Family still grieves child's 1981murder

Case is one of hundreds affected by Supreme Court ruling on juvenile life sentences


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - For the longest time, Steven Turner was just "the boy on the wall."

As children, Allie and Hanna Vaccaro would see his photograph whenever they visited their grandmother. A big boy with a mass of hair, the 11-year-old posed, smiling, in his football uniform, ready to take on any pee wee team.

But to Allie and Hanna's mother, Melissa Vaccaro, Steven was much more than a photo on the wall, a backdrop to the holiday landscape at grandma's house.

Steven was her brother.

"He was very fun loving, very full of energy and full of spunk," she said. "He was your average 11-year-old, sports-loving boy."

That all changed on Oct. 14, 1981. Steven was sexually assaulted inside an abandoned farmhouse - often called the old potato chip factory - in the Ridgeland development in Hampden Township. He was repeatedly stabbed with a steak knife until the blade broke off in his throat, and pummeled to death with a log.

To be sure he was dead, his killer slit the boy's wrists and buried him beneath a pile of boards with a 90-pound rock on top.

Vaccaro and her family never fully recovered from Steven's murder. Her younger brother's violent death is a shard of glass, embedded deep inside even the happiest of memories.

It's a wound that never healed, and now it's been opened again by the possibility that Steven's killer could soon gain his freedom.

John Vincent Waters was 17 when he was sentenced, back in 1983, to life in prison for Steven's murder. He was just a kid himself when he committed the crimes at age 16.

And his case is one of hundreds in Pennsylvania that were affected by a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that mandatory life sentences for juvenile killers are unconstitutional.

That ruling is retroactive, meaning every juvenile serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania - all 500-plus of them, must have their sentences reviewed.

Courts across Pennsylvania are now dealing with these cases, including one resolved in Dauphin County earlier this week stemming from a 1968 fatal bank robbery.

What will happen to Waters? The Cumberland County District Attorney's Office and Waters' attorney hashed that out before a judge on Monday.

Steven's family planned to be there. Both of his parents are gone, but his big sisters, Melissa Vaccaro and Sheri McMichael, plan to tell the judge not just how Waters took the life of their little brother, but forever ripped a hole in the heart of their family.

In the early 1980s, Vaccaro and McMichael would attend just about every one of their younger brother's football and baseball games. He wasn't a good runner, but he was a hefty boy and one who could hold his own, tackling his opponents as they charged down the field.

Steven was a decent student, though he needed some pushing at school. A note a teacher sent home not long before his death informed his parents that the sixth-grader would often forget his books at school.

The Turners were not much different than other suburban families at the time. Their mother, Donna Turner, returned to work, and their father, Richard Turner, had been selling cars for years. This meant the three latch-key kids were on their own until dinner time.

And on that October day, chores done, some Oreos scarfed down, Steven took off on his bike to play.

Vaccaro was watching a brand-new show called "The People's Court" when the doorbell rang. It was a neighbor boy - a fairly unusual 16-year-old kid whom she described as intelligent, but awkward.

"He said, 'is Steve there?'" Vaccarro recalled.

Waters, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans with a paper-delivery bag slung over his shoulder, said he wanted to see if Steven would help him deliver papers.

She told him Steven had taken off on his bike, and she went back to her show. She thought little of the encounter as the afternoon wore on. It was then 5 p.m. and Steven had not yet come home. Then it was dinner time - chicken pot pies - and no Steven.

It was a tense dinner. They expected Steven to walk in at any moment, in deep trouble.

Then the clock struck 6. No Steven. Something was wrong. They called the police.

Vaccaro remembered that Waters had stopped by the house. McMichael went a few houses down to confront Waters, who, at first, lied and said he never came looking for Steven, but as she pushed him, Waters changed his story and told her he saw Steven getting into a strange car. The family, the neighborhood search party that had quickly formed, and the police were now thinking they had a kidnapping on their hands.

It wasn't long before they found their first sign of Steven. His bike was lying on the side of the road near an abandoned farm house.


A horrifying discovery and days of uncertainty

Those hours of searching for Steven were almost as bad as finding out what happened to their brother.

"Our parents were falling apart and we needed them," McMichael remembers. The sisters were waiting at the house, and she could barely bring herself to be in the same room as her mother.

As a mother, herself, now, McMichael cannot imagine what they were going through.

It was McMichael's boyfriend who walked a path from Steven's bicycle to the old farmhouse. He walked inside. Looking around, he saw a Nike swoosh sticking out of some debris. It was Steven's sneaker. His body had been covered by the boards and rock.

