Bittlers Share Sorrow, Horror of Murder
Melissa Bittler’s parents tell jurors at Ladon A. Stephens’ sentencing phase of a loving girl and future moments forever lost
Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian, Feb. 26
[Note from AR: Mary Bittler was white, and Ladon Stephens is black.]
Mary Bittler asked jurors Wednesday to learn about the “unique young lady” her daughter was before Ladon A. Stephens “choked out her life.”
Through photos and personal accounts, she portrayed Melissa as a bubbly, smiling infant to a teenaged girl who loved animals, playing in the snow, camping with her family and helping her sister with math homework. Just before her death, Mary Bittler said, Melissa wrote a letter to God, asking him to grant world peace, protect the less fortunate and to help her live “a longer, happier life.”
Last week, Stephens, 35, was convicted in the Dec. 13, 2001, sexual assault and killing of 14-year-old Melissa. This week, the jury that found him guilty of 30 charges of aggravated murder, attempted aggravated murder, rape, sodomy and kidnapping for Melissa’s death and four other rapes between 1997 and 2002 is hearing testimony in the trial’s sentencing phase.
Wednesday, Melissa’s parents took the witness stand to tell the jury about their daughter’s life and about their anguish at her death.
Mary Bittler cried and her voice shook as tried to describe the future accomplishments, now forever lost, that she had expected to share with her daughter.
“He has deprived our family of so many firsts,” Mary Bittler said “I’ve been denied the joy of her coming home and talking about her first date. I will never see her marry.”
After the seven-minute photo display, Mary Bittler said: “It’s just a short clip. . . . That’s what her life was like.”
Her husband, Tom Bittler, then recounted for jurors the horror, the questions and the anger he felt from the moment he learned of his daughter’s violent death.
On a large screen in court, he displayed two years of news headlines since Melissa’s body was found, and he relayed his feelings through each development, such as Stephens’ arrest after an April 2002 rape and Stephens’ links to three 1997 sexual assaults.
He questioned why Stephens’ mother and brother, who testified in court that Stephens had confessed to them in March 2002 that he had “killed somebody,” never alerted authorities. He said he was disturbed that police let DNA evidence from two 1997 sexual assault cases, which later were linked to Bittler’s death, sit in a property room for five years.
“Did Melissa really have to die before these kits would be checked?” Tom Bittler said. “Is rape just not that big of a crime to be concerned about?”
And he lashed out at the lapses in Stephens’ parole oversight. Stephens was on parole, receiving sex-offender treatment, when he killed Bittler and raped four others.
“All I have to say is that if they had done things right Melissa would be alive,” her father said. “Did Melissa really have to die?”
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. They say Stephens has terrorized the community since he began preying on young girls at age 15. Today, the defense team will argue for Multnomah Circuit Judge Kimberly C. Frankel to allow the Bittlers to describe to jurors their personal opposition to the death penalty.
Prosecutors have spent much of the first three days of the penalty phase detailing Stephens’ early criminal history. On Wednesday, they also called the mother of his 5-year-old son, Tiffany Anderson, who told jurors that she got a restraining order against Stephens in October 2000, after he struck and beat her eight times between 1998 and 2000. Each time, she said, she was too afraid to call police.
Prosecutors also have detailed his 1984 attempted rape and sodomy convictions as a 15-year-old for assaulting young girls at knifepoint as they walked home from school through Woodlawn Park, along with three 1989 attempted kidnappings of young girls in North and Northeast Portland.
Seven of the victims from the 1984 assaults and the three victims of the 1989 attempted kidnappings testified. On Wednesday, one of the victims, Sara Thomas, took jurors back to Oct. 18, 1989, when she was a 14-year-old Grant High School student walking home after her cross-country track practice.
Thomas had grown up near Northeast 35th Avenue and Alameda Street. A motorist drove up to her and asked her for directions to Grant High School and drove on. As she continued to walk, she still noticed the car “kind of creeping” along side streets, she said. When she reached the top of a hill near Northeast Klickitat Street and 37th Avenue, she said the car was right in front of her. The driver was leaning to the passenger side, and the passenger window was down. He pointed a gun at her and ordered her to get in his car.
“I dropped my cross-country bag and took off running, and thought I’d rather get shot” than get in the car, she said.
Stephens was arrested later that month and convicted of three similar attempted kidnappings. He served six years of a 30-year sentence.
Years later, when Thomas learned of the Bittler killing, occurring so close to the neighborhood where she was raised, she thought of Stephens and called Portland police to suggest they consider him as a possible suspect in Bittler’s death.
“It was really hard for me to see her face on TV . . . because she was the same age as me and we grew up in the same neighborhood,” Thomas recalled. “Something inside me just said, ‘Ladon Stephens.’ “
When she called police, she told them: “This is just a hunch. I was one of his victims in 1989. If he’s out of prison, you should look into the Ladon Stephen’s name because of similarities.”
During cross-examination, Jane Claus, a defense lawyer, asked Thomas, “After you called detectives, did anyone ever follow up with you?”
“No,” she replied.
Crime Victims United
This story is based on articles that appeared in The Oregonian on 5/30/2002, 6/1/2002 and 7/28/2002.
Ladon Stephens, 33, was arrested in the spring of 2002 for a rape that culminated more than a decade of vicious sexual predation.
Stephens had “a history of preying on girls” since he was a teen-ager.” At age 15, he underwent sex-offender treatment as a suspect in several sexual assaults. He spent time in various juvenile facilities.
He served six years in prison of a 30 year sentence for three 1989 attempted gunpoint kidnappings. He was released after completing a “relapse prevention program.” He was under post-prison supervision that included polygraph tests “to ensure he was not reoffending.”
On February 9, 1997, less than two months after his release from prison, Stephens allegedly yanked a teenage girl off the street, choked her and raped her. He allegedly repeated this on another teenage girl eighteen days later and allegedly repeated it again on another teenage girl later that year. He was not identified as the rapist. “All this time, Stephens was under parole supervision as a high-risk sex offender.” This included four meetings per month with his parole officer and two polygraph tests per year. During the polygraph tests, he was explicitly asked if he had any sexual contact with a minor.
From 1997 to 1999, Stephens fathered three children by three different women. This led to paternity suits which led to examination of his DNA by private companies. Although he was a registered sex offender and considered high-risk, he was not required to give DNA to the state because his prior conviction occurred before 1991.
On December 13, 2001, Stephens allegedly dragged Melissa Bittler, 14, off the street, raped her, and murdered her by choking.
At this point, police had not connected the three rapes in 1997 to one another nor had they connected the rapes and the murder of Melissa Bittler. In fact, DNA from the 1997 rapes had never been sent for DNA analysis. Stephens was one of 230 persons of interest in the Bittler case.
In the spring of 2002, investigators found the DNA from the 1997 rapes in storage, along with DNA from 1,000 other unsolved sex assault cases. None of this DNA had been examined. On May 28, 2002, investigators determined that the DNA from the three 1997 rapes and from the Bittler murder matched.
On April 28, 2002, Stephens allegedly raped his girlfriend’s cousin. A month later, the police lab connected this latest attack to the earlier attacks through DNA. Stephens was finally arrested. He is now awaiting trial for the aggravated murder of Melissa Bittler.
The Multnomah County Department of Community Justice reviewed Stephens’ parole supervision and found that “procedures were followed.”