February 11, 1996 in Nation/World

Did Serial Killer Trick Police? Spokane Man May Have Pulled Ultimate Con By Getting Himself Off Suspect List

By The Spokesman-Review
 

He had 30 identities and seven Social Security numbers. He collected police uniforms and drove his own cop car. He stole a new Cadillac off a car lot and lied his way into Gonzaga Law School.

This same daring outlaw was obsessed with prostitutes and serial killers. He’d disappear on strange trips he called “missions.” He built a secret room with a fake wall in his basement. He collected photographs of nude women and articles about sex crimes.

Spokane’s William J. Stevens Jr. was either one of the most prolific murderers in U.S. history or just a world-class con man.

Possibly both.

More than four years after his death, he’s still an enigma, still a distant suspect in the 49 unsolved Green River killings in Washington and Oregon.

The people who tried to peel off his many masks remain fascinated, puzzled and haunted by the portly, stone-faced man. In recent interviews, they talked openly about him for the first time.

A retired Spokane County sheriff’s detective spent a year trying to pin the murders on Stevens. He still believes Stevens could have done all of them, one of them, or none of them. The frustration shows. There was so much on Stevens, yet so little. He just isn’t sure.

A retired parole officer played along with Stevens and his mind games through more than 40 conversations. He laughs and winces about the stunts Stevens pulled - including one after he died. It all gnaws at him. He isn’t sure either.

A resentful brother, who was never thanked for providing the alibi that rescued Stevens from the Green River Task Force in 1989, is now writing a book that will accuse him of the murders. But even he isn’t entirely sure.

People who knew Stevens say he relished the suspicions and would love to know people are still trying to figure him out.

Last year, a Los Angeles novelist cast a fictional version of Stevens as his serial killer in the book “River.”

“Unsolved Mysteries” is preparing a televised Green River retrospective starring Stevens as the likely killer.

A top King County detective still calls him the best suspect police ever had.

But nobody has proof, and Stevens was never charged with murder.

Stevens ate lunch with a friend, three days before stomach cancer ended his life on Sept. 30, 1991. The friend asked point-blank if he was the killer.

Stevens toyed with the question. “They’ll never know. No one will ever know if I’m the guy or not.”

The Green River Task Force was a maligned, demoralized unit when it turned its sights on Bill Stevens in late 1988.

More than 40 women had been killed between 1982 and 1984. Victims were mostly strangled prostitutes, the apparent prey of a serial killer. Some were found along the Green River banks south of Seattle.

Good leads were scarce. A common tip indicated victims were last seen stepping inside what resembled police cars or taxi cabs.

The biggest problem was that most bodies were broken, unclothed skeletons by the time police found them dumped in King County or near Portland.

The task force sifted through hundreds of suspects, then ran into Stevens.

From many angles, he looked like an unlikely killer.

Born in October 1950, Stevens was the adopted son of a prominent Spokane drug store owner. He went to Gonzaga Prep, graduated from the University of Washington and worked as a military policeman in Hawaii.

When the task force found him, he was living with his parents and finishing law school at Gonzaga, where he was twice elected student bar association president.

But sources gave police a glimpse of his dark side.

A Portland woman who knew Stevens during the early 1980s said he took mysterious road trips and obsessed over prostitutes.

Another informer said Stevens claimed the Green River victims were killed for “snuff films” - underground videos of women getting slain.

Yet another source told police Stevens said he’d like to “cut up” prostitutes and make a video of that.

Those tips, coupled with Stevens’ 1979 arrest for stealing police equipment from a Seattle warehouse and his 1981 escape from a King County jail work-release program, pushed him to the top of the suspect list.

Further detective work discovered four victims were found a few miles from the Portland home Stevens owned at the time of the murders.

Receipts showed he bought gas in both Seattle and Portland on the days before and after the disappearance of a Seattle hooker. Her body was found at a Portland dump within a mile of where Stevens bought gas.

Police also suspected Stevens in other unsolved murders, including the strangulation of a woman who lived within a block of his Seattle apartment.

