San Diego 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.