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A serial killer is loose in the early 1980s. His attacks are increasingly brutal and his choice of victim is seemingly random. Then, after he commits his crimes he does something confounding: He calls the police and, while seeming to cry, asks them to stop him. But despite his apparent guilt, he continues to kill, while the police desperately try to track him down.

Guest: Prosecutor Tom

A native of Minnesota, Tom Foley spent twenty-one years in law enforcement, including four terms as Ramsey County Attorney (1978- 1995) in St. Paul, Minnesota. As County Attorney, he was the chief prosecutor for the jurisdiction. He also served as Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections (1976-1978) and Special Assistant Attorney General for the State of Minnesota (1973-1976). He’s a founding member of Foley & Quigley Law, a Minnesota-based firm focused on gaming and Native American legal issues. He’s also vice president of Lowry Strategies Inc.,. a Washington-based government affairs company.

Read Transcript

Yeardley: [00:00:03] Hey, Small Town Fam, it’s Yeardley. How are you, guys? We have a great episode for you today. It is a well-known case that you may actually be familiar with, but this is certainly no Wikipedia rehashing of that crime. Of course not. Today, we bring you an inside view of the case from one of the chief prosecutors who was front and center as police in his county were frantically trying to find a serial killer, and who was also instrumental in making sure the killer was brought to justice. Of course, this kind of case is also right in Paul Holes’s wheelhouse, since one of his many masteries includes profiling serial predators. To that end, you’ll hear Paul very much in his element here as we unpack the details of the brutal murders this suspect committed, as well as his propensity for calling police and confessing to his crimes. Here is, “Please, Stop Me.”

Yeardley: [00:01:09] Hi, there. I’m Yeardley.

Dan: [00:01:11] I’m Dan.

Dave: [00:01:11] I’m Dave.

Paul Holes: [00:01:12] And I’m Paul.

Yeardley: [00:01:13] And this is Small Town Dicks.

Dan: [00:01:16] Dave and I are identical twins.

Dave: [00:01:17] And retired detectives from Small Town, USA.

Paul Holes: [00:01:20] And I’m a veteran cold case investigator who helped catch the Golden State Killer using a revolutionary DNA tool.

Dan: [00:01:26] Between the three of us, we’ve investigated thousands of crimes, from petty theft to sexual assault, child abuse to murder.

Dave: [00:01:33] Each case we cover is told by the detective who investigated it, offering a rare personal account of how they solved the crime.

Paul Holes: [00:01:40] Names, places, and certain details have been changed to protect the privacy of victims and their families.

Dan: [00:01:45] And although we’re aware that some of our listeners may be familiar with these cases, we ask you to please join us in continuing to protect the true identities of those involved-

Dave: [00:01:52] -out of respect for what they’ve been through.

[unison]: [00:01:55] Thank you.

Yeardley: [00:02:02] Today on Small town Dicks, we have the usual suspects. We have Detective Dan.

Dan: [00:02:08] Hello, everyone.

Yeardley: [00:02:09] Hello, you. So good to see you.

Dan: [00:02:11] Great to be here.

Yeardley: [00:02:11] [giggles] We have Detective Dave.

Dave: [00:02:14] Pleasure to be here.

Yeardley: [00:02:15] Pleasure to have you, sir. And we have the one and only, Paul Holes.

Paul Holes: [00:02:19] I’m very happy to be here.

Yeardley: [00:02:20] We are so happy to have you. And Small Town Fam, it’s a really amazing day on the podcast. We are so pleased to welcome a new guest into the fold, Prosecutor Tom.

Tom: [00:02:33] Glad to be here.

Yeardley: [00:02:34] Thank you so much, Tom. So, we often do cases that most of our listeners aren’t familiar with. Today, Tom brings us a case that’s quite well known, but what’s fantastic is we’re actually getting it from the source. So, Tom, I want to set you up for our audience. Tom was the Chief Prosecutor of Ramsey County in Minnesota through the 1980s, and this case was a huge one. So, Tom, tell us how this case came to you.

Tom: [00:03:05] So, it was the early 80s, 1980 to 1982 that the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, were terrorized by a sadistic serial killer. It starts out with the first victim, a woman by the name of Karen Potack. She was a 20-year-old American-Indian woman that was violently beaten, and her body was left near the railroad tracks, kind of near the borders between St. Paul and Minneapolis, near a place called the Malmberg Manufacturing Company. This was New Year’s Eve of 1980. She had gone out with friends and family, and towards the end of the evening, she decided– She only lived a short way away. She was going to walk home by herself. So, she left the nightclub and walked out the door. She was bludgeoned across the head with a tire iron and was left for dead.

[00:04:04] About 03:00 AM that morning, police received a phone call, and it was a high-pitched individual that directed the police to the crime scene and said, “There’s a girl hurt there.”

Yeardley: [00:04:16] So, these calls, these recordings that we have are the originals, but they’re a little bit muddy, because we didn’t have digital back in the 1980s, obviously. So, we’ll paraphrase. So, you, the listener, don’t miss anything.

Paul Michael: [00:04:33] Yes, please. This is an emergency. Please send a squad to [unintelligible [00:04:37] Malmberg Manufacturing Company machine shop. Please send an ambulance too. There’s a girl hurt there.

911 Responder: [00:04:45] Can you tell me what happened to her?

Paul Michael: [00:04:47] I’m telling that she’s laying on the ground in the back by the railroad tracks, by the ATM. Hurry.

911 Responder: [00:04:53] What’s the address?

Paul Michael: [00:04:54] I don’t know.

