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One man's battle to clear his name
May 15, 1981
Seattle Times staff reporter
Description of the rapist: white male, 25-30, 6 feet tall, medium build. Full beard and shoulder-length, light-brown hair. Wearing a three-piece, cream-colored suit.
Description of the car: royal-blue compact, possibly a 1980. Bucket seats with velvet covers. Temporary license plate displayed in the rear window. Beginning numbers 667 or 776.
Steve Gary Titus has been convicted of the crime. He is 31. He has a light-brown beard and medium-length hair. Titus is 5 feet 8 inches, and has a small frame. He drives a 1981 Chevette, light blue with vinyl bucket seats.
Titus says that he does not even own a suit.
The six-digit number was 661-677.
Relying heavily on those numerals and similarities in his car, plus the confidence of the victim when she identified him in court, a King County Superior Court jury on March 4 found Titus guilty of first-degree rape. He is to be sentenced on Monday.
Now witness the tactics of a very desperate man.
He has spent hours staking out the crime scene and watching for a car.
Titus watches from the shoulder of Pacific Highway South. A light-blue Chevrolet Citation passes by, heading south with a bearded man behind the wheel. The driver also is wearing a tan suit and vest. Titus follows the car to Tacoma and parks out of sight on a residential street. He writes down the license number, then returns to his home. Titus later learns that the Citation could not be the car. It was not purchased until after the crime.
"It's my life that's at stake. What else can I do?" Steve Titus says, explaining why he has labored nonstop since early March, spending countless hours and all his money, trying to prove it was someone else who raped a 17-year-old girl on a secluded road south of Seattle-Tacoma Airport last October 12.
Is all of this a charade, or is Titus an innocent man?
Support for Titus comes from a small camp: Titus' mother and father; the woman he is engaged to marry; the lawyer who believes he was wrongly convicted, and a friend who provided crucial defense testimony during the trial.
The friend, Kurt Schaefer, contends Titus could not have committed the crime because he was talking with him on the telephone, then sitting with Titus in the defendant's apartment, at the time the victim was being raped.
Vowed Schaefer after the trial: "I will do everything that is possible to prove that Steve is innocent even if it takes me years."
Titus is facing a mandatory minimum term of three years in prison and a possible sentence of 20 years to life. Except for being cited for negligent driving in 1978, he never had been in trouble before ...
Tracking down a list of dealers supplied by the Department of Motor Vehicles, Titus tediously works his way through the yearly sales file at an auto agency on South Tacoma Way. The royal-blue compact he is looking for would have been purchased within the two-week period prior to October 12. Options on the car would have included velvet upholstered seats. A temporary license plate issued to the car would have numerals similar to his own.
At 4 p.m. on a Friday, Titus runs out of time. He pays an office employee to continue searching through the weekend. She draws a blank. That leaves 24 dealers to go.
The victim told police she was hitchhiking on Pacific Highway South when she got into the rapist's car. He told her he was going to Tacoma. Instead he turned off on South 208th Street and headed down the hill.
He turned again on 22nd Avenue South. Then the rapist pulled into a narrow dirt lane leading to the foundation of a demolished house. It was there that the acts took place, the victim said, in a no-man's land, south of the airport, where houses have been condemned.
He told her he had a knife and ordered her to undress. The weapon that he held to her throat appeared to be a screwdriver, the victim told police.
Oral sodomy was the first demand. Vaginal intercourse followed. Then the rapist told the victim to dress, stand outside the car and wait for him to leave. He backed out of the lane and disappeared into the night. She ran for help and found lights burning in a house at the end of the road.
The crime occurred on land under jurisdiction of Port of Seattle police. A call to port police from the house at the end of 22nd Avenue South was logged at 7:22 p.m.
Four officers responded. Police who found the victim there said she was crying, but that her clothing appeared in order and that there were no marks to indicate a violent assault.
The victim guided police to the crime scene. In her report, Officer Diane Lathrop said the victim "pointed out the exact location where the suspect vehicle had parked." Lathrop also noted there were "fresh tire tracks where the vehicle would have traveled." While several officers remained at the scene, Lathrop drove the victim to a hospital for tests.
