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Forced Lies: The True Story of Michael Crowe

Updated on February 10, 2017
Kim Bryan profile image

Tennessee-based freelance writer with a passion for true crime, a thirst for knowledge, and an obsession with lists.

As parents, we teach our children to trust and respect the police. We tell them if they are lost, an officer can help get them home. We tell them if they are in danger, a cop will protect them. We preach to them often about obeying officers’ commands when they out.

We’re not wrong to teach our children these things, but we should teach our children one more rule: the rights afforded to them by the Constitution, reinforced by the Miranda ruling.

In 1966, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Miranda vs. Arizona, American citizens, of any age, have the right to remain silent when questioned by police, the right to have an attorney present during questioning and, if cost is a prohibiting factor in obtaining counsel, the state will provide the accused with such.

We, as parents, are responsible for teaching our children to remember this Constitutional right and how to invoke it should they be questioned by police. We should reassure our children seeking counsel is not an implication of guilt, but an intelligent decision in protecting themselves from overzealous cops and prosecutors. .

It's possible you disagree; I know many who do. Over the years, several people have commented if one is not guilty of a crime, they have nothing to hide and should cooperate fully with authorities. If this applies to you, please allow me to share a story I feel strongly will change your mind.

January 21, 1998

On the morning of January 21, 1998, Stephen and his wife Cheryl Crowe awoke to a nightmare. Their 12-year-old daughter, Stephanie Ann Crowe, lay dead on her bedroom floor. She had been viciously murdered as her family slept in nearby bedrooms.

The Crowes frantically called 911 and police quickly arrived. A cursory inspection of the Crowe home found no forced open windows or doors, only a couple of sliding glass doors were unlocked but covered by heavy aluminum blinds, so detectives quickly came to the conclusion this was an inside job.

From that point on, Escondido, California, police would break the number one rule of good investigating: theory should never develop the evidence; allow the evidence to develop the theory. Detectives' inability to follow the golden rule would spiral the Crowes into a second nightmare.

Creating Evidence to Prove a Theory

Officers asked Stephanie’s family, including her 14-year-old brother Michael Crowe and 9-year-old sister Shannon Crowe, to come to the police department to give a statement, hoping they could provide any detail that would help catch Stephanie’s killer.

The Crowe Family
The Crowe Family | Source

What they didn’t tell Mr. and Mrs. Crowe, however, is detectives, after first considering Stephen a suspect, now believed the killer was Mike because a hair found on Stephanie's body, to the naked looked, appeared to be a perfect match to her brother's; and they had observed Mike seemed “distant and preoccupied” when they were still at the scene of the murder.

When the Crowe's arrived at the police station, they were shocked investigators intended to separate and speak to each of them individually. Stephen protested but officers insisted it was standard procedure. What investigators had failed to the parents, however, was their two surviving children were taken to a county children's shelter until detectives were ready to talk to them.

As Stephen and Cheryl underwent intense questioning, police continued to search for evidence at the Crowe house. Detectives soon learn Mike and two of his friends, Aaron Houser and Joshua David Treadway, are frequent players of the popular role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons and fans of heavy metal music, such as Motley Crue.

When Mike was finally brought from the children's home to the station for questioning, police confront him with their "facts," as well as a few fictitious claims; such as, officers had found blood in his bedroom. For the next grueling 27 hours, detectives questioned the teenager, tossing accusations and made-up evidence at him in an effort get Mike to confess.

Separated from his parents for more than a day, still unsure of what exactly had happened to his little sister, suffering from a case of the flu, and terrified by the officers’ accusations but reassured by the detectives’ promises he can go home once he tells the truth, Mike relented and confessed to killing Stephanie.

“I’m only saying this because it’s what you want to hear.”

During the questioning of Michael Crowe, he’d been asked to take a lie detector test and agreed to do so. When pressed about why, even with an affirmative answer, he seemed reluctant, Mike said, “I feel like I just..․ I spent all day away from my family. I couldn’t see 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. Everything I own is gone ․ Everything I have is gone. Everything. You won’t even let me see my parents. It’s horrible.”

Detectives then introduced a voice stress analyzer test they said “was controlled by the government for a long time "because it was so accurate” then proceeded to ask him a series of yes and no questions.

