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‘We are grateful this has ended’: Inside the manhunt for Facebook murder suspect Steve Stephens

Cleveland police released the 911 call from the April 16 fatal shooting of 74-year-old victim, Robert Godwin, Sr. (Video: Reuters)
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“Cleveland EMS, what is the emergency?” the 911 dispatcher said.

A frantic caller tried to describe a gruesome scene on Easter Sunday in East Cleveland, where 74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr. was lying on the pavement in a pool of his own blood. He had been gunned down by a stranger, for a reason that no one might ever understand.

“I told y’all three times, somebody laying in front of my house is dead — has been shot,” the caller barked in agitation.

“Are you right there with him now?” the dispatcher asked.

“No, I’m inside the house; I can see him across the street,” the man said.

“Is he awake at all?” the dispatcher said.

“No, he’s unconscious. He’s dead,” the man responded.

It was about 2 p.m. Sunday when Godwin was fatally shot by a man half his age. Police said Steve W. Stephens, 37, had rolled down Cleveland’s East 93rd Street in a white Ford Fusion, asked Godwin to say a woman’s name and then raised his gun and pulled the trigger — a fatal encounter that was captured on a horrifying video that was soon uploaded to Facebook.

The chilling crime led local, state and federal law enforcement officers on an exhaustive 45-hour manhunt that quickly swelled from a citywide tragedy to a nationwide concern, as authorities warned residents in five states to be “on alert” as they announced publicly that they had no idea where the armed and dangerous suspect might be.

The coldblooded killing — which reignited a debate about violence in the Internet age — ended Tuesday morning, about 100 miles away in rural Pennsylvania, where state troopers trapped Stephens, who then shot and killed himself, authorities said.

‘We have our closure’: Facebook murder suspect killed himself after police pursuit in Pennsylvania

But Sunday, police in Cleveland were still trying to put together the pieces.

“Are you able to go out there and see if he’s conscious or breathing so we can help him, sir, if it’s safe to do so?” the 911 dispatcher asked the caller.

“Um. Yeah,” he replied.

“We need to help him,” the dispatcher said. “We need to get a clean, dry cloth or towel and apply it to where he’s bleeding from.”

Where, she asked, had the victim been shot?

“He’s been shot in the head or the ear or something,” the man answered — and the dispatcher kept repeating her instructions until the sirens started to wail.

Hours later, Cleveland police identified Stephens as their suspect and issued an arrest warrant on a charge of aggravated murder. He was described an “armed and dangerous” 6-foot-1, 244-pound black man, with a bald head and a full beard. Police said he was driving a white Ford Fusion — and he needed to be brought in.

“We’re still asking Steve to turn himself in,” Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams said Monday, as the manhunt intensified. “But if he doesn’t, we’ll find him.”

The chief begged the public to call 911 with tips and pleaded with those who knew Stephens to report his whereabouts — or, better yet, to persuade him to turn himself in.

“If there’s somebody that’s helping Steve, or if you think you’re helping Steve, you’re really not,” he said. “You’re going to get yourself in trouble, along with him.”

By the afternoon, the chief was directly addressing the fugitive, who had made his way onto the FBI’s most-wanted list.

“Steve, if you’re out there listening, call someone — whether it’s a friend or family member or pastor — give them a call; they’re waiting for you to call them,” Williams said.

Authorities announced that they were offering up to $50,000 for information leading to the wanted man’s capture. Hundreds of tips were pouring in from all over the country — many of them rumors and unsubstantiated reports.

FBI special agent Steve Anthony said Facebook killer Steve Stephens is the FBI's highest priority during a news conference on April 18. (Video: Reuters)

In Philadelphia, police received reports that Stephens had been spotted near Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park and, as a precaution shut down several schools in the area.

“At this time,” Philadelphia police said in a statement Monday afternoon, “there is no indication that the subject is at that location, or anywhere in the city of Philadelphia.”

By Tuesday morning, police in Baltimore and Washington had debunked claims that Stephens had made his way east.

FBI Special Agent Vicki Anderson said he could be anywhere.

“We’ve received numerous tips from all over, and we’re very appreciative, but none of them have turned out to be him,” she told The Washington Post before a briefing Tuesday morning. “So you’re going to see law enforcement activity who knows where.”

