The Murder of Bill and Peggy Stephenson

This is yet another case that’s been on my back burner for several months. To say it’s an odd one would be a gross understatement on multiple levels. Not only did the victims, an elderly, churchgoing couple, seem to be unlikely targets for a double homicide, but the known details of that homicide make it obvious that it was far from a typical crime in that showed an unusual degree of calculation, staging, and deliberate misdirection. One crucial thing to understand is that there is a lot about this crime that is not public knowledge. Law enforcement has been extremely careful about releasing details so that only a real perpetrator would know all the specifics. Given the circumstances, I think this is likely a wise decision, and it is not my intent to undermine it. I will do my best not to let my analysis devolve into a messy web of speculation, but please know that I can only work with what has been provided.

In the early morning hours of  Sunday, May 29th, 2011, Bill and Peggy Stephenson, both 74 years old, were bludgeoned and stabbed to death in their Florence, Kentucky condo. There was no sign of forced entry, and neighbors living in close proximity did not report seeing or hearing anything unusual that night. The murders were discovered later that day, shortly before 1:00 pm on May 29th, by a family member who had gone to check on the couple. By that time, they had not only missed Memorial Day church service, but Bill had not shown up to the truck stop ministry he ran. While Peggy did have fibromyalgia and some health issues that occasionally caused her to miss events, it was highly unusual for either of them to fail to show up without notifying anyone. The victims were found in two separate rooms of the condo, and the one thing that was obvious to investigators was that the killer (s) had spent extensive time at the scene.

At the time of their deaths, Bill and Peggy were approaching their 55th wedding anniversary, having married on August 25th, 1956. They had both worked on a Boone County, Kentucky, dairy farm when they met, and they would go on to have two sons, a daughter, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. There was also a large extended family. Peggy had a brother and a sister, and Bill was the oldest of no fewer then fourteen children. Needless to say, there are a large, unspecified number of nieces and nephews. One nephew was suspected of being connected to the case, but ultimately ruled out. I’ll circle back to that later.

In 2011, Bill and Peggy were living in a condo at Ridge Edge Court, in the Oakbrook subdivision of Florence. The condo complex only had one way in or out, and the Stephenson home was near the back and not an obvious target for someone who was simply passing by.  Bill was semi-retired from an insurance investment company and ran his own ministry for passing truckers, while Peggy was a housewife and church organist. Both were described as kind and giving, and Bill in particular was active and outgoing. He often went on fishing trips with his brother, and donated items to poverty stricken areas in the eastern part of the state. A friend of the family had this to say: “Bill never met a stranger, and Peggy was so very sweet and soft spoken. They were kind, goodhearted people who wished no one anything but joy. They didn’t just talk about loving people, they lived it.” After their deaths, more then 1,500 people attended the funeral, testament to how well regarded they were by their family and community. There is one other thing to note about Bill and Peggy’s personalities before we move on to the actual crime: for all their generous nature, the couple was not especially naïve. They were very cautious about allowing strangers into their home, and many people that they knew did not even have their address*. To enter their condo through the front, the visitor had to be “buzzed in” using an audio buzzer. Bill never gave anyone cash, and their condo did not even have a second bedroom, meaning it would be ill-suited for someone to be invited to spend the night there.

Now we have to discuss what we know about the scene at the condo on May 29th, 2011. We know that the couple had been the victims of bludgeoning and stabbing, and that the weapons used were not found at the scene. Although there were no weapons at the scene, law enforcement does know the specific weapon that was used. This is another thing being kept secret for the benefit of the investigation.

We know that the scene had been cleaned, but, more strangely, it had also been heavily staged. The bodies had been “posed” in separate rooms, although exactly what is meant by this is one of many details the investigators are keeping close to their vests. The killer had left a “message” in the home, presumably written. Not only had the bodies been subject to post-mortem manipulation, but items in the home had been staged as well. Some of these items had positioned around the bodies, while others had been moved to what investigators believe were different places within the condo then their original locations. Items had been moved, altered, and rearranged in every room of the home. Adding to the utterly bizarre nature of the scene, the couple’s photographs had been tampered with, being arranged in such a way as to “suggest the killer liked certain people and disliked others.”

Investigators with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department would describe it as “the scene they [the killer] wanted found, and not the crime scene.” Detective Coy Cox, was one of the original lead investigators on the case, and since being assigned to the cold case unit of the Criminal Investigation Division, he has been reviewing it again. He had this to say about the scene inside the condo: “There were things that were maybe on end tables or up on shelves that were changed, altered, moved, turned over, marked on. There were items that seemed to have no significant meaning left in different rooms. Most of the items that were left at the scene appeared to be things that were probably in the residence.” He stated that it was the most “unique” crime scene that he had ever seen, and that it is his belief that some of the staging was done to suggest different motives. The attack on the couple was a brutal instance of “overkill” which could be read as a more personal motive. Some signs pointed to robbery; however, there were valuable items that would have been easy targets for theft that were left behind. Some elements even suggested a ritualistic tone to the crime, to the point that law enforcement obtained a list of self-described Wiccans in the area. However, one expert stated that there no elements of a “genuine” ritual present, suggesting this may have been coincidental or another attempt at misdirection. In addition to concealing the motive, some of the re-positioning is speculated to have been used to obscure the point of entry.

