An Oregonian newspaper delivery driver spotted them just before 4 a.m. next to a car parked at the Oak Hills Recreation Center in Beaverton.
Peter Zito, 18, was lying on the ground next to the driver’s door of a 1956 Oldsmobile. Donald Bartron, 16, was slumped on the hood. He was working on the engine.
The students of Aloha High School had been shot several times in the head at point-blank range.
It was October 3, 1974.
Forty-eight years later, an Aloha man has been charged with the brazen murders.
Washington County detectives arrested 65-year-old Steven Paul Criss this week.
The county sheriff’s office says it matched ballistic evidence from a gun Criss used to murder another man in 1976 to the shooting two years earlier of Bartron and Zito.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said it was the oldest comparison and correspondence on a prosecutable case ever made.
Twelve hours after Zito and Bartron were shot, 18-year-old Lincoln High School student Joseph Amir Wilson was arrested. Wilson had been assaulted by someone at the rec center hours before the murders and detectives believed he wanted ‘revenge’, said Detective Mark Povolny, who worked the cold case for the Sheriff’s Office and provided a timeline during a Friday. press conference.
“They suspected Wilson of wanting revenge on the person who beat him and his brother, but instead killed Donny and Pete in a case of mistaken identity,” Povolny said.
Detectives at the time said Wilson was in the area of the shooting that