Normally, as evening approached, 29-year-old Michael Stephenson would start walking east toward the foothills above Santa Barbara, Calif. to look for a quiet place to spend the night. The Santa Barbara police knew Stephenson well. He was one of the homeless street people who, some thought, had become a blight on the affluent city between the Pacific and the Santa Ynez Mountains. Yet he was more than a typical drifter. On his own since he had left his home in Chicago 10 years earlier, he had wandered across the country taking odd jobs and had once managed a convenience store in Colorado. Since arriving in Santa Barbara in 1982, he had found a girlfriend, Laurie Shannon, 29, a local university student, and had been talking about finding a place to live. “He was really tired of living on the streets and all the hassles,” said Shannon.
Shannon was out of town the night of Saturday, Aug. 3, 1985, so Stephenson had a few drinks with friends. Then he walked to the old-fashioned gazebo that is the centerpiece of the city’s Alameda Park. He lay down, turned on his bright red portable radio and fell asleep sometime before midnight. Across town at Northwestern Prep, a private school whose specialty is a crash course aimed at raising college-board scores for applicants to the service academies, David Kurtzman and James Tramel, both 17, were slipping out of their apartment on a bizarre mission that would lead them to the park where Stephenson slept.
Kurtzman and Tramel had become friends soon after enrolling at Northwestern. Tramel, from Phoenix, had been nominated to the Air Force Academy by Sen. Barry Goldwater. Kurtzman was hoping for an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Both came from broken homes. Kurtzman, born in Gainesville, Fla., had grown up in Palo Alto, where his mother is a psychiatric nurse at a veterans’ hospital. His teachers at Palo Alto High considered him immature but “nice.” He had lettered in baseball and football, picked up extra money baby-sitting, and become an Eagle Scout three days after graduation. A week before Kurtzman was to start the six-month crash course at Northwestern, he and his father, who had left the family when David was 18 months old, had planned to meet for the first time. But at the last moment the older man canceled. Kurtzman was upset. “He told me that if he ever did meet his father he didn’t know what he would do—that he might even kill him,” says Steve Majewski, one of his Northwestern roommates.
Tramel’s parents too had divorced, and his mother had later remarried. Described by several fellow students as a “manipulator,” Tramel was given to boasting about his knowledge of weaponry and martial arts skills, and to exaggerating his other accomplishments. In July he, Kurtzman and seven other young men began sharing an apartment across the street from Northwestern. Tramel quickly emerged as a leader. Sometime that month he called together his eight roommates and suggested they form a group called “the Nine.” His inspiration was The Lords of Discipline, a 1984 movie set at a Southern military academy, which had dramatized the exploits of a shadowy student vigilante group called “the Ten.” With Tramel’s encouragement, the roommates gathered around a eucalyptus candle, held hands and proclaimed allegiance to the Nine. “I thought it was all a joke,” says Majewski. So, apparently, did most of the others.
The humor, if there was any, evaporated several days later when another roommate, Eric Rixen, was kicked by a Mexican youth on State Street. “Get off our turf,” the Mexican had told him. Back at the apartment Tramel spoke of retaliation and suggested the group build sodium bombs, mortar launchers and hand grenades made of tin cans. “I thought it was just fun and games, just fantasizing,” says Majewski. Yet tension was building, fueled by rumors around the school of previous run-ins with local gangs. Majewski later recalled overhearing a disturbing conversation between Tramel and Kurtzman. Tramel asked the Eagle Scout if he had ever gone deer hunting. Kurtzman had. “Have you ever killed a deer with your bare hands?” Tramel asked. “Yes,” David said, he had once used a knife to cut a deer’s throat. “Have you ever felt a knife go through a human head?” countered Tramel. No, David hadn’t done that.
Later that evening Tramel suggested that the Mexicans might try to storm their rooms that night and that the Nine should lock all the doors and windows. Though most of the boys discounted the idea, Kurtzman was so rattled that he went to sleep fully dressed with a 10-inch army knife beneath his bed.