An autopsy would determine that Bill and Peggy died between 1:00 and 4:00 am on the morning of the 29th. The precise time of death is known, at least for one of the victims, due to a “medical device” that had been implanted in the body of that victim. This may have been a pacemaker, defibrillator, or some other medical device capable of recording time. Law enforcement has never released what that time was. One of the victims also had a “post-mortem injury” that had been inflicted at least two hours after that victim died. If we use the 1:00 to 4:00 am time interval, this means that the killer may have still been in the apartment at 6:00 am, or possibly even later. Investigators also think it possible that the killer left the scene during the night and returned later to inflict the injury and to continue with the staging.

When interviewed for the Just the Tip-sters Podcast, Detective Coy Cox remained understandably tight-lipped about the case details. However, he did offer some strong opinions, and made some intriguing comments. One thing that was evident, he  stated, is that the killer’s intention was to kill both Bill and Peggy. To his mind, this was not a situation in which one person was the target and the other person was killed to avoid leaving any witnesses. There would have been better opportunities to attack either victim individually. Bill was more physically active and spent more time away from the condo, as evidenced by his running the truck stop ministry. If someone only wanted to kill him, they could have ambushed him in any number of places without needing to risk going inside the condo at all. By contrast, Peggy was more likely to spend time alone at home while Bill was out in the community, and could have been approached there without the complication of second person on the scene. Cox also stressed the ease and familiarity with which the perpetrator moved around the condo.

Cox  believes the timing of the crime was no coincidence. Because the murders occurred only hours before the church services that the couple regularly attended, their absence was quickly noted and the murders were discovered early that same afternoon. The implication here seems to be that the attacker actually wanted the crime and the baffling scene they had left behind to be discovered. He also believes that the murders happened shortly after the killer entered the home, perhaps because the couple was so wary of allowing strangers into the condo and doubted they would have let someone in and then gone to bed with the person still in the apartment.

There is another, strange comment from Cox. He said that the person who killed Bill and Peggy may have believed themselves justified in their actions, and that their motive may have been rooted in a “disagreement over correct Christian practices.” There could be multiple interpretations of this statement, but the thing I can’t help wondering is if religious paraphernalia might have been among the staged items. Perhaps this was done in such a way as to indicate that the killer did not believe the victims were properly following church doctrine. (As Bill and Peggy were universally lauded for their kind and charitable natures, I cannot even begin to speculate why this would have been, but there’s a lot about this case I don’t claim to understand).

DNA

There was actually DNA found at multiple locations around the seen, all coming from the same individual. However, its use has been limited thus far, and it’s not even specified that it had to belong to the killer (s). It has not been matched to any persons of interest, and it has not matched any DNA samples in the CODIS bank. “The DNA is not suitable for genealogy or phenotyping at this time,” Cox said. “We hope in the future that changes.” Phenotyping is generating a physical description of a person based on genetic material, and genealogy is attempting to identify the donor of a DNA sample based on family and population genetics. It’s not clear why the sample is not suitable for these types of analyses, but may simply mean that it was a small sample.

 Hundreds of possible persons of interest have interviewed in this case, in fourteen states (this due largely to Bill Stephenson’s connection with passing truckers, as well as the large extended family). Currently, there are still several individuals that law enforcement has been “keeping tabs on.” Two of the people that have been considered warrant some discussion. One of these is the couple’s nephew, Charles “Steve” Stephenson. When Charles was arrested for the murder of Leigh Jennings in Aurora, Indiana, in , many people wrongfully assumed the Stephenson double murder was essentially solved. In the spring of 2012, 67-year old Jennings was bludgeoned to death with a skillet and pepper grinder inside her home. Leigh was an acquaintance of Charles, and she was one of many people to whom he owed money. Charles was linked with Leigh by in several ways, including phone records, and his blood was also found on the murder weapons. Ultimately, he was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. However, there has been nothing to link him to Bill and Peggy’s murder. His DNA did not match that found at the scene, and he is not currently considered a suspect.

One other name that has come up in association with this case is Samuel Little, a known prolific serial killer who may have been passing through the area at the time of the murder. According to Detective Cox, “Samuel Little was in Columbus, (Ohio) and was arrested in April of 2011 and he was released like five days later. So, May 29, 2011, Bill and Peggy were killed. He wasn’t picked up again until June 2011 in Louisville, and he traveled on foot. Hitchhiked. Well, if you draw a line, especially with Interstate 71, guess where he came through at some point in time. And it just so happens, it’s right in that magical window.”

