Soules had grown up devoutly Catholic in 1940s blue-collar Michigan. When he came out as gay to his mother as a teenager, his family defied expectations by supporting him. Soules left home at 16 to join the circus. After a trapeze accident in his late 20s, he re-invented himself as the ringmaster of a pack of well-dressed poodles. In 1992, Soules took his act to Circus Circus, where, six days a week, his 14 poodles hopped on their hind legs across the stage: one in a poncho and sombrero to a Mexican march, another to a can-can with her dress attached to her front paws, Moulin Rouge-style, still others wearing three-foot-tall hats or giant hoopskirts—all of the outfits handstitched by Soules himself.
Despite the act’s popularity, Soules had lost his spirit. The casino wouldn’t let him stay at its own R.V. park with his poodles, so he was banished to the Silver Nugget Camperland, in much less desirable North Las Vegas. And he’d been living in a heartbroken fog since his partner of decades had died, several years earlier. Eager for companionship, the 55-year-old had recently taken to helping young men in need.
One May day, Soules had spied Fred Steese, disheveled and dirty, his hair bleached sandy blond by the sun. He was holding a WILL WORK FOR FOOD sign. Soules leaned out the window of his truck and offered to take Steese for a meal. Even in faded jeans too big for his lean frame, Steese had blue-eyed good looks, with an easy smile and a loud laugh that rose along the scales and made him seem younger than he really was. Over dinner, Soules revealed that he was gay. Steese shrugged his shoulders and told him that he himself was bisexual. Steese was familiar with the scene—he’d hustled gay men for food, money, or companionship most of his life. The previous month, another middle-aged man had picked him up along a Pennsylvania highway. That man, Rick Rock, enjoyed Steese enough that he paid for a bus ticket and told him to call collect whenever he wanted. And Steese did, often. He liked having someone who cared.
Steese had more or less been on his own since his mother had abandoned him, when he was 10, and he bounced through 37 foster placements. As a teen, he wandered into a hobo camp outside Phoenix, where an old-timer introduced him to riding the rails. Alone on the road, he held tight to the memory of the Busses, the one foster family who’d shown him any love, twice sheltering him at their dairy farm outside Austin—even including him in a formal family portrait. He’d been chasing that connection ever since, smoothing over his past with grandiose lies to gain acceptance and prop up his self-image.
He struck up an affair with Soules and became his assistant. The dog trainer had just fired his latest one, Alexander Kolupaev, a Russian defector with receding red hair who was always short on cash and had rebuffed Soules’s overtures. Just as Steese was settling in, the event manager told him he needed a work permit for his job at the casino. Steese knew that was the end. He was wanted for violating parole in Florida, and he’d been using the alias Fred Burke.
“Listen, I’m going to go ahead and move on because there ain’t no sense in me being here, because I can’t make no money,” Steese told Soules, according to testimony. Steese panhandled enough cash for liquor and a speedball and then hopped a train heading north.
Six days later, when Soules didn’t show up for work, his boss went to the R.V. park to investigate and heard the usually quiet dogs barking excitedly. He banged on the door, calling Soules’s name, before fetching a security guard. Inside detectives found Soules’s belongings scattered around the trailer. The plaid window valance had been yanked down. The TV-and-VCR cabinet was empty. Blood soaked the mattress and trailed across the length of the trailer to the bathroom, where Soules lay naked, his face covered by an orange towel. More blood splattered the bathroom mirror, the counter, the toilet, the tub. Soules’s throat had been slashed, and he’d been stabbed so many times that the coroner stopped counting at 35.
The case of the slain “Poodle King,” as the press had nicknamed Gerard Soules, hit the overworked D.A.’s office at the perfect time for Kephart. An experienced prosecutor had dropped out, handing the eager deputy a death-penalty case, wrapped in the bow of a confession. But more than two years later, when Kephart was finally gearing up for trial, the case looked very different. Steese’s defense team had assembled an extensive alibi with 14 witnesses and 10 items of documentary evidence that they were sure proved Steese was nowhere near Soules’s trailer at the time of the murder.
Kephart and an investigator headed to Idaho in October 1994 to do their best to unravel Steese’s alibi. There they devised a new explanation. One witness noted that Steese had mentioned that he sometimes used the name “Robert.” Another said Steese had told him a couple of times that he had to call his brother. Then Kephart found a Salvation Army assistance form from June 8 that listed a “Fred Burke” and a “Robert” as receiving $10.
Back at the office, they confirmed their suspicions: Steese had a look-alike brother named Robert, who lived in Texas. Kephart and his team came up with a theory: it wasn’t Steese in Idaho; it was Robert—all part of a grand scheme to give Steese an alibi. The witnesses who thought they had met “Fred Burke” in Wyoming and Idaho had really met Robert. Then the real Fred had hightailed it to Idaho after the murder, and that’s when they’d turned up together at the Salvation Army. The beauty of this theory was that nobody involved knew anything about Robert Steese. He could be anyone prosecutors wanted him to be.
PROSECUTORS HAD EVIDENCE THAT STEESE WAS FAR AWAY AT THE TIME OF THE MURDER.
A week or so before trial, Douglas Herndon, 30 years old and three years into his tenure at the D.A.’s office, joined the case as Kephart’s second. A private-law-school grad, and one of the few in the office not from Las Vegas, Herndon was seen as an astute prosecutor. His first thought in reviewing the case was “Wow, I’ve never seen that many alibi witnesses before. How is that going to affect things?” They had no evidence to prove that Robert Steese had been in Idaho, and they had serious conflicts with the time line. The “Robert” theory was at odds with Steese’s confession that his drunken decision to rob Soules was last-minute and that he killed him only because Soules had woken up. Documents placed “Fred Burke” in Wyoming on May 31, so Steese would have had to set the alibi plan in motion three days in advance of a spur-of-the moment burglary.
