Private investigator John Stevens criticizes San Diego Police work on his student's murder

Gumshoe pokes around Mission Blvd. and Turquoise

— John Stevens is a driven man. Back in the late '80s in Portland, Oregon, he taught David Stevens the ways of private investigation.

Now, 12 years later, his pupil is dead. Last December 23 on La Jolla Scenic Drive, David Stevens was shot twice in the right temple and burned beyond recognition in his Chrysler LeBaron convertible. With San Diego police finding no suspects after four months' investigation, John Stevens came to San Diego from his base in Portland to investigate for himself – and for David's grieving father, Gerald Stevens.

What he's found so far has left him asking one question: what have the local police been doing all this time?

Last Tuesday, we drove to the spot where David – no relation to John – was found.

"It's the perfect spot for a murder," says Stevens, go-getter of a man with alert eyes and quick movements. "I've been out here real early in the morning. It's dark and isolated. Someone could easily have been waiting in these trees. For this upscale neighborhood, it's a perfect area. Somebody knew what they were doing, picking this spot."

Last December, David Stevens, 38, 5´9", bodybuilder-fit, one-time Nebraska state-champion wrestler, was successfully running the telemarketing room of Perfect Match, a Miramar Road dating service. He didn't seem to have an enemy in the world. Then, around 4:30 on the morning of December 23, firefighters found his car ablaze with David still inside, his burned body prone across the front seat, his right arm reportedly bound in cotton, according to the autopsy report, as though he were wearing a sling or had been tied up with it.

"We're stumped," said Sergeant L.D. Martin of San Diego police's homicide department in January.

"I don't want this thing to die till his killer's found," said Carl Withrow, David's boss at Perfect Match.

"The police haven't told us anything," said his younger brother Dan, speaking from his father's farm in northeastern Nebraska in January.

"They still haven't," says John Stevens, today. "Not enough, anyway." We're standing on La Jolla Scenic Drive on a crisp spring morning looking at charred bits of Chrysler that remain beside the road. A three-foot-long purple metal strip with "LeBaron GTC" written on it lies on the ground among fiberglass filler, broken bits of red taillight, and heat-twisted white plastic that looks disturbingly like human remains. Rustling in the wind 15 feet up, one tree still bears flame-browned leaves.

Stevens says it was David's grieving father Gerald's suffering that compelled him to come to San Diego and do a parallel investigation, even though after 20 years as a private investigator, he now works as a freelance investigative reporter for Oregon TV.

So far, he's been doing "basic police work," he says. "I've just come out here and talked to different people and looked things over, things that would probably be classified 'routine,' or part of the [police work] canvassing protocols."

The surprise is how often he finds he's the first to talk to possible witnesses. He takes us up to Woodford Drive, where clumps of houses hide behind banks of trees. "It's very simple," says the woman at one house, who asks not to be named. "I was awakened from a sound sleep last December 23, 4:00 or 4:30. I remember looking at the clock. I wondered if I really heard something. It was loud enough to wake me up. I lay there for a bit. And I thought I heard another sound. So I got up. I looked through the window here, and everything was fine, when I heard another pop. Another bang. I had an uneasy feeling."

Have the police come and interviewed her?

"No. [Later] I did mention to the guard [near the fire scene] that I had heard them. He said, 'Maybe you should tell the police.' I said, 'Well, I just live up the street, if you want to talk to me.'"

But, she says, they never did.

"Everybody near the scene should have been interviewed," says John Stevens, who acknowledges the police did interview other neighbors. "And right away. The first 24 hours are crucial."

We drive down the hill toward Pacific Beach. He stops outside an Arco gas station on the corner of Mission Boulevard and Turquoise. "This is where David lived," he says, pointing to a large cream and brown stucco structure with geranium planters and green canopies. La Jolla Pacific Apartments. "That's where he and his car disappeared from, that early morning of December 23. Now look here."

He points to a security camera outside the Arco garage. "Wouldn't you expect the police to check this?" He marches inside and shakes hands with Jennifer Langford, the manager. She takes us to the multi-screen display in the back. "We have four different cameras. These [three] inside the store and this one outside. And you see it shows all of our pumps -- and then it shows the intersection."

It seems possible the cameras could have picked up car movements near Stevens's apartment block. Or possibly the murderers (Stevens and police agree more than one had to be involved) coming to buy a can of gasoline to start the car fire.

"We have a lot of people coming in, because we have gas cans stocked," says Langford. "I don't know if it's the area, but people run out of gas all the time."

