Sentenced to life, a killer of 6 wants to go free (again)
CHARLESTON, Maine — Richard Steeves rose from his wheelchair in a prison hearing room and shuffled toward his seat before the Governor’s Board on Executive Clemency. He was flanked by guards, which is only understandable: He is locked up for life after killing six men.
Now 75, he wants to go home.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,’’ Steeves said cheerily, exuding confidence that his clemency request would be approved.
He carried a box packed with printed material and pictures into a secure conference room at the Mountain View Correctional Facility, and made his case for mercy.
Reading from a three-page statement, Steeves said he has spent 30 years rehabilitating himself. He said he had transformed his life by undergoing intensive therapy to address his violent impulses, which were triggered by the extensive sexual abuse he said he had suffered since childhood.
Having conquered his demons, he said, he has provided hospice services to inmates, taught piano to the incarcerated, played the keyboard in chapel, and cared for neglected dogs through the K-9 Corrections program.
He showed pictures of elaborate wood carvings he had crafted and sold in the Maine prison store, and of the clocks he has made and watches he has repaired. He said he remains healthy enough, despite a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, to resume his wood carving and clockmaking on the outside.
He implored the panel to give him a chance to be “a success story’’ for the Maine correctional system.
“Keeping me in prison longer is no benefit to anyone,’’ Steeves told the board. “It would be a shame to have all the staff who worked with me all these years [have their] time, money, and energy wasted.’’
“I seriously am confident I am not a threat to anyone or myself,’’ he said.
At first, it seemed, his earnest appeal, his advanced age, and his long record of good behavior in prison could make it a tough call for the board, which makes recommendations on such cases to Maine Governor Paul LePage.
Or was it?
The last time Richard Steeves was set free was in October 1984.
Less than six months later, he killed Russell Bailey, a 69-year-old shopkeeper in Wells — his sixth and final victim.
. . .
I was at the prison on Feb. 24 to hear Steeves present his clemency case, the only reporter on hand, as it happened. My presence was no accident.
Some 32 years had passed since my life and Steeves’ first intersected. We met in 1985 at the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord, where he had been placed under maximum security after Bailey’s murder, pending his extradition to Maine.
Steeves was an extraordinary subject at the time, having spent 19 years in New Hampshire custody after killing five men. He had been released in 1984 — this will sound familiar — as a success story for the state correctional system.
As a reporter for the Concord Monitor, I was assigned to interview him. The newspaper was exploring both how the state’s handling of his case had gone so wrong and what forces had set Steeves on his homicidal path.
His troubled journey began in childhood, when he was physically abused by his father, who later committed suicide. At the age of 6, Steeves was placed in an orphanage, the Healy Asylum in Lewiston, where, he said, he was first sexually abused.
In all, Steeves has been confined to institutions for all but 18 months of his life since the age of 12. And his time on the outside had proved an invitation to disaster.
During 11 months of freedom in 1965 and ‘66, he went on a three-state killing rampage that claimed the lives of Harry Staples, 83, in Augusta; Lorenzo Troyer, 73, in North Berwick; William Mace, 70, in Rochester, N.H.; and Lewis Gephardt, 84, and his son Francis, 35, in West Lafayette, Ohio.
Steeves was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the Ohio and New Hampshire deaths and was not tried for the Maine killings. The lack of full trials meant there was little evidence offered about Steeves’ motives. The courts committed him to the New Hampshire correctional system for life or until he was “restored to reason.’’
Steeves was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. New Hampshire officials said he was both self-destructive — he bears scars on his wrists from suicide attempts — and was feared on cell blocks and hospital wards.
“I can’t recall ever meeting a more dangerous person in an institution,’’ a state psychiatrist wrote in a 1972 court evaluation.
Over the next several years, however, Steeves appeared to respond to treatment — and he found a purpose. He gained certification from the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, and the prison warden helped him launch a watch repair and clockmaking business. His clients included a retired state supreme court justice.
By 1977, Steeves had been transferred to a secure forensic unit at the New Hampshire State Hospital, also in Concord, where he began appealing to the courts for his freedom. Under the law, if he was found to no longer be insane, the state could not detain him.
Hospital officials allowed Steeves to transition toward independent living by granting him permission to roam the facility’s grounds with an escort. He tapped his watch-repairing and clockmaking savings to buy bicycles for the escort and himself.
Soon, the Monitor began writing feature stories about his rehabilitation, replete with pictures of him riding his bike, displaying a timepiece he had crafted, sanding a grandfather clock he was building. In 1979, the hospital superintendent wrote a letter to the editor saluting the Monitor for telling a mental health success story.
Steeves had become the hospital’s “golden boy, a model patient who had recovered from a terrible psychosis,’’ one of his former lawyers later said.
His bike-riding experiment was deemed so successful that hospital officials permitted him to buy a car on the condition that he stay within 5 miles of the facility. For two months, Steeves motored about town in his 1969 Dodge station wagon, savoring his limited freedom and finding a girlfriend.
Then, in September 1981, the correctional system’s golden boy and his vehicle vanished. He left a note promising to stay out of trouble.
When he was captured days later in northern Ontario, Steeves told police he was bound for Alaska because he had felt “a lot of pressure’’ in New Hampshire.
