The Crowes never had a doubt that Richard Tuite – a drifter, felon, and diagnosed schizophrenic -- stabbed Stephanie nine times in her bed after sneaking into their house in January 1998, while the rest of the family slept. "I wish we would have heard something," says Stephen Crowe. "I'd give anything to be able to go back."
Stephanie's big brother, Michael, was 14 when the crime happened. Since then, he has grown up in the shadow of the murder and despises Tuite. "I can't stand looking at him," he says. "The whole reason this happened is all because of his choices, and the choices of his family, and everyone who enabled him to get by."
Michael may be convinced that Tuite killed his sister, but authorities weren't always so certain. In fact, even today, after all these years, there are still some who believe others did it – others who remarkably confessed to the crime. But there is also dramatic evidence against Tuite, correspondent Bill Lagattuta reports.
On the night of the murder, police received numerous reports about a stranger in the Crowe neighborhood. They say he appeared disoriented, and he was knocking on doors, looking for a girl named Tracy.
Gary West, the Crowes' next-door neighbor at the time, said he saw Tuite that night: "He says, 'I'm looking for the girl,' and I said, 'There's no girl here. You have no business here. You need to get out of here.'"
Seven years ago, Tuite was obsessed with one girl, Tracy Nelson, who resembled Stephanie. "At the time, I was into drugs, so we would get high together," says Nelson. "After doing the drugs, he started getting a little paranoid. …He would start thinking people were following him."
The crime scene was bloody, but there were no fingerprints or DNA, and the murder weapon was never found.
Tuite was picked up the morning after the murder, and his clothes were confiscated. At the time, he was let go because authorities said they had no incriminating evidence and didn't think he was capable of sneaking into the house undetected.
But today, authorities have done a complete turnaround, and prosecutors Dave Druliner and Jim Dutton believe that Tuite is the right man.
"He does what we call a blitz attack on Stephanie. It takes a matter of seconds, literally, and then he exits," says Dutton. "There's not a lot of planning. It's essentially a straight shot."
But what about the fact that there wasn't a single fingerprint, fiber or footprint left at the scene of the crime? "Luck plays a big part in a lot of murder investigations," says Dutton.
Michael says that being in the same room as Tuite is "kind of fighting the urge to run away and the urge to just climb over a table and hit him over the head with something."
Seven years ago, authorities were convinced that the 14-year-old planned and carried out the brutal crime. At that time, Michael and his two friends were the ones preparing to go to trial for Stephanie's murder.
Michael, who was being interrogated by police, was unable to attend his sister's funeral. Not only had the Crowes lost a daughter, they were now being told their son was her killer.
When Lagatutta first talked to Stephanie's parents in 1998, they said Michael was shy, but otherwise a typical 14-year-old. Michael tended to be quiet. He liked to read, and play with video games and computers with his friends.
Authorities, however, believed that Michael was a bright kid with a dark side. The morning Stephanie's body was discovered, they say Michael seemed distant, quiet, even preoccupied. "He was playing with some handheld game while the rest of the family was grieving," says former prosecutor Summer Stephan.
But it was Michael's alibi that really made investigators suspicious. He said he woke up very early that morning with a headache, took some Tylenol, drank a glass of milk, and then walked back from the kitchen to his room.
Police say that Michael should have seen something, because his room was directly across from Stephanie's room. "The evidence shows her door was open because her body blocked the doorway," says Stephan. "It is not reasonable that somebody could walk out of their room at 4:30 a.m. and not see the body there."
At first, during his interrogation, Michael denied killing his sister. But after two days of questioning, Michael finally admitted to murdering Stephanie. "All I know is I'm positive I killed her," says Michael during his interrogation. "She was like a threat to me. Everything I did she could match. That wasn't right. … She made me feel worthless."
According to police, sibling rivalry was Michael's motive for killing his sister. They say Michael resented Stephanie because she was more popular and received better grades. And they say he didn't act alone. He recruited two of his friends from ninth grade, Josh Treadway and Aaron Hauser.
The three friends loved fantasy, especially video games. For most kids, it's harmless fun, but investigators believed these boys decided to bring their dark fantasies into the real world and find a real victim – Stephanie. All three boys were brought in for questioning.
Josh was questioned for 12 hours, and when he came back for a second interview two weeks later, he told police how the murder was planned.
Josh told police Michael had the motive, but Aaron, who had an impressive collection of knives, was the mastermind.
Police then brought Aaron in for questioning. He never confessed but he gave a chilling hypothetical scenario of how someone would inflict knife wounds on someone like Stephanie.
"Why would you hypothesize about a situation like that," says Det. Chris McDonough, who interviewed Josh and Aaron. "Especially to a seasoned homicide investigator. Why would you do that?"
Once they had the boys' confessions, detectives believed they had made their case. But shortly after the boys had given those detailed statements, they recanted their story and said they made it all up -- under intense pressure from the police.
Why did they do it? "Eventually, they wear you down to where you don't even trust yourself," says Michael. "You can't trust your memory anymore."
"I had a lot of pressure on me at the time," adds Josh. "Again, you'd just have to be there."
But Michael's family believed the boys' reversal. "What do they have to gain by this," asks Michael's father, Stephen. "What are they, bored or something? Let's go kill someone. It doesn't make sense."