The next afternoon, Saturday, Tramel took his roommates’ measurements, planning to buy dark clothing for retaliatory forays. “It was like getting dressed for a prom,” Tramel testified later. “We were playing a game with real clothes, like little military men. The fantasy weapons were part of the game. And part of the game is pretending it’s real.” Kurtzman sharpened his knife and ran the blade over the flame of the eucalyptus candle in order to smudge it to guard against glare. At 10:30 p.m. he packed it in its black leather sheath, slipped it into the back of his pants and covered it with his hooded sweatshirt. Tramel noticed the knife’s bulge, took the weapon and concealed it in a belt he wore over his shoulder. He wrapped Ace bandages around his ankles for protection—in case he had to kick anybody, he explained to the others. “What do you want to do, kill somebody?” roommate Tom Wetterhahn asked jokingly. “We have to,” Kurtzman reportedly replied.
The two headed down State Street with Rixen, who later went off on his own. Continuing on, Kurtzman and Tramel passed Victoria Plaza, a shopping mall across from a theater showing Rambo: First Blood Part II, which Kurtzman had seen several times. At a nearby McDonald’s, Tramel noticed a young Mexican he thought might have been involved in the attack on Rixen. They tracked him to Alameda Park, but lost him. Kurtzman, afraid they had been led into an ambush, asked for his knife back. Hearing music coming from the gazebo, the two boys investigated and discovered the sleeping figure of Michael Stephenson. “That’s him,” Tramel said softly. Awakening, Stephenson asked what they were doing. At that point Kurtzman walked behind him and plunged the knife into the back of his neck. “No, my friend, no,” he heard Stephenson mutter. Then, after stabbing him more than 15 times, Kurtzman flipped him over and cut his throat.
Last winter, at his trial, Kurtzman tried to explain. “My heart started pounding in my ears,” he said. “There were flashes in my head. I envisioned all the things that could happen, people crawling over the sides of the gazebo. I just lost it.” Tramel, at his own trial in May, claimed he had heard gagging noises but didn’t know what was happening. “I thought [Stephenson] was throwing up,” he testified. “I looked and saw that David had the man on his knees and was cutting his throat. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe what had happened. It was just like a dream.”
Leaving the park, the boys met Rixen as planned, then made their way back to the apartment. They hoisted Tramel, who pretended to have a sprained ankle, onto their shoulders in case they needed an alibi for missing the 1 a.m. curfew. In his bathroom, Kurtzman cleaned his knife with water and steel wool, and lay impassively on his bunk as Tramel announced to the group, “It’s not just a game anymore.” The others asked what he meant. “We bagged a Mexican tonight,” he replied. Unconvinced, Wetterhahn and Tyler Shepperd challenged Tramel to take them to the park that night and show them the body. Afterward, with only the flame of the eucalyptus candle lighting the room, Tramel swore all his roommates to secrecy. The next morning he announced that he and Kurtzman would head to the Rocky Mountains and then on to Canada. But the other members of the Nine called an end to the game. Gathering up the knife and Kurtzman’s bloody trousers, four of the students went to the police. Kurtzman and Tramel were quickly arrested.
In February, after six months in Santa Barbara Juvenile Hall, David Kurtzman came to trial in superior court. His attorney, Terrence Cannon, tried to persuade the jury that his client had not left his apartment intending to kill. “David and James had fantasized themselves into a play-world scouting mission,” he said, and had been driven by paranoia and fear. “Panic is simply not murder,” he said. Unpersuaded, the jurors found Kurtzman guilty of second degree murder—a conviction carrying a possible sentence of 16 years to life in prison. Tramel, however, seems to have benefited from Kurtzman’s insistence that he acted alone. After 20 hours of deliberations, a jury hearing his case could not agree on a verdict. Tramel will be retried in September.
Kurtzman, awaiting the appeal of his conviction, smiled and talked politely with visitors at Juvenile Hall. He said adjusting to his confinement had been difficult at first and that he knew his dreams of attending Annapolis and flying helicopters for the Navy were over. He is expected to be sentenced later this summer. “When I called my mom from the police station to tell her that I had been arrested, I remember they had my yearbook picture sitting on the desk,” he says. “I picked it up and thought to myself, ‘What happened?’ It was like part of me in the picture was gone. I just looked at it and thought, ‘Kiss yourself goodbye.’ ” That, of course, is a luxury Michael Stephenson was never permitted. “He was a great guy,” says Laurie Shannon. “I was probably going to stay with him the rest of my life.”