Robert Paul Stephens cold case comes to end

God, it was hot.

Baugh Road sat right on the edge of the Pickens and Anderson County line. Everything smelled burned and mosquitoes were swimming in the humid air. I was sweating into pair of wrinkled khaki pants and a starchy white shirt. June 1999 was the first month that made me wonder if I could handle a South Carolina summer.

I worked the late shift and got called out to Baugh Rd. I hadn’t been in town long, but I had made friends quickly enough that getting close to the crime scene wasn’t difficult. I was close enough to see the burned car, close enough to see the dead man’s body.

By this point, murder and death—even up close—had grown to be just another day at work. I’d followed Alis Ben Johns across Missouri. I’d been at Pearl High School the Day Luke Woodham came in with a gun and kicked off a few years worth of school shootings. Just a few days removed from the day on Baugh Rd., I ended up right in the middle of one of Dallen Bounds’ first murders (a trail I would follow for seven or eight months and to within a few yards of the place where Bounds ended up killing himself).

This day was different. The story was breaking late in the afternoon and just in time for WYFF to get its microwave truck to the scene for the 5pm news. I don’t remember what I said or what our camera showed. I vaguely remember my photographer having to pan away from the scene because the coroner was getting ready to pull the body out where everybody could see it.

The car belonged to Robert Paul Stephens. He lived across the county line in a humble little town called Liberty. He was also dead—shot twice—in a little clearing along the roadside.

News travels fast in the country, and, make no mistake, that’s where we were. South Carolina may not be the backwater it used to be, but in 1999, the little road off Highway 178 was most certainly rural. The road was blocked off at its end while Sheriff Gene Taylor’s deputies roamed the crime scene. Taylor was a former TV news reporter turned lawman, and one of the most unique sheriffs I have known. He and his team would never figure out who killed Stephens or why. That victory would come during another sheriff’s administration.

My cell phone rang in between live shots. I answered it without thinking and heard a voice I didn’t know.

“I think that’s my brother’s car you just showed on the news,” the voice said. “Is he dead?”

I stood dumbstruck in the June sun. No one outside of the television station should’ve had my phone number and our policy stated that people who called the station were never given personal numbers.

Somebody had screwed up.

The irony was not lost on me. I was paid to tell people across a three-state region when somebody died or did something horrible. In the end, I wasn’t very bad at it, but my job description never said anything about telling someone their brother had just been murdered. I was good at telling thousands of people about a murder, but had no experience at telling one person to whom it actually mattered.

By this point I knew—off the record—that Stephens was dead. No one had made a positive ID on the guy yet, but the sources on the scene had checked the guy and knew who he was. I knew just about all anybody would know about the case for another seven years. I didn’t know what to do.

I stood there for a moment and let the sweat form on the cell phone’s earpiece. And then I lied.

“Ma’am,” I said, “ we’re not entirely sure what’s happened here, but I’ll certainly tell the investigator here to be in touch with you.”

And that’s what I did. I passed on the phone number to a friend in the coroner’s office and, I suspect, someone told Stephens’ sister that night.

I thought about that case a lot for the next few years. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t tell the woman the whole truth. In retrospect, it would’ve been irresponsible to do so. As much as the cops were all but certain it was Stephens, they hadn’t yet made the identification public. It wasn’t my responsibility or right to tell Stephens’ family.

No, I thought about the case because it was a quick and sure reminder that everything I said on TV could have a quick and devastating impact on people. While most people on the other side of the screen were just voyeurs, there were people out there who would hurt when I told them the news. I did my best not to forget that over the years. I didn’t always succeed, but I did my best and I think my record ended up in my favor.

That all happened nearly ten years ago. Last night, a jury found two people guilty in Stephens’ murder. Prosecutors alleged Stephen’s mother-in-law Frances Moore paid $2,000 to Garvin Duvall to commit the murder. The jury agreed and both Moore and Duvall got 40 years in the state pen.

I was 25 years old when the murder happened, but it seems like last year. It’s sort of hard to believe that a murder committed during my career on the Dead People beat had turned into a ten-year-old cold case. What’s more astounding is that Stephen’s family had to live the last ten years waiting for justice.