But because the prosecutors were already convinced that Steese had committed the murder, to them the alibi must simply be wrong—the documents fishy, the witnesses lying or mistaken. And quite possibly there was a conspiracy. Kephart and Herndon would tell the jury that Steese’s alibi was a fantasy.
Steese’s trial began in January 1995 and quickly devolved into a brawl, peppered with accusations of prosecutorial misbehavior. James Erbeck, a well-known private lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney, had been appointed to represent Steese, along with California transplant Nancy Masters, new to both Vegas and to lawyering. Erbeck walked in on the first day with confidence—even though a 70-year-old defense witness had already sworn in an affidavit that Kephart had tried to dissuade her from testifying. Steese had such a strong defense that Erbeck actually cautioned Masters not to think it was typically so easy. That mood dissipated when Erbeck found himself filing motion after motion to dismiss, including for “outrageous prosecutorial misconduct,” only to have each motion batted away by district-court judge Don Chairez, a rookie in his first year on the bench. Chairez had been working for the D.A. when Steese’s prosecution began, three years earlier.
Erbeck’s sense of impotence grew as the trial progressed. He discovered only during testimony that two prosecution witnesses had identified Steese, from photo lineups that included Robert, as the man they’d seen in Idaho. This fact undermined the Robert theory and Kephart and Herndon had sought to conceal it. Kephart had also shown his own last-minute star witness, a neighbor of Soules’s named Michael Moore, a potentially misleading photo array. Moore subsequently identified Steese in court as having been at Soules’s trailer the night of the murder—even though he had told police at the time that the man he’d seen had been short, had red hair, and was balding. That description fit Kolupaev, who had been convicted of a jewelry heist shortly after the murder and would eventually be deported. Kolupaev was never investigated further.At Moore’s testimony, Erbeck had leapt to his feet, railing that it was “trial by ambush,” and telling the court that the lineup Kephart had shown Moore was the most suggestive he’d seen in his career. Each photo had a booking date, but only Steese’s was from the year of the murder. “They have totally tainted the jury,” Erbeck told Chairez. “Look at this lineup. One man in ‘92, everyone else in ‘93, ‘94. The other five couldn’t commit the crime.”
By the time it was Erbeck’s turn, Kephart and Herndon had painted Steese as a conniving killer who had, according to a jailhouse snitch, repeated his confession while incarcerated. But one key prosecution witness was conspicuously absent from the stand. Steese’s friend Rick Rock had been flown in to testify regarding Steese’s alleged comment about the number of stab wounds, but as an older single man living in rural Pennsylvania, Rock was protective of his private life and wasn’t eager to cooperate. He also dodged Erbeck and Masters, who were desperate to talk to him about whether Steese had called him from Idaho at the time of the murder. Then the prosecution abruptly sent him home, telling the defense nothing. Masters asked Kephart for Rock’s unlisted number, but she says Kephart told her she’d have to get a court order. Kephart said he sent her to the witness-support office and told that office to get Rock’s permission first.
To Erbeck, Steese’s defense was simple: he wasn’t in the state at the time of the murder and couldn’t have killed Soules. He’d falsely confessed because he was tired, coming down off drugs, frightened, and of low intelligence. The documentary evidence backed up Steese’s and the witnesses’ claims. He’d left a long trail from May 31 to June 8, using the alias “Fred Burke.”
Steese testified that after he had left Las Vegas he stopped in Salt Lake City, then bumped into a man named Ron Bouttier in the train yard in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Steese took him to the local Salvation Army, and they scrawled their names on the “Monday, May 31” sign-in sheet. On the Burke signature, he’d looped the e back through the name with a line, in his typical fashion. Steese testified that Bouttier had invited him to his grandparents’ in Idaho, until he could get back on his feet. “That was the best offer I had in a long time,” Steese testified. “I didn’t have nowhere to go, so I says ‘all right.’ We got along real good at the time, and so we jumped on a train.”
Bouttier’s family and others Steese met there identified him in court, though two were shaky at first and needed a second chance on the stand. Steese had gained nearly 70 pounds by the time the trial started. In Idaho, he had gone to two employment help centers, and on one job application, on June 4, he used as a reference the name of his beloved foster parent: “Albert Busse.” A few days later, he and Bouttier got into a fight, and Steese took off, showing up on June 8 at the Salvation Army, where he put down two names on the welfare-assistance form because, as an employee testified, she would give him double that way, even if he was alone.
Kephart, speaking in a folksy style that juries liked, used his rebuttal to spin out the “Robert” theory, even though Robert himself was never produced. He called to the stand his investigator, who contradicted many of Steese’s alibi witnesses and accused several of lying. Kephart insinuated that any defense documents that were copies could be forgeries. He even made his own, blown-up version of the Salvation Army sign-in sheet, but instead of Steese’s signature, it was his own, “as an example to the jury to show how documents can be manipulated and why you need originals.” Accusing the defense of presenting doctored evidence was a shocking tactic, but it was consistent with Kephart’s perceived willingness to go to nearly any length to get a conviction. Two of his murder convictions from the prior year would soon be thrown out by the Supreme Court of Nevada for “improper” and “deliberate” comments.
Whatever Steese was saying now, Kephart and Herndon argued, the original confession should be trusted. The jury deliberated for almost two full days before rendering a guilty verdict. After the trial, the prosecutors dropped the death penalty, but Steese was sentenced to two life sentences without parole.
— Source: Vanity Faire