It was circumstantial evidence, but good enough to get a search warrant and a savvy cop inside the Stevens family home in north Spokane.

Homicide Detective Jim Hansen stepped into Stevens’ cluttered basement and his pulse quickened.

He found about 150 police badges, 11 sets of car keys, a fake-identification machine, 29 handguns, 1,000 video tapes, stacks of driver’s licenses and a money-order-imprint machine to create instant cash.

When Hansen opened a box and found 50 pictures of naked women in erotic poses he knew he might be holding the evidence to nail the Green River killer.

Just finding Stevens was enough to put the fugitive in jail. He also faced federal firearms charges while detectives tried to pin the murders on him.

They picked through truckloads of Stevens’ possessions and tracked down the women in the photographs. All were prostitutes, all still alive. And they remembered Stevens.

He took pictures and made strange requests. One woman said he paid her $100 to fill a champagne glass with breast milk.

But Stevens never hurt them - never touched most of them.

“The problem is you got so much here,” Hansen says, frowning at his Stevens files. “And it still doesn’t lead you anywhere.”

After 24 years, Hansen retired from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department last month. No case sticks in his gut like this one. “You put in a year’s work and where are you?”

One lead sent Hansen searching for the owner of a purse. She turned out to be a gaunt New York prostitute. Sure, she remembered Stevens. He walked up and snatched her purse.

Hansen traced a Medicare coupon Stevens had to a Portland prostitute. She had turned up dead. But again, the evidence was too thin.

At one point, Hansen explored a friendship between Stevens and Dale Wells, a Spokane County public defender at the time. Wells said Stevens would sometimes suggest prostitutes “should be killed.”

Days before a grand jury was to question him about his friend, Wells told Hansen he thought Stevens was the killer. But Wells never testified.

He shot himself with a rifle inside his north Spokane apartment on Sept. 23, 1989.

Hansen doesn’t think Wells had evidence to convict Stevens. But he still wonders. “Why did Wells kill himself?”

Hansen looks at a 115-page, eight-year timeline on Stevens’ activities. He points at Stevens’ tax-exempt Washington State Patrol license plate for his motorcycle and car plates registered to an imaginary “Northwest Emergency Services.” Using the Canadian alias John Trumbull, Stevens also conned the state into refunding sales taxes he paid.

“You have to understand,” Hansen says, “William J. Stevens was a con man even when he was in jail. This guy was a master.”

The detective flips through photographs: Stevens at a Halloween party dressed in a Seattle police uniform; his Checker cab; his fully equipped cop car; his ambulance parked next to his chocolate Cadillac in a Hillyard lot.

Stevens drove the same Cadillac off Kuni Cadillac’s lot in Portland in 1982. He then legally bought an older Cadillac and told the state he’d lost the tags and title. When they sent the new records Stevens kept them for the new car and sold the cheaper model.

Does Hansen believe Stevens was the killer? The question stings.

“To me, Bill Stevens is just as much of a viable suspect today as he was then,” he says. At another juncture, Hansen answers this way: “I can’t say he’s the killer. He was involved in something. Whether it was killing prostitutes or … I just don’t know.”

Hansen knows the case unraveled when Stevens’ brother, Bob, produced an alibi.

Family travel photographs and receipts helped knock Bill Stevens off the suspect list in November 1989.

“One thing about Bob Stevens that bothers me to this day: He was not cooperative with the investigation,” Hansen says.

The detective also questions the credibility of Bob Stevens and his book project.

“I don’t trust him. His motive here is suspect. Unless he can make (his brother) the Green River killer the book is nothing. … Bob Stevens is trying to make money on this thing.”

With his ponytail, beard and dangling earring, Bob Stevens, 43, doesn’t look like the clean-cut sailor who defended his brother in 1989.

Back then he was “the eyes and ears” of the nation’s nuclear submarines. One of the Navy’s top sonar technicians, Stevens sprang into the fray to defend his brother and support his father, who had brain cancer.