I can only imagine the ten years went a lot slower for them.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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11 Responses

  1. Doug Ross says:

    Great story! Very well written. Hope you are doing well. Miss your reporting on 4!

  2. Tammie McGoldrick says:

    Wow – great story.

  3. Jay Murdock says:

    Reminds me of the night I went to cover a train-vs-pedestrian out near Greer and Sara tagged along. While I was up shooting, a woman appeared and told Sara she was looking for her adult son, who often walked along the tracks to get home from work.

    Sara called to me, and I knocked on the window of a parked state trooper’s car and told him the woman’s story.

    Never found out for sure if it was him, but I’ve always been pretty sure.

  4. Da Goddess says:

    Justice done slow is still justice done.

  5. Tammy says:

    Thank you for writing this story i did not think any one remembered that day except for my family i am the female that called you and yes it was my brother Paul whos body had been found that day June 30th of 1999 and now almost ten years later we finally have closure,The last ten years was a living hell

  6. Boon says:

    My family and i always thought that Frances was the person who committed this awful crime or at least had a hand in it. Frances Moore is my great aunt. My grandmother was the oldest in the family and Frances was the youngest. I never personally met Paul, but i knew his son Skyler. Me and Skyler were pretty close a while back. i can only imagine knowing the fact that your own grandmother killed your father. and to think Frances used to babysit me for my parents when i was young way back in the early nineties. Skyler i wish you the best.

  7. skyler says:

    well nice story and boon idk who u r but if the world wants to know the real story ask the anderson county for proof of the murder my grandmother had a resipet showing where she was at the time and garvin had a alliby if u ever see someone tht thinks they are really guilty ask them y and remind them tht anderson county only had confindental evidence for those of u tht do not know wat tht means it is (here say) where one person “says” to another she killed paul thts all no proof no evidence no witnesses no fingure prints just here say i know more about this case than the weirdo writing this story or “boon” who ever you are. for those of you. think about what i said and if u agree let the world kno tht thats wat u think bc yes he was my father and for me to still think no wait i know there not guilty and the day will come when there proven not guilty till then boon and the author of the story will find the truth till then god bless

  8. skyler says:

    and that goes for you as well tammy.

  9. Jason Rivera says:

    Cold Case looks like CSI just like anyother detective tv series~:;

  10. Bob Stephens says:

    let god be with the family im so glad that they got closure

    Today is September 14th 2011 one day after my 64th birthday, I am seeing these comments for the 1st time, I am Paul’s Father and Tammy is my Daughter, Skyler is my grandson but does not claim me due to the situation with his grandmother and Garvin. They say they are not guilty but I don’t see them trying to find anything to the contrary so as I felt when the guilty verdit came back late that night Francis Moore & Garvin Duvall murderd my son Robert Paul Stephens, why I will tell you why, Paauls wanted out of the situation + he wanted his son and Francis was not going to allow that to happen. There is much more to this story than Skyler can ever know, he was just a little boy when his father was take away from him. In closing just ask your self why did they burn the car, because another person was in car with Paul the day he was murdered. Burnt car gives noi DNA they actually meant to burn the car with Paul in it but the both of them could not put him back into the car. So Skyler, Debbie, Nathan if you think you people are innocent then do something to find the real killer and I will be the 1st to admit I was wrond, until then Francis & Garvin is guilty of the murder of Rober Paul Stephens, MAY HE REST IN PEACE I LOVE YOU SON

  11. jessica says:

    I couldnt imagine the pain this family went through. Im so glad that they got justice. If you ask me there seems to be alot missin in this story. I dont know personally but things are left out it seems.To Skyler im so sorry for your loss sweetie i have 4 kids and they dont have there father eather. I really wish you the best honey my thoughts and prayer is forever with you and ALL the family. GOD IS ALWAYS WITH YOU NEVER FORGET. And the people who did this will and are payin for it forever. To the family im so sorry for you guys loss and i wish all of you the best.. forever more.