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Fred Steese

Other Clark County Exonerations
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In November 2017, the Nevada Board of Pardons granted a full pardon based on innocence to Fred Steese, who spent nearly 21 years in prison for a 1992 murder. Steese had been released from prison after he entered an Alford plea in 2012 despite a judicial declaration of his innocence.

The pardon was the culmination of a case that began on June 4, 1992, when 55-year-old Gerard Soules, a former trapeze artist who performed with trained poodles at the Circus Circus Casino, was found dead in his trailer at the Silver Nugget Camperland. He was nude, his throat had been slashed and he had been stabbed many times—the coroner had stopped counting at 37. His truck was gone as were numerous personal possessions.

On June 6, 1992, the trailer park’s manager notified North Las Vegas police that a letter arrived addressed to “Fred Burke,” in care of Soules. Police learned that Fred Burke was an alias used by 28-year-old Fred Steese, who until just a few days earlier had worked as Soules’s assistant.

The letter was from Rick Rock of Pocono Pines, Pennsylvania. Rock told police that Steese was a hobo who rode the rails. They had met in Pennsylvania and struck up a sexual relationship before Steese moved to Las Vegas. Rock gave police the number of a pay telephone in Indiana where he said Steese could be reached.

Police telephoned Steese and informed him that Soules had been stabbed to death. Steese said he had left on friendly terms at about the time the body was discovered and that he was not involved in the crime. Steese then called Rock. According to Rock, Steese told him that Soules had been stabbed more than 100 times. After learning about this statement, police focused on Steese because the officer who had spoken to Steese by telephone asserted that he never told Steese how many times Soules had been stabbed.

At Rock’s urging, Steese decided to return to Las Vegas. However, he jumped the wrong train and wound up in central Wisconsin. There, he stole a semi truck and headed west, keeping himself awake with a mixture of cocaine and heroin. On June 18, 1992, he was arrested for speeding about 100 miles north of Las Vegas and taken to North Las Vegas police for questioning. After a five-hour interrogation, Steese signed a statement admitting that he had killed Soules, but not before he had given various other accounts that were contradicted by physical evidence.

Steese said he met Soules while hitchhiking. He told Soules that his name was Fred Burke. After they developed a sexual relationship, Steese agreed to work for him. Soules had recently fired an assistant, Alexander Kolupaev, who had rebuffed Soules’s sexual advances. When the casino later said Steese needed a work permit, Steese decided to move on because he knew his real name would be discovered and he had a parole violation pending in Florida.

Steese said their parting was amicable, but police said that he eventually admitted killing Soules, although he didn’t remember it. The interrogation continued, and Steese said he killed Soules after Soules tied him to a bed with dog leashes and was about to sodomize him with a toilet plunger.

When police said there was no plunger or dog leashes found, Steese told them he killed Soules because Soules refused to pay him money he was owed. When detectives noted that all the nightlights had been disconnected, suggesting a burglary, Steese then said he went to the trailer to rob Soules, but killed him when Soules awoke.

In the end, Steese, whose IQ was between 70 and 80, signed a statement saying that he stabbed Soules “maybe 100 times.” The statement said he fled in Soules’s truck with a camera, television, and videocassette recorder, as well as the murder weapon. Steese said he sold the stolen items at a bait shop and drove to Lake Mead, where he disposed of the knife and abandoned the truck. He hitchhiked back to Las Vegas and jumped a train to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he met a man who invited him to stay in New Plymouth, Idaho. He stayed there about a week, and then headed to Indiana, where he was when he first spoke to police and then Rock.

Steese was charged with first-degree murder, illegal use of a weapon, burglary, and grand larceny.

The defense moved to suppress Steese’s confession as false. The defense argued that it was the result of Steese’s mental and psychological deficiencies, as well as his compromised mental state at the time of the interrogation, which occurred after he had consumed cocaine and heroin and gone without sleep for more than a day. District Court Judge Don Chairez denied the motion, and Steese went to trial in Clark County District Court on January 9, 1995. The prosecution sought the death penalty.

