San Diego Raymond Chandler never had it so good. His town, La Jolla, is becoming notorious for bizarre murders that don't get solved. And somehow people are always killed in their cars. The case of world-renowned neuroscientist Tsunao Saitoh and his 13-year-old daughter Loullie, who were gunned down in Saitoh's BMW on Fairway Road in May 1996, remains open. So does the killing last September of 40-year-old Tilda Phipps, who was found slumped over the wheel of a rented Ford Mustang she crashed into the front yard of a Coast Boulevard home. She had been shot in the head.
But the killing of David Allen Stevens, just two days before Christmas, was especially shocking. His maroon 1995 Chrysler LeBaron exploded into flames in the early morning of Wednesday, December 23, on La Jolla Scenic Drive. Firefighters found he was still inside. Police discovered he had been shot twice in the head. They also found that Stevens, 38, 5´6´´, 200 pounds, bodybuilder fit, didn't seem to have an enemy in the world.
"We're stumped," says Sergeant L.D. Martin of SDPD homicide.
"I don't want this thing to die till his killer's found," says Stevens's boss, Carl Withrow, of Perfect Match, a Miramar Road dating service.
"The police haven't told us anything," says his younger brother Dan, speaking from his father's farm in northeastern Nebraska. "I think they're trying to decide if we're the type of family who just want it to all go away or [if] we actually want to know more.... We want to know more."
David Stevens was a onetime state-champion wrestler, divorced, and single, an Arnold Schwarzenegger-inspired fitness freak, and according to his boss, a workaholic. He had cultivated good work habits on his dad's prosperous dairy farm and knew he could take it over anytime. But friends and family say he wanted to show his dad he could make it on his own.
"He loved San Diego," says his best friend, Professor Jeff Stout of Omaha. "His goal when I first met him was to live in California. It took him nine years, but he got there. And there was no way he was coming back to the Midwest."
David left a good job as a Sprint telemarketing executive in Olathe, Kansas, to come here. By last Christmas he was doing so well, supervising ten telemarketers for Perfect Match, that his boss says he was going to make him a shareholder.
"The second month here Dave was breaking records. He was a wonderful guy," says Withrow. "David was a Nebraska country boy, period. Very naïve, very nice. As far as what happened to him, you know as much as I do."
It happened around 4:30 a.m. on that Wednesday morning.
"We were contacted by the captain from Fire Station No. 9 in La Jolla," says Mike Merriken of the Metro Arson Strike Team, known as MAST. "After they extinguished the fire they observed what they were pretty sure was the heavily charred body of an adult. When we got there about 45 minutes later we did a brief examination and confirmed that there was a heavily damaged body in the passenger side of the front seat."
Merriken says the following Monday at the police pound, he, a homicide detective, and a forensic expert went through the vehicle with a fine-tooth comb. "I was able to determine that the vehicle fire was an arson fire, and most likely an ignitable liquid accelerant such as gasoline was used in this fire. It's quite possible that whoever committed this crime siphoned the gasoline out of the fuel tank and then poured it on the inside of the vehicle."
David's father, Gerald Stevens, and his brother Dan flew out from Nebraska on December 24. His cousin Mark Stevens, an attorney and police officer in Las Vegas, came to help them out, partly because "Dan has a bum hip and Gerald has a bad heart."
The mystery started growing as soon as they arrived. They went to the scene of the crime.
"We put flowers and wreaths and pictures out there," says Gerald Stevens, 61. "It looks like a secluded area, but I noticed there was a barrier. I heard a noise over there and I walked over. And there was a lady looking straight at me. I surprised her as much as she surprised me. She told me that about 4:30 in the morning she heard a real loud boom! She looked out the window and fire was going 20, 30 feet in the air. She told me she was going to call 911, and about that time she heard somebody pull out and away from there."
Other nearby residents thought the explosion was gunshots.
"You could tell the direction the car had been sitting," says Mark Stevens. "There were melted pieces and metal and plastic. It looked like where the [front] passenger seat would be was where the bulk of the flames were. You could see where the flames were concentrated in the tree above where I understand he was seated."
"They probably doused him with gas and then threw [the] gas can [in]," says Dan. "But here's the thing: Dave was in the passenger seat. He never would be a passenger in his own car."
David's boss agrees. "David would not ride with anybody," says Withrow. "He has motion sickness, and any time we went anywhere he either drove or he had to take Dramamine. He wouldn't ride with you, period."
Was he killed somewhere else or on the spot? Could he have killed himself? "Theoretically the guy could light the car on fire and then shoot himself," says Merriken, "but there was no weapon found. It's been ruled a homicide by the police detectives."
Police say they haven't gotten much further than that. "Every time we open a door," sighs Sergeant Martin, "there's a blank wall behind."
Here are some possibilities that police, friends, and family have pointed to.
- The long black hair: David's cousin Mark Stevens, the Las Vegas cop and attorney, says that he and Gerald and Dan visited David's apartment on Christmas Eve.