Detective Ronald Parker was called from home to conduct a search for evidence at the scene and to conduct the investigation. Parker's supervisor, Sgt. Dave Hart, acknowledged to The Times that Parker had limited experience as a detective prior to the case.
On the theory that the rapist was familiar enough with the area to live nearby, Parker and other officers began cruising through parking lots along Pacific Highway South, looking for his car.
Detective Parker and Officer Robert Jensen found Titus' Chevette at 1:20 a.m. It was parked outside the Raintree Restaurant and Lounge, 19615 Pacific Highway S., where Titus and his fiancee, Mona Imholt, had stopped for a drink.
The victim had given police another clue to the rapist's car. She recalled seeing a "necklace or garters" hanging from the rear-view mirror. A bunny-emblazoned Playboy air freshener was what police saw hanging in the front seat of Titus' car.
Documents and reports that trace both the police work and the trial are stacked on the kitchen table in Titus' Kent apartment. He has memorized most of them. It is almost midnight, and with his fiancee at his side, Titus is deep into analysis comparing one officer's report against another's. Titus has compiled a 70-point list of discrepancies in the case. But the prosecutor's office has told him that there must be new evidence to warrant a new trial.
Port police were waiting out of sight when Titus and Imholt emerged from the bar. Titus was southbound on Pacific Highway South, heading for Kent, when the flashing lights were turned on.
Titus and his fiancee were questioned separately outside the car. Titus consented to have his Chevette searched for evidence. He also agreed to be photographed.
Front and profile photographs taken of Titus that night at port-police offices at the airport show him smiling, appearing unconcerned. Joking with police, Titus asked if he and his fiancee could have their pictures taken together. Officers complied. Titus and Imholt then left.
Police noted that Titus was both polite and cooperative on the night he was stopped.
That same night, Detective Parker went though the department's mug shot file and compiled a montage of six bearded men, including Titus. At Parker's request, patrol officer Scott Pierson took photographs of the interior and exterior of Titus' car, including the tires. Both men then returned to the crime scene to photograph tire marks left on the lane.
Titus was picked out by the victim the following day.
At her mother's home in Tacoma, she studied the montage for several minutes before pointing to the shots of Titus. "This one is the closest one. It has to be this one," she told police.
Titus' Chevette was a company car owned by his employer, the Yegen Seafood Corp., franchisee for Ivar's Seafood Bars. As district manager for the company, Titus supervised some 100 employees at 7 seafood outlets. Titus was at the company's offices at Southcenter on October 14, two days after the rape, when he was arrested by port police and led away in handcuffs. Police also seized his car.
In a police-interview room at the airport that afternoon, without an attorney present, Titus voluntarily gave Detective Parker and Officer Robert Jensen a statement explaining his whereabouts at the time of the rape. The statement was not recorded, nor did the officers take any notes.
Parker did not put Titus' statement into writing until two days before the trial, more than four months later.
Titus accuses the detective of falsifying the part of that statement most crucial to his defense.
According to Parker, Titus said he spent the afternoon of Sunday, October 12, at his parents' home on South 150th Street, just off Pacific Highway about 2 miles north of Sea-Tac. There was a birthday party for his father, David Titus.
Titus left there for the Comstock Apartments in Kent at 6:10 p.m. and followed the logical route: south on Pacific Highway to Highway 518, west on 518 to interstate 5; south on I-5 to the Kent-Des Moines Road, and east on the Kent-Des Moines Road into Kent. He arrived home at 6:55 p.m.
That is Parker's version of the Titus statement.
Titus says two things are wrong. He says he did not drive south on Interstate 5, but rather continued east into Renton and drove south to Kent from there. That is not crucial, but the time of arrival is.
Titus insists that he told Parker he reached his apartment at 6:30 p.m., not 6:55. And he points out that it is only a 15- to 20-minute drive to the apartment from his parents' home.
Officer Jensen, who took the statement with Parker, says he does not remember the time Titus gave.
Evidence against Steve Titus was reviewed by the special assault unit of the prosecutor's office. Titus agreed to a deal.
If he passed a polygraph examination, the charge would be dropped. If he failed the polygraph, he would go to trial. The results, however, could not be used against him in court.
The lie-detector test was given by Dewey Gillespie, a former Seattle police polygraph specialist now in private practice. He reported that Titus failed.
