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.
"Everybody has skeletons in their closets," says Mark. "But I was amazed to find nothing in [David's apartment] that seemed on the seedy side...absolutely no signs of drug usage, no alcohol in the house, nothing like that. I've been around that enough to be able to recognize it. He didn't smoke, he only drank very, very little. That's unique. If somebody dug through all my junk, I'd be embarrassed about a few of the things."
But Mark Stevens says the police told him they had impounded the sheets from David's bed, a glass or mug with lipstick on it from the night stand, "and one long black hair. They asked if we knew anybody that had long black hair. Presumably that was [found] in the sheets."
Stevens says that Carl Withrow, while he was in Nebraska for David's funeral, seemed certain that the place cops should be looking was Dancers, a topless bar near Perfect Match's offices on Miramar Road. "He indicated he and David went there every other week or so -- and that the one girl that [David] knew there would [know] things. A female with long black hair who worked there... He thought that if he saw her he could get some information from her. Carl thinks that she knows something about who did it, or that she may have spent the night at [David's] place before."
Withrow doesn't go quite so far on the phone. "David and I have been [to Dancers] before," he confirms. "And there was a young lady over there that David liked."
Withrow says he did warn David about this particular girl. "I just didn't want him going over there and blowing his money. Those girls are pros at that. And David was very naïve. I just didn't want to see them take advantage of him."
Could David have brought the dancer back with him that night? "Yes, it's possible," says Withrow. "But whether that's the case or not I truly don't know. The only thing that I know is I talked to David from my home at about 9:30 that night, the 22nd -- I live right underneath him [in an apartment building on Turquoise Street in Pacific Beach]. We lived together, we worked together. I told him it was the holidays. David would work and work and work and work. He was a workaholic. He really didn't do much other than work and play computer games at his house.
"So I told him to get out of the office and start slowing things down and get ready for Christmas. He was supposed to come over and have Christmas dinner with us -- me and some other guys who live out here who have no family. I generally cook Christmas dinner for everyone when that happens. David was supposed to make the fudge. So he said, 'I'm going to shut everything down and get out of here.' And the next morning the [first] thing I knew was the police officers came knocking on my door."
- The gold nugget ring, the Huskers watch, and the driving glasses: When police went to David Stevens's apartment on the morning of December 23, they found the watch and glasses on the coffee table and the ring hanging on David's bulletin board. Friends and relatives agree there is no way he would go anywhere without the ring on his right pinky, the Nebraska Huskers watch (he was a huge Huskers fan) on his left wrist, and his glasses, which he needed for driving. At least not voluntarily, or unless he was responding to some emergency.
- The PI: It turns out David wasn't quite as unworldly as some friends picture him. Twelve years ago he went to apprentice as a private investigator under John Stevens (no relation) in Portland, Oregon. "He wanted to make a life change," says Stevens, still in the business. "He was a professional bodybuilder at the Athletic Club [in Portland], where I was a member. He approached me and said he wanted to start over his life. He knew that we did a lot of executive protection, bodyguard work as well as investigations. He literally stopped everything he was doing. I had some acreage out east of Portland, and he ended up putting a trailer on the property, and we went into training together for over a year. He interned under me. And we worked night and day together, getting him in shape to be an investigator. We traveled the country and did some pretty good cases together. I tell you what: I wouldn't want Dave on my tail if he thought I'd done something."
Stevens says David worked everything from kidnapping to narcotics to intelligence gathering. "He was a pretty good investigator. He liked change. Liked the rush of the chase. He was an adrenaline junkie. And sure, we [accumulated] enemies. Our enemy list would run from here to San Diego and probably back. A lot of our cases are narcotic-related, and they are more dangerous now. People get even, now, more than they did before. Dave had a real naïve side about him. Even though he would say to you, 'I don't trust this situation or this person,' he would want to. That naïveté would sometimes greatly hamper his ability to see the real danger."
Stevens speculates David might have been doing some freelance snooping in San Diego. "To me [his death] smells of assassination and cover-up."
David's friend Jeff Stout, a specialist in nutrition who went to college with David, says he feels responsible for sending his friend to California. It was Stout who found a telemarketing job for David at a La Jolla health-supplement company whose products he'd endorsed. But Stout later became so disenchanted with the company's products that he says he contacted distributors, informing them he was disassociating himself from the company. The result, Stout says, was to cut the company off from the retail health market and restrict its sales to telemarketing. At around the same time, late summer '98, the company asked David to leave the telemarketing division he'd built up and to sell in the field, a demotion, David felt. He quit with severance and took the lower-paying job with Perfect Match.
Stout insists he's not suggesting the company had anything to do with David's death, merely that it sent him in directions he might not otherwise have taken. "I feel responsible," he says. "I am totally in shock."
He also wonders if David's straight-shooting character may have cost him his life. "Dave and I always talked about situations like that. He'd say, 'Look: somebody points a gun at me, they'd better take me out.' A lot of guys say that, but when the situation arises, they change their story. He didn't. We were in Lincoln, Nebraska, six, seven years ago, at a bar. It had something to do with a girl. The guy was her boyfriend. He was hitting her or yelling at her. We shouldn't have stuck our noses in the middle of it, but Dave felt that that person was in trouble. That's when he told the guy to quit touching her. They got into it. His friends were standing behind him. One guy pulled a knife, and that's when Dave got upset. He told the guy, 'You'd better know how to use that, because when I get done with you...' and the guy ended up backing down. That's Dave.
"Dave's dad and I were talking the other night. Dave's dad asked me, 'If I were the one murdered, what do you think Dave would do?'
"I said, 'Dave would be relentless in finding the truth. He would not stop.' "
"Dave's dad goes, 'I think that's true too. So I've got to be relentless also.' "
Sergeant Martin asks if anyone has information about the circumstances of David Stevens's death to call him at 619-531-2259.