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Chicken nuggets order led police to fugitive Facebook video murderer

Killer committed suicide as officers closed in on him

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 3:20am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 10:58pm

Facebook slaying suspect Steve Stephens was undone by a 20-piece Chicken McNuggets and an order of fries.

The man who police say shot a Cleveland retiree at random and posted video of the killing on Facebook pulled up to the drive-thru window of a McDonald’s restaurant outside Erie, Pennsylvania, and waited for his order.

It was late on Tuesday morning, almost lunchtime, and authorities were in the third day of an intensive manhunt for Stephens.

Now, more than 160km from the shooting, his time on the run was nearly up.

The attendant who took his money recognised the suspect and called the police. Stephens pulled up to the next window, where restaurant owner Thomas DuCharme Jnr and a supervisor tried stalling him by telling him his fries were delayed.

Stephens didn’t want to wait. He took his McNuggets and whipped out of the parking lot, nearly hitting Gail Wheeler, 54, a retail operations manager from Erie who was on her way home from the supermarket.

“Two seconds later, I hear these sirens, and they come whipping past me,” she said.

Wheeler followed behind for a few kilometres. She said the chase slowed suddenly from 80km/h to about 30km/h when the road narrowed from four lanes to two.

One of the pursuing troopers picked his spot – in front of an abandoned school – and hit Stephens’ bumper to get him to stop. The Ford Fusion did a half-turn and came to rest at the curb.

Police were starting to get out of their cruisers when “I heard a shot. It was loud and distinctive,” Wheeler said.

“The next thing I know, they’re approaching the car. The one officer just shook his head. He was closest to the car ... They had their guns out but when he shook his head, they lowered their guns.”

Stephens killed himself, authorities said.

State police Major William Teper Jnr said the trooper who bumped Stephens’ car “saw him pull the gun out and shoot himself.”

“This started with one tragedy and ended with another person taking their own life,” said Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams. “We would have liked to have brought Steve in peacefully and really talked to him about why this happened.”

Stephens, a job counsellor who worked with teenagers and young people, was wanted on murder charges in the shooting of Robert Godwin Snr, a 74-year-old former foundry worker and father of 10 who was picking up aluminium cans on Sunday when he was gunned down.

The chilling video was on Facebook for three hours before it was taken down, drawing criticism of the social network and renewing questions about how responsibly it polices objectionable material.

At a Silicon Valley conference on Tuesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg briefly addressed the Cleveland case, saying Facebook has “a lot of work to do” and “we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this”.

Police would not speculate on what was behind the killing, but in the video and other footage he posted, Stephens talked about losing everything he had to gambling and having trouble with his girlfriend. He said he “just snapped”.

One of Godwin’s daughters, Debbie Godwin, said she wished Stephens had been captured.

“I’m not happy he’s dead at all, not at all. If you did it, you have to face your crime,” she said.

Facebook said it removed the video of the shooting 23 minutes after learning of it. The company has since announced it is launching a review for reporting harmful content.

“This is something that should not have been shared around the world. Period,” Williams said.

In the video, Stephens told Godwin the name of his girlfriend and said, “She’s the reason that this is about to happen to you.” Godwin did not seem to recognise the name.

Murder of Cleveland elder leads to soul searching at Facebook, and a review of video policy

Investigators said that Godwin was the only victim so far linked to Stephens, despite his claim on Facebook that he killed over a dozen people.

Detectives spoke with the suspect on Sunday by mobile phone and tried to persuade him to surrender, police said. Within a day, authorities expanded the search nationwide and offered a US$50,000 reward for information leading to his capture.