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. (Reuters)
The man suspected of fatally shooting a 74-year-old, randomly selected target and posting a video of the killing on Facebook committed suicide as police were closing in on him Tuesday, authorities said.
Steve W. Stephens — the subject of a nationwide manhunt after Sunday’s horrific slaying in Cleveland reignited a debate about violence in the Internet age — was spotted late Tuesday morning at a McDonald’s in Erie County, Pa.
A restaurant manager told the New York Times that drive-through employees recognized Stephens, phoned police and tried to delay him by holding up his french fries.
“He just took his nuggets and said, ‘I have to go,’” the manager said.
Pennsylvania State Police said they chased him from the McDonald’s for about two miles, finally ramming his car.
“As the vehicle was spinning out of control … Stephens pulled a pistol and shot himself in the head,” police said in a statement.
Thus ended a desperate, rapidly expanding search that began Sunday — when a video on Stephens’s Facebook page appeared to show him gunning down Robert Godwin Sr. for no apparent reason.
“We have our closure,” Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson said at a news conference in Ohio.
But Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams probably spoke for many when he said moments later: “We have so many questions.”
[Facebook wanted ‘visceral’ live video. It’s getting live-streaming killers and suicides.]
Godwin was killed on Easter, as he walked alone down a residential road in east Cleveland, carrying a grocery bag.
He was reportedly collecting aluminum cans, though his family told CNN that he was walking home from a holiday meal when Stephens — 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds, according to police — approached with a cellphone camera.
“I found somebody I’m about to kill,” Stephens said in the live video. “He’s an old dude.”
There was little in Stephens’s history, as told by those who knew him, to suggest the violence he was about to document.
He had no criminal history. He had worked for many years at a children’s behavioral center in Ohio, where he had no red flags in his personnel file, according to the Erie Times-News.
A neighbor told CNN that he often stayed with his girlfriend and her children in a house outside Cleveland and that he was there two days before the killing, fixing the garage.
But Stephens’s mother told CNN that he’d bid her a cryptic farewell that weekend. He’d said that he was “mad at his girlfriend” and — in a phone call shortly before the killing — that he was “shooting people.”
Authorities say Stephens had never met Godwin before he pulled his Ford Fusion up beside him about 2 p.m.
Stephens approached Godwin. “Can you do me a favor?” Stephens said, as seen in the video. He asked Godwin to say the name “Joy Lane.”
“Joy Lane?” Godwin responded.
[D.C. police: False report that Facebook killer seen at a District hotel]
“Yeah,” Stephens said. “She’s the reason why this is about to happen to you.”
Stephens then asked Godwin how old he was, raised a gun into the frame and pulled the trigger.
The camera spun around; when the picture came back into focus, Godwin was on the ground.
In the video, Stephens claimed to have killed more than a dozen people. Police said they have not confirmed any other deaths.
Williams, the police chief, said Tuesday that the case started with one tragedy and ended with another, about 100 miles from the street in Cleveland where Godwin died. “A loss of life is a loss of life,” the chief said.
Stephens posted a subsequent video — on his cellphone, telling someone to go online to watch the footage.
“I can’t talk to you right now. I f‑‑‑‑‑ up, man,” he says.
“I shamed myself,” he adds in the video, posted by Cleveland.com. “I snapped. Dog, I just snapped, dog. I just snapped. I just killed 13 motherf‑‑‑‑‑‑, man. That’s what I did — I killed 13 people. And I’m about to keep killing until they catch me, f‑‑‑ it. … I’m working on 14 as we speak.”
“She put me at my pushing point, man,” Stephens says, speaking of Lane, laughing and calling it the “Easter Sunday Joy Lane massacre.”
CBS News reported that it communicated with Lane via text message.
“We had been in a relationship for several years,” she wrote, according to the network. “I am sorry that all of this has happened. My heart & prayers goes out to the family members of the victim(s). Steve really is a nice guy … he is generous with everyone he knows. He was kind and loving to me and my children.”
[After a coldblooded killing in Cleveland, GoFundMe was flooded with questionable donation pages]
The case prompted Facebook to review how quickly and easily its users can report material that violates standards.
“We have more to do here, and we’re reminded of this this week by the tragedy in Cleveland,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at a developer conference Tuesday. “We will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening;”
Three men were shot last year in Norfolk while one was broadcasting live on Facebook from inside a car. And in 2015, a shooter killed a TV journalist and her cameraman during a live television broadcast before posting his own video of the killing on Facebook.
In January, four people in Chicago were accused of attacking an 18-year-old disabled man while broadcasting the assault on Facebook Live. They have since pleaded not guilty.
Other live platforms have been used to broadcast similar videos.
Facebook said it suspended Stephens’s account minutes after learning of the gruesome video.
But it had circulated for hours by then, horrifying countless people.
“This is something that should not have been shared around the world. Period,” Cleveland’s police chief said.
On Monday, in a tearful interview on CNN, Godwin’s relatives said they forgave Stephens.
“The thing I would take away most from our father is that he taught us about God: how to fear God, how to love God and how to forgive,” Tonya Godwin-Baines, the victim’s daughter, said on CNN.
And so, she said, “each one of us forgives the killer, the murderer. We want to wrap our arms around him.”
Authorities just wanted to find him.
Authorities issued an arrest warrant on a charge of aggravated murder, put him on the FBI most-wanted listed, and offered up to $50,000 for information leading to his arrest — while warning that he was “armed and dangerous.”
Williams said authorities had contact with Stephens via cellphone early in the investigation, but his last known location was the site where Godwin was killed.
“I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason for what happened,” the police chief told reporters Monday. “I don’t think there’s anything we can point to specifically to say that this is what sparked this. Only Steve knows that.”
Hundreds of reports of possible sightings started to pour in from across the country — most of them inaccurate.
Early Tuesday, someone called police to report that he thought he had seen Stephens at a hotel in Washington, but a police spokesman there said authorities quickly determined that the person was not the man being sought.
On Tuesday morning, FBI Special Agent Vicki Anderson said Stephens could be anywhere.
“You’re going to see law enforcement activity who knows where,” she told The Washington Post.
It’s not clear what brought Stephens to Erie County. Police described the area as remote, rural and full of potential hiding places.
Cleveland.com reported that he’d posted to Facebook about extensive gambling losses at a casino nearby, and police told CNN that he was a regular patron.
In any case, Pennsylvania State Police were on the trail of his Ford Fusion by 11 a.m., after getting the tip from the McDonald’s.
They scoured the area for the “Facebook Killer” and chased his car for about two miles — before causing it to crash across the street from a former elementary school, according to the Erie Times-News.
“As the officers approached that vehicle, Steve Stephens took his own life,” Williams said.
“We would like to have brought in Steven peacefully and really talk to him and find out why this happened,” he said.
Not everyone thought so.
“All I can say is that I wish he had gone down in a hail of 100 bullets,” Godwin’s daughter Brenda Haymon told CNN.
Drew Harwell, Travis M. Andrews and Fred Barbash contributed to this report, which has been updated numerous times. An earlier version incorrectly identified the suspect’s license plate as well as the year Facebook launched its live-streaming feature.