Late in the afternoon of Oct. 4, 1980, two police officers appeared at the Good News Mission in suburban Oak Park, Ill. A 24-year-old nursing student, a yoga disciple named Karen Ann Phillips, had been murdered at about 1 a.m. the previous morning, and the police were looking for information that might lead to the killer. Any clue could help, they said, no matter how silly it might seem.
The supervisor at the mission, a Christian halfway house for ex-cons, was Steven Linscott, 26, a student at nearby Emmaus Bible College. Neither he nor his wife, Lois, 25, could recall anything out of the ordinary. But then Linscott began thinking about the nightmare that had left him in a cold sweat around the time of the murder—a dream in which a blond man had been beating someone to death, someone who seemed to accept the attack with odd resignation.
Linscott mentioned the dream to Lois and his classmates at Emmaus, and they urged him to contact the Oak Park police. The whole idea sounded foolish to him; then he heard about a newspaper account of the killing, which disclosed that Phillips had been “bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument”—just like the victim in his dream. “On occasion, I [had] felt I had premonitions, a feeling that I had been somewhere before,” Linscott says now. “So I suddenly became intrigued by the possibility of my dream being an inspired experience. If nothing else, [going to the police] seemed like an interesting diversion from memorizing two chapters of Romans.”
Precisely how interesting he was about to find out. Detectives Robert Scianna and Robert Grego were questioning a friend of Phillips when Linscott telephoned to report his curious nightmare. As he reconstructed it then and later, the hazy scenario was set in a living room with a couch and maybe a stereo. The assailant was a fair, husky man wearing a short-sleeved, terrycloth T-shirt; the victim seemed to be a black person who crouched as he or she was struck on the head with an instrument like a counterweight in a grandfather’s clock. The dream-murder was quick and brutal, Linscott said, and the victim did not resist; when the deed was done, the room was awash in blood.
The police, anxious to find a suspect in the Phillips case, did not regard the dream as coincidence. Linscott was summoned to the police station, where he was questioned in two lengthy interviews. The fact that Scianna read him his Miranda rights didn’t seem ominous—”They told me they had [done the same] to a man who was there to discuss his house being burglarized”—and Linscott willingly accepted the detectives’ invitation to speculate about the crime he had dreamed. They told him he was their “best shot” for solving the case, and suggested that perhaps he had psychic powers. Linscott, who had been a psychology major at the University of Maine, was flattered. “I saw a chance to use the skills no one else appreciated,” he says. “I was kind of on cloud nine thinking I was helping the police.”
The detectives asked whether the attacker was married. “It’s possible,” Linscott said, apparently comfortable now with the hypothesis that the victim he had seen was a woman. “…He seems real at ease, you know, with the opposite sex…” Did the murderer feel any remorse? “I would hope so,” Linscott replied. Might the man in question want to be caught? “I think so,” said Linscott. “…I know some people will do that subconsciously—leave a trace, you know.”
Though Linscott found nothing disturbing about the interview, Lois was alarmed. “The kind of questions they were asking [were] so leading,” she says. “Steve was approaching it as a spectator, and the police were talking about it as if he were there.”
When Detective Scianna called to schedule another interview, Linscott asked whether he was a suspect; Scianna assured him that he was not. Still, he was questioned by an assistant state’s attorney and asked to submit samples of his blood, saliva and hair. “They told me that in order to use me as a witness, they had to rule me out as a suspect,” he says. Then, soon after the samples were given, Grego accused the Bible student of being the murderer. Linscott was horrified.
Though he was not immediately charged with the killing, and though detectives had no witnesses or physical evidence, police apparently pressed the investigation no further. Some of the victim’s neighbors were never questioned, including ex-cons at the halfway house and a suspected rapist who lived nearby. For six weeks, Linscott himself heard nothing. Finally, on the morning of Nov. 25, he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
On the face of it, the soft-spoken father of two seemed an unlikely suspect. The son of an air-traffic controller, Linscott had been raised in Houlton, Maine, where he earned respectable grades and varsity letters in tennis and track. During a four-year hitch as a Navy enlisted man, he passed extensive background checks and was granted top-secret clearance to serve on an admiral’s staff. If there was any evidence of tension in the life of the mild-mannered Linscott, it lay in the fact that he had slept fitfully in the weeks before Phillips died. Worried about juggling his studies at Emmaus with his duties at the halfway house, he often woke in the middle of the night, troubled by too-vivid dreams.