911 Responder: [00:04:55] Who are you?

Yeardley: [00:04:57] So, what I got from that recording paraphrasing here a bit, the high-pitched male caller says, “Please send a squad to the Malmberg Manufacturing Company machine shop. Send an ambulance too. There’s a girl hurt there.” And then the 911 operator asks a question. “She’s laying on the ground in the back by the railroad tracks. Hurry.” And then when the 911 operator says, “What’s the address?” The caller says, “I don’t know.” And then he says, “Who are you?” And he hangs up.

Tom: [00:05:31] So, first responders came, found a badly beaten woman. She’d been beaten around her head and neck area and left for dead. It was the middle of winter. She had no coat or anything on. Her brain had been exposed, and the first responders were surprised that she was able to survive. She did survive, but unfortunately, she had no memory of the attack or the attacker. It was just an unsolved, brutal assault that took place in St. Paul that night.

Paul Holes: [00:06:06] Had there been any sexual assault on her?

Tom: [00:06:08] No, not at all.

Paul Holes: [00:06:10] So, abducted and beaten by the offender.

Tom: [00:06:12] Abducted and beaten. About six months later, it was June 3rd, 1981, Kimberly Compton was an 18-year-old girl. Some teenage boys were playing in a field near a wooded area not too far from Interstate 35E that runs through St. Paul, and they found a dead woman laying there. She had been stabbed 61 times with an ice pick and then strangled with a shoelace. When police examined the body, they found a key to a locker at the Greyhound station in downtown St. Paul. They went there, they found a backpack, suitcase with her clothes, and an ID. So, they knew who it was. She had just arrived that day at the bus depot and decided to walk across the street to a little diner that was across from the bus depot called Mickey’s Diner.

[00:07:11] Later that afternoon, police got another call with a high-pitched voice, and this is probably why they called him the Weepy-Voiced Killer.

Paul Michael: [00:07:22] Will you find me? I just stabbed somebody with an ice pick. I can’t stop myself. I keep killing somebody.

Tom: [00:07:31] The caller said, “Will you find me? I just stabbed somebody with an ice pick. I can’t stop myself.”

Yeardley: [00:07:37] Oh, my God. But that same high-pitched killer, he didn’t stab the first victim? Obviously, I’m assuming it was the same man. But when he called police the first time, he had bludgeoned Karen. And this one, he stabbed. So, did it make police think maybe there were other victims in between when he says, “I can’t stop stabbing people?”

Tom: [00:07:58] We hadn’t linked the two cases at this point. We had the brutal assault six months earlier, and then we had the stabbing of Kimberly Compton. The police were more focused on the Compton case right now and not really linking the two cases.

Paul Holes: [00:08:14] Hey, Tom, back in 1980, what was the crime rate? Did these cases stand out to law enforcement as unique, or would this be something that would be caught up in just a large number of cases that they were handling at the time?

Tom: [00:08:27] No. The stabbing of a young girl 61 times with an ice pick was highly unusual in St. Paul. We had a number of murders during the course of the year, but nothing that was showing such violence is demonstrated against this young girl. But the police did trace the phone call back to a phone booth that was outside the bus depot, and they went there, obviously trying to see if anyone was still there or anyone knew anybody that had recently used the phone. They couldn’t find any person of interest at all. But two days later, the same high pitched voice call again, and he said, “I’m sorry for stabbing Compton,” and said he would turn himself in, but obviously, he never did.

Paul Holes: [00:09:13] Had the victim’s name been put in the newspapers?

Tom: [00:09:16] Yeah. It was public that she had been stabbed and found in St. Paul. The third day, the caller called again. That was June 6th. He said, “I’ll try not to kill anyone,” and added that, “He couldn’t help it. I don’t know why I stabbed her. I am so upset about it.”

Paul Michael: [00:09:33] Don’t talk. Just listen. I saw what I did to Compton. I couldn’t help, but don’t know why I had to stab her. I am so upset about it. I keep getting drunk every day, but I can’t believe I did it. It’s like a big dream. I can’t think of being locked up. If I get locked up, I’d kill myself. I’d rather kill myself to get locked up. I’ll be trying not to kill anybody else.

Yeardley: [00:10:05] It’s so bizarre. Piggybacking on to what you were paraphrasing, Tom, the killer says, “I don’t know why I had to stab her. I keep getting drunk every day, but I can’t believe I did it. It’s like a big dream.” And then he goes on to say, “I can’t think of being locked up. If I get locked up, I’ll kill myself. I’d rather kill myself than get locked up. I’ll try not to kill anybody else.” And then the caller hangs up. It’s like this stream of consciousness confession. It’s so odd. Almost like he’s not even really talking to the 911 operator. What do you think that’s about? Is it guilt? Is it some twisted form of bragging, like, he’s staking a claim to these crimes? What do you think, Paul Holes?

Paul Holes: [00:10:58] when offenders call in to either the police station, the detective’s desk, dispatch, it is for different reasons. There are some offenders that are doing it as a form of taunt. That’s what they are getting. That is a form of thrill for them. They’re calling into the people that are chasing them and it’s like, “Ha-ha, here I am.” With this case, I don’t get to this as being taunting. He’s not making the statements that I would expect, if it was this cat and mouse type of situation. He is just calling up and saying, “I’m the guy that did this. Please stop me.” So, it very much is more in that confessional aspect.

Yeardley: [00:11:42] Didn’t BTK write letters and Zodiac, of course, famous examples of catch me if you can?

Paul Holes: [00:11:48] Those are offenders. It is a taunt. It is ego in terms of, “Here I am. You guys have failed to catch me.” And that really was what both the Zodiac and BTK were trying to accomplish with going to the police as well as going public.