Stevens accused police of using his brother as a fall guy. At one point, police complained he tore up some of his brother’s false identification.

He also produced his father’s travel receipts and photographs that indicated his brother was traveling with his parents when at least four women were slain.

Stevens now says he was working at a disadvantage. His father, he says, couldn’t recall details of the July 1982 cross-country trip. His mother was dead.

After closer examination of hotel records, Stevens now believes his brother came and went on the family trips as a way to fabricate alibis.

He also says family friends who saw his parents on the trips don’t recall seeing his brother.

Police call it unlikely that Bill Stevens was flying back and forth, murdering prostitutes.

Bob Stevens laughs at the response. There was nothing likely or ordinary about his brother, he says.

He doesn’t miss the sibling he describes as an evasive, lying chameleon.

Bill Stevens didn’t even acknowledge his brother’s efforts to save him. “My brother never thanked me for any of this.”

Is Bob Stevens writing a book out of revenge?

He says no. He concedes an interest in book money, but insists that isn’t his top priority.

“My goal when I started this thing was to expose the Green River killer, whether it was my brother, somebody he knew, or somebody else,” he says.

The retired Navy man now works on the book in the basement where his brother lived in the family home on Sierra Way.

Photographs or sketches of all 49 Green River victims are taped to a board. A sign above a desk says, “This Project Is So Secret Even I Don’t Know What I’m Doing.”

Shelves are stacked with books about Spokane rapist Kevin Coe, Jack The Ripper, and other criminals.

Bob Stevens and his wife, who asked not to be named, have transcribed about 35 taped interviews with people who knew Bill Stevens well.

Here are some of the revelations they say they’ve uncovered:

Ernest Uliano, now in Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, said Bill Stevens prided himself on ingenious alibis. He said Stevens booked two hotel rooms near Sacramento while the two men stole money orders from a post office in Hawaii. Uliano also said Stevens wanted to use his secret Portland basement room to detain and torture women.

The Green River murder rate was two victims a month when the Stevens family was traveling and four victims a month when it wasn’t.

Two women said Bill Stevens either stalked them or assaulted them. A former Gonzaga law student said he choked her to demonstrate what he’d do to a professor.

Gonzaga law school colleagues said Stevens was only a class away from graduating, but never took an exam on the day it was given. They also said Stevens intended to kill then-law school dean Jim Vache.

A Gonzaga spokesman could not confirm the exam story, but said Vache is aware of Stevens’ death threats.

From three years of research, Bob Stevens has shaped a theory: His brother was one of two people responsible for the murders.

He suspects his brother’s partner is a free man who shared storage lockers with him, some of which may still be uninspected.

He complains police do nothing with his leads, such as a decorative hair braid he found in his brother’s belongings.

“What would he have us do with the hair?” snapped King County Detective Tom Jensen. “What do we have for victims? We’ve got bones in the woods.”

Jensen, one of two full-time cops still on the Green River Task Force, routinely deals with people convinced that they know the killer. One man sent a thick report detailing alleged evidence tying his estranged wife to the murders. The title of the report: “The Bitch.”

The growing, post-mortem fascination with Bill Stevens irritates Jensen.

“I guess where I’m coming from is that I have, at any given time, 10 people just like Bill Stevens,” he says. “There are a lot of real strange ducks in the world.”

Asked about the status of Stevens as a suspect, Jensen says: “We haven’t totally eliminated him yet.”

So who was the best all-time Green River suspect? Jensen pauses, then says, “He’s my number one. I felt strongly back in ‘89 that Bill Stevens was the type of personality we’re looking for.”

Robert Banta used to wake up and wonder, “Am I supervising the Green River killer?”

The retired head of the U.S. Parole Office for Eastern Washington monitored criminals for more than 30 years before getting Bill Stevens in 1989.

Banta developed an unusual relationship with Stevens, who faced federal firearms charges for being a fugitive in possession of a handgun. He often brought Stevens hamburgers in jail in hopes of prying loose information for police.

