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 Stephens, is still at large amid a manhunt that began in Ohio and spread to five states before turning into a “national search.” By afternoon, authorities were offering up to $50,000 for information leading to his arrest.
“Steve if you’re there listening, call someone — whether it’s a friend or family member or pastor — 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 him ask Godwin how old he was, then raise a gun and pull the trigger. The camera spun around; when the picture came into focus, Godwin’s body was on the ground.
It all lasted less than a minute.
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 on 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 manhunt but did not give any other details.
Williams announced at the morning news conference that authorities have followed numerous leads and searched various locations to no avail, saying: “Steve is still out there someplace.”
“We’re still asking Steve to turn himself in, but if he doesn’t, we’ll find him,” Williams said. “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 that his last known location was the site where Godwin was killed.
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. Amid a multistate manhunt, police said Monday that residents in Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana and Michigan should be on “alert,” warning that Stephens may have fled Ohio.
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.
Facebook Live launched in 2015 and 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,” Williams, the police chief, 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.
The family is set to give a statement Monday afternoon.
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.
“It feels like my heart is going to stop,” one woman said.
Travis M. Andrews contributed to this story. An earlier version incorrectly identified the suspect’s license plate as well as the year Facebook launched its live-streaming feature. The story has been updated with the correct information.