CLEVELAND—Soon after he shot 74-year-old Robert Godwin—who was walking down the street and picking up cans after eating Easter Sunday dinner with his family—Steve Stephens posted video to Facebook of the murder that he just committed.
Then he kept posting his personal reasoning for his deranged behavior, explanations showed that there was a deep anger within this man that suddenly snapped.
“I fucked up,” he said, with little emotion on his face. “I’m at the point where I snapped… I got a lot of built up anger and frustration.”
“All my life,” Stephens continued, “I’ve been a monster.”
That line by the man now known as the “Facebook Killer” was shocking to many who heard him say it on social media, but not so much so for Tony Henderson. He lived across the street from Stephens for decades—that line that this man was a “monster” didn’t seem that crazy. The kid always seemed somewhat “out there,” Henderson said.
“I never quite understood that kid through his entire life, because on some days he would talk to you, and then on others he would be mean and staring at you and very quiet,” Henderson said. “It’s not like he was running around the street scaring old people when he was a teenager, but what he did on Easter Sunday doesn’t surprise me.”
On the Monday after the shooting that was getting worldwide attention, Henderson was cleaning up the vacant property next to his house, which is directly across the street from Stephens’s mother’s home. Police in two cars were staked out on the street to keep media and angry residents from causing trouble for the killer’s family. But for Henderson, 55, what he saw on television shows and online media reporting over the past day made more sense to him than most anyone.
“How can I put this?” he said, as he paused. “That kid was not normal as we as normal people know it from the beginning. He was in his early teens when the family moved in there, and I was in my late twenties, but I could see something wasn’t right. He was smart, but some days he seemed OK with talking to people on the street, but on other days he was staring off into space with a blank face. He was very up and down.”
Then Henderson told a somewhat disturbing story.
“He asked me to come in and see his pet bird, so I went in their house. He had a parakeet and he had that bird crawl from the cage and on to his finger. Then he slapped the bird as hard as he could with his other hand, and the bird was lying on the floor. The bird looked dead to me. I looked at him and he was smiling and laughing as he looked at me and that bird.”
“Hey, animals don’t make you weird like that,” Henderson said. “He was that way before he got that bird. Heard he used to torture other pets he had. He was like that from the time I first met him.”
An aggravated murder warrant has been issued, and police said early Monday that Stephens may have fled Ohio. Police warned residents of Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, and Michigan to be on the lookout. The FBI is providing assistance to the Cleveland police and taking over the national manhunt. A $50,000 reward has been offered for information leading to his whereabouts.
Stephens has a valid concealed-carry gun permit, Cleveland police said at a news conference Monday morning. Police Chief Calvin Williams said guns were seized from a home in the city of Twinsburg, a suburb of Cleveland, that is listed in court records as the home occupied by Stephens and his girlfriend at the time, Joy Lane. Williams said he was unsure how many guns were seized and whether they were registered to Stephens.
Though Stephens also said on Facebook postings that his need to kill people came because of a breakup with Lane (who treats youths with various mental disorders for a company different from the one Stephens works for), it appears he might have been having more problems with his fiancée. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported that Stephens had been evicted from his suburban apartment this past January for failure to pay rent. Five months before that, he had been evicted from another suburban apartment complex, and the property-management company successfully sued him and began garnishing wages from his paycheck.
Stephens had also declared personal bankruptcy in January 2015, according to the report, and at that time, Stephens said he had worked for Beech Brook, a suburban-based social-services agency for six years. He declared his annual salary to be about $28,800, but his wages were also facing garnishment then as well, for unpaid credit-card debt that he had been sued over in court for.
In another Sunday Facebook posting, Stephens talked of his financial issues, blaming some of it on Cleveland’s Jack Casino, Ohio’s first casino, which opened in 2012.
“The past year’s been really [expletive] up for me,” Stephens said. “You know, being with [his ex-girlfriend] drove me crazy, started making me gamble. I lost everything. I lost everything I have. I don’t have shit. I’m out of options.”
Besides the craziness of this murder—an employed man shooting an elderly man randomly and then posting it for all to see on social media—is how this murder does not fit in with all the other murders in Cleveland in recent years. There were 136 murders in the Cleveland in 2016, the highest number in 10 years. This high number of murders, despite the fact that Cleveland lost about 10 percent of its population (about 43,000) during those 10 years, has been linked to the city’s high poverty rate. Based upon 2016 figures, Cleveland’s poverty rate of 34.7 percent is the 11th highest in the country among cities of at least 65,000 people.
Many of the murders in Cleveland are driven by gangs, which themselves are partly blamed on high inner-city unemployment. One of the most violent and powerful gangs has the ironic name “Heartless Felons.” In some of these killings, children lost their lives because they were playing in a park or on a front lawn when the killers drove by.
The street on which Godwin was killed ends at Interstate 90 about five miles east of downtown. It is an odd place to do a killing, given it’s off-the-beaten path and abutting a crowded highway. “I don’t think there is any rhyme or reason for this happening,” Cleveland’s police chief said at the press conference Monday.
For those living on that street, the killing was not only horrific to see, but so bizarre that many are still shaking their heads. Thea, a 25-year-old who lives directly across the street from where Godwin died, said her family had about 20 people coming over for East Sunday dinner. The killing, which happened at about 2 p.m. Sunday, occurred about a half hour before people started to arrive.
“This is a quiet street,” said Thea, who didn’t want her last name used. “It ends at the freeway. So no one usually drives their cars down here because it is hard to turn around and get out.”
“But it was so weird,” she continued. “My mom was outside talking to our neighbor, and they were just doing what moms do, talking about the recipes they had cooked, and then both went back in their houses. About one minute after she came in, we heard a gun pop and went outside and saw that old man lying dead on the sidewalk right across the street from our house.”
“What would have happened if they were out there one minute later?” Thea asked. “He might have just shot that man and my mom and the neighbor, too. That’s all I’ve been thinking about. How my mom might have been killed, too.”