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.