The Other Woman
June 30, 2004
For Kristen Stephens, voices of her father, Dr. David Stephens, bring back a lifetime of memories and voices from the past.
But Kristen could never have imagined how it all would end.
“How can this happen to an everyday apple-pie family,” she says. “There are the kind of things you read about in the headlines or see on TV. These types of things don't happen to you. And I just can't fathom how one person can have such a huge impact on an entire family.”
She’s talking about Stephanie Stephens, her stepmother, whom Kristen says tore her family apart and murdered her father.
“I hate her. I wish her nothing but ill will,” says Kristen. “I think she is an evil person.”
“I’m a good person. I care a lot about other people, and those people that are closest to me know it,” says Stephanie. “It’s just, unfortunately, the bad decisions that I’ve made have been public folly.”
But in the sleepy town of Hattiesburg, Miss., what happened to this prominent surgeon was the stuff that scandals are made of. Correspondent Harold Dow first reported on this mystery last winter.
Both Stephanie and David were married when they first met. She’d landed a nursing job at the heart clinic Dr. Stephens had founded. For him, Hattiesburg was home for more than a decade. He had been married to wife Karen for 34 years, and they had two children: Kristen and Allen.
Before long, Stephanie, a married mother of two daughters, says she began to fall for the man behind the surgeon’s mask: “We both felt like we were in love and talked about it. And neither one of us were willing to leave our partners.”
The couple began an affair and their secret trysts continued for years – until their affair was discovered in 1995, when Stephanie decided to call Dr. Stephens’ house.
“My mother had answered the phone,” recalls Kristen, who says that her mother suspected her husband was cheating, but didn’t know until then, with whom. Now, she was devastated. “She got a gun, then she ran out into the driveway with it in her mouth and called his name, wanting him to turn around and look at her -- to see how desperate she was that she could not tolerate him leaving her. And she tripped and the gun went off.”
Karen Stephens was rushed to the hospital with a gunshot wound to the head. For three months, she lived in a coma, until one night, she died. It was ruled a suicide.
“I knew that it was very important that if I wanted to keep my father, I needed to let him know that I forgave him for that,” says Kristen. “And I couldn't be angry with him, because I knew from his voice, from the words that he used to talk to me about it, that he felt enormously guilty.”
Stephanie says she felt guilty, too: “I did contribute to her death by having an affair with a married man, and the consequences that go along with that … It was several months before I could look at myself in the mirror! It was painful.”
But she and David seemed determined to move on. Months later, right in front of the Stephens’ home, where Karen had shot herself, the couple were married. “I thought it was too soon,” says Kristen. “I accepted the marriage, but it didn’t mean I had to like Stephanie.”
Stephanie says she was a loving wife, and stuck by her new husband, even when he fell seriously ill in the summer of 2000.
“He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and was in liver failure … And was on the liver transplant waiting list. And he also had diabetes,” says Stephanie. “The thought of having a long-term illness to a surgeon is unthinkable. He talked about not wanting to go through having a liver transplant.”
“She didn't care how he died, as long as he was dead,” says Kristen, who claims that Stephanie never loved her father - only his money.
On May 1, 2001, Kristen discovered that her father had died in his sleep. “I was extremely shocked that he had died,” says Kristen, who left her home in North Carolina and rushed to Hattiesburg, suspecting foul play. “When I entered the bedroom, I knew immediately, she’d done something to him.”
She says Stephanie was acting strangely: “On the bed were all of my father’s financial documents. Who would be reading that sort of stuff, not even 24 hours after their husband died?”
”There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think of him,” says Stephanie.
But Kristen believes Stephanie is responsible for her father’s death: “I shoved her up against the wall, and I stared her right in the face and I said, ‘You killed my mother...and you killed my father...and I hope you rot in hell, you bitch!’”
David Stephens was chief of surgery at Hattiesburg’s Forrest General Hospital. He was on the board there, and at the university in town.
Stephanie admits she is guilty of adultery, but not of murder: “Just because people don’t like me, doesn’t make me a killer.”
In fact, Stephanie says her life has been like a Greek tragedy. Soon after she married David Stephens in 1996, she was crippled in a car crash. After Stephens’ death, the dream house they built together was robbed.
And now, with Kristen Stephens contesting her father’s will, Stephanie says it’s hard to make ends meet. She has no car, and no phone. But it’s been the loss of her friends that’s hurt the most.
“The truth keeps me going. That, and my daughters,” says Stephanie, whose daughters live nearby with her first husband. Krystal, 16, is Stephanie’s only real link to the outside world. “They’re the reason that life goes on. It’s hard to stay focused on a reason to live.”
Stephanie says that before David died, he was feeling the same way. Even with almost a million dollars in a retirement fund, she says they worried about their future: “It was tough. We had gone from, you know, making a full surgeon’s salary to disability.”
By the spring of 2001, David was weak and disoriented - and rarely slept through the night. On the night of May 1, Stephanie says he tossed and turned for hours, and fell asleep around dawn.