Long before his murder trial convened on June 2, 1982, even Lois Linscott had struggled with doubts. “[Steve’s] behavior was so normal,” she says, “but I still had to think it through.” Doing so only reaffirmed her faith in her husband. “If I [hadn’t been sure] I would never have stuck it out,” she says, “and I would never have exposed my children to danger.”
As it happened, the case against Steven would turn on the limited similarities between his nightmare and the actual crime. After the trial, Assistant State’s Attorney Jay Magnuson would acknowledge that the evidence had been “wholly circumstantial”; in an interview with a local newspaper, he conceded that the prosecution “left it to the jury to presume a motive.” No witness could place Linscott at Phillips’ apartment, and Lois testified that he had been sleeping beside her when she rose to feed nine-month-old Paul between 1 and 3 a.m. There was no evidence that Linscott had ever met the dead woman, and fingerprints taken at the scene were not his. A semen sample taken from her body could have been matched with about 60 percent of all males, and hairs discovered nearby were found only to be “consistent” with Linscott’s—as they would have been with a substantial percentage of the Caucasian population’s.
By this time Linscott had discarded the notion that his dream was a product of extrasensory perception. He now believes it was an ordinary nightmare, which he unwittingly embellished with details gleaned from what he read in the papers. Although details of the crime had been reported in the press, Magnuson argued that Linscott had reconstructed the murder as only the killer could have. He pointed out that when Phillips’ body was found, the thumb and forefinger of each hand met in an “O”—which, to a swami-in-training, would signify the peaceful acceptance of death. The murder weapon had been a tire iron—as Scianna insisted, over Linscott’s denials, that Steven had told him it might be. The apartment had been covered with blood, and the murderer had dealt the fatal blows while his victim (who had, in fact, been stabbed and strangled as well as beaten) was beneath him.
And though there were significant disparities between Linscott’s account and the actual killing—the victim was not black, and the type and number of Phillips’ injuries didn’t really jibe with what the dreamer had “seen”—the jury seemed willing to take the prosecution’s word that that didn’t matter. Five women and seven men found Linscott guilty of murder. For Steven Linscott, the verdict was bitter and disillusioning. “Everybody trusts the system, everybody trusts the fact-finding process,” he says now. “Nobody realizes that it’s a slick pole and once you start sliding on it you can’t get off.”
Nor are the Linscotts off it yet. His motion for a new trial denied, Steven began a 40-year sentence at a medium-security prison in downstate Centralia. Lois moved nearby with the children and began working with the lawyer who would appeal her husband’s conviction. It took three years, but the Illinois Court of Appeals ruled in 1985 that the evidence against Steven was insufficient to sustain a conviction. Yet the victory was only temporary; last fall, the guilty verdict was reinstated by a divided state Supreme Court, which held that the jury could reasonably have concluded that Linscott was guilty.
Staking their hopes on another appeal, the Linscotts have hired a private investigator to follow leads the police apparently never pursued. Free on bond, Steven is finishing his undergraduate degree at Southern Illinois University; Lois is a licensed practical nurse. They have the support of the local evangelical Christian community, and donations have come in from churches all over the U.S. “There is absolutely no doubt that Steven is innocent, and it angers me that such a miscarriage of justice can occur,” says Gordon Haresign, a former faculty member at Emmaus Bible College. “The police investigation was sloppy, and the prosecution was close-minded and biased.” Through it all, the lesson of the Good Samaritan has not been lost on Linscott, nor the risks sometimes entailed. “If you can’t prove you didn’t do something,” he says, “you better think twice before you come forward. I realize now that the world is a much harder and colder place than I thought.”