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Oregon Police Arrest Convicted Murderer and Army Veteran for 1974 Cold Case Slaughter of High School Students – After Charging the Wrong Man

Steven Paul Criss appears in a mugshot

Steven Paul Criss

Peter Zito Jr. was 18 years old when he died; his friend Donald Bartron was just 16 years old – both Aloha High School students at the time. And both were shot to death near a car at a recreation center in the Portland area in 1974. Now, nearly 50 years later, after several missteps, law enforcement claim they’ve finally caught the killer.

According to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, both teens had been shot in their heads “multiple times” by a .22 caliber handgun.

Steven Paul Criss, 65, stands accused of both cold case murders.

In a press release on Friday, the sheriff’s office said the defendant was one of the initial suspects in the case after being arrested for theft some two months after the murders – whereupon a sheriff’s deputy found “an illegally concealed .22 caliber handgun in his car.”

At the time, however, ballistics testing could not show a match between Criss’s gun and the bullets that took Zito’s and Bartron’s life.

During an accompanying press conference on Friday morning Pacific Time, the lead investigator in the case said the WCSO took “a second look at the ballistic testing” and with the help of the ATF, were able to finally match the bullets from the murders to the defendant’s gun.

During the early morning hours, on Oct. 3, 1974, an Oregonian newspaper delivery driver made the gruesome discovery – reporting a person on the ground next to a car in the parking lot of the Oak Hills Recreation Center. Then-deputy Jim Spinden (who later became the elected sheriff of Washington County) found Zito first, next to the driver’s side door; Bartron was found slumped over inside the open hood – he was working on the car’s engine at the time he was killed.

Almost immediately, the wrong man was arrested.

Within hours of the slayings being discovered, Joseph Amir Wilson was taken into custody, charged, and later indicted for murders he did not commit. The innocent man had been in a fight with a man the night before at the recreational center. Some detectives believed Wilson wanted to murder that man and his brother in reprisal – but killed the two teenagers in a case of mistaken identity instead. By early 1975, however, the charges against him were dropped.

“Detective [Jim] Welch never believed Joe Wilson was the killer and he correctly identified Steve Criss as a suspect within weeks of the murders,” a sheriff’s office spokesperson said during the Friday press conference. “His investigation in 1974 documented and preserved vital evidence.”

During the press conference, Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett issued a formal apology on behalf of the sheriff’s office.

“It is clear he was innocent and should never have been arrested,” a spokesperson added. He passed away in Portland in 2000. The sheriff’s department is currently seeking out Wilson’s relatives to apologize for his false arrest and asked for the public’s help in doing so.

Aiding the latest, and presumably final, arrest in the case is the fact that Criss pleaded guilty to murdering his commanding officer in the U.S. Army in 1976 over an unpaid debt – using the same gun that was recently tied to the Zito and Bartron murders. The defendant would go on to serve 12 years of a 35-year sentence for the murder of then-sergeant Jacob “Kim” Brown at a lockup on Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Criss then moved back to Aloha, Oregon.

“To date, this is the oldest known match, nationwide, the ATF has ever confirmed for a prosecutable case,” the sheriff’s office said.

Criss was indicted by Washington County grand jurors on two counts of murder in the second degree earlier this week.

The defendant was arrested without incident near his home, the sheriff’s office said. He was taken into custody using the same pair of handcuffs from when he was arrested by Spinden in 1974.

“We acknowledge how difficult it must have been to wait 48 years for this moment,” the spokesperson said.

The investigation is said to be open and the case against Criss is still pending. Law enforcement is declining to discuss the specifics of the defendant’s initial police interview or additional evidence at this time.

[images via Washington County Sheriff’s Office]

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