Local, state and federal law enforcement officers are frantically searching for a suspect accused of shooting and killing a 74-year-old man Sunday in Cleveland and then posting a video of the coldblooded slaying on Facebook.
Authorities said Monday that the suspect, identified by police as 37-year-old Steve W. Stephens, is still at large amid a manhunt that began in Ohio and spread to five states before expanding into a national search. By afternoon, authorities were offering up to $50,000 for information leading to his arrest.
“Steve, if you’re out there listening, call someone – whether it’s a friend or family member or pastor – give them a call; they’re waiting for you to call them,” Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams pleaded with Stephens at an afternoon news conference.
Authorities said Stephens pulled up in his Ford Fusion on a road in East Cleveland about 2 p.m. Sunday and then said in the video: “I found somebody I’m about to kill.”
“I’m about to kill this guy right here. He’s an old dude,” Stephens said as he approached Robert Godwin Sr., who was reportedly out looking for aluminum cans to collect.
“Can you do me a favor?” Stephens said to Godwin before asking him to say the name Joy Lane.
“Joy Lane?” Godwin responded.
“Yeah,” Stephens replied. “She’s the reason why this is about to happen to you.”
The video showed Stephens ask Godwin how old he was, raise a gun and pull the trigger. The camera spun around; when the picture came into focus, Godwin was on the ground.
It all lasted less than a minute, and authorities said the two men did not know each other.
In the video, Stephens claimed to have killed more than a dozen people, police said, although they have not confirmed any other victims. Authorities have issued a warrant on a charge of aggravated murder for Stephens.
In a second video, Stephens is seen 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 said.
“I shamed myself,” he added in a 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.”
Stephens said he was killing people because of Joy Lane.
“She put me at my pushing point, man,” Stephens said in the video, laughing and calling it the “Easter Sunday Joy Lane massacre.”
CBS News reported that it communicated with Lane via text message Monday.
“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. This is a very difficult time for me and my family Please respect our privacy at this time.”
Williams, the police chief, said the woman is safe and has been cooperating with investigators during the rapidly expanding manhunt, but did not give any other details.
“We’ve interviewed several people involved in this and I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason for what happened,” Williams told reporters Monday afternoon. “I don’t think there’s anything we can point to specifically to say that this is what sparked this. Only Steve knows that. Hopefully, we can find him soon and then we’ll get to talk to him and find out exactly why he did this.”
Williams said earlier that authorities have followed numerous leads and searched various locations to no avail. “Our reach now is basically all over this country,” he said at the afternoon news conference.
“Steve is still out there someplace,” the chief said earlier, adding: “We’re still asking Steve to turn himself in, but if he doesn’t, we’ll find him. We’re not going to stop until he’s in custody.”
The police chief asked the public to call 911 with any information and pleaded with those who know where Stephens is to report his whereabouts to authorities.
“If there’s somebody that’s helping Steve, or if you think you’re helping Steve, you’re really not,” he said. “You’re going to get yourself in trouble, along with him. The only way for you to help him is to give us the information to bring him in safely, peacefully.”
Williams said that early in the investigation, authorities had contact with Stephens via cellphone; but his last known location was the site where Godwin was killed.
Stephens is considered armed and dangerous, and investigators have no evidence that he has switched vehicles or fled the state. Still, police said Monday that residents in Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana and Michigan should be on “alert.”
Authorities described Stephens as a 6-foot-1, 244-pound black man, with a bald head and a full beard. He is “armed and dangerous,” police said. “If seen call 9-1-1. Do not approach.”
Police said he was driving a white Ford Fusion with temporary Ohio tag number E363630.
The video of Sunday’s homicide was not broadcast live, as police had initially stated. It was posted after the fact, Facebook said late Sunday, and was viewable for about three hours before it was removed and Stephens’s profile was deactivated.
In a statement posted online, Facebook called the shooting a “horrific crime” that goes against “everything” the company stands for.
The statement said the incident had prompted the company to review how quickly and easily Facebook users can report material that violates the company’s standards.
“In this case,” the statement said, “we did not receive a report about the first video, and we only received a report about the second video – containing the shooting – more than an hour and 45 minutes after it was posted. We received reports about the third video, containing the man’s live confession, only after it had ended.”
“We disabled the suspect’s account within 23 minutes of receiving the first report about the murder video, and two hours after receiving a report of any kind,” the statement added. “But we know we need to do better.”
Facebook Live, launched in 2015, allows users to stream live video to their Facebook pages, where others can watch in real time or after the fact. The service is used in a variety of capacities, from broadcasting breaking news, protests and events to giving lectures or communicating with friends. As live videos have gained audience and prominence, critics have questioned how the company should best control the feature to avoid potentially horrific scenes.
The video is likely to reignite a debate about the haunting reach of grisly violence in the Internet age and follows shocking beatings and killings shared in real time, or soon after, on a global stage.
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. An Ohio woman was accused of broadcasting her friend’s rape on Periscope, Twitter’s live-streaming service.
“This is a horrific crime and we do not allow this kind of content on Facebook,” a Facebook spokesman said in a statement. “We work hard to keep a safe environment on Facebook, and are in touch with law enforcement in emergencies when there are direct threats to physical safety.”
Police said the Easter Sunday shooting of Godwin occurred on a residential road in East Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood. In the video, the man identified as Godwin is seen walking alone on a sidewalk, wearing a blue plaid shirt and holding a grocery bag.
“What happened today is senseless,” Police Chief Williams told reporters Sunday. “I know, Steve, that you have a relationship with some of our clergy in Northeast Ohio. I encourage you to give them a call and then call us and turn yourself in.”
Posts on Stephens’s Facebook page said he had “lost everything” to gambling and wanted to speak to several people he named, according to NBC News, which initially saved the Facebook posts before they were removed.
The posts also said that Stephens “killed 12 people today” during what he called his “Easter day slaughter” and would not surrender until he could speak to two women, including his mother.
The police chief said there has been only one homicide and “we want to keep it that way.”
Authorities said Stephens has had some traffic violations but no criminal history.
The police chief added that the victim’s family said there are several GoFundMe pages that have been set up by people outside the family and have requested that the public refrain from contributing to them at this time.
GoFundMe spokesman Bobby Whithorne said in a statement that it is not uncommon for numerous crowdfunding pages to be set up after news reports about a victim.
But, Whithorne told The Washington Post, the site has “spoken with the GoFundMe campaign organizer, members of the family, and local authorities. We’ll guarantee the money will be deposited directly into the family’s bank account.”
GoFundMe is directing donors to a page started by Wesley Scott Alexander, who had raised more than $25,000 by Monday afternoon.
Regardless of which page people use, the GoFundMe spokesman said, “all funds raised for the Godwins will be transferred directly to the family.”
Stephens has worked at Beech Brook, a children’s behavioral health center in Ohio, since 2008, the company said in a statement. Most recently, the company said, he has been working as a vocational specialist for the Assertive Community Treatment team for youths and young adults.
“We were shocked and horrified yesterday to learn about the situation involving the threats by Steve Stephens and the tragic shooting of Mr. Godwin. Our hearts go out to his family during this time of grief,” Beech Brook spokeswoman Nancy Kortemeyer said Monday in a statement. “Beech Brook’s offices will be closed today out of concerns for the safety of our staff, clients and other visitors to our sites.”
Godwin’s family members were in tears when they spoke Sunday with local reporters.
Williams said that he knows their “hearts are heavy.”
“We want to concentrate on finding Steve and bringing closure to this family,” he said.
The Washington Post’s Travis M. Andrews contributed to this story.