Dave: [00:12:04] He says in the call that we just listened to there, he says, “If I go to jail, I’ll have to kill myself,” or something along those lines that lets you know he does not want to be in custody. He wants to continue. He realizes he needs to stop.

Yeardley: [00:12:18] Right. And that really supports the theory that calling the police is more of a confession, less of a come get me. “I think I want to stop, but I’m not going to stop. Please don’t find me, because then I have to take another route, which is to kill myself.”

Dave: [00:12:33] Right.

Tom: [00:12:33] So, this is unusual to get a call from the perpetrator. We were trying to make sense of it all. Later on, as the investigation proceeded, again, we found out that the victim, Kimberly Compton, had just graduated from high school. She was from Pepin, Wisconsin, about 80 miles south of St. Paul. Got on a Greyhound bus, had just arrived at the bus depot, she was looking forward to moving the Twin Cities and getting a job.

Dan: [00:13:01] The first day of the rest of her life.

Tom: [00:13:03] That’s right.

Yeardley: [00:13:03] Yeah.

Tom: [00:13:04] That’s what it was. She went across the street for breakfast, and unfortunately ended up sitting next to Paul Stephani at the counter. They started talking and she said, she was just brand new to the city and Stephani offered to show her around St. Paul and give her a tour. And later on, he admitted that 15 minutes later, she was dead.

Yeardley: [00:13:28] Oh, my God.

Paul Holes: [00:13:42] So, the law enforcement are getting these calls from, obviously, the killer of Kimberly. This man, he’s sounding unhinged. There’s a mental aspect going on, and they have to believe, “We’re going to have more victims. This offender is literally announcing, I’m going to kill more.” So, I imagine, this is an ongoing public safety threat that law enforcement has got to be almost in a state of panic of, how are we going to stop more victims from showing up?

Tom: [00:14:12] Yes, that was the concern. The police, as part of their investigation, went back to old unsolved cases, and that’s when they remembered the high pitch voice calling on the Karen Potack case on New Year’s Eve. They compared the two tape recordings and realized it was the same suspect. In both those cases, they had no evidence they could find at the scene that would link it to any individual. But one thing the police did do is they released the recordings to the media and the public, hoping that somebody would recognize who the caller was and maybe point to a person of interest. Over 150 tips came in the first few days, none of them panned out and didn’t lead anything to the killer or any suspect at all.

[00:15:03] The police had the voice recordings analyzed, and obviously matched the two, and had experts looking at it in case in the future they needed that information. One of the things that happened next which caused a problem in the investigation was a few months later, the police were called to a domestic disturbance in St. Paul. When they arrived, they arrested a man named Alan Lopez, and he had killed his parents and his 16-year-old sister. During their interrogation of Lopez, he also said that he had killed Kimberly Compton. And so, the police thought they had the killer and were making preparations to analyze his voice and compare to the voice recordings that they had, but he killed himself in jail before they could do the comparisons.

Paul Holes: [00:15:56] I’ll ask this about Kimberly too, was there any sexual assault on her?

Tom: [00:16:00] No, there was no sexual assault. She was just stabbed 61 times.

Paul Holes: [00:16:04] So here, we’re dealing with cases in 1980, the killer is not leaving fluids. You don’t have surveillance cameras.

Dave: [00:16:12] Can’t ping a cell phone.

Paul Holes: [00:16:13] No.

Tom: [00:16:14] We had none of those things available to us that they would have right now to look for forensic evidence.

Paul Holes: [00:16:20] And this Lopez basically says, “I’m the guy. I’m the killer.”

Tom: [00:16:23] “I did it.”

Paul Holes: [00:16:24] Yeah.

Yeardley: [00:16:24] So, then they assumed the case is closed, because he says he confessed and now he’s committed suicide in jail?

Tom: [00:16:30] Well, I don’t think they closed it, but they informally thought they had their killer. There had been no new incidents, no one calling. So, they were pretty sure that maybe no more violence would occur through this individual.

Dan: [00:16:44] These cases, these murder cases, there’s a ton of follow up that goes on after you make an arrest, or say, in this case, Mr. Lopez confesses, and then he kills himself. There’s a ton of follow up you can do, because you’re trying to confirm what he’s told you. And that’s the problem. If you can’t confirm it, you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, maybe I’m not looking in the right place.” In this case, it’s just completely false.

Tom: [00:17:07] Yeah, it’s completely false. I think the police did do some follow up but could never pin anything directly back to the first two cases.

Paul Holes: [00:17:17] Did the newspapers report on Lopez as possibly being Kimberly Compton’s killer?

Tom: [00:17:22] Not till later. So, about a year later, on August 6th, 1982, a paper boy out early in the morning delivering his route spotted the body on the Minneapolis side of the Mississippi River. The police were called, and they found a 40-year-old nurse named Barbara Simons. She was beaten and stabbed to death, and the wounds were circular, and the detectives thought it could have been made with a screwdriver or an ice pick. As they were investigating what happened, who was Barbara Simons, where had she been, they got a call.

911 Responder: [00:18:02] What’s your emergency?

Paul Michael: [00:18:04] [unintelligible [00:18:04] I’m sorry, I killed that girl. I stabbed her 40 times. Kimberly Compton was the first one over in St. Paul. [weeping] [unintelligible [00:18:15] I don’t know what to [unintelligible [00:18:15]. I’m going to kill myself I’m telling you.

911 Responder: [00:18:20] Where are you?

Paul Michael: [00:18:21] [unintelligible [00:18:21] arrest me, I’ll kill more people. [weeping] I’ll never make it into heaven.

