April 25, 2016
By Laura Stassi
Traumatic experiences can affect people so profoundly that they may not be able to remember the details of what happened for hours, days, weeks or even years afterward—if ever.
Then there’s Steve. Under the most extreme emotional and physical duress imaginable, his uncanny sense of recall prevailed.
It happened a few days short of 35 years and one month ago, on the last weekend of March in 1981. Steve, then a junior at the University of California, Davis; and his girlfriend, Ellen, a UC Davis sophomore, were hiking at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. On Ridge Trail, they encountered a man with a gun.
The man ordered the couple repeatedly to “do what I say, and you won’t get hurt.”*
“Don’t listen to him, Steve,” Ellen said.
Steve alternated between pleading for his and Ellen’s lives and attempting to protect Ellen with his words.
“Be careful, Ell. He has a gun. Ellen, stay away from him. He has a gun.”
The gunman told Ellen he wanted to rape her.
“No, I’m not going to let you,” she said and then repeated to Steve, “Don’t listen to what he says.”
The flustered gunman shot the couple at close range and left them to die.
“It was clear from the beginning that Ellen would not submit to his demands and was willing to fight back,” Steve said. “I think her resistance made him angry.”
It “also made him panic,” Steve said, so the gunman’s aim was off. While Ellen was shot twice in the head and once in the right shoulder, the bullet meant to kill Steve landed in his neck.
Bleeding profusely, Steve managed to get up and check on Ellen; tragically, she was dead. He ran down the trail to summon help, soon encountering a father and son who had heard the gunshots and were coming to investigate. They helped Steve to a nearby observation deck, where he received first aid from a woman who happened to be a nursing assistant. First-responders arrived, and Steve was transported to a nearby hospital.
Despite the chaos of the moments and the emotional and physical horrors, Steve was able to remember enough details to identify the gunman. The first time was when the woman was helping him on the observation deck. Steve spotted the gunman, who was walking away from them at a distance.
“Lady, that’s the man that shot me!” Steve yelled, standing up and pointing. “Get out of here!”
Then, when Steve was in the hospital awaiting surgery, he provided information for police to create a facial composite. “The surgeon came in and said he wanted to get started,” Steve recalled. “The detective asked for a few more minutes. Before the surgeon could reply, I said, ‘He can have a few more minutes.’
“I figured I needed to tell that detective everything I knew before they put me under, in the event I didn’t make it,” Steve said.
After surgery, while Steve was still in the intensive care unit, detectives returned to ask for feedback on the composite. Unable to speak, “I could only motion to them to make revisions,” he said. “When they got the sketch right, I emphatically tapped their sketch as confirmation.”
Forensic evidence soon tied Steve and Ellen’s case to the so-called Trailside Killer and a terrifying, six-week cluster of rape and murder in 1980 at Mount Tamalpais State Park, near San Francisco in Marin County. (“We were aware of the Marin County attacks,” Steve said, and that’s why “Ellen’s mom suggested we go to Santa Cruz.”)
Steve was able to not only describe the gunman’s face and details like “crooked, yellow teeth,” but he also remembered what the gunman was wearing. And Steve’s estimate of the gunman’s age—”about 50″—would prove to be spot-on.
“My detailed description gave investigators [in both locations] their best lead in months,” Steve said. Several weeks later, police arrested a former convict named David Carpenter and called Steve to see if he could identify Carpenter in a police lineup. Without hesitation, Steve pointed him out, even though Carpenter had grown a beard.
Steve also provided key testimony during two trials. Carpenter was found guilty of first-degree murder and the attempted rape of Ellen, and guilty of the attempted murder of Steve. Carpenter also was found guilty of first-degree murder and rape in the death of a co-worker he killed a few days after the attack on Ellen and Steve.
Ultimately, Carpenter was also convicted of five murders on the trails near San Francisco. And in 2010, DNA evidence tied him to a cold-case 1979 rape and murder of a woman who had gone for a run on another San Francisco-area trail. Carpenter is also a suspect in at least one other murder; now in his mid-80s, he is on death row in San Quentin State Prison.
Carpenter’s victims “were made to suffer and then murdered,” Steve said. “They were trapped in a hopeless situation, and I understand the fear and terror they experienced. Evidence indicates that they also resisted.”
Steve spent more than a week in the hospital recovering from his ordeal. He returned to school a few weeks later with his arm in a sling, obvious surgical scars, and a voice hardly above a whisper. “Most wounds healed in about a month,” he said. “Some wounds still linger. ”
However, “I thought the sooner I was sitting back in class, the sooner my life would return to normal. Those of us who knew Ellen well also knew that she would want us to move on with our lives.” And while the attack “is part of my life,” Steve said, it “did not drive” it. “I wanted to finish college, start a career, and be in a relationship. I didn’t want to let myself down and let Carpenter take my livelihood.”
Steve has succeeded. He has had a long and fruitful career with PG&E and has been happily married to his wife, Anne, for almost 31 years. They have a young son who doesn’t know the details of what Steve experienced, but he does know why his dad has scars. “I wanted him to know what a gun will do to a person,” Steve said.
Steve insists that it is Ellen who is the true hero because she “ended these terrible actions,” he said. “Ellen Hansen’s courage and resistance saved my life. She was extraordinary.”
“I was no hero, pleading for my life,” he said, “and I will always remember my knees shaking. But I have survived and was able to provide the testimony to help convict” Carpenter. And while some people might “see that as courageous,” Steve wrote, “I see it as my duty.”
After Steve and I reconnected several weeks ago and he shared this story, I asked if I could write about him because I specialize in unearthing the extraordinary stories contained within seemingly ordinary lives. Ever the editor to my writer, Steve tweaked me. “To turn your phrase, I think I’m an extraordinary person who has succeeded in living an ordinary life,” he said. “I’ve tried to stay out of the limelight and enjoy my relative anonymity.”
And though he always considered himself spiritual but not particularly religious, he became Catholic about four years ago. “I can never fully explain my decision to do so, but it reflects a lifetime of experience,” he said.
“I do believe we are here by the grace of God.”
*I described Steve and Ellen’s encounter with David Carpenter using this court transcript.