family members from the hall and kitchen to the living room.

Steve Mandich crouched beside the motionless child and felt her throat for a carotid pulse. There was none. The body was cold to the touch, and rigid. He looked at Peters and said, There’s nothing we can do.

Officer Johnson walked down the hall and noted the child’s body on the floor.

Mandich told the cop, Young female, deceased.

The officer peered into the room. The natural chaos of a child’s room—clothing on the floor, books and papers scattered in disarray—was stained with pools and smears of blood. Johnson then checked the remaining rooms off the hall for others who might be injured or in hiding.

Other police officers were arriving now, moving through the house.

Officer Martin, with the family in the living room, heard Michael tell his parents that he’d gotten up at four-thirty that morning, switched on his TV for light, and gone to the kitchen to get a glass of milk. He did not see Stephanie, and he returned to bed.

Stephen Crowe vented his anger at Officer Martin. The police had allowed this to happen, he yelled. Judith Kennedy did her best to comfort Shannon and Michael, who wrapped himself in a blanket against the chill and played with a Game Boy.

Escondido police detective Barry Sweeney had spent twenty of his twenty-four years as a cop in investigations. Ten of those years were in narcotics investigations. Sweeney heard the radio call at 6:45 that morning and drove to the Crowe residence. He talked briefly with EMTs Mandich and Peters as they left the residence. Before he entered the house, Sweeney knew there was a dead preteen, trauma to the upper body, complete rigor mortis, dried and drying blood.

He walked into the house and observed the family in the living room. To Sweeney they appeared appropriately distraught—except for Michael, who displayed no emotion. The kid was slightly built with a mop of dark hair, and wore a black Motley Crue T-shirt and black pants. He seemed blank, empty, absorbed in his electronic game.