Prosecutor William Kephart relied primarily on Steese’s confession, as well as the testimony of Michael Moore, a neighbor of Soules in the trailer park. Moore testified that on the night of the murder, he saw Steese at Soules’s trailer. Evidence would later show that Moore originally gave police a description of the man that fit Soules’s former assistant Kolupaev, not Steese. Moore had identified Steese, however, in a photographic lineup conducted by Kephart that the defense unsuccessfully challenged as being highly suggestive. Each of the photographs had a booking date and only Steese’s was in 1992—all the rest were for prior years.

No forensic or physical evidence linked Steese to the crime. A jailhouse informant testified that Steese had confessed to the murder while both were in the Clark County jail. The informant denied that he had been promised or received any favorable treatment from the prosecution in exchange for his testimony. Years later, Steese’s lawyers would uncover evidence that the prosecution had in fact taken steps to help the informant resolve his own charges and failed to disclose that evidence to the defense.

Steese testified that he did not commit the murder and that his confession was false. The false confession, he said, was the result of low intelligence, and the fact that he was interrogated while coming down from a drug high after having gone more than 36 hours without sleep. Police, he testified, had “spoon-fed” him the details.

Steese told the jury that after he left Las Vegas, he rode a train to Salt Lake City, Utah, and then rode another train to Cheyenne, Wyoming. He said he met a man named Ron Bouttier and they went to a Salvation Army facility where he signed in as Fred Burke. Steese said he accepted Bouttier’s invitation to stay with Bouttier’s grandparents in Idaho.

“That was the best offer I had in a long time,” Steese testified. “I didn’t have nowhere to go, so I says ‘all right.’ We got along real good at the time, and so we jumped on a train.”

Steese said that after about a week, he left for Indiana where he ultimately learned Soules had been murdered.

Defense attorneys presented 14 witnesses, including Bouttier’s family members, to show that Steese was in Idaho. They also presented documents showing that he visited two job centers on June 4—the day Soules’s body was found—seeking employment. On one form, he listed his foster parent as a reference.

According to the testimony, Steese and Bouttier had a fight, and on June 8, he went to a Salvation Army facility for assistance. There, he filled out two applications after being told he could get double benefits. One was signed as Fred Burke and the other as “Robert.”

Prosecutor Kephart challenged some of the documents as forgeries. He argued that the document signed as “Robert,” however, was evidence that Steese’s long-estranged look-alike brother, Robert, was in Idaho at the time of the murder, not Steese. Kephart contended that Robert, who lived in Texas, was the person that Bouttier met in Cheyenne and traveled with to Idaho. Steese, Kephart claimed, killed Soules and then went to Idaho. There, he and brother Robert had visited the Salvation Army facility and each received $10 in benefits.

On March 1, 1995, the jury convicted Steese of first-degree murder, grand larceny, burglary, and illegal use of a weapon. The prosecution dropped its intention to seek the death penalty, and Steese was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In June 1995, Steese filed a motion seeking a new trial alleging prosecutorial misconduct by Kephart. The motion said that Kephart and an investigator had intimidated a defense alibi witness, Nadine Pollock, into not testifying. They did so by falsely telling her that Steese’s fingerprints had been found on the murder weapon, and that an eyewitness had seen Steese at Soules’s trailer on the night before the murder was discovered. The defense had tried to raise the issue of Pollock’s intimidation before the trial, but the judge refused to hold a hearing.

The motion also accused the police of failing to preserve evidence found in Soules’s truck after it was returned to family members—a gold chain belonging to Soules and a bloody pair of jeans wrapped in a towel. The family assumed the police didn’t need the jeans and got rid of them.

The motion also accused Kephart of failing to disclose records of phone calls from Steese in Idaho to Rock in Pennsylvania. These records, the defense said, put Steese in Idaho at the time of the murder. The records showed that Steese called Rock from Nampa, Idaho, on June 3, 1992—the day of the murder—and three other times on June 5, 1992. The motion accused the prosecution of discouraging Rock from speaking with the defense prior to trial, which prevented the defense from learning of the phone calls.