This is a case write-up on Bill and Peggy Stephenson, not Samuel Little, so I’ll try not to spend too long summarizing his crimes. He was arrested for the last time in September of 2012, and passed away in December of 2020. All of his known victims were adult women, and the majority were of African-American descent. He confessed to the murder of 93 women, although he was only convicted of four. The FBI believes he killed at least 60 women. His crimes appear to have been sexually motivated, and always involved strangulation. Typically, he would dispose of his victims carelessly in relatively open places, such as roadsides, construction site, or bodies of water. While I understand that serial killers do not always stick to one M.O or victim profile, there is essentially nothing here that overlaps with what is known of the Stephenson case. If Little did commit the crime, it would represent an outlier in that there was a male victim, no strangulation, and in that the victims were left in their own home in which the killer apparently spent hours manipulating the scene. Even with the possible proximity, I can’t say a lot more than “eh, it’s possible, I guess” to the Little theory.

The couple’s granddaughter Nicole stated the following (in reference to the reward money the family was offering). “If you’re going to give some information about someone, especially who you believe murdered two elderly people, that’s a risk. You’re risking something to help someone else, and so, if you can sweeten the deal a little bit, get some money for it? We don’t care about the money. If that would tempt someone to say something, then that’s fine. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for just out of the goodness of your heart or because you need $50,000. It doesn’t matter. We want the information either way.”

Analysis and Speculation

The veiled descriptions make the murders seem to be the kind of crime that hardly ever occurs outside of fiction. It is, in the words of the FBI, one of the “one percent.” Most killers do not spend hours at the crime scene afterwards arranging items in each room of the home to support different narratives. Most killers do not leave written messages for the police to find. If the timing of the crime on early Sunday morning was deliberate, as  Detective Cox believes it was, then we have to add that most killers act to delay the discovery of a murder if there are means to do so. We know that the victims’ bodies were posed in some disturbingly unspecified manner. (Hopefully, the medical examiner would have noted any lividity, as this would be crucial in determining how and when the bodies were moved). We know about the positioning and possible damage inflicted on the photographs in the home. We also know that other items were manipulated and rearranged all throughout the condo. None of these things can really be considered part of an “average” murder.

One of the first questions we have to ask is how the perpetrator entered the Stephenson condo. There was no sign of forced entry, and entry through the front door required being buzzed in by someone inside. The route of entry may have been deliberately muddled through the staging, so it’s unclear if the killer came in through a door other than the front or found a way to access a window without leaving signs of a break in. The Stephensons did not allow people they did not know well to stay in their home. It’s possible that someone they knew was visiting that night and let someone else in to commit the crime, but it still seems unlikely that there would have bee even a trusted friend or family member at 1:00 am (at the earliest), especially when the couple lacked the practical set-up for a third person to spend the night. So we have to assume that the person entered without leaving traces of forced entry, or else were let in by one of the Stephensons themselves. The former is not an outlandish concept, to my mind. After all, I’ve gotten locked out of my house a few times in my life and usually been able to jiggle open a loose window after a few minutes of searching with little trouble. However, in the case of someone planning a double homicide, this would not be the type of thing to be left to chance. If there was a point in the condo that allowed easy entry, it’s most likely they already knew this from previously scouting the scene. In the second case, the killer would had to have been someone the couple knew well, or someone who could imitate the voice of someone the couple knew well. They may have used a ruse saying that they needed help, or that someone else close to the couple did. The thing that still troubles me about this theory, though, is that it was likely the middle of the night by that point. The elderly couple would probably have been sleeping, and would not respond to the buzzer right away. Then this unknown person would have had to speak loudly into the buzzer before being allowed inside, all the while being audible and visible to any curious neighbors. With the information available, there is simply not perfect answer to how the killer got inside.

I have a hard time convincing myself that the Stephenson murder was anything other than a planned and deliberate attack motived by a personal cause, at the hands of someone they knew and possibly trusted. Although the condo was, to the best of my knowledge, not an unusually large or difficult place to navigate, the familiarity with which the killer moved through it while rearranging items in each room strongly suggests  someone who had been inside before. One thing that stands out me is the strange placing of the photographs. We don’t know who was pictured in these photographs, although it seems fair to assume that they included members of the extended Stephenson family and possibly close friends and church members. What the staging does indicate is that the killer knew some of the people pictured in addition to the Stephensons themselves. The sheer deliberateness of the scene also makes me think that it was carried out by a person with deeply held grudge against the couple, particularly the fact that they went to the trouble of leaving a message behind and the possibility that they may have wanted the crime scene to be discovered quickly. While I obviously don’t know the contents of the message, one interpretation of these actions is that the killer wanted to mock and degrade these respected members of the church and community, and to make sure others saw the Stephensons as they wanted them to be seen.

