Hidden Specter of Sibling Abuse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 1998; Page A03
ESCONDIDO, Calif. Stephanie Crowe was, her pastor recalls, a vivacious, bright and popular 12-year-old girl, "the center of attention," volunteer of the year for her work at the local library, and "just like a little angel."
Her brother Michael, say prosecutors and police, was the kind of 14-year-old who enjoyed reading about medieval torture. He dressed in black and took his meals in his room, where he kept a stack of tabloid magazine articles about the O.J. Simpson murder trial. And he harbored an intense sibling rivalry that became a "pure hatred," one friend said, for his sister Stephanie.
So, according to the police, on the night of Jan. 21, in a comfortable middle-class enclave in sunny Southern California, Michael and another boy crept into Stephanie's bedroom while a third boy kept watch outside. Stephanie was stabbed nine times in the chest and neck with a 10-inch hunting knife, the blade wiping itself clean as it passed back and forth through the comforter that kept her warm.
If Stephanie's slaying rocked the town, then the subsequent arrest of her brother and his two friends, Aaron H. and Joshua T., was a stunning blow. The three best friends, ages 14 and 15, all bright students, were charged with murder and are now nearing the end of a lengthy hearing to decide whether they should be tried as adults.
The three boys have pleaded not guilty. Their parents have stood by them, appearing each day in court to watch the proceedings, bringing lunch for the boys during the noon recess and peeking into the courtroom to watch them eat. They worry that the children are growing skinny in juvenile hall. Police have confessions from two of the boys, but the parents insist they were coerced.
Experts on sibling violence say it is not unusual for parents to defend children accused of the most heinous crimes. Psychologists who have studied these cases say that it is understandable, that when one sibling murders another, both children can be lost, one to the grave, the other to prison.
The brother charged in the Crowe case and his two friends have not been found guilty, or even tried, but experts say cases like this shed light into a dark corner of the American family. Although society has recently confronted the specter of abuse of children and spouses, they say, "sibling abuse" remains largely hidden from view.
"Over the years, it's been ignored," said Vernon Wiehe, a professor of social work at the University of Kentucky and an authority on sibling abuse. "It's been excused over the years, and people and parents just say, 'Oh, that's sibling rivalry, all kids fight, all kids call each other names, and some of them play doctor with each other. So what?' But I tell you, I think there's a lot more violence out there than we want to believe."
Sibling slayings appear to be relatively rare. According to a 1994 review by the Justice Department, "Murder in Families," only about 1.5 percent of the 20,000 or so homicides each year are between siblings. A review of the data from 1988 and 1996, the last year available, shows the percentage has not changed much over the years. However, some experts suggest that at least some deaths designated as accidental homicides in which one child kills another while they are playing with a gun might not be so accidental.
"There's an awful lot of these accidental homicides that involve gun play," said Charles Ewing, a forensic psychologist at the University of Buffalo and author of "Fatal Families." "Maybe the gun did just go off, but maybe it didn't. Some of these fall into a gray area."
Beyond homicides, authorities in the field say the more they look for sexual, physical or emotional abuse between siblings, the more they find. Mental health workers say it is not unusual for children abused by adults or living in violent settings to act out the same violence on their siblings that it can be a learned behavior.
"I don't think anybody knows" how common that is, said Gail Ryan, a researcher and therapist at the University of Colorado Health Science Center who is working with teenage boys who have sexually abused their siblings.
Nobody knows, Ryan said, because abuse between juvenile siblings is hardly ever reported, except the most vicious physical assaults or cases of rape.
For example, if a child is brought to an emergency room with a broken arm, and it is suspected that an adult may have caused the injury, the law requires that the information be reported to police. But if a parent says that one child hurt another, the issue usually is dropped.
In one small study recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, two researchers reported that of the 202 college students they interviewed, about 65 percent said they had experienced some sibling physical abuse, resulting in injuries to 17 percent of that group, with 4 percent requiring a visit to a physician.
"I think sibling abuse is probably both increasing and we are more aware of it," said Ewing, an authority on homicides within the family.
