Even In A Deadly Town Like Tucson, Murder Is The Most Incomprehensible Human Experience.
By John Hewitt
IF YOU DIDN'T know someone who was murdered last year, chances are a friend of yours did. For those to whom numbers matter, there were 94 murders in Pima County. It set a record. More important, however, is the reality behind that number. Sooner or later, somewhere, they got to us. It was impossible to keep from being touched. The fingerprints were everywhere.
If you saw a movie at Cineplex Odeon's Crossroads Theater last spring, there's a good chance you encountered Stephanie Dupee, Gary Voakes or Joseph Riley. Stephanie was especially hard to miss, standing behind the candy counter, complementing her uniform by wearing bright red lipstick. You might have even talked to her for a moment. Stephanie was always talking. Some called her outgoing, even loud. Stephanie was not easily ignored.
On August 7 of last year, after a party attended by several theater employees, Stephanie and Voakes were murdered, stabbed to death. There were bite marks on Stephanie's body. She, especially, had been the one to struggle.
Joseph Riley now stands accused of those murders. Barring postponements, Riley could meet his accusers in a courtroom beginning as early as Tuesday, July 9, and be given a chance to tell his story. He deserves that chance.
I am here to tell the story of Stephanie, who was my friend, and whom I miss dearly.
BILL DUPEE, STEPHANIE'S father, has a soft and gentle face. His hair is silvery gray. When he talks about Stephanie, he smiles, but at the same time there are tears in his eyes. He is proud of his daughter, and wants to remember the good. When he thinks of her, he tries not to think of how she died, a 125-pound-girl fighting desperately against a knife-wielding attacker. "When I come to that thought, my mind just kind of moves away. It just won't deal with it." Bill Dupee prefers to remember his daughter alive, as a real person with weaknesses and virtues, problems and triumphs. "She was a thrill right from the start."
Her father remembers Stephanie as energetic and excitable. "She was a happy kid all the time. She was always upbeat and enthusiastic." He remembers how Stephanie served as the mascot for Benson Union High School, "showing up to games and events as the Bobcat and doing all the silly things that mascots do." He recalls how she was active in drama as well, winning the school's Best Thespian award her senior year.
Still, life was not always easy for Stephanie. As a child she endured the divorce of her parents, and Bill Dupee's subsequent remarriage when Stephanie was eight. Adjusting to her step-mother, Suzanne Dupee, had not always been easy. Although they cared for each other, there were misunderstandings between the three that lingered until shortly before Stephanie's death. Then, it was Stephanie who made the effort to clear them up and repair the relationships.
After high school, Stephanie struggled to find her place in the world. She spent a semester at NAU, but dropped out to go to California with a boyfriend. She stayed in California for three years. At one point she joined the Air Force, but she left just after boot camp to be with her boyfriend again. When that relationship ended and she returned to Arizona, her father felt that part of her had "vanished." She came back $13,000 in debt and without her former enthusiasm. Growing up, she had always been a hard worker, but now she didn't seem to care what she did.
Over the next couple years her relationship with her father was strained. He couldn't understand these changes in her, and he blamed himself for not having stood up and told her not to go to California. There was a time, he says, "When I dreaded her phone call."
Stephanie moved from job to job, working at Western Warehouse and Arizona Shuttle Service, at Troy's Billiards and finally for Cineplex Odeon Theaters. Her father says Stephanie was always welcome to stay with her family in Benson, but for the most part she was reluctant. Instead, she tended to bounce from place to place, staying with friends who would put her up for the night.
It was at Cineplex Odeon that Stephanie began to pull her life back together. She took pride in her work, and was excited that she was being promoted to assistant manager. It was during that time that she sought out her family to reconcile some of the problems of their past. Her father is still amazed that she was the one who made it happen, and says that's what made her special. "It was almost as if there was a role reversal. I should have been the one to fix things, but she was the one. She made the effort."
The last time Bill Dupee got to spend with his daughter was when she took him to see Apollo 13. It had been a special night for both of them. Stephanie was excited because she got to show him the place where she worked and because she knew her father had been an engineer on the Apollo project. Bill Dupee especially remembers a moment at the end of the film when everyone in mission control was shaking hands and he spotted Jim Lovell, the real Apollo 13 astronaut and pointed him out. Stephanie, who was born just two days after Apollo 13 arrived home safely, had gotten very excited and told her father how proud she was of him and his work.
Bill Dupee never saw her again. He declined to see her body after the murders. It was something he couldn't do. Often, though, he visits her grave in Benson. When he goes there he finds himself almost unconsciously caressing the brass plate that bears her name. "It's the closest I can come to touching her."