During a conversation between two detectives and intentionally within earshot of Michael Crowe, one told the other he was certain Mike was guilty of murdering his sister. When the accusing investigator left the room, Mike began to cry and say, “God. God. Why? Why? Why? Oh, God. God. Why? Why? I don’t deserve life. I don’t want to live. I can’t believe this. Oh, God. God. Why? Why? How could I have done this? I don’t even remember if I did it.” As the interview resumed, Mike asked “How can I not remember doing something like that? That’s not possible.”

Question after question was tossed at the teen and his response time and time again was “I don’t know.” Finally, after this portion of questioning had went back and forth for several hours, Mike finally shout, “How am I supposed to tell you an answer that I don’t have? I can’t-it’s not possible to tell you something I don’t know.” Then he told detectives, “You keep asking me questions I can’t answer. What do you want me to do? Make something up? Lie to you?”

Asking leading questions such as “How is a knife used to kill someone?,” Mike responded, “Maybe stab them.” And so it went, until the investigators had forced a vague confession from Mike, riddled with the teen's reminders, “I’m only saying this because it’s what you want to hear.”

His "confession" complete, Mike was anxious to get home to his parents. Instead Mike was officially charged with the murder of his younger sister.

Aaron, Joshua, and Michael at a court appearance
Aaron, Joshua, and Michael at a court appearance | Source

Joshua and Aaron

Unbeknownst to Mike, his friends Joshua and Aaron had also been brought to the police station for questioning and, even as Mike finally gave the investigators the confession they wanted, his pals were undergoing the same intense interrogations.

After Aaron was asked many of the same leading questions as Mike and encouraged to give a hypothetical scenario of how Stephanie’s murder had occurred, he too was arrested for the murder of Stephanie Crowe.

The same pattern followed with Joshua. This time investigators would illicit a more detailed and thorough “confession,” that would later be proved to be filled with obvious inconsistencies – many of which police were aware of at the time of questioning. Additionally, detectives failed to Mirandized Joshua until after his statement.

Detectives had spent hours using any and all tactics which came to mind to coerce the young men into confessing, but now they were about to find out just how it feels to be the accused.

Confessions Tossed

Mike, Aaron, and Joshua were held in a juvenile prison as their parents, shocked and stunned, obtained legal counsel on their behalf. Stephen and Cheryl Crowe were particularly stunned and outraged their son had been accused of killing his sister.

At the first preliminary hearing, the boys’ statements to police were introduced as well as the video tape made of same. Although the confessions came under intense scrutiny by the media immediately, it wouldn’t be until December 1998, that Mike’s “confession” was suppressed and the Court gave the detectives a proverbial tongue-lashing when it said they “commenced a coercive scheme, whether intentional or unintentional; it culminated in the adoption of what we have come to refer to as the ‘good Michael, bad Michael’ approach. Where, in essence, the defendant, Mr. Crowe, was told if he confessed, if he provided information, he would receive treatment.”

Aaron and Joshua’s confessions were also suppressed, based both on the tactics used in obtaining the confession and the failure to issue the Miranda warning.

Who Is Richard Raymond Tuite?

On the evening of January 20, 1998, police had been called to the same neighborhood where Stephanie was later murdered in response to 911 calls reporting a man acting strangely, screaming at various houses (including the Crowe’s home), and peering into windows. When police arrived in the area, they found Richard Raymond Tuite, a 28-year-old mentally ill homeless man.

Richard Raymond Tuite as he appears today
Richard Raymond Tuite as he appears today | Source

After Stephanie’s body was discovered the next morning, police questioned Tuite about the crime and collected articles of his clothing. However, once they focused on Michael Crowe and his friends as suspects, the clothing was filed away until October 27, 1998, when they were sent to a lab at the request of Joshua Treadway’s attorney. In February 1999, DNA testing revealed it was Stephanie’s blood was on Tuite’s clothing.

As a result of this new evidence and the suppressed confessions, the state of California officially dismissed the charges against Michael Crowe, Joshua Treadway, and Aaron Houser on February 25, 1999.

It wasn’t until May 15, 2002, more than four years after Stephanie’s murder and three since her blood was found on his clothing, Tuite was arrested. Following a trial in which it was disclosed Tuite suffered from Schizophrenia, a claim reinforced by the defendant's sudden flight from the courtroom during proceedings, a jury returned a verdict of voluntary manslaughter on May 26, 2004. Tuite was sentenced to thirteen years in prison.