“I woke up and when I sat up in bed, I saw him. He was purple in the face and I got up and ran around the side and pulled the covers back, and he was blue and not breathing,” recalls Stephanie. “It was obvious he was dead and had been dead. He was cool. I just laid there and cried. Put my head on his chest and cried.”
Coroner Butch Benedict was on the scene: “When we first got there, it appears to be that he died in his sleep.”
David was lying on his back, arms crossed on his chest, his insulin pump strapped to his side. Benedict says he thought he had an open and shut case, until Stephanie opened her mouth and seemed in a hurry to remove the insulin vials from the pump.
This made Benedict suspicious. When he ran blood tests on the body, he said “there were chemicals in his body that shouldn’t be there.” He contacted Hattiesburg Det. Rusty Keyes, who started digging deeper into the case.
“The fact is that he died, whether accidentally or by his own hand, that’s a question I’ll never know the answer to,” says Stephanie, who claims that he was ill and depressed at the time of his death.
“He was not depressed. Stephanie wanted people to think my father was very sick because it was convenient for everyone to think he was very sick, because they wouldn’t question when he died,” says Kristen, who plans to help Keyes unmask a murderer.
“Stephanie wanted to live the life of a socialite. She had the fancy house. She had the nice cars, the best clothes,” says Keyes. “She wanted it easy. She wanted it through Dr. Stephens’ hard work … This man was murdered, and I was going to prove how.”
“The time that I spent with David was so good that it's hard to deny that that was the best years of my life,” says Stephanie Stephens, who insists she has no idea how her husband died next to her in bed. “You never prepare yourself for when you wake up and your husband’s dead.”
But Kristen, David’s daughter, doesn’t buy her story: “She knew when she married my father he was sick. I don't think that he died quick enough for her, is what the problem was.”
Kristen says Stephanie was counting on people assuming David Stephens died of natural causes and never thought coroner Butch Benedict would do a blood test on the body.
“There was a chemical in his blood that was usually given by an anesthesiologist,” says Benedict, who discovered Etomidate, an anesthetic, in his system. “So where did that drug come from because it should not be in his system?”
“First, we had to find out how he could have gotten this etomidate in his system. That’s all we had,” says Hattiesburg Det. Rusty Keyes. “She [Stephanie] didn’t have any idea how this drug got into his system. and she didn't even know what the drug was.”
But Stephanie allowed police to search the house, and Keyes says he discovered some interesting things. “I found that he was a diabetic, and that he was on an insulin pump,” says Keyes. “It was obvious that we had to exhume Dr. Stephens, to prove exactly how he died.”
More tests produced more questions. There was another drug in Stephens’ body, called Atricurium, used to relax muscles during surgery while patients are on life support.
But without life support, Keyes says it will “totally paralyze your heart, your lungs, and you will die.” In fact, he says these drugs act so quickly that David couldn’t have possibly injected himself and cleaned up afterwards.
“That told me lots that somebody cleaned up, so then I knew then that I had a homicide,” says Keyes, who also discovered a piece of paper – one that said that every year on May 1, David Stephens’ Metlife pension fund mailed him an option to cash out for almost a million dollars. David had always signed the form, checking the box that declined to cash out.
But in 2001, Keyes noticed that David Stephens’ signature was on the form, and the cash out box was signed. The form was dated April 30, the day before he died. On that date, Metlife hadn’t even mailed the form out yet.
“Somebody wanted his money,” says Keyes. “Somebody wanted to continue living the lifestyle they were accustomed to.”
While digging for evidence, Det. Rusty Keyes uncovered a possible motive. Now, he had more than just a homicide. He had a prime suspect: Stephanie Stephens.
“She wanted money. She wanted the nice cars. But she didn't wanna work for 'em. She wanted it given to her. And she saw that with Dr. Stephens,” says Keyes. “She started spending money at a clip after his death.”
Stephanie was coping well with the grief of losing her husband. So well, in fact, that she married again a year later –- to a handyman named Chris Watts.
“In the month of June of 2002, when she remarried, she received an $80,000 annuity that they spent in four weeks,” says Keyes.
Stephanie admits that her behavior was reckless, but she insists it actually shows how devastated she was that the love of her life was gone: “A bad decision. He was into drugs, milking me for money. I got myself tangled up into that by my own bad judgment.”
And she says it was never about the money: “If I was so money hungry, it would have been much easier to just let him die from his illness, and inherit the money that way vs. trying to kill him. I mean, that just doesn’t make any sense.”
Stephanie also says she was so shocked when she found out how her husband died that she researched the drugs that killed him -- and the registered nurse found something investigators failed to consider. What she found out is that the amount of time it takes the drugs to work depends on how they’re given.
48 Hours did some investigating of its own, and it turns out that Stephanie may be right. We asked Dr. Alan Lisbon, an anesthesiologist at Harvard Medical School and Boston’s Deaconess Hospital, to show us how the drugs that killed Dr. Stephens work in surgery.
It takes 40 seconds to put a patient asleep if it’s intravenously given. However, Lisbon says if it’s given through an insulin pump under the skin, “the absorption of that drug would be much, much slower so that you wouldn’t see effects of the drug for at least 5, 10, maybe even 15 minutes.”
