‘In the wrong place, at the wrong time’
Ronnie Armstead wanted to distance himself from a life of drugs and crime.
Angela Stewart was brought up to see the good in people, so she decided to give him a chance.
“She was a good kid,” said Spokane police Detective Mark Burbridge. “He was her new boyfriend.”
They were killed Nov. 7, 1995.
Neither is thought to have been the killers’ intended target, police say. They were at an apartment that belonged to one of Armstead’s friends, a reputed drug dealer.
Stewart “was basically in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said her sister, Rebeckah Mauch. “I don’t know that she knew the situation she had put herself into. She didn’t really have any street smarts.”
Armstead, 23, had been exposed to a life on the streets, where he pursued status and money through crime.
But during his last stint in jail, Armstead told a cellmate he was done. He didn’t want to ever be back behind bars.
When Armstead started dating 19-year-old Stewart, family and friends thought it might be his first step in a new direction.
“If Ronnie told her he was trying to turn his life around, she would have been hooked,” Angela’s mother, Nancy Stewart, said in a recent interview.
The athletic, musically-inclined young woman was raised in an upper-middle-class family and had a penchant for strays, Mauch said.
She was a certified nursing assistant and had applied for a physical therapy assistant program at Eastern Washington University.
Just four months before she was shot to death, Stewart had narrowly escaped death when she was critically injured in a crash.
Stewart met Armstead toward the end of her rehabilitation at a nursing home. His mother worked there and introduced them.
Armstead, his uncle Richard Armstead and Stewart were at Jason Brown’s apartment when they were attacked by three men. Police think Brown – or his drugs – was the killers’ target.
“It may have been payback for a drug rip Brown and some of his friends were involved in,” said Burbridge, the detective.
Brown was a major drug dealer, police said. He was in Las Vegas the weekend of the killings, a trip he’d asked “Lil’ Ronnie” to make with him. But Armstead wanted to stay behind with the new girl in his life and agreed to keep an eye on Brown’s apartment.
The couple and Armstead’s uncle were playing dominoes when there was a knock at the door, Richard Armstead later told police.
“Where’s Jason?” the men asked.
Told he was gone, they demanded Brown’s drugs and money, then began pilfering the apartment.
The intruders singled out Ronnie Armstead, while his uncle and Stewart were left in a back bedroom.
Using the butt of the gun, they beat Armstead in the head. An autopsy revealed five gashes that went to the skull. They stabbed him 25 times with two kitchen knives. The tip of a blade was found broken off in one of Armstead’s ribs.
The killers shot Stewart in the chest and head while she crouched in the fetal position.
Richard Armstead, who was shot three times, said he escaped by jumping out a window 2 ½ stories off the ground.
After the assailants left, Ronnie Armstead dragged himself upstairs and knocked on a neighbor’s door before dying.
Stewart died a short time later at the hospital.
Richard Armstead, now 54, said he’s never withheld any information from police. He’s been interviewed by police fewer than five times, he said.
“If you have a tragedy going on in your life, you can’t remember everything all at once,” he said. “When they talked to me the last time, I was still messed up.”
But Burbridge suspects Armstead knows more than he lets on – maybe even who committed the murders. Information from the surviving uncle is key to solving the case, the detective said.
In 2005, Burbridge submitted 19 pieces of evidence to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab for DNA analysis, including blood found in the kitchen, the gun used in the homicide, a hat found outside the apartment and cloth gloves. Results have not been returned.
No fingerprints were ever found of the killers.
Guilt by association
For a time, police considered Brown a suspect. One theory was that he had hired people to kill Ronnie Armstead over drugs.
Burbridge said he doesn’t think that’s the case.
“He wants this solved,” the detective said. “I’ve seen him cry when I’ve talked to him about this.”
But Brown, who since the killings has served 10 years on a drug charge and is back in jail now, still should bear some responsibility for the deaths, said Ronnie Armstead’s mother, Glenna Joseph.
She contends it was Brown who introduced her son to the lifestyle that led to his death.
Brown and Armstead grew up in the same East Spokane neighborhood. And in the weeks before he was killed , Joseph said, “Ronnie came to me and said, ‘Jason has something for me that will make me rich or get me killed.’ ”
Ronnie Armstead had already been in trouble. He’d been arrested for theft, drugs and assault.
Armstead had fathered two daughters, toddlers then. The girls, who still live in Spokane, are now 13 and 15 years old.
He was working at a Taco Time for $5 an hour and had complained to police he couldn’t find a better job because they had labeled him a gang member.
That and a desire for a sense of belonging may have drawn him closer to Brown, Joseph said.
“Sometimes you want to be part of the crowd,” she said.
The homicide “just tore my little heart out,” Joseph said. “I don’t think anything hurt as much as that.”
She tried to keep working.
“I thought if I stayed busy, it would pass. But it never did.”
She’s on disability now and has never had the strength to visit her son’s gravesite.
“Ronnie was my best friend,” Joseph said. “Closure would be real nice.”
After Stewart was killed, police told her family it was too dangerous to run an obituary.
The family felt deprived, but they were scared.
“We were worried about our family,” Mauch said. “We didn’t know what they (the killers) knew about us and where we lived, or what danger there might be.”
Stewart had attended Mead schools until her senior year and then graduated from West Valley High School. She ran track and played the flute, bells and drums in the school band.
She’d played piano since she was 9 or 10 years old, Mauch said. Her photo sits prominently atop that same piano in her older sister’s home today.
“She loved people, she would talk to anybody,” Mauch said.The sisters were 18 months apart.
“We fought terribly, best of friends – worst of enemies,” Mauch said. “But, we were really close.”
Growing up, Stewart adopted a nickname.
“We started calling her Fred, and it just kind of stuck,” her mother said.
Fred Flintstone became her mascot.
“We had even gone up to Bedrock City in Kelowna, B.C., just so she could see what it was like,” Stewart said.
Stewart started working at St. Brendan’s Nursing Home when she was 16, doing laundry. She later worked there as a certified nursing assistant.
In July 1995, her car was hit by a semi-truck when its driver ran a red light.
“They had to peel the roof off to get her out,” Mauch said.
Stewart suffered a broken pelvis, a head injury, a broken collarbone and two major hematomas. A month after the crash, doctors were still pulling glass out of her skull.
“She shouldn’t have survived,” Mauch said.
Stewart was rehabilitating in St. Brendan’s, where her mother was an administrator and Glenna Joseph was a nursing assistant.
Joseph introduced her son to the recuperating teen, and they started dating.
“Ronnie’s mom had no business bringing someone to Angela’s life,” said Stewart’s aunt, Vickie Hershey. “I guess the mom just wanted her son to be with a really sweet little girl, but she wasn’t thinking of her. It wasn’t professional.”
His daughter’s new boyfriend was a worry to Stewart’s dad, Rick Stewart, who died in 2001 still haunted by one of his last conversations with Angela.
Mauch recalled: “Dad knew she was vulnerable and told her ‘running with those kind of people will get you killed.’ ”