Authorities ruled the 2014 death
of Sandra Stevens a suicide.
Were they right?

Suspicious Suicides

chapter one: find the facts

story by juliana keeping
design by richard hall

published May 21, 2017

“I need them here now.”

The man’s plea reached an Oklahoma City dispatcher at 4:53 a.m. as dawn broke on the damp, cold morning of Dec. 6, 2014.

“I have plenty of help on the way,” the dispatcher reassured him.

“I left her room for two seconds, and there was a gunshot blast.”

“Is she alive?” the dispatcher asked.

“No,” the caller answered.

As the dispatcher talked, eight Oklahoma City police cars, a fire truck and an ambulance raced to the shooting scene — a one-story brick home near NW 105 and Prairie Lane.

There, responders found Sandra Stevens, a 21-year-old Putnam City High graduate, slumped against a bedroom wall. She wore blue sweatpants, a fitted black T-shirt and was barefoot. Her right hand hung limp across her lap. Her left hand rested on the floor, palm upturned, blood spattered over red and silver nail polish. Next to her on the ground lay a 12-gauge shotgun.

A supervisor called for homicide detectives, standard procedure in deaths involving a firearm.

Police, paramedics, crime scene technicians and coroner's office investigators swarmed the house. They took photographs, jotted down notes, conducted interviews.

In such an investigation, the first question to be answered is the most obvious.

How did she die?

Detectives must assume any investigation of a death caused by a gun is a homicide — the killing of one person by another — until facts prove otherwise.

“You have to take the approach that it’s a homicide and work your way from there,’’ said Kyle Eastridge, who spent 24 years with the Oklahoma City Police Department, eight of those as a homicide detective. “Otherwise, you’re going to drop the ball.”

Sitting in an unmarked police car that Saturday morning, the boyfriend told a detective that Stevens had been dealing with emotional issues, taking drugs and hours earlier had been drinking. He told police they’d argued because he thought she was cheating on him.

The boyfriend said, at some point, he fell asleep on a couch. He told the detective that Stevens woke him about 3 a.m. and they went to their bedroom to talk.

He left the room to smoke a cigarette, he said.

It was then he heard the “fast crack” of a shotgun, he told the detective. He ran into the bedroom and saw Stevens on the floor. He checked her pulse, he said, then woke his roommates and told them to stay out of the room. He called 911.

The boyfriend told the detective that Stevens, who was working as a waitress, felt inadequate and that she had no one to talk to. Just three or four days before, he said, she’d locked herself in a bathroom and cut herself.

He told the detective that the shotgun she used to kill herself was his, that he’d bought it, along with a bow and arrow, so the couple could go hunting together. He’d showed her how to use the shotgun the night before. He felt guilty about that, he said. He said he hadn’t threatened her and there was no history of violence in the relationship.

He also told the detective something else, something he’d also mentioned to the dispatcher during the 11-minute 911 call. That a past girlfriend had killed herself. She’d been on drugs, he said. Shot herself with her own gun, he told the detective.

Sylvia Stevens holds a picture of her daughter. Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman

Police later would say the previous girlfriend's suicide would not have changed their investigation of Stevens' death.

The detective reported that he saw no blood on the boyfriend’s red hoodie or jeans, but did notice some on his left hand, which he considered consistent with what the boyfriend had said about checking Stevens’ pulse. The detective asked the boyfriend if crime scene investigators could photograph him to document the lack of blood. He agreed.

The photographs (which police later showed to The Oklahoman but declined to release publicly) showed the boyfriend in a T-shirt and jeans, without the hoodie.

The detective interviewed another young couple living in the house who confirmed much of the boyfriend’s story. Both said they were asleep, did not hear the gunshot and woke only when the boyfriend banged on their bedroom door. One roommate told the detective that the couple would yell at each other, but that he’d never seen them being violent.

To the two detectives, Sandra Stevens’ case looked clear-cut, police would later say.

“It’s very simple. Find the facts. Rely on the evidence. Interview witnesses and involved parties and try and make a determination based on the facts,” said Johnny Kuhlman, deputy chief of the Oklahoma City Police Department’s investigations bureau.

But what police didn’t know at the time is that just hours before her death, Stevens had complained to her parents that her boyfriend kept mistakenly accusing her of cheating and that she planned to move home within days.

They also didn’t know about a series of Facebook messages that the Stevens family says showed a boyfriend who appeared obsessed with knowing Sandra Stevens’ whereabouts at all times, even using GPS to track her movements.

Investigators never discovered an ex-wife had once accused him of beating her and that police who arrived at their door in Killeen, Texas, in 2008 said she had “visible signs of injury to her neck” but did not want to pursue charges.

And they didn’t know that in the days leading up to Sandra Stevens' death, her boyfriend had been messaging a previous girlfriend, who threatened to get a restraining order against him if he persisted.

Police did know that the mother of his earlier girlfriend never believed her daughter took her own life and had her own lingering suspicions about the boyfriend. Despite that, police investigating Stevens’ death did not take another look at the earlier case.

“There are a lot of loose ends in this process that didn’t get picked up on or were ignored from the beginning,” said Jack R. Greene, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston. “There are a lot of dropped balls.”

Still, 3 1/2 hours after the boyfriend dialed 911 that cold December morning, detectives made their determination.

In 2014, the city recorded 115 suicides.

Sandra Stevens would go down as No. 107.

No foul play suspected.

Not everyone would believe it.

Exerpts from a conversation between Stevens and her boyfriend.

Looking for help?

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. The number is 800.273.8255.