That means it would have been possible for David Stephens to give himself a lethal dose of these drugs through his insulin pump, and still have time to clean up afterwards.
In September 2002, 15 months after her husband died, Stephanie Stephens was arrested and charged with murder.
In a town rocked by scandal, Stephanie’s lawyer, Ray Price, says his client is the victim of that hate. But prosecutor Keith Miller says her story can be summed up with another word – greed.
“One of the seven deadly sins. That got her,” says Keyes.
More than two years after David Stephens’ death, his young widow, Stephanie, is about to stand trial for murder.
Her parents and older daughter, Krystal, are trying to help her stay strong. But Prosecutor Keith Miller and Det. Rusty Keyes believe they can prove murder to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
“She’s the only one that was with him for the 24 hours, the last 24 hours of his life, and he shows up with Atrucurium and Etomodate in his system,” says Keyes.
For Stephens’ daughter, Kristen, moving on means seeing justice served. “I’m nervous, but also a little bit relieved that soon it will be over and we can move on,” she says.
Prosecutors begin by telling the jury that Stephanie’s lust for money, her expertise as a nurse and behavior after her husband David died lay out like a roadmap to murder.
But defense lawyer Ray Price warns jurors not to be distracted by twists and turns in the road, and that the case is a witch hunt to frame Stephanie for killing her husband, when the doctor really killed himself. Price knows even the possibility of suicide could raise reasonable doubt with the jury.
After Keyes tells his story on the stand, Price goes on the offensive. He argues that Det. Keyes ignored medical records that showed how sick David Stephens really was -- and other leads that suggest he may have committed suicide. Price also tells Keyes that David was in therapy for depression, though his therapist declined to testify.
Prosecutors, however, are about to stun everyone in court. They say Stephanie actually admitted killing her husband and they have three witnesses to prove it.
The first witness is Karen Burnette, a friend of Stephanie and Chris Watts, who attended their Las Vegas wedding just a year after David Stephens died. It was there, Burnette says, when Stephanie told her that David said he wanted to die and asked his wife to help him.
“She told me that she injected him with two sedatives and a heart medication,” says Burnette.
In defense, Price points out that Burnette should be on trial herself – for stealing items from Stephanie’s house. It’s a claim that Burnette denies, even though her house was robbed, and some of the stolen items were recovered from a storage locker registered to Burnette. Price thinks Burnette made a deal with the state to testify against Stephanie in return for immunity.
Burnette’s husband, John, was also asked to testify – for being a witness in Stephanie’s confession in Las Vegas. But he takes the Fifth Amendment.
And finally, the state wants Stephanie’s current husband, Chris Watts, on the stand. But he’s in jail, with troubles of his own.
Kristen Stephens has been waiting for two years to tell the court about the father she loved – and she wants to make sure the jury knows just how she lost him: “If someone were to tell me that my father committed suicide, I wouldn’t believe it. It wasn’t possible having known my father for that ever to be an option. I don’t care what kind of evidence you have … My father would have never committed suicide.”
But Price has a bombshell witness whose testimony might set Stephanie free – someone who claims that David Stephens was a classic suicide risk.
Dr. Gerald O’Brien, a psychologist brought in to review the case, says warning signs were everywhere: “He had a terminal illness. He also had a history of drinking regularly. The records indicate that his grandfather either attempted or committed suicide.”
But what’s most striking, O’Brien says, is the date David died: May 1, 2001 –six years to the day after his first wife, Karen’s, funeral.
Now, Stephanie and her lawyer have to make a critical decision -- whether the jury should hear from her directly.
“I have nothing to hide and I think people want to hear my side of the story,” says Stephanie. But she’s acting strangely. She seems sedated. “I had such a rough night last night, not sleeping, with my leg hurting.”
“She wanted to tell her story,” says Price. “We just couldn’t take the risk.”
As the lawyers offer closing arguments, Stephanie can only watch and wait for her fate to be decided.
After only 90 minutes, the jury comes back with a verdict. The judge’s words hit the courtroom like a shockwave: “Ms. Stephens, you have ended a life. The court hereby sentences you to life in prison.”
Stephanie Stephens will not be eligible for parole for 30 years. “Never thought it would happen,” says Stephanie. “No … I was honestly shocked. I told this before… I had not prepared for the worst. I had prepared, we had prepared to win.”
She may have lost the trial, but she defiantly says she will never lose hope: “I’ve been pushed around and talked about and had all kinds of bad things said about me. It hurts, but I manage OK.”
Although Kristen Stephens will never regain what she lost, she feels this just may be the next best thing: “Justice has been served … My mom and dad are here, and I just feel they were right here with me.”
Stephanie Stephens says she’s working on appealing her murder conviction. By the time she becomes eligible for parole in 30 years, she will be 65.
Since 48 Hours first brought you this story in January, Kristen Stephens has given birth to her second child -- a girl she named for her mother, Karen. You may recall that she named her son David in memory of her murdered father.
As for Kristen's stepmother, Stephanie, she's planning to appeal her murder conviction. As it now stands, by the time she comes up for parole in 40 years, Stephanie Stephens will be 65.
||Truth in Justice