The motion said Rock would have testified that he was certain he spoke to Steese, not Steese’s brother, Robert. In a sworn affidavit, Rock said that he told Kephart he did not recall Steese ever saying that Soules had been stabbed more than 100 times, but Kephart yelled at him and said it would “be best” if he did not talk to the defense.

The motion for a new trial was denied in February 1996. In 1998, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld Steese’s convictions. “We conclude,” the court said, “that given the strength of the State’s case and the weakness of the evidence and witness testimony at issue here, the outcome at trial would, in all reasonable probability, have been the same even if the phone records and Rock's allegations had been presented by the defense at trial.”

In June 2011, Steese began the first of four hearings on a motion for a new trial. By this point, assistant federal defender Ryan Norwood and investigator Abigail Goodman had conducted a lengthy re-investigation that uncovered even more evidence favorable to the defense that Kephart and the prosecution had concealed.

The evidence included reports from railroad police showing that “Frederick Lee Burke” had been kicked off a train in Salt Lake City on May 29, 1992 and again in Cheyenne on May 31, 1992—records that supported Steese’s trial testimony. The reports were in the prosecution file and had not been disclosed to Steese’s defense team.

The prosecution file also contained letters from the jailhouse informant to the prosecution’s office that indicated he had received benefits for his testimony, contradicting his trial court denials.

Before the hearing on the motion for new trial, the prosecution made an inquiry to the National Crime Information Center in Texas seeking information on Robert Steese. The NCIC report showed that requests for information on Robert Steese had been made to NCIC on May 25, June 1, and June 4 of 1992, prior to and on the day Soules’s body was discovered. Norwood believed those requests were made because Robert Steese was in Texas on those dates and had been stopped by police.

On October 18, Clark County District Judge Elissa Cadish vacated Steese’s convictions and issued an order of actual innocence, ruling that it was “more likely than not no reasonable juror would have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt with that evidence.”

On December 12, 2012, Steese, confronted with the possibility of spending more years in prison because of appeals by the prosecution, entered an Alford plea to second-degree murder with a deadly weapon. The plea allowed Steese to maintain his innocence while agreeing that the prosecution had evidence sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In February 2013, Steese was sentenced 16 years in prison. Since he had served nearly 21 years already, he qualified for immediate release. However, Nevada authorities sent Steese to Florida where authorities wanted him for failing to report to his parole officer more than 25 years earlier. Steese was released several months later.

A year later, Steese filed a motion to withdraw his plea, but in 2015, Judge Cadish denied it. In 2015, Steese, acting without a lawyer, filed a federal lawsuit seeking damages from Clark County and North Las Vegas, but the lawsuit was dismissed.

In May 2017, journalist Megan Rose simultaneously published two detailed articles on Steese’s case in ProPublica and Vanity Fair. The articles, titled “Kafka in Vegas,” outlined how, after Steese’s conviction, prosecutor Kephart had been cited for misconduct in other death penalty trials before he was elected judge in 2014. The articles revealed how Kephart had been cited for misconduct in five other cases. In one, he made “deliberate” and “improper comments,” and in another, the court labeled his misconduct as “significant.”

Among those cases was that of Kirstin Lobato, whom Kephart prosecuted in 2002 and again at a re-trial in 2006. In 2016, after Lobato presented evidence of innocence based on new forensic evidence, Kephart gave a televised interview during which he essentially said that Lobato was guilty.

On May 9, 2017, the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline filed a complaint with the Nevada Supreme Court against Kephart, alleging that his comments violated judicial ethics. In October 2017, after Kephart admitted to several violations of the judicial code, he was issued a public reprimand.

On November 8, 2017, Steese’s request for a pardon based on innocence was granted. “Let there be no residual stain on his record,” Nevada Supreme Court Justice Lidia Stiglich said.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/1/2017
State:Nevada
County:Clark
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Burglary/Unlawful Entry, Theft, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1992
Convicted:1995
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:28
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No