Enter David Souter, a state superior court judge whom President George H.W. Bush later appointed to the US Supreme Court. Steeves had several options when he went before Souter on an escape from custody charge, including pleading insanity and possibly returning to the hospital. Instead, he offered to plead guilty, meaning that once he was ruled sane by the court — as he soon would be — his eventual freedom was all but guaranteed regardless of the prison term Souter imposed.
Mental health specialists asked Souter to place him in a setting where he could begin transitioning to life on the outside. But with Steeves having proven his sanity, Souter said he had no choice but to sentence him to prison, for 3½ to 7 years.
Souter, however, said the law permitted prison officials to transfer Steeves “almost instantaneously’’ to the state hospital to help with his transition. That never happened.
In 1984, Steeves was paroled to live with his brother, John, in Unity, Maine. Not long after, Bailey was dead.
. . .
Again, Steeves went missing. This time, he drove 3,500 miles through Canada, Montana, and Idaho, before he was arrested at a bank in Nevada.
When he was returned to New Hampshire on a parole violation, Steeves became the face of a crisis in the state’s system for handling those who have been judged criminally insane.
In the previous 14 months, eight patients, including alleged murderers and rapists, had escaped from the state hospital’s forensic unit, the Monitor reported. One escapee killed a priest, two committed suicide, and one was shot to death by a state trooper during a hostage incident.
When I interviewed Steeves at the time, he made conflicting statements about Bailey’s death, but he said Bailey had loaned him $1,000 and had demanded sexual favors.
“My mind is all screwed up,’’ he said, blaming New Hampshire authorities in part for not sufficiently preparing him to cope in the outside world.
“I think I saw someone else kill him,’’ Steeves said. “But on the other hand, I have a dream that I see myself doing it. I’m just not sure.”
Steeves also spoke of killing himself and questioned his faith in God.
“If I did kill somebody, why didn’t He stop me,’’ he said. “It’s an ungodly shame.’’
More than a year later, Maine prosecutors subpoenaed me to testify at his trial. I objected, arguing that the First Amendment provided journalists a limited privilege not to testify if it could hamper their ability to gather news.
After I had exhausted appeals in the New Hampshire and Maine courts — and after the US Supreme Court declined to hear the case — I appeared at Steeves’ trial and refused to testify. The judge ordered me to stand trial for criminal contempt.
In 1987, as I was beginning my Globe career, a Maine Superior Court jury convicted me of the contempt charge. I was given a suspended six-month jail term and was fined $2,500.
As for Steeves, he did not pursue an insanity defense in Bailey’s death. Nor did he testify at his trial. His lawyer argued that he had been set up by another man, the actual killer, but a jury convicted him of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison.
. . .
Steeves wrote me a letter about eight months ago — almost 30 years after he went away for life. He said he was ready to try freedom again.
As a lifer in the Maine prison system, he had received a rare chance to present his plea to the clemency board. He was all but certain his request would be granted, and he had begun contemplating life beyond the concertina wire. He was writing his life story. Would I visit? I could write about him again.
In the months after, we communicated several times by mail — and once by phone — until I traveled to the prison, some 25 miles north of Bangor, on a hill that provides a striking view of Mount Katahdin.
The hearing began smoothly for Steeves, only to begin trending badly after he finished reading his statement. The first snag: his refusal to accept responsibility for Bailey’s murder.
Yes, he killed the five other men, Steeves told the board, because they molested him.
“I was horrifically sexually assaulted by many men,’’ he said.
But he insisted that someone else killed Bailey.
“If I did that murder, I would have admitted it, like all the others,’’ he said.
Board chairman Richard Harburger said later that the board granted Steeves a hearing without knowing his history before the Bailey murder. In his clemency application, Steeves was not obligated to disclose the five other deaths because he was never tried and convicted for them.
The clemency board has made a recommendation to LePage on Steeves’ application, but Harburger declined to disclose what the panel found. LePage’s decision is pending.
And there may not be much reason for Steeves’ eerie optimism.
For one thing, no one showed up to support his appeal. Not a lawyer, a relative, a friend.
He had counted on his brother John to tell the board he could live with him again. But their cousin, Steve Fotter, said in an interview that John had changed his mind, partly because he is a hunter and did not want to surrender his firearms, which would be required if Richard shared his home. John Steeves could not be reached for comment.
So Steeves sat alone before the board, struggling. He flashed a hint of anger when board member Jack Richards criticized him for not satisfying a requirement to report all of his criminal convictions on his application. One crime involved possessing a dangerous weapon.
“It was a jackknife, for God’s sake,’’ Steeves snapped. “I was just a teenager.’’
And he didn’t seem to persuade the board when responding to a question about whether he might come undone again if he were granted unfettered freedom after so many years in a tightly controlled prison setting.
“I live with men who have tried to do bad things to me and I have managed to walk away from it,’’ he said. “I feel very confident that I’m going to be fine.’’
Then came Lisa Marchese, chief of the state attorney general’s criminal division, who submitted a stack of documents to the board, including psychiatric records.
She said her office was “vehemently opposed’’ to releasing Steeves, citing his “violent, unpredictable past.’’
Steeves then made one more overture to the board — given his age and crimes it might be his last.
“I’ve changed to a better person,’’ he said. “Let me out. Let me prove it to you.’’
The hearing last 48 minutes. When it ended, Richard Steeves returned to his wheelchair and rolled back toward his prison unit, the door locking behind him.