Toward Riley, Bill Dupee tries to be generous. Though he believes firmly in his guilt, he's had no trouble agreeing to extensions asked for by the defense. "If they ask again, my answer will be the same. I want him to have an active, thorough and vigorous defense." He has faith in the prosecution, however: "The people who care about the victims have been great--sterling. They've been very sensitive to us. I've placed my hopes in the system. There's nothing else I can do."
I MET STEPHANIE on an August night in 1994, almost exactly a year before her death. She was working her first shift as a waitress at Troy's Billiards, which was particularly slow that night. For much of it, my friend Dan Pearce and I sat around the bar drinking Cokes and talking to Stephanie.
Dan is a regular at Troy's. At least every other night he's there shooting nine-ball for five dollars a game and keeping up a constant patter of conversation that's part act and part just Dan. I've know Dan since the seventh grade, and talking is what he does. He especially loves to talk Baseball, Mopar cars, computers and the X-Files. He's a charter member of the GATB (Gillian Anderson Testosterone Brigade) and will go on at length about how The X-Files has declined this season and why he believes it's all David Duchovny's fault.
The attraction between Dan and Stephanie was immediate and obvious. Within weeks their relationship grew to the point that marriage was discussed--mainly by Stephanie. Before long she moved in with him. For a while, their relationship seemed solid, but eventually the cracks began to form. Stephanie tried to grow into his life. She began to learn about computers, she watched The X-Files with him and she tried to fit in with his family. Unfortunately, she was fighting the inevitable. Dan simply did not feel what she felt. In the end she moved out again. Still, they continued to see each other. For her part, Stephanie remained in love with Dan and said so often. Dan, nevertheless, began dating other people. About a month before Stephanie's death, he broke off their relationship for good.
My friendship with Stephanie was a cautious one. I liked her from the beginning, but as soon as she became Dan's girlfriend, I tried to keep some distance. Dan and I once stopped speaking to each other for five years over a girl, and I didn't want a repeat of that. Still, Stephanie wasn't about to let me take the easy route. Before long she sensed there was a problem, and she confronted me about it. After I explained, she understood and accepted that there were limits to how close we could be.
From then on, we talked often, usually at Troy's. Stephanie always said hello or good-bye with a hug. She'd talk endlessly about Dan, or work, or school, and about the trouble she was having balancing the three. (School eventually lost.) When I was shooting pool she would sneak me free Cokes, and if I was in the middle of a game and wanted to hear a song on the juke box, she would gladly take care of it.
Stephanie was not a saint. She was far more interesting than that, and to paint her as one wouldn't do her justice. She was a human being, simple as that. When she was happy she smiled ear to ear, when she was sad she pouted like nobody's business, and when she was angry she was furious. There was no in-between with Stephanie. There was no holding back.
The last time I saw her, Stephanie was apologizing to me. I'd unwittingly become entangled in the break-up between her and Dan. Their on-again, off-again relationship had gone completely to off, at least in Dan's opinion, and I had inadvertently been the one to tell her the name of his new girlfriend. It was my mistake. I wasn't thinking.
Stephanie had not taken the news well. Within minutes she'd stormed over to Dan's house and slapped him. As a result, Dan was angry at me, I was angry at me, and all I wanted was to stay away from Stephanie before I got into any more trouble.
A couple days later, I glimpsed Stephanie out of the corner of my eye as I was sitting at the bar at Troy's. She was peeking around the doorway, trying desperately to get my attention without being seen by Dan, who was at the far end of the pool hall. I was reluctant to talk, but Stephanie was persistent. Once outside, she apologized for 10 minutes about getting me in trouble. She told me she didn't want to lose me as a friend, and she gave me her beeper number for about the tenth time since I'd known her. Then she gave me a hug and left.
At Troy's, the same cast of regulars are still there, playing in tournaments or gambling among themselves. Dan is still among those regulars. Like before, he's always talking. About Stephanie, however, he finds himself with little to say. His lips purse and his shoulders drop. "It happened," he says. "It happened and I can't fix it." He says the last time they talked, she'd called to tell him about her promotion. "She was all excited and she wanted to share the news with someone." He has little more to say. Afterwards he returns to his game of nine ball, and to topics he can talk about: computers, Mopar, and The X-Files. Dan carries on.
LEO McNICHOL WAS Stephanie's supervisor and friend when she worked at Troy's. Like most people, the thought that first comes to his mind is how outgoing she was. "She was constantly on the move. If there was a good time to be had, she was there having it."
McNichol remembers that even before she worked at Troy's, Stephanie used to come in and hang out every once in a while. "She had a twisted sense of humor," Leo says. "Maybe that's why we got along so well." He recalls how she often talked of her family, and that she was always fascinated by psychics, often going for readings.
