SAN DIEGO - The mother of a 12-year-old girl killed in 1998 testified Monday that her "whole world changed" when she found her daughter dead in their rural Escondido home.
Cheryl Crowe was the first witness to take the stand in the retrial of Richard Tuite, a transient accused of fatally stabbing her daughter, Stephanie.
Tuite, 44, was convicted in 2004 of voluntary manslaughter, but a federal appeals court reversed the conviction in 2011, saying Tuite didn't get a fair trial because a judge limited cross-examination of a prosecution witness.
Crowe testified that her mother woke her up the morning of Jan. 21, 1998, after finding Stephanie dead in her bedroom.
"My mom told me to get up. (She said) something's wrong with Stephanie," Crowe testified. "Our whole world changed."
Crowe said she lay on top of her daughter to try to warm her up while her husband Stephen ran around screaming, "God, no, why? No."
"My whole world was flipped upside down," she said. "Still is."
Stephen Crowe was asked to describe what he experienced that morning.
After a few moments, he reached the point where he said, “I saw Stephanie on the floor ...”
He struggled to complete his thought.
“I can't do this," he said.
Judge Frederic Link ordered a recess so he could compose himself.
In her opening statement last week, Deputy Attorney General Alana Butler said Tuite was in the area of the Crowe home the night Stephanie was killed. Investigators later found the victim's blood on Tuite's shirt and the defendant had items in his pockets from inside the Crowe residence when he was stopped and questioned the next day, Butler said.
Butler said Tuite exhibited "obsessive, delusional and rage-filled behavior" the night of the killing, knocking on doors at homes near the victim's house looking for a friend named "Tracy."
In one church parking lot, Tuite said, "You (expletive) b*****. I'm going to kill you," according to Butler.
Another resident said Tuite was acting "extremely erratic" when he came to his door, the prosecutor said.
Butler said the victim's parents were in bed by 9:30 p.m. that night. Both said they thought they heard thumping and bumping sounds during the night, Butler told the jury.
Stephanie was stabbed nine times. Medical examiners estimate the time of death between 10 and 10:30 p.m., Butler said.
The prosecutor said investigators focused on the girl's brother, Michael, believing he was jealous of his high-achieving sister.
Eventually, Michael Crowe and his then-15-year-old friends, Joshua Treadway and Aaron Houser, were charged with murder.
The District Attorney's Office later dropped all charges against the boys just before trial when Stephanie's blood was found on a red shirt Tuite was wearing the night of the killing and a white shirt he had on underneath.
A judge ruled that so-called confessions from the boys were coerced under harsh interrogation tactics by Escondido police and an assisting Oceanside police officer.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Brad Patton said Tuite was not aggressive toward neighbors the night of the killing, and no one saw him with a weapon.
Patton said Michael Crowe was isolated, played violent video games and was jealous of his sister Stephanie.
"Michael Crowe had a jealousy and a hatred for his sister," Patton told the jury.
After his arrest, Michael Crowe told others in the juvenile lockup that he killed his sister, according to Patton.
In addition, Treadway told police that Houser was obsessed with killing and offered to help Michael Crowe if he was serious about killing Stephanie, Patton said.
The night of the killing, Michael Crowe and Houser went into Stephanie's bedroom and Treadway was told to be a lookout, Patton said.
Police found no signs of forced entry into the home, Patton said.
He said investigators at the crime scene failed to wear booties as they walked through the crime scene and could have contaminated evidence by transferring blood onto Tuite's shirts.
Patton told the jury that Tuite didn't kill Stephanie, saying that prosecutors wouldn't be able to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
The families of Michael Crowe, Treadway and Houser won a federal civil rights lawsuit against the cities of Escondido and Oceanside on grounds they were denied their rights against self-incrimination and false arrest.
In late 2011, the Crowe family settled a suit for $7.25 million and in early 2012, a judge officially declared the boys factually innocent of the crime.