911 Responder: [00:18:28] Calm down.

Tom: [00:18:32] Stephani said,”I’m sorry, I killed that girl. I stabbed her 40 times. Kimberly Compton was the first one over in St. Paul. I killed more people. I’ll never make it into heaven.”

[00:18:44] So, the police realized he’s now connected himself back to the Compton case. The Minneapolis Police Department started coordinating with the St. Paul Police Department, because the Compton case was in St. Paul, the Simmons case was in Minneapolis. They found out that Barbara Simons had gone to a place called the Hexagon Bar, not too far from where her body was found. A bartender and waitress had seen her that night talking to an unidentified white man. Simmons made a comment to the waitress. She said, “I hope this guy is okay, because I need a ride home.”

Yeardley: [00:19:24] Oh, God.

Tom: [00:19:25] So, the police, as part of their investigation, pulled out some mug shots of people who had been arrested for a history of violent assault. One of them was Paul Stephani. So, they gave a photo lineup of eight photographs, and the bartender identified the man with Simmons as Paul Stephani.

Yeardley: [00:19:45] So, he had had prior contact with the police even before Karen Potack. Is that so?

Tom: [00:19:52] Yes. Nothing major, but a violent assaultive personality and was in the criminal justice system. Stephani now becomes the main suspect. And so, the police set up a surveillance team at his apartment over in St. Paul to follow him. He left his residence in the night of August 21st, 1982. Investigators followed him into Minneapolis, but then they lost him in the traffic and didn’t know where he had gone. And several hours later, the police got a call from a witness that a woman was being stabbed with a screwdriver and the man went and tried to intervene, but the suspect threatened the man and then fled in his car. So, when the first responders came, they found a 21-year-old woman, Denise Williams. She was a prostitute and she had been stabbed 13 times, but she was still alive.

[00:20:51] So, it turns out when they talked to her that Stephani had offered her a ride, but then he pulled into an isolated area and he immediately pulled a screwdriver out of his glove compartment and began stabbing her. She found a Coke bottle on the floorboards below her feet, grabbed it, and was able to smash Stephani across the face with this Coke bottle and she jumped out of the car. Stephani followed her, and that’s when he was still assaulting her, when the good Samaritan happened to spot it and tried to intervene, and that’s when he was threatened and Stephani fled. But this Denise Williams was able to identify Stephani as the person who stabbed her.

Paul Holes: [00:21:35] Did Stephani pose as a customer of Denise or did he literally just pull up aside her and offer her a ride?

Tom: [00:21:42] I think he was a customer but was supposedly going to take her home as well. But then he pulled into an isolated area and started assaulting her.

Dave: [00:21:51] So, law enforcement is doing surveillance on Stephani. They’re following him. It’s one thing to follow someone through a residential neighborhood. It is different when you’re on a freeway or you have traffic lights every block. It’s hard to stay on top of somebody and then you’d lose them and immediately, everyone’s like, “I hope he doesn’t kill someone tonight.” And then you find out later, he tried. For me in law enforcement, if that’s my assignment, I’m, like, pissed off. It’s a failure. You feel the guilt. But I don’t think people understand how difficult it is to follow somebody who is in the criminal world who has this awareness that there might be somebody looking for me. It’s really difficult to follow a suspect in a vehicle.

Yeardley: [00:22:38] You don’t want to get spotted. So, you can’t just be right on their tail, right?

Dave: [00:22:42] Exactly. You need multiple units. Somebody who makes two or three turns and the same cars behind them, I pay attention to that. So, certainly, somebody who’s out committing murders and violent assaults is going to be somewhat aware of who’s behind them, where they are. They’re always on the lookout, trying to make sure that they’re not going to be discovered, they don’t want to be prosecuted. Even though he’s asking for it on the tapes, “Please stop me,” something to that effect. He’s also out on the prowl. He doesn’t want to be stopped in the action.

Paul Holes: [00:23:24] So, as I’m processing Stephani’s MO in terms of victim selection, the first victims, I believe he’s either running across in bars, nightclubs, or at a bus depot, where now you have this population that he can possibly be interacting with in order to try to isolate somebody, in order to go and kill. But now he’s interacting with a sex worker. From my perspective, killers don’t just go into a stroll area without understanding that culture. They typically do, proposition sex workers learn how to interact with them before they escalate up to the actual violence. So, now, I would be looking at, are there any other sex workers who maybe just have gone missing? Their bodies haven’t been found, because he’s now fishing from the stroll area on high-risk victims who do not often get reported as going missing.

Dave: [00:24:20] I’m thinking about Gary Ridgway.

Paul Holes: [00:24:22] Yes.

Dave: [00:24:22] That he was so comfortable in that environment that he could just blend in.

Paul Holes: [00:24:27] You have to get comfortable first.

Tom: [00:24:28] Yeah. The police didn’t have any information that they thought he was involved with anyone else at this time, but they knew they had him for the murder of Barbara Simons, and the attempted murder of Denise Williams, the prostitute. He went back home and the police surveillance unit was still watching his apartment in case he returned. He did return and he called 911 and he said, “I got beat up and I’m bleeding. Send an ambulance.” The 911 operators thought the voice sounded very similar to the voices they had heard on Kimberly Compton and Karen Potack that had been in the news. They called the police, or the police were there, they went in and they arrested Stephani.

[00:25:16] When they confronted him, the Minneapolis Police Department had him on the attempted murder charges and the murder charge. They showed him photographs of the other victims, and Stephani said, “You’re not going to pin those on me.” But his voice changed into a real high-pitched voice. So, the police thought they knew they had their man.