But there was better news for Titus going into trial. The Western Washington State Crime Laboratory had determined that tire tracks found at the rape scene did not come from his car.
Titus is running out of time and no new evidence has turned up. If Kurt Schaefer's testimony could be substantiated by a polygraph, maybe they would listen to him then. But the polygraph examination costs $175 and Titus has no money left. His trial lawyer charged $5,000 and the appeal attorney's fee is double that. Bail bond to remain free until sentencing required $2,500 cash. A private detective charged $1,200 and turned up nothing. Although Titus' employer expresses faith in his innocence, he was terminated from the company on May 1 because of an inability to cope with the job. Titus now is hopelessly in debt. But credit is extended, and Kurt Schaefer takes the test.
In the photo montage compiled by Detective Parker, both pictures of Titus are smaller than the five other pairs of pictures. Titus also stands out on the sheet because, in contrast to the other subjects, there is no dark-line border between his front and profile shot. In a pre-trial hearing, Titus' attorney, Thomas Hillier, argued that the montage should be suppressed as being "suggestive."
Judge Frank Howard denied the motion, saying the jury should decide.
Titus' trial opened on February 25 in the courtroom of Judge Charles V. Johnson.
As his first witness, Deputy Prosecutor Chris Washington called Diane Butts, a friend of the rape victim who works as a waitress at the Red Lion Inn on Pacific Highway South.
Police reports show that an interview with officers on the night of the rape, Butts told officers that the victim left her in the Red Lion Coffee Shop at 7 p.m.
On the stand, however, Butts rolled back that time to 6:20 p.m.
The victim originally told police she was picked up by the rapist at 6:45 p.m. In court, however, she testified that it was 6:30 p.m.
Nothing appears in the port's investigative file to support either changes of time.
"Do you recognize these pictures?" Washington asked the victim, showing her the montage. "And do you recognize the person who raped you on October 12?"
She viewed the montage and said that she did.
"Do you see this person in the courtroom?" the prosecutor asked.
"Yes," the victim replied, pointing to Titus.
Washington then asked the victim to step down, walk toward the defense table and get as close to Titus as she was on the night she was raped.
Before reaching Titus, the victim broke into tears.
Hillier objected on grounds the prosecution has used a prejudicial tactic against the defendant. The objection was overruled by the judge.
License-plate numbers played an important role in the trial, with the prosecution attempting to show that the beginning numerals the victim had seen on the rapist's car and those on Titus' vehicle were too close to be a coincidence. In court, the victim moved them even closer, changing 667 to 677.
Six-seven-seven were the ending numerals on Titus' temporary plate.
An expert witness from the State Department of Licensing was called by the defense to explain that there could be similar temporary license numbers on newly purchased cars.
Temporary stickers, he said, are issued by series each month to dealers and county auditors across the state. In the months of September and October last year, all temporary plates issued from Olympia began with the numbers 66.
It was not brought out in court that a block of 1,000 plates beginning with the numerical sequence 667 had been mailed to the auditor of Benton County in late September. Another block of plates bearing the sequence 677 had been distributed among 25 car dealers in Pierce County about the same time.
Although they were called by the prosecution, specialists from the state crime laboratory told the jury they found no evidence that the rape victim had been in Titus' car.
Port police had lifted 18 finger-prints from his Chevette. A criminalist testified that none were from the victim.
Police also had cut out section of blue vinyl upholstery from the seats in hopes of finding seminal stains. That also proved negative.
Microscopic analysis showed that hair fibers gleaned from inside the car were dissimilar to those of the victim. Nor did clothing fibers recovered from Titus' car match what the victim was wearing the night of the rape.
A criminalist testified that numerous head hairs were recovered from a blue sweater worn by the victim. Although a single red mustache hair or beard hair found on the sweater had some characteristics similar to those of Titus, the hair was the wrong color to have come from the defendant, the criminalist said.
Police reports from the night of October 12 indicate confidence the tire tracks left at the scene were from the assailant's car. Taking the stand, Detective Parker, however, told the jury that the evidence he photographed had been a mistake.
Parker said he found this out by returning to the crime scene with the victim on the opening day of the trial.