On September 8, 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned Tuite’s conviction stating in its opinion, “Given the lack of evidence tying Tuite to the crime, the problems with the DNA evidence, the jury’s deadlock and compromise verdict, and the weight and strategic position of McCrary’s testimony, this case is one of those ‘unusual’ circumstances in which we find ourselves ‘in virtual equipose as to the harmlessness of the error.’O’Neil v. McAninch, 513 U.S. 432, 435 (1995). We must treat the error as affecting the verdict, and we are compelled to grant the writ.”

Tuite was retried in December 2013 and was acquitted by the jury. He was released from prison. As of this writing, Tuite was living in Spring Valley, California according to the sex offender registry.

A Price to Pay for Overaggressive Investigating

Soon after the charges against the teenagers were dismissed, the boys, along with their families as co-plantiffs, filed a civil suit against the cities of Escondido and Oceanside, as well as the detectives and several others individually , for violating their civil rights.

Although the case was a rollercoaster ride through the judicial system, in November 2011, the Crowes agreed to a $7.25 million settlement to be paid by Escondido's insurance carrier AIG. The settlement came just days into a trial in the matter when fatigue from years of court battles brought it’s toll. Michael Crowe, now living in Oregon, thought it best to lay it all to rest before the arrival of his first child that same year. Michael told the North County Times, “There is not any price that would make what they did right, but in the end, the price was just fair enough for us to accept. … It’s unfortunate, but we came to realize that the police would never admit they were wrong.”

Read More about the Crowe Family

In 2006, John Philpin published a spectacular book, Shattered Justice: A Savage Murder and the Death of Three Families' Innocence about the injustice done to Michael Crowe, friends, and family, and the long-term effects of the police's actions. Philpin's book quickly became a best seller and brought nationwide attention to a case California officials would rather have forgotten about.

Do You Think 7 Million Dollars Was Enough For What The Crowe Family Suffered?

See results

© 2016 Kim Bryan

What Do You Think Should Happen to Investigators In Cases Like This?

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      CyrilS 8 weeks ago

      Four years later there was a similar case. On Saturday morning, February 2, 2002, 7-year-old Danielle van Dam was reported missing from her San Diego home. A neighbor, 49-year-old David Westerfield, had left that morning for a weekend trip, so the police soon suspected that he had kidnapped her, and did so for sexual purposes, even though he had no history of such crimes. Like the boys in the Crowe case, he was subjected to long hours of interrogation, he even spent a day with detectives retracing his weekend trip. Like Michael Crowe, he was confronted with fictitious claims, such as he was seen with a girl matching Danielle’s description, and his RV was seen in the neighborhood that night. Neither was true. Nor was he Mirandized (another similarity to the Crowe case), and his repeated enquiries for a lawyer were ignored.

      Author Kim Bryan warns against cooperating fully with the authorities. Westerfield cooperated fully and this was used against him, he was accused of being overly cooperative (even though everyone else was also very cooperative). The lie detector operator thought that his trip - to the Strand, the desert, and back to the Strand - was “crazy”. He appears to have falsified the lie detector test to ensure Westerfield “failed”, by making him uncomfortably hot, changing the questions he said he was going to ask, and (apparently constantly) adjusting his equipment. When Westerfield’s account of events differed from that of Danielle’s parents, the police believed the parents even though they had initially been deceptive.

      Michael Crowe’s complaint that “Everything I own is gone · Everything I have is gone. Everything.” is like Westerfield’s statement: "As far as I'm concerned, my life is over. The life that I had, the life that I was living is over." The police forced a “vague confession” from Michael, and similarly from his two friends. Westerfield didn’t confess, but the two detectives who retraced his weekend trip thought he wanted to make a plea deal. Michael’s “confession” was suppressed, and the court gave the detectives a tongue-lashing. Similarly, the judge found some of Westerfield's statements inadmissible, and ruled that police violated his rights. So, in four years, nothing had changed.