Around 11 p.m., the sisters heard the frenzy of activity outside. McMichael saw a police officer on either side of her father as they held on to him, helping him walk into the house. He insisted on being the one to tell his family. He only got out two words.

"Steven's dead."

He fell to the floor, and the house exploded in crying, screaming and sheer panic.

Neither remember much of the rest of that night, but in the days that followed, the whole community was on edge. Halloween was approaching, and there was a killer on the loose.

Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed remembers those days, too. He was the same age as Steven Turner, who had attended Shaull Elementary School, where Freed's mother was a teacher.

"I remember hearing about it and reading about it when I was 11," Freed said. "It was scary. It sticks in my mind 36 years later."

When your kids go out to play, you hope they're safe, Freed said, and this is the kind of crime that cuts to the very core of that belief.

The Turner house was full of family, friends and well-wishers in the following days. Everyone in the neighborhood was there. So was John Waters.

"Looking back now, he wanted to hear what everyone was saying," McMichael said. "He was sinister."

Waters was among the first to arrive at Steven's memorial service, sitting in the front pew. He even signed the book of condolences.

The sisters watched as police investigated over the course of 11 days. Their father early on was sure he knew who Steven's killer was, yelling one night, "It was that son of a bitch Waters." The police had to talk him out of going to Waters' house, himself.

Then, the clues started adding up. Vaccaro said Waters' mother found a bloody T-shirt - he told her he had a bloody nose. The police went around to all of the houses in the neighborhood, looking at their steak knives. They only took a sample knife from Waters' home.

And on Oct. 25, 1981, the police interviewed Waters, and he confessed to the crime.


Two trials

The transcripts read like a stage play, Freed said.

Edgar Bayley, the district attorney at the time, argued it out with defense attorney Arthur Goldberg, who was a prominent trial attorney. It's a standout case in a lot of ways for Freed. It's not often that such a young child is the victim, or another juvenile is the perpetrator.

"It was an extremely violent act," Freed said. "Even with the homicides we've had in this county, it stands out."

Freed said that, in reviewing the transcripts, prosecutors argued Waters had lured Steven back to the abandoned farmhouse. He said it was for a science experiment to extract wax from a beehive he had found.

That's where Waters sexually assaulted Steven and killed him.

According to The Patriot and The Evening News archives, Goldberg argued for a verdict of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder, which carried a mandatory sentence of life behind bars. Goldberg made the case that Steven was the aggressor and that Waters reacted in a rage.

"I wanted to kill him so they couldn't say I started it," Waters said in the taped interview with police, which was played for the jury. "I picked up a rock... and hit him."

Waters described stabbing Steven and "hitting him and hitting him."

A pathologist, Dr. D.K. Chang, testified at trial that Steven suffered at least four stab wounds and some razor wounds, but the cause of death was the blows to the head, his skull fractured side to side.

There were some postmortem wounds, too. After Steven was dead, Waters cut his wrists.

The jury in the first trial was deadlocked on the homicide charge, but convicted Waters of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.

At the second trial several months later, the jury convicted Waters of first-degree murder, which carried a mandatory life sentence. Even for juveniles.

Until now.


Back in court

In the conference room at his office in the courthouse, Freed has two large boxes that make up a portion of the Waters file.

The new sentence his office will argue in favor of is still in litigation, and he is still in discussions with Waters' attorney, so he couldn't say what the offer - if any - would be, or what sentence he will argue for.

Waters' attorney, Royce Morris, declined to comment for this article after consulting with his client and a mitigation expert. Morris today works for the firm that bears the name of Waters' attorney from back in the 1980s - Goldberg Katzman of Harrisburg.

Freed said prosecutors are in uncharted territories with these juvenile lifer cases. The U.S. Supreme Court said mandatory life sentences for juveniles are prohibited, but not life sentences.

The state statute now has sentencing guidelines for juvenile offenders who commit murder, but that's not so with cases that are retroactively affected by the Supreme Court outcome.

"The age of the offender is relevant, but the nature of the crime, and the actions, and what sets apart a first-degree murder from other degrees of murder is as relevant or more relevant to the resolution than the age," Freed said.

It goes through the generations

Steven Turner's father, Richard, died in October, just shy of the 36th anniversary of his son's murder.

He had been in ailing health for some time, and the sisters did not tell him that Waters could be set free.

But when their mother, Donna, died eight years ago, she made two deathbed requests of her daughters.

One was to make sure Waters stays behind bars. Donna Turner had seen Waters apply for a commutation of his sentence 25 years after the trial - a request that was denied.

And her second request: Don't let the world forget about Steven.

"It's gone through the generations," Vaccaro said. "It's affected our choices and our lives."

Published: Tue, Nov 14, 2017