Josh's confession gave the most details of Stephanie's murder. But his public defender, Mary Ellen Attridge, was relentless in her belief that the police set the boys up.
"They're not confessions," says Attridge. "They're false. They're lies and they were manufactured out of whole and coercive cloth by the police department."
Attridge planned to dispute the boys' so-called confessions, revisit the questions about Tuite, and paint him as the likely killer. She wondered about the clothing that was taken from Tuite on the morning Stephanie's body was discovered. It was clothing police said contained no incriminating evidence, but she wanted to have a closer look.
She discovered that only Tuite's white shirt had been tested for DNA evidence – not his red sweatshirt, which had stains on it. "I didn't know what it was," she says. "I suspect that there had to be some sort of DNA on there somewhere."
Attridge demanded that prosecutors send all of Tuite's clothing for DNA testing. The DNA lab found three spots of Stephanie's blood on Tuite's red sweatshirt. "I thought, 'This is it,'" says Attridge. "Richard Tuite killed Stephanie Crowe, absolutely, positively, no doubt about it."
The prosecution was stunned. The judge put a freeze on the trial, and six weeks later, charges against the three boys, who had been incarcerated for six months, were dropped, with the provision they could be filed again.
Tuite was in jail for a burglary at the time, but the DA was reluctant to charge him with Stephanie's murder. A year went by, without any arrest. And then, the state attorney general's office stepped in. Vic Caloca, a senior investigator with the San Diego Sheriff's Department, was in charge of the new investigation. He quickly focused in on the interrogation tapes.
"I did try to be objective," says Caloca. "But something that we were told never to do at interviews was being done in front of me. And it was very upsetting. Very shocking."
He noted that the boys had no lawyers with them and were isolated from their parents for extended periods. It was clear to Caloca that police lied to their suspects, which is legal. But the question he had was, did they promise leniency – which is illegal?
Caloca was becoming convinced that the boys were innocent because their stories simply did not fit the facts of the crime. And he says that Michael never confessed: "He just gave the police what he thought they wanted to hear."
But detective McDonough, who spoke to all three boys, sees things differently. "I think the Escondido Police Department acted within the scope of their responsibilities," he says.
Caloca also spent hours talking to Tuite, who admitted he went into the Crowe house, but denied killing Stephanie. In the end, for Caloca, the DNA evidence was irrefutable. Nearly five years after police first questioned him, Tuite was finally arrested for the murder of Stephanie Crowe.
"I'm happy that they finally have taken the next step in the process and we might finally get some justice here," said Michael.
On his first day of trial, Tuite tried to escape from the San Diego courthouse, but he was caught just three hours later. For prosecutors, this was just more proof that he killed Stephanie. But defense attorney Brad Patton says the evidence against Tuite doesn't prove "the case beyond a reasonable doubt."
Tuite was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his 20s. His family says they took him to the hospital at least 30 times. He eventually wandered the streets of Escondido, and he was no stranger to police. Tuite's criminal record includes arrests for drug use, attempted burglary, and assault with a deadly weapon.
His attorney, William Fletcher, says "there is not any trace evidence that connects Mr. Tuite with the Crowe residence."
There may have been no evidence left by Tuite in the Crowe home, but there was evidence – Stephanie's blood –found on his red sweatshirt. A crime lab eventually found her blood on Tuite's white T-shirt, too.
According to prosecutors, there's only one way that blood could have gotten on his clothes: Tuite killed Stephanie. The defense argued that police got blood on themselves and their equipment at the crime scene. Tuite's attorneys claim the blood on the red shirt got there because police placed a tripod used to photograph the crime scene in Stephanie's blood.
The defense then presented its strongest argument to exonerate Tuite: the boys' confession tapes. Michael then took the stand to defend himself. It was the first time that Michael, 20, has seen what he told police on the tapes when he was 14.
"I just wish they wouldn't have done that to me," he testified.
The jury then heard testimony from Josh and Aaron. Finally, after listening to three months of testimony, the jury had to decide whether Richard Tuite was a killer.
After six years of living under suspicion for the murder of his little sister, Michael was finally ready for the jury's decision. Who would the jury believe? Tuite, a mentally ill transient, or Stephanie's brother, Michael.
It would take the jury eight long days of deliberating before reaching a verdict. Jurors found Tuite guilty of the crime of voluntary manslaughter. They concluded that Tuite killed Stephanie, but without malice or premeditation.
"I'm just thankful for the prosecutors, that they did such a wonderful job," says Stephanie's mother, Cheryl. "They took a lot of time to do what was almost impossible and they did it – found justice for Stephanie."
Three months after the conviction, the judge sentenced Tuite to the maximum term of 13 years.
For the Crowe family, it's the end of a recurrent nightmare. For detective Caloca, however, it's justice, plain and simple. "I know that I can hold my head high, that I did the best I could for this little girl," he says.
"We'll always be grieving," says Stephen Crowe. "Unless they can find a way to bring her back, it's just gonna be a part of our lives from now on."
Michael Crowe is now married, he hopes to finish college, and he's desperate to leave Escondido behind.
"Justice for me would be admissions and apologies from the people who just tortured me and broke my life, because they could," says Michael. "I think Stephanie got the justice this world has to give her. We can only hope that, if there is something in the next world, that justice will be given to her then. This world doesn't have any justice for either of us."