The causes of sibling abuse are complex and varied. They include mental illness and drug or alcohol abuse, and the abusing children could have been abused themselves. Moreover, several experts have noted that today's children grow up in a culture in which they are surrounded by violence that is cartoonish and graphic in video games, television, movies and even mainstream journalism, which has been filled recently with sensational stories about children killing children in Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oregon.
In the last few years, a number of sibling murder investigations or trials have arisen around the country. In Arizona, a 15-year-old boy told authorities he strangled his 10-year-old, straight-"A" sister with a telephone cord, bathed her dead body and dumped it in a trash can. And police in Dayton, Ohio, are working a case in which four very young children mysteriously died of asphyxiation; the investigation is focusing on another child in the household as the possible killer.
In the Stephanie Crowe case here in Escondido, 20 miles north of San Diego, the prosecutor and police believe that the motive was intense sibling rivalry, and that what may have pushed Michael over the edge was his sister starting to become friends with his circle.
While experts in sibling violence say they cannot make an informed judgment about the strength of the Crowe case, they say these feelings of intense rivalry are at the heart of many instances of sibling violence.
"Siblings can have very conflicted relationships, and of all the familial relationships, siblings are the most competitive for status, for power, for affection, for space within the home and family," Ewing said. "Sibling rivalry is real."
There was no sign of forced entry at the Crowe household, which sits several miles from town, surrounded by avocado groves. After she was stabbed, which was not long after midnight, Stephanie pulled herself off her bed and crawled to her doorway.
Police initially became suspicious of her brother Michael for two reasons: He did not appear sufficiently distraught the next morning, and he told police that he awoke at around 4:30 a.m. to go into the kitchen. If he did so, police say, he would have had to pass by his dead sister.
There was no direct physical evidence such as DNA, however, to link Michael or his friends to the killing. Police found the words "kill kill" written in pencil on the window sill of Stephanie's room. A handwriting expert at the pretrial hearing found "significant similarities" between Michael's writing and the "kill kill" message, but they were not conclusive.
During the hearing, San Diego prosecutor Summer Stephan suggested the words might be a reference from the fantasy role-playing games the three boys engaged in, a signature or a cryptic credit for the act.
When police began interviewing Michael's two friends, they uncovered a long, distinctive hunting knife belonging to Aaron beneath Joshua's bed that they say is the murder weapon. Aaron collects knives and other items, such as hatchets and swords. Police also suspect that Aaron may have worn a flowing black robe and black gloves on the night he is alleged to have joined Michael in murdering Stephanie.
With the words "kill kill," the black robe and the knife, the police and prosecutors are attempting to develop a theory that the boys' violent fantasy games somehow became real.
At the center of the case is a confession made by Joshua, who was interviewed during several lengthy sessions by police and who, initially, repeatedly insisted that he had nothing to do with the slaying. But during one session, when the boy was hooked up to a "voice stress analyzer," police told him the machine showed that he was lying. He eventually stated that he had been at the house the night of the killing and was serving as a lookout, that Michael and his friend Aaron entered Stephanie's bedroom and killed her, that Joshua was given the knife and told to get rid of it, but that he did not.
"He said, "God, I'd love to kill my sister,'" Joshua told police, referring to Michael. "I remember that day because Aaron got weird. He said something like, 'Well, if you're serious about that, I'd be happy to help you.'"
A probation officer also told Superior Court Judge Laura Palmer Hammes that Michael had told him: "There's a chance I didn't do this, but it's possible I did do it, I guess. I'm almost sure I didn't do it, almost 100 percent sure."
The three attorneys for the boys insist that the confessions were coerced and should not be admissible. Mary Ellen Attridge, the defense attorney for Joshua, asserts that the case is built on hysteria and overzealous police work, and that devices such as the voice stress analyzer are no more reliable than a coin toss. Attridge said police are making much of nothing, that Aaron's black cape and castles in his bedroom are not some sinister kink, but that "the kid was into the Hobbits." She and the boys' parents maintain that the three are typical, albeit highly intelligent, young teenagers, into cartoons and fantasy games, not murder.
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