It was the same message Williams, the police chief, relayed a short time later in Cleveland, where he told reporters that authorities had received nearly 400 tips from as far away as Texas, but still did not know where Stephens was — or whether he was even alive.

“I don’t think the investigation is stalled,” he said Tuesday morning, adding: “These things can take two days, they can take two weeks, they can take two years. It depends on the individual that’s out there, it depends on their mind-set and what they’re planning on doing, and, like I stated yesterday, it depends on if they’re getting assistance or not.”

A little more than hour later, police said, Stephens was dead.

Mark Zuckerberg has vowed to limit live-streamed depravity. So far, it’s an empty promise.

For nearly 48 hours, Stephens seemingly vanished from sight — a development so baffling that authorities had begun to speculate that he had died.

That changed just after 11 a.m. Tuesday when Stephens reportedly pulled the white Ford Fusion into the first drive-through window of a McDonald’s on Buffalo Road in Harborcreek Township, a suburb of Erie, Pa.

Thomas DuCharme Jr., the franchise’s owner and operator, told the Erie Times News that workers were preparing the restaurant for lunch when an employee manning the back drive-through window said she thought she’d spotted one of the most wanted men in America ordering a meal a few feet away.

“She called me to the back,” DuCharme said. “She wanted to make sure that I took a look to make sure she wasn’t seeing things, and at that point she was already on the phone calling the police.”

“He got to the second window of the drive-through,” he added. “We told him he was waiting on his fries for a minute just to kind of buy some time for the cops if it actually was him. He said he had no time to wait, he had to go.”

Instead of waiting for his fries, Stephens retrieved his 20-piece chicken nugget meal, turned his vehicle onto Buffalo road and drove away.

“I am pretty sure he figured out that we were on to him,” DuCharme said. “He didn’t want to wait for his fries.”

Maj. William Teper Jr., a Pennsylvania State Police commander, told reporters Tuesday afternoon that “a concerned citizen” tipped police off about Stephens’s whereabouts at 11:10 a.m. He declined to confirm that the caller was an employee at McDonald’s.

Multiple state troopers descended on the area near Buffalo Road, where the phone call originated, and eventually spotted Stephens in his car, Teper said.

The troopers began pursuing Stephens in marked patrol cars. The chase was brief, covering two miles and never exceeding 50 mph.

Near the two-mile mark, Teper said, as Stephens neared an abandoned school, one of the pursuing troopers decided to initiate “a pit maneuver,” a technique used by law enforcement to turn a fleeing vehicle sideways, causing the driver to lose control or come to a stop.

“The vehicle spun around — came to a stop,” Teper said. “He immediately pulled a weapon out and shot himself in the car.”

“It’s safe to say that it was a shot to the head,” he added.

Erie County Coroner Lyell Cook pronounced Stephens dead at the scene at 11:35 a.m., authorities said.

Eleven minutes later, state police shared the news: The “Facebook Killer” was dead.

At a hastily called news conference in Ohio, Williams, the Cleveland police chief who had spent parts of three days pleading for tips and for Stephens to turn himself in, announced that the search for Steve W. Stephens was officially over.

“We are grateful that this has ended,” Williams told reporters, shortly after Stephens committed suicide as Pennsylvania troopers were closing in on him.

Williams was hardly in a celebratory mood; the manhunt was bookended by tragedies, starting with the senseless slaying of a stranger and ending with the death of the suspect, one of the most wanted men in America. “A loss of life is a loss of life,” the chief said — and many questions remained.

Steve Stephens, the man who posted a video of himself on Facebook shooting an elderly man in Cleveland, was found dead by Pennsylvania State Police on April 18. (Video: Reuters)

Teper, the Pennsylvania State Police commander, said investigators were turning their attention to the two previous days in hopes of reconstructing Stephens’s movements, which remained a mystery, much like the original slaying itself.

The authorities plan to talk to Stephens’s family members and friends, in addition to executing search warrants for his vehicle and the contents inside, Teper said.

“We don’t believe he had any accomplices,” Teper noted. “Whether somebody was harboring him or he was under a bridge somewhere, we don’t know. I certainly feel that the tension is a lot less now than it was earlier.”

Asked how it may have been possible for Stephens to make the 101-mile journey by car between Cleveland and Erie without being spotted, Teper hesitated.

“A lot of luck,” he eventually said.

This post has been updated.

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