They once discussed serial killer Ted Bundy. “His opinion,” Banta says, “was that Bundy was smart enough to not make the mistakes he made. Therefore he screwed up.”

Banta says Stevens would usually only talk in the hypothetical, and never directly answer questions.

“I think he liked being a suspect,” Banta says. “I really believe he was a lot of things we don’t know. Then. Now. Forever. If someone said, ‘Will the real Bill Stevens please stand up?’ you might have had six people get up.”

Banta admits an admiration for Stevens’ cleverness.

“He could think ahead. He could tease you and tempt you. … If he was to sit down right now and you didn’t know his background, you could enjoy his company.”

After Stevens left jail in January 1990, he and Banta still talked, and Banta watched cancer shrink Stevens to about half his original size.

When the book “Search for the Green River Killer” came out in February 1991, Stevens gave Banta an autographed copy.

Banta read the friendly words from Stevens, then found a sentence Stevens rubber-stamped on the back page: “I only do what the little voices tell me to do.”

“That just jumped out at me,” Banta recalls.

Unlike police, Banta is intrigued by Bob Stevens’ book efforts.

“Bob certainly has the intelligence to write a book. Maybe it will stimulate law enforcement to take a good long look at Bill Stevens again. I’d like to see them do that.”

Two weeks before his death, Bill Stevens had one last chat with Detective Hansen. “Let’s get together and talk some time,” Stevens said. “I’m sure you have some questions for me. I’ve got some for you, too.”

They never talked again.

Stevens saved his final farewell for his parole officer.

During a prior chat over burgers, Banta asked Stevens why a killer would risk such stunts as acquiring tax-exempt license plates for a make-believe agency like “Northwest Emergency Services?”

Stevens smiled and said nothing.

Four weeks after Bill Stevens’ death, Banta heard Stevens left something for him. Banta unwrapped a wooden plaque with the words:

“Northwest Emergency Services Special Recognition Award Presented to Robert D. Banta. - William J. Stevens II, Director.”

“It’s as if he raised up out of his grave with this plaque and winked at me one last time,” Banta says.

Does he think Bill Stevens was the killer?

“If I was backed up against a wall, I’d have to say he was involved in some of them. I see him as a colonel dispatching troops to do the deed. I don’t know that I could see him doing it himself. But who knows?” Banta smiles. “I reserve the right to be wrong.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (2 color)

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BILL STEVENS TIMELINE Oct. 6, 1950: Born in Wallace. 1969: Graduated from Gonzaga Preparatory School. 1975: Graduated from University of Washington. 1975-79: Served in military. 1979: Arrested for breaking into a Seattle police equipment supply warehouse. 1981: Jailed after pleading guilty to four felony thefts. 1981: Escaped after he walked away from work-release program. 1981-85: Lived in Portland during the Green River killing years. 1985: Accepted to Gonzaga University Law School. January 1989: Arrested for being a fleeing fugitive for eight years. Also faced charges for being a felon in possession of firearms. Held without bail as Green River killer suspect. November 1989: Removed from Green River suspect list. Dec. 18, 1990: Released from jail. Sept. 30, 1991: Died in Spokane. - Jim Lynch

This sidebar appeared with the story: BILL STEVENS TIMELINE Oct. 6, 1950: Born in Wallace. 1969: Graduated from Gonzaga Preparatory School. 1975: Graduated from University of Washington. 1975-79: Served in military. 1979: Arrested for breaking into a Seattle police equipment supply warehouse. 1981: Jailed after pleading guilty to four felony thefts. 1981: Escaped after he walked away from work-release program. 1981-85: Lived in Portland during the Green River killing years. 1985: Accepted to Gonzaga University Law School. January 1989: Arrested for being a fleeing fugitive for eight years. Also faced charges for being a felon in possession of firearms. Held without bail as Green River killer suspect. November 1989: Removed from Green River suspect list. Dec. 18, 1990: Released from jail. Sept. 30, 1991: Died in Spokane. - Jim Lynch


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