The post-mortem injury that was inflicted on only one of the victims could be seen as the killer having a deeper personal vendetta against that victim. The fact that the bodies of the victims were found in separate parts of the home might mean that the killer had a somewhat different attitude towards Bill then they did towards Peggy. Although both victims may have been deliberately targeted, these factors together make me wonder if one person was more of a target then the other. I also can’t help but speculate that the fact that this all happened on Memorial Day has some significance. Unlikely though this may seem, I do wonder if the motive behind the murders could be rooted in events that happened on a previous Memorial Day, or on the same date in a prior year. Bill and Peggy may have had no idea that they had made an enemy by some unknown means, but the date or the holiday could have stuck with the killer and made them want to use it as the time to inflict their “revenge.”

One thing I’ve considered, but mostly rejected, is if the intent of the staging was not to direct law enforcement away from a given suspect but to direct them towards one. In other words, the perpetuator was not just set on murdering Bill and Peggy but also actively trying to frame someone else. This almost seems a bridge too far for me, but then, most aspects of this case would be a bridge too far compared to the vast majority of homicides. However, if the intent was to point fingers in a specific direction, I can’t help but think that the killer would have staged the scene to be less ambiguous than it evidently was. By leaving signs that pointed towards different motives and methods of entry, they would be undercutting their own framing efforts.
 

Among the ideas that have not been ruled out by law enforcement is that of a murder for hire situation. It’s within the realm of possibility that one person carried out the murders, and someone else came to the apartment afterwards, inflicted an injury on one of the victims, and staged the items. The first person could have left a door unlocked for the second person. The scenario seems most logical if the second person hired the first person, perhaps lacking the confidence to carry out the initial murders or to gain entry to the condo. This person still would have had strong feelings about the Stephensons that they wanted to communicate to the world at large, and so entered later to stage the scene how they wanted it. It’s also entirely possible that two or more people worked in tandem to commit the crime without an exchange of money.

As per usual, I looked up a map of the area where the crime happened. It’s listed in the resources, but you can also take a look here. The cul-de-sac on which the Stephensons lived runs north-south, just east of Pleasant Valley Road (237) and south of Gunpowder Creek. It’s not obvious from the satellite imagery, or possibly it was removed at some point, but the Coffee and Cases podcast mentioned that there was a “mound” behind the condo that would have blocked the backyards from view. Most likely, this was used as a noise barrier between the subdivision and the highway. There does appear to be some empty or wooded areas behind the homes on Edge Ridge Court, places where someone could have waited unseen for hours if they so chose. They could also have used the vegetated areas as a means to walk behind the row of condos without risking being seen in the neighborhood. If this is the case, the person was either staying someplace within walking distance or parked at another location and made their way on foot to the Stephenson residence.

Detective Cox has been adamant that the Stephenson murder is “old, but not cold.” I have done a lot of crime write-ups in which the law enforcement involved displayed incompetence, indifference, or both. Based on the interviews I have heard and read, Cox does not fall into this category. He has been dedicated in pursuing all feasible leads in at least 14 states. He has spoken to family members, truckers that met Bill through the truck stop ministry, and any other persons of interest. I will conclude with an open message he has given to the perpetrator. “I realize you’re not going to sit down and tell us, ‘I did this. This is why I did this,’ but the why is part of what you want us to know, part of the message you were trying to get to us. And I would ask you to communicate. I will work with you. I will communicate with you in some social forum.”

Contact Information

StephensonTip@BooneCountyKy.org 

Can call 859-334-8496 (anonymous) with information. Can call toll free at 844-210-1111

Resources

Backstory: Detective vows brutal slayings of Florence couple won’t go unsolved

Just the Tipsters Podcast (Interview with Detective Coy Cox)

Lead investigator in bizarre NKY cold case has message for murderer

Unsolved: The 2011 double homicide of beloved community members Peggy & Bill Stephenson

(There are two blog posts on this site associated with the case. The 2021 post contains a link to a previous one published a year earlier).

Killer’s DNA Found at Stephenson Murder Scene

The Unforgotten: No Justice Decade Later in Stephenson Murders

Five years later, community, investigators still look for answers in killing of Bill and Peggy Stephenson

Stephenson may be linked to three area homicides

Wikipedia Entry on Samuel Little

Coffee and Cases Podcast Episode

Leigh Jennings Murder: Where is Charles Stephenson Now?

Map of Oakbrook Subdivision

*Having said this, it is certainly still possible that someone followed the Stephensons home at some point, or that they got the address from someone else who knew them.

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