But the police apparently weren't interested. "Nobody's ever asked to view the videotape," she says. "And now, the problem is we keep our tapes for 30 days, and then on the first of the next month we just record over [the previous month]. It's only if somebody was to come, or something special happened, that we would keep it. But nobody ever came. So the December video is gone."

Stevens points across to the Union Bank's ATM camera, also, he claims, not requisitioned by the police. We check the secondhand car lot next door, where John Stevens says the South African owners say they had not been visited by police either.

"It's not just San Diego police," he says. "This probably would have happened in Portland, in Seattle too. How many crimes are really getting solved, based on good old shoe leather? I bet if you do a statistical trace on it, the majority of crimes are being solved by 'tipsters.' Somebody calls and says, 'The guy you're looking for is in room 32, Motel 6, on La Mesa Boulevard.' And that's why the police are so interested in working with shows like America's Most Wanted, because it looks like they're really doing something, but really, they're just waiting for someone to call. I don't know what you call that. I guess it's the way they gotta do their business. Me, I'd want to get out and do something."

"Okay. Here's another problem," John Stevens says after we've crossed the road. We're at the entrance to La Jolla Pacific Apartments. "One of the anomalies of this investigation was that the police released the crime scene so early. They overlooked [David's] telephone caller-ID box."

Apparently, while examining David's room later on the day he was murdered, the police failed to identify the caller-ID apparatus. It was two more months before his family noticed the box. They found it while going through the personal effects from David's apartment that the police had released to them. They played it and discovered that someone had called David an hour before he died.

A telephone number is posted on a sign at the doorway. We're looking at the entrance phone. Trigon Model 100. "When you use this intercom, it shows up on the caller-ID box as belonging to the La Jolla Pacific Apartments," says Stevens. "[On David's caller- ID records] we saw an incoming call recorded at 3:05 a.m. We backtracked it through the apartment manager to this phone here. So we know someone dialed this phone at 3:05 a.m. They would have had to call Dave. Dialed his three digits...'Hey, Dave, I'm here, open up!' He'd have buzzed and let them in. To have had that information up front and not two months down the line could have been crucial."

David's LeBaron would have been parked in the number 12 space in the ground-level garage. Even that, Stevens says, is significant. "Twelve is against the wall back there. The [day after David's murder], the family was here. They discovered an approximately one-gallon gas can empty in a brown bag in space number 11. They brought it to the police's attention, but to this day we don't know really what happened. Is it connected? I don't know."

And this is the other main beef Stevens has with the SDPD, and specifically Homicide Team 3, with Sgt. Martin in charge of the case Stevens claims the police leave the victim's family in the dark.

"They don't call Gerald. Period. This is a big thing missing from San Diego Homicide. Call it the 'bedside manner.' I think you can do wonders with a little PR. Just be nice, even if you don't want to be nice. I don't want to tell you anything, so I just have a junior detective call you up and say, 'Everything's going okay, don't worry...' A little of the public relations stuff makes us all feel good. And that gets back to why I'm so damned angry wherever I go with law enforcement -- and I know it gets me in trouble -- they don't have to be nice if they don't want to. Who's going to do anything? Everyone's always apprehensive about speaking against the police, about doing anything because 'Oh, my God, we might be obstructing justice, or interfering with an investigation.' So they've got you every way you go! And guess what? Nothing gets done.

"Gerald spoke with Sergeant Martin about taking a look at the burned-out car. We wanted to see it so we could photograph it.... Just look it over. Gerald was told in no uncertain terms, 'No. You can't see it.'"

Gerald Stevens, who John Stevens says is paying his expenses for this trip, held out high hopes for a Crime-Stoppers segment on David's murder to be played on local television. It never happened, despite Gerald's $10,000 reward for information on his son's murder. When AmericaUs Most Wanted did a segment on David's case, John Stevens says Gerald waited in vain to hear from Sgt. Martin about the response from tip-giving viewers.

"Here is the problem that we have with Mr. [Gerald] Stevens," says Sgt. Martin. "I shared information with him, and asked him not to share it with the press, and then he did share it with the press. [He and John Stevens] got on [KOGO talk] radio and said that I hadn't told them anything, which wasn't true. I pretty much kept him up to date on everything. And then he wanted to know every little detail, and I told him I wasn't going to tell every little detail. Because it would compromise the investigation. Because every time he gets a little bit of information, he puts it out to the public. And that's going to impact our ability to -- if and when we get a suspect -- complete the investigation and go forward with a prosecution."

Martin says he never had committed to staging a reenactment for a local Crime-Stoppers show. "We did not do a reenactment and we never said we were going to do a reenactment, particularly in light of the fact we had the AmericaUs Most Wanted thing. We don't do a reenactment of every murder. And the reality is, what are you going to reenact? A burning car? We have footage of a burning car, and that's already been shown on television, several times. There have been several press releases. It's been publicized rather well."