"She was a good friend," McNichol says. "Even after she quit waitressing she still came in all the time. We'd sometimes go out to lunch or to the movies."
McNichol recalls when he and another friend took her out to for her 25th birthday. "The three of us went out to dinner at Caruso's, all dressed up. We were stylin'. She'd told us before that she'd never been to a topless club and was kind of curious about them, so we blindfolded her and told her we were taking her someplace special." Someplace special turned out to be the Sunset Strip. Stephanie didn't figure out where she was until they took off the blindfold. "She laughed and had a good time. That's what I mean about her sense of humor. She could enjoy something like that."
Another friend, J.D. Spangler, traveled across the country to visit her just two weeks before her death. They had met when they were in boot camp together in 1992. Stephanie left the Air Force soon after, but the two had kept in touch over the years. "Stephanie had this knack for sending a letter or calling at just the right moment to cheer me up. She was always there to listen when I had a problem," he remembers. "Steph had an open-mindedness that I hadn't seen in too many people, a willingness to try new things, or accept something unusual at face value."
Of his visit, one memory stands out especially in his mind. "The first day I went to Arizona, we were driving around, just catching up on things. We stopped at a mall to enjoy some air conditioning, and as we went inside she took my hand in hers. We walked through the mall holding hands. We were just friends, but the closeness and trust that implied touched me more than I can really explain."
His visit last summer had been their first face-to-face reunion since boot camp. Stephanie was planning to visit him this year in Virginia, where Spangler lives. He was devastated when he received the news of her death, and plans to travel out to Arizona again this summer to visit her family and see where she's buried. He has also created a memorial for Stephanie on the Internet. To visit, go to http://www.dragonfire.net/~ayrsayle/steph.htm.
AUGUST 10, TWO days after the bodies of Stephanie and Voakes were discovered, the police arrested Riley and charged him with two counts of first degree murder. According to Public Defender Tom Martin, Riley is a blackout drinker and claims he does not remember what happened that night. Martin says Riley doesn't believe himself capable of such an act, but his inability to rule out the possibility has helped lead to his indictment.
Except for the two months when she lived with Dan, Stephanie had no real address and no phone. All she had was her beeper. Stephanie often did not know where she was going to sleep at the end of the day. This forced her to beg a place to stay from friends, ex-boyfriends, and others who would take her in. On the night she was killed, that friend was Gary Voakes.
That night, according to a witness timeline provided by the Public Defender's Office, there was a party at Voakes' apartment in the La Mirada complex on Grant Road. Voakes and roommate Jason Mush, who also worked at Crossroads, often had friends over after they finished their shifts. The complex was less than a mile away from the theater, and other Crossroads employees lived in a nearby apartment. Guests often remained late into the evening, and there was a standing agreement that whoever left last would lock the door behind them. The party was a small get-together among friends, with Monopoly, Uno, and a generous supply of alcohol.
Riley and his girlfriend Jennifer Felix arrived a little after midnight, and Stephanie got there at about 1 a.m. They sat around listening to music. Mush went to bed, and soon after, Stephanie and Voakes went to Voakes' bedroom. Most of the other guests left by 3 a.m. Only Riley and Felix remained. Felix wanted to go home and Riley, very drunk, wanted to stay and listen to music. Felix left and Riley laid down on the couch. What happened next is the question only Riley's upcoming trial can possibly answer.
What is reported is that Riley called his girlfriend at 6:15 a.m., wanting to be picked up. Felix, upset at being awakened so early, waited for a while, and did not arrive until about an hour later. By that time Riley had gone, and the door to Voakes' apartment was locked. Felix assumed Riley had locked the door when he left, and that he had walked over to the theater to sleep. It was the sort of thing he'd done before. Felix drove by the theater, but saw cleaning trucks in the parking lot and left without checking on Riley. A manager found Riley sleeping on a couch in the theater at about 10:30 that morning. When Riley got up, he made a bank drop for the theater, then was picked up by Felix at about 3:30 that afternoon.
That night, Mush, upon returning to his and Voakes' apartment with fellow employee and party-goer Chris Jensen, found the bodies of Stephanie and Voakes. They were lying on the bed, clothed, with multiple stab wounds. From the wounds, it appears Voakes was caught by surprise, but Stephanie fought violently and desperately for her life. In addition to stab wounds, there were bite marks on Stephanie's body.