Yeardley: [00:25:35] It’s interesting, because prior to this, Stephani is calling the police and doing his weepy confessional thing, but now when they catch him, he’s like, “No, that murder has nothing to do with me.” Do you think he had a change of heart?

Paul Holes: [00:25:52] No, I wouldn’t say there’s a change of heart. He’s not somebody who is wanting to be caught. He needs to get it off his chest. So, there’s that confession. But he is making these calls, like, the one call that Tom brought up that we know where the location came from, it came from the bus depot phone booth. It’s not something he’s associated with and he’s making these very brief calls. This is old landline type phone systems, right?

Tom: [00:26:16] Yeah.

Paul Holes: [00:26:17] So there’s limited information that is left in the ether that law enforcement can go after during this era. So, Stephani is just calling, but expecting to continue to get away with the crime.

Tom: [00:26:30] He absolves himself of any criminal activity and moves on to the next one.

Dan: [00:26:34] Those calls are so he can sleep at night.

Paul Holes: [00:26:36] Yes.

Tom: [00:26:37] So, he was charged with murder of Simons and attempted murder of Williams. We decided, working with Hennepin County that they should proceed, because they had two eyewitnesses against Stephani. We still didn’t have good evidence that we could link necessarily the voice in the analysis. We thought we could do that with the expert witness, but we decided that they should go ahead with their cases. So, they went ahead trial in Hennepin County in February of 1984. But during the trial, the judge disallowed any voice analysis or voice recordings saying, “You couldn’t link them to Stephani,” and threw that evidence out.

Yeardley: [00:27:23] What? Why? That seems like some of your strongest evidence.

Tom: [00:27:26] He said, it wasn’t substantial enough to connect Stephani to the high-pitched voices. But there were two witnesses that testified in that trial. One was his ex-wife and one was his sister, and they both identified the high-pitched voice as Stephani. So, even though the expert witness couldn’t testify, they had good witnesses that could connect Stephani to the recordings.

Yeardley: [00:27:52] Okay. So, wow, even better than to have a family member go, “Oh yeah, no, that’s my ex or my brother.”

Paul Holes: [00:27:59] And then they also had the eyewitnesses, right?

Tom: [00:28:01] And the eyewitnesses on those two cases. But we were trying to obviously connect them back to Kimberly Compton and Karen Potack.

Yeardley: [00:28:09] What was Stephani’s affect in court during his trial? Was he stoic? Was he weepy? What was his deal?

Tom: [00:28:18] I wasn’t there to personally witness it. I believe he was fairly stoic from what I had heard from people. So, he didn’t have any outward weepiness that he demonstrated on the phone calls.

Yeardley: [00:28:30] So, you mentioned that Stephani’s ex-wife and sister were able to identify his voice on those calls. How long had he been married and what was his relationship with his family and his ex-wife? Did you get any glimpse into that during the trial?

Tom: [00:28:47] He had left his ex-wife and child, and he abandoned them and had not been close to them for a number of years. And then he had a girlfriend that was Syrian, and she went back home for an arranged marriage, and he was very upset about that. There was speculation that perhaps he was taking out on these women, because this woman left him and he was very upset about it. But that’s all speculation in terms of looking at his background and what might have led him up to some of these crimes.

Paul Holes: [00:29:23] That is entirely in line when you’re dealing with these serial predators. Oftentimes, they have clusters of attacks around a stressor in their life. I could see it would be very logical to say, yes, this was a stressor, because none of these attacks, and correct me if I’m wrong, was there a sexual component to the homicide. It was literally straight to homicide without any sexual interaction.

Tom: [00:29:49] Right.

Paul Holes: [00:29:49] So, this really speaks to a level of an offender type, this anger retaliatory offender, where there’s something that has made a person very upset in their normal life and they retaliate out using the victims as proxy.

Tom: [00:30:05] Yeah. So, Stephani was convicted of murder and attempted murder and received 40 years in prison. And so, he went to prison. But in 1997, while in prison, he’s probably about 57 by this time, I think he was in his mid-30s when he did the Potack and the Compton assault and murder. He was diagnosed with terminal skin cancer, and he had anywhere from a month to a year to live. And so, he called the St. Paul Police Department and said, he wanted to talk to them and he wanted to confess his past criminal activity. So, St. Paul policeman out there and visited with Stephani and he admitted to the Potack and the Kimberly Compton and the other assaults. But then he said, “And I also drowned a girl somewhere in the early 1980s in St. Paul.” And that was a new one for everybody.

[00:31:05] So, this is now 1997. The St. Paul Police went back to the medical examiners and said, “Do you have any unsolved drownings in the early 1980s?” They narrowed in. There was an unsolved murder victim called Kathy Greening. It happened July 21st, 1982. So, that was two months before the Barbara Simons killing. The drowning was the third victim, but we weren’t aware of it until the late 1990s. But in this case, Stephani never called. It’s the only case he never called to admit to anything. The police then went back over the investigation of the Kathy Greening homicide. They found Stephani’s initials in her address book. It said, “Paul S” with a telephone number, and it was the same telephone number that he had used back when he called for the ambulance in his apartment.

[00:32:05] In the original investigation of Kathy Greening homicide, authorities had missed that connection, because Stephani would have been known by then if they had run down that lead and found the same phone number.

Paul Holes: [00:32:19] This is a significant behavior that he’s exhibiting. Here, you have a victim, Kathy, that he’s in her social circles. He’s in her address book. He knows that he is connected to her. So, he doesn’t call, because he knows that he is going to possibly pop up during the investigation, and he’s called on these other cases where these were strangers to him.

Dave: [00:32:43] It’s almost like not calling is his alibi.