Parker said the victim recalled the rapist drove straight in and backed straight out. The detective then disclosed that the tracks he photographed "made a turn to the right."
In their reports, no other officers who viewed the crime scene noted tire tracks turning to the right.
No weapon matching what the victim had described, possibly a screwdriver, was found in Titus' car. However, the prosecution contended that a black-felt pen that police had found in the well between the front passenger's seat and the door could have been what the rapist held to the victim's throat.
Titus contends that Parker lied about other evidence he said he found in the car.
The victim had told officers of seeing a brown-vinyl binder with straps on the rear seat of the rapist's car. Parker testified to the jury that he saw exactly the same thing in the Chevette on the night Titus was pulled over.
No binder is mentioned in the report written by Officer Scott Pierson, who also took credit for searching Titus' car.
Pierson's report lists what he saw in the vehicle: "a white Playboy bunny insignia hanging from the rear-view mirror ... a felt-type pen lying in the trunk area behind the back seat ... two unused cigarettes lying under the passenger-side bucket seat."
Pierson refused to talk with a reporter concerning evidence he saw in the vehicle. Under questioning this week by his supervisor, however, the officer denied searching Titus' car, explaining that he did little more than "look into the vehicle."
Pierson also failed to acknowledge to his supervisor that he photographed the interior of the car.
Titus' lawyer entered into evidence a telephone bill showing that a long-distance call was made from Titus' apartment to his fiancee in Tacoma at 7 p.m. on the night of the rape. Titus told the jury he arrived at his apartment on the Kent-Kangley Road at 6:30 p.m. and that the telephone was ringing inside when he reached the front door.
Titus testified that he had expected a call from Kurt Schaefer because he had made previous plans to meet Schaefer that afternoon and was running late. When he picked up the phone the line was dead.
Titus said he then called Schaefer to tell him he was home. Schaefer, who lives in the same apartment complex, appeared at the door within 10 or 15 minutes no later than 6:50 p.m., Titus testified.
Schaefer's testimony was the same. He said he had been to Titus' apartment for at least 10 minutes before Titus made the long-distance call at 7 p.m. They remained in the apartment for several hours, both Titus and Schaefer testified, watching "Superman" on cable TV much of the time. They said Titus left at about 9:20 p.m. to pick up Mona Imholt at a Denny's restaurant south of Tacoma, where she is a waitress.
With testimony placing Titus in his apartment at the time of the rape, how could the jury have believed him to have been some 8 miles away?
"We didn't think that Kurt Schaefer was sure about his times," one of the jurors explained to a reporter.
Determined to prove that he was telling the truth, Schaefer last week voluntarily submitted to his own polygraph test. It was administered by Poth & Associates. Schaefer passed.
The three-piece suit worn by the rapist was a crucial point in Titus' defense.
Both Titus' father and his brother, Alan Titus, testified that the defendant was wearing dark slacks, a dark sweater and a green shirt when he left the birthday party. Even if Titus owned a three-piece suit, his lawyer argued, what purpose would have been served in changing his clothes? Titus, in fact, would not have had the time to change, Hillier said.
In his closing arguments, the prosecutor told the jury it would have taken an "incredible coincidence" for there to have been another car.
Hillier told the jury that Port of Seattle police built their case around an innocent man and failed to look beyond.
Jurors deliberated for 12 hours.
On the first two ballots, they voted 8 to 4 for acquittal. On the third ballot the split was 7 to 5, still leaning towards acquittal. Two hours later, on the fourth and final ballot, they had agreed on Titus' guilt.
Port Police Chief Neil Moloney last month ordered the department's senior investigators to re-open the Titus case because of questions raised by The Times. At the same time, the prosecutor's office agreed to review legal aspects of the case. This gained Steve Titus a month's postponement in his sentencing date.
But little else in his favor resulted from reviews of the case.
Port police said they found nothing out of order in their investigation. The prosecutor's office said senior deputies who reviewed the case detected no irregularities.
But Thomas Hillier calls the verdict a travesty of justice.
"The jury didn't understand, and I can't understand why," the defense attorney said. "We essentially blew them out of court. But we took the nice-guy approach, and maybe we should have played rough.
"I lie awake at night dwelling on this case. The rest of us can walk away from it. But Steve Titus can't."
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