The exact events that transpired in the murder of Gary Voakes and Stephanie Dupee may never be known, but Deputy Pima County Attorney Ken Peasley, the prosecutor, is confident they have the right man. Peasley is tight-lipped on what evidence the state has, but from the materials gathered at the crime scene, it's expected the State will be producing blood evidence, as well as an expert to testify about the bite marks found on Stephanie's body. All Peasley will say about the case is, "We're satisfied we have the guy who did it."
What Martin and his defense team have are questions, and one of their biggest questions is what the possible motive in the case could be. Voakes was a close friend of Riley's, and the most investigators have apparently found by way of animosity between Riley and Stephanie is a dispute over hours. The possibility of jealousy over the relationship forming between Voakes and Stephanie seems improbable, inasmuch as Riley attended the party with his girlfriend and was not close to Stephanie.
The police, however, believe they have a motive, and in fact a confession. According to a report filed by TPD Detective Joseph Godoy, Riley not only confessed to the murders, but he blamed it on a song, Iron Maiden's The Number of The Beast. The song is about a man possessed by the devil and includes lyrics such as:
I'm coming back I will return
However damaging the alleged confession may sound, it will never see the light of the courtroom. Even by the police account, the confession came after Riley had asked for legal counsel. Moreover, Martin is adamant the confession never took place. "I am absolutely certain Joe never made that statement. There is no doubt in my mind." Martin recently made a successful motion to suppress the confession.
According to Martin, Detective Godoy's handwritten report was not given to the defense until 5 1/2 months after Godoy's alleged encounter, even though Martin made repeated requests for it. Martin also points out the alleged confession was never listed in Detective Raul Olivas' report, despite the fact Godoy's statement claims Olivas was present when Riley confessed.
Martin says this is not the first time Godoy has made a questionable report of a confession. The Arizona State Supreme Court is currently reviewing another case (Arizona vs. Flores) in which the defense accuses Godoy of having manipulated a confession out of a 17-year-old suspect, Juan Francisco Flores, whose family had already requested their lawyer. While Riley's alleged confession is unrecorded, police transcripts in the Flores case show Godoy interviewing Flores after his attorney had instructed Godoy not to take a statement. At one point, Godoy even acknowledges on the transcript that he knows he's been told not to interview the boy, saying, "[Flores'] attorney said that 'I don't think he should give you a statement yet.' "
Detectives Godoy and Olivas have declined opportunities to comment.
Martin also says there are several other flaws in the state's case. Riley was reportedly already in the house, yet there appears to be evidence of entry through a window in the bedroom. Riley didn't drive, yet damage to the parking lot outside the apartment indicates a car left the scene in a big hurry. The victims, especially Stephanie, fought for their lives, yet if the murder took place when Riley would have been there, then it failed to wake Voakes' roommate, Mush, who slept unharmed in the same apartment. Mush also returned to the apartment once in the early evening and apparently found nothing unusual. There is also the question of why party-attendee Jensen, who lived in the same apartment complex and who found the bodies with Mush, left town with his roommates within days--the three of them leaving jobs and an apartment half-full of personal belongings, as well as possible blood evidence.
Martin would also like to know if there is any link between this killing and another double homicide that took place about a quarter-mile away. Those murders, which occurred 2 1/2 weeks later, also involved a young couple (Antonio T. Rodriguez and Danielle Wessels) murdered in bed with no apparent robbery and a survivor left in the apartment. In this case the survivor was Rodriguez and Wessel's six-month-old baby.
Questions are what defense attorneys specialize in, however. It's their job to create doubt. Answers are the job of the prosecution, and as a prosecutor, Ken Peasley is rarely short on answers. He's handled many difficult and high-profile cases, and in 1994 he was named Prosecutor of the Year. Whatever the results of the trial bring, however, they will not bring back Gary Voakes and Stephanie Dupee. They are gone, brutalized for reasons that are at best unclear, and at worst, chilling.
JUST BEFORE I sat down to write this, I drove out to Benson to visit Stephanie's grave. I wasn't sure how I'd feel when I saw it, and I was not prepared for how such seemingly little things could tear at my heart. I was especially hard hit by the bare ground around her marker. Even after so many months, the thin desert grass and vegetation that covered other graves had not yet grown in. I don't know why that hurt, but it did.
I found myself cleaning the dirt away from her brass plaque and, like Bill Dupee, running my fingers over the letters. I stood there for a long time, trying to resolve my feelings. Such resolutions rarely come when we want them. Still, it helped to be there, for all the human reasons why we bury our loved ones. Perhaps the trial will help as well.
Stephanie is but one of many victims. She is one face to remember. The frightening, troubling year of 1995 is over, but murderers don't care about calendars. Stephanie is not the first friend I have lost to murder, and it frightens me to think that she may not be the last. Stephanie would have been 26 on April 19.
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