Paul Holes: [00:32:45] Yes.

Tom: [00:32:46] In this particular case, he said he met her at a bar, and he went back to her house, and they had sex, voluntary sex, and then he drowned her in her bathtub. The next morning, Kathy Greening was supposed to be leaving on a vacation with her friend to Mackinac Island, and the door was not locked and she walked in and she found Kathy Greening face up in the tub with her face under the faucet.

Paul Holes: [00:33:13] Had the case been ruled a homicide? Did she have injuries, like, she had been fighting against the person holding her underwater?

Tom: [00:33:19] No, that’s a problem.

Paul Holes: [00:33:20] In Kathy’s case, did they collect sexual assault evidence from her body at autopsy?

Tom: [00:33:25] Yes.

Paul Holes: [00:33:26] So, if this case had happened today, and if there was semen evidence found, of course DNA would be utilized to possibly identify who she had sex with, even though if it was consensual, it could lead to who killed her. But back in 1980, they could just say, “Well, she recently had sex.”

Tom: [00:33:43] Right.

Dave: [00:33:43] Paul, you’ve processed a lot of crime scenes. If you were to find a deceased body in a bathtub with water, and you suspect or you want to obtain any biological trace evidence, how do you process a full bathtub full of water with a body in it?

Paul Holes: [00:34:00] You don’t. You can collect a sample of the water, but in essence, it’s the body. Water complicates, how long the evidence is going to stay, particularly on the outside surfaces, but it’s not going to be a problem from the internal aspects of the body and where the evidence is protected. But I will tell you, I have a victim who was floating in a river, and we got semen evidence from an external genitalia swab, even though she’s nude floating in a river. So, once the body is collected, retrieved out of the water, typically this happens at the morgue. Now, you can process that body as if it had not been in the water. I would always recommend you thoroughly process the body. You’re doing surface swabs, what I call blind swabbing, where the offender may have mouthed, licked, bit, etc. Fingernail clippings, as well as taking the orifice swabs.

Tom: [00:34:49] Nowadays, it would be a whole different investigative procedure than it was back then.

Paul Holes: [00:34:53] Yeah.

Tom: [00:34:54] So, until 1997, when they got an admission from Paul Stephani, that’s how that case was solved. Nobody knew who had killed Kathy Greening.

Paul Holes: [00:35:04] And then did Stephani, as he’s admitting to all of these cases, is he giving the reason he is killing these women?

Tom: [00:35:12] No, he’s not giving a reason. He just says, “I don’t know why I killed these people.” He was born and raised in Austin, Minnesota. That’s the home of a Hormel meat packing company. He was raised in a very devout Catholic family, but he said, he was physically abused by his stepfather. But in looking back at some of his background, he was a janitor at the Malmberg Manufacturing Company. That’s where Karen Potack was found, right outside the Malmberg on the railroad tracks. Stephani had a real religious upbringing, and they think that’s why his calls to the police and saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I did it.” I think in his own way, it was going to confession, and he could get the burden off his mind. He called on the Compton case more than anything else, and I think it was a way to absolve himself.

Dave: [00:36:07] Is that because the Compton case was way over the top violence? It’s relatively speaking, but 60 plus stab wounds?

Tom: [00:36:16] Yeah, that was the most violent followed by Barbara Simons with the 40 stab wounds, but it was way over the top.

Dave: [00:36:22] Just thinking about these phone calls, and you contrast, DeAngelo would call victims and terrorize them. And in this case, it’s someone wanting to repent and pretty contemporaneous to the attack, which, I don’t know, I’m kind of on both sides of the fence like, “That’s pretty quick.” You would think it would be days or weeks later. So, what does Paul Stephani look like when he’s walking away from a victim? What’s going on?

Paul Holes: [00:36:48] Is he sobbing like DeAngelo used to sob after sexually assaulting somebody? This outpouring, this crying, the weepy voice. One of the things I’m relating that to, is the mother and sister were the ones that said, “Yeah, that sounds like Paul.” DeAngelo, one of the things that he would do after the sexual assault is he would be crying, but he would be talking to himself, and the victims would report that he’s muttering and talking to himself. It’s like, well, is he just doing that for show? Well, it turns out his neighbors would say, “Yeah, Crazy Joe would be in the backyard talking to himself. It’s something that he would do during his normal life.” And so, I’m thinking, this crying that Stephani is doing on the phone, that may be something that maybe many people possibly experienced, because it’s something he does.

Dave: [00:37:39] Right. He’s unhinged. He creates his own issues, and he can’t process it.

Paul Holes: [00:37:45] His emotional outpouring and his voice is really on the extreme of male behavior in our society. So, this would be something that would stand out, and authorities were very, very smart to put these things out to the public.

Dave: [00:37:58] Right. Anybody recognize this type of dramatics?

Paul Holes: [00:38:02] Yeah. And these phone calls, we’ve talked about it. This is like a confession to him. Then when he is now about to go meet his maker with terminal cancer, he’s calling and saying, “I need to confess again,” the consistent pattern of behavior here.

Dave: [00:38:16] Right. He’s like, “Argh, they don’t know about this one. I got to get off my chest.”

Tom: [00:38:20] Yeah. At least after one of those, I know he went to church because he said, his mother always said, “If you do something wrong, turn to God and you will be forgiven.” So, I think there was that Catholic upbringing remorsefulness that was always present on his mind. So, that could be it.

Yeardley: [00:38:53] So, to any of the experts on the pod today, I think it’s interesting and curious that Stephani starts with beating Karen, then he moves to stabbing. Then when he finally confesses to everything, there’s also a drowning. Paul, perhaps, you being the forensic expert, can you speak to the different MOs?