      The police believed that, probably shortly before 2 a.m. Saturday, he had walked from his house to the van Dams’, and entered it through an unlocked door at the side of the garage, triggering their burglar alarm. (So, like the Crowes, no forced entry; but unlike the Crowes, the police did not conclude that this was an inside job.) He was then trapped inside when Danielle’s mother and her friends returned from their girls’ night out at the bar, and was only able to leave perhaps an hour later after the friends had left and the parents had gone to bed. (So, unlike the Crowes who were asleep during that crime, Danielle’s parents, their friends, and the family dog, were all awake, and noticed nothing, apart from the burglar alarm light.) The police believe he then left with Danielle through a sliding door at the rear of the house, triggering the van Dams’ burglar alarm a second time, and took Danielle back to his house for a few hours, then took her in his car to his RV, and left with her on his weekend trip, during which he killed her and dumped her body, before returning home early Monday morning. (He had also returned home twice on Saturday after the kidnapping, supposedly bringing Danielle with him.)

      The problems with this scenario are that the police couldn’t find any evidence of him in the van Dams’ house, no hairs, no fingerprints, no DNA, nothing. Their search dogs didn’t alert to his scent there, nor to her scent in his house or his RV. They did find some of her hairs in his house, but that’s not surprising as she had been there earlier that same week, selling Girl Scout cookies. They also found one handprint and one drop of her blood in his RV, but she could have innocently left those there at some earlier time. His RV had often been parked outside their houses, and she was a headstrong adventurous child who could have sneaked inside. There was also a small stain of her blood on his jacket at the dry-cleaners, but that jacket was apparently in his house during the cookie sale.

      There are some problems with that evidence. Such as the stain on his jacket couldn’t be seen on the photo shown in court, leading some people to suspect it had been planted there afterwards. And the handprint wasn’t matched to Danielle on the fingertips but on another part of the fingers, raising the question whether other parts are as unique as the tips.

      In spite of those problems, he was arrested based on that evidence. Five days later, her body was found. There was an orange fiber tangled in her hair which matched some fibers in his house, but it could have got there during the cookie sale, and there was no evidence Westerfield had been at that recovery site (such as soil on his shoes). Also, the forensic entomology (insect) evidence was that her body was only dumped there perhaps almost two weeks after he was placed under 24-hour police surveillance.

      Kim Bryan says the golden rule of good investigation is that you should allow the evidence to develop the theory, the theory should never develop the evidence. The theory in this case was that Westerfield was guilty, so the police searched for evidence of his guilt, and ignored evidence of innocence. They found evidence of Danielle in his RV, but ignored the evidence that this was old, and didn’t ask her brothers if she had ever been in it. They spent days fruitlessly attempting to prove that the orange fiber in her hair came from his afghan, but didn’t check if the source of those fibers was in her own house. There was blood on the bed she was abducted from, which didn’t come from Westerfield or her family, but they didn’t check it against CODIS because of their focus on him. It might have come from a known sexual predator.

      In the Crowe case, a more likely suspect (Richard Tuite) was arrested and initially convicted. In Westerfield’s case, a much more likely suspect (James Selby) actually confessed to killing Danielle, but the police and prosecution didn’t believe him - apparently simply because they didn’t believe he was in San Diego at the time - so his confession was ignored. (They believed that his sexual crime spree in San Diego had ended, and his sexual crime spree in Tucson, Arizona had begun. But he was close enough to San Diego to have returned there in between his crimes in Tucson.)

      Tuite’s conviction was eventually overturned. I’m hoping that Westerfield’s conviction will also be overturned, as similar reasons apply in his case. There’s a lack of evidence tying him to the crimes against Danielle, there are problems with the DNA evidence, and the jury deadlocked on his sentence but this deadlock was suddenly and inexplicably broken. No FBI profilers testified in his trial, but the police did consult them, and did so shortly before Westerfield was formally interviewed. But for some reason, they didn’t try to get a formal profile, they just had a telephone discussion. And we learned little more than that the culprit was familiar with the van Dams’ house (Westerfield wasn’t), was a male who took Danielle for sex, and would be overly cooperative.

      You ask if readers think the $7 million compensation was enough for what the Crowe family suffered. I have to agree with Michael Crowe: no amount would rectify the injustice, but it was fair enough. I hope that Westerfield, like Tuite, will be acquitted, and that he will receive far more than $7 million for the 15 years he has already spent on death row.

    • Anita Hasch profile image

      Anita Hasch 8 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      They should be given a desk job. No more investigating.