He says AmericaUs Most Wanted generated about 30 telephone responses. "But there wasn't anything to tell the family. One or two tips appeared to have something to them, but we didn't come up with anything. A lot of people called up and said, 'Why don't you look at the bar next door [Dancers, near Perfect Match]? Why don't you look in the gay community?' 'Talk to his boss.' All were things that we had pretty much done. But there really wasn't anything of real substance.

"However, let me share with you that Mr. [Gerald] Stevens was probably calling me three times a week. He's a concerned parent who wants his son's murder solved, and I understand that because we deal with that all the time. You understand relatives and their grief and their despair, and you want to help them get closure on it. However, [after] all the things that I told him and asked him not to share with anybody, and [after] he did, I told him I'm not sharing anything with him anymore until we make an arrest. So he's unhappy about that."

Gerald Stevens, on the phone from Nebraska, admits he and John Stevens went on KOGO 600 talk radio in March, but he denies he had anything to reveal. "I just told them on the radio that Sergeant Martin hadn't told us nothing. Really, I can't think of anything that Sergeant Martin's told me about this case. I have never got a straight answer from him. He never called us to start with [when David was murdered]. [Rick Roberts] asked me how I heard about it. I told him 'through a friend of a friend.' A friend in California called a friend in Omaha. And I waited the rest of the afternoon for a call from the [San Diego] police department, and I never got one. I'm not trying to be a horse's butt about this, but I feel like I've been treated terribly."

Martin says he feels no obligation to deal with John Stevens. "He wouldn't get anything from us because he's a private investigator, and it's an open case, and we don't share information with private investigators. Mr. Gerald Stevens and Mr. John Stevens came into the office the Thursday or Friday before AmericaUs Most Wanted. And they had a whole list of questions. Most of them they'd already asked. I'd answered them. We told them whatever they wanted to know, except they wanted to look through our murder book. I said, 'We don't let anybody look through the murder book.' That's the book that documents the investigation of the case. It's a large three-ring binder, and everything we do generates a report, to document the actions we've taken, and the follow-ups we've made, the people we've interviewed, the evidence.... And there's no reason for them to look at the car. It's evidence. And we don't allow anybody to look at the evidence. For fear of contamination.

"This is the first time since I've come to this unit at the end of 1992 that I've ever had a private investigator try to investigate a homicide. They just don't have the resources or the skills, generally speaking, to do that. Plus, for the most part, people don't talk to them."

As for the Arco station videotape, Martin says he doesn't remember "off the top of my head" if homicide detectives went and interviewed employees or not. "Although I'm sure that they did, to see if there was anything available. As I recall, when we did all the searches for any possible videotapes, nobody had anything on a videotape. I don't know if they looked at the Arco specifically, but I know they did a follow-up to all the potential places that had videotapes. I know that they went out in the middle of the night and checked on everything. [John Stevens] goes and talks to somebody in the daytime, and they don't know if we've been there at night or not. Four months later the clerks he's talking to may not have even been around then."

The Reader later contacted Tom Massey, who had worked the graveyard shift at the Arco station on the night David was murdered. He confirmed John Stevens had interviewed him. He says he had been out back in the noisy refrigerated room from 3:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. He heard and saw nothing. He also says police did not interview him nor ask to see the videotape.

And the caller-ID box? "You have to know that we took the information from the answering machine, but this [caller-ID box] was a whole separate machine," says John Stevens. "Nobody even recognized what it was. [The family] didn't know what it was. They were trying to figure out what it was when they took it home. Then they discovered what it was, and they sent it to me. I had never seen a machine like that and neither had any of my detectives."

Martin says the machine's information may not be crucial anyway. "This [machine] digitally records numbers coming in and times of phones, and not any information about who it's from, other than a phone number. Somebody called his number at 3:05 a.m., from the front door. But that doesn't tell us anything. It tells us that somebody dialed that number. It doesn't tell us a who or a why."

And the gasoline can? "All I can tell you is none of my guys saw anything like that when we were there."

So how near are the police to an arrest? "Barring somebody coming forward and saying, 'I have information about this,' which we're still hopeful of," says Martin, "right now we don't have any real viable leads. We're hopeful that somewhere along the line somebody will say, 'Hey, look, I feel bad about this. I gave this person a ride, or I came and picked him up here, and maybe you should talk to them.' But there's nothing real hot right now."

"Like I said," says John Stevens, "they wait for tips."

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