Paul Holes: [00:39:14] It’s nuanced, because this is where I would have to be evaluating the actual wounding patterns, this offender victim interaction to understand, what is he getting out of the modality of the violence. Just off the top of my head, with this first victim, Karen, who is beaten, brutally beaten, she survived, but he’s using a tire iron. I wonder, was this an unplanned crime? He utilizes something that he had access to out of his vehicle versus with these other stabbings, he’s utilizing an ice pick or a screwdriver. It sounds like he is going out armed with the weapon of choice in those situations.

[00:39:54] Now, the interesting thing, and this is where the nuance comes in, even though these are not considered sexually motivated crimes, I, sometimes, will question that all of them are women. They’re all women within a certain age range from high school, just graduating high school up to age 40. But the use of an ice pick, there is a behavioral aspect of paraphilia called piquerism. I’ve talked about this before, where the stabbing instrument is penile substitution. And so, the killer actually does get sexual gratification from going into the woman’s body over and over again with this tool or this ice pick or this weapon.

[00:40:33] So, with Stephani, it’s hard without really taking a look at the wound patterns of having a psychological assessment on him to review and everything else. It’s hard to say, is he getting any type of sexual gratification from inflicting that style of violence? But these killers do different modalities. You have the drowning. He’s inside that victim’s own residence. He’s just had sex with her. Maybe this was his way of thinking, “I’ve got to get my evidence of what we just did off of her in the bathtub.”

Tom: [00:41:07] Two things. All of the victims wore red. So, they all had some kind of dress with red, whether it was a shirt or dress or whatever, but every one of them had some red on them. The other thing is, Stephani said, he did bring an ice pick out at Kathy Greening’s house, but she persuaded him to put it away, and then that’s when he proceeded to drown her. So, he did have an ice pick with him, he said.

Dave: [00:41:34] That’s interesting. So, talk about wound patterns. I’ve been to brutal, frenzied stabbings, and the stab wounds were very focused on the upper chest, neck, throat, face area. I’ve been to multiple of those where the wounds are really concentrated. Even bludgeoning deaths, the wounds have been very concentrated on one body part. I wonder, in the Kathy Greening case, this is the one that’s inside a residence. Presumably, she has neighbors. If Kathy Greening starts getting stabbed, how much noise does she make? How thick are the walls? Putting Kathy into the bathtub and then submerging her to drown her, other than the kicking and screaming underwater, it might be the quietest way to avoid alerting the neighbors that there’s a dispute next door.

Paul Holes: [00:42:21] It’s an environmental factor that the killer is possibly assessing on the fly. It sounds like what Tom was saying, Stephani came prepared with the murder weapon of choice with the ice pick, and the victim is the one that convinces him not to utilize it inside that residence. But that is his preference. It’s obvious. He’s arming himself with what he prefers. It’s not a knife. It’s an ice pick or a screwdriver. I think in one instance, they couldn’t determine.

Dave: [00:42:46] Right. I wonder if there’s a common thread between this, every victim had some semblance of red, a part of their apparel, what is this ex-girlfriend who has the arranged marriage. The Syrian woman was red, her favorite color was red. What she used to wear when they get into big arguments, I wonder.

Paul Holes: [00:43:08] Or, if it’s just coincidence. What was the preferred attire, fashion back in the day.

Tom: [00:43:14] There was no resolution of, they wore red. It was just an observation that every victim had red clothing at some point.

Dave: [00:43:22] It’s interesting.

Yeardley: [00:43:23] That is interesting. So, Tom, you were not the trial attorney, correct?

Tom: [00:43:27] No.

Yeardley: [00:43:28] You were the big tuna. Tell us, what your role in prosecuting this case with Stephani was.

Tom: [00:43:35] My role and our office’s role was the county attorney’s office, the chief prosecutor making decisions on any criminal legal action that will be taken. Working with the police department on some of the evidence that they found, how to proceed, coordinating with county, and the Denise Williams and the Simon’s murder case. So, working with everyone in the law enforcement community to try and bring this guy to justice, basically.

Yeardley: [00:44:08] That sounds like a big job.

Dave: [00:44:10] And you were the elected head honcho from 1978 to 1995, is that correct?

Tom: [00:44:15] Yes.

Paul Holes: [00:44:16] From 1978 to 1995?

Yeardley: [00:44:17] That’s impressive.

Dave: [00:44:19] The elected official, even though their names on all the paperwork and all the warrants and those types of things, you don’t typically see the top elected prosecutor in trial prosecuting cases. It’s rare. Is that fair, Tom?

Tom: [00:44:32] Yeah, I did every once in a while. I always wanted to take a few cases. I didn’t want to just not be in the courtroom. So, I’ve handled a number of homicide or kidnapping cases during my tenure. But you’re right, you can’t afford to be in trial every day.

Yeardley: [00:44:46] Fascinating. So, you’re tracking this case as it’s going through its court process, and you go home to your family. I happen to know your fabulous son works at my company. If you’re not allowed to talk about the details of the case to your family, what is the dinner table conversation like? You can’t really say much.

Tom: [00:45:06] Well, I don’t like to depress people too much, but I can say some things. Public information wouldn’t believe the horrible day we had with a guy who was a serial killer who killed the 18-year-old girl. But I never brought a lot of that home, because the kids were still real little, and their mother didn’t need to hear that either.

Yeardley: [00:45:29] [laughs]

Tom: [00:45:29] So, sitting around a bar with other lawyers or something, you’d probably sit and trade stories more about what happened and what’s going on. This trial was in Minneapolis. It was under the Hennepin County, and I was Ramsay County. So, it was a different jurisdiction. We were working together, but they actually had the eyewitnesses. So, we thought it was better for them to move forward with their cases than ours.

Dave: [00:45:52] Tom, we get questions from our listeners fairly frequently. A lot of them ask, “What’s the interagency cooperation?” And usually, it’s specific to law enforcement agencies, different jurisdiction, where Dan and I lived, it was very cordial, and we like to work with the other agencies in other places. It’s like, “Stay away from my case.” Wondering what it looked like in Ramsay and Hennepin County between law enforcement and then the prosecutor’s offices.

Tom: [00:46:21] I think both law enforcement and prosecutors at the state level work very well together. In this particular case, once Stephani called up and said, “The first one I killed was Kimberly Compton,” Minneapolis police knew that was a St. Paul case and contacted them, “What do they know? Let’s share information, because ours is a very similar case.” The county attorney’s office, we share cases all the time. I transfer cases to their offices. They transfer cases to my offices. Now, if you talk about the feds and the state, that might be a different question.


Dave: [00:46:58] I was leaving them out, because I already knew.

Tom: [00:47:01] I was never a big fan of dealing with the feds. The cooperation always went one way.

Dave: [00:47:06] I can concur.

Tom: [00:47:07] [laughs]

Yeardley: [00:47:08] That’s so weird to me. Aren’t we all after the same win? I don’t understand that at all.

Tom: [00:47:13] You would think so.

Dan: [00:47:14] The feds have different rules and protocols, and they seem to trump everything in their way. I’ve worked with great people on the federal side, but they have different policies that they have to adhere to. So, it complicates things. Like Tom said, a lot of times, it only goes one way.

Yeardley: [00:47:31] Right.

Tom: [00:47:32] It’s usually individuals. It’s not the system. It’s individuals in the federal system.

Yeardley: [00:47:36] Sure. So, just to wrap up, because we had a lot of victims in this case, give us a little CliffsNotes version of who survived and who didn’t survive, in terms of Stephani’s victims, if you would.

Tom: [00:47:53] Well, the first victim, Karen Potack, she survived. She had severe head trauma, but she did survive, but had no memory of what happened that evening. Kimberly Compton was brutally stabbed to death. Kathy Greening was drowned. Barbara Simons was brutally stabbed to death. And Denise Williams survived her stabbing by attacking Paul Stephani.

Yeardley: [00:48:18] And you said Stephani got 40 years, correct?

Tom: [00:48:21] Yeah, it was 40 years for the murder of Barbara Simons and the attempted murder of Denise Williams.

Yeardley: [00:48:29] If he had not died in prison, would he have been eligible for parole?

Tom: [00:48:33] Probably in Minnesota at some point. I think he would have had a difficult time getting out, but he would have been eligible after about 20 years.

Paul Holes: [00:48:41] But you also have cases that he wasn’t charged with, homicide cases. Technology probably would have made those very strong cases. As soon as he is looking at getting out, you’d take him with those other cases and take him to trial.

Dave: [00:48:54] Yeah, it’s like an insurance policy.

Tom: [00:48:55] I know once he confessed to all of those crimes, the current Ramsey County Attorney that was there at the time, Susan Gaertner, evaluated whether to prosecute him. But because he was going to probably be dead within a year and he was still serving a long sentence, she thought it better not to do it at that time.

Dave: [00:49:17] I’d say that’s good use of discretion.

Yeardley: [00:49:20] Well, to play devil’s advocate for the families, I know sometimes people feel like they didn’t get justice, because even though the offender has admitted to the murder, they’re like, “Well, as to your point, he’s going to die in a year, he already has a long sentence, we’re not going to spend the money to prosecute that.” But the family feels like he was never actually held accountable. It doesn’t matter that he confessed.

Dave: [00:49:44] Right. But we go back to what does the family want. Do they want their pound of flesh? Is a conviction? Is that their idea of justice? Or, do they want to know what happened to their loved one, which the basic answers are what Paul Stephani is providing to the police over the phone and probably in a subsequent interview, “Hey, I got more to tell you.” Does the family get what they want? That is a huge consideration here. Was the family a part of the decision not to prosecute them? Was the idea floated to them like, “Hey, this is why we’re probably not going to prosecute this, but here’s what happened to your loved one?” It’s a balance.

Paul Holes: [00:50:21] Also, you have to consider the time frame. Let’s say, they move forward with a murder charge. How quickly could this possibly progress to trial? It takes sometimes years. So, you’re talking to the family saying, based on his condition, he is going to die before you ever get your day in court.

Yeardley: [00:50:37] Right. Tom, thank you so much for bringing this case to us. It’s always fascinating to hear, especially, I think sometimes cases that we know something about, but then when you get an inside peek behind the curtain of how things really went down, it never gets old. We’re so grateful for your time.

Dan: [00:50:58] I’m familiar with this case, and it’s always great to get it from the source, and I learned things about this case that I had no idea about. So, thank you, Tom.

Dave: [00:51:08] Thank you, Tom. I really appreciate it.

Paul Holes: [00:51:10] Thanks a ton.

Tom: [00:51:10] You’re welcome.


Yeardley: [00:51:19] Small Town Dicks is produced by Gary Scott and me, Yeardley Smith, and coproduced by Detectives Dan and Dave. Our production manager is Logan Heftel. Our senior editor is Soren Begin, and our editor is Christina Bracamontes. Our associate producers are Erin Gaynor and the Real Nick Smitty. Our social media is run by the one and only, Monika Scott. Our music is composed by John Forest, and our books are cooked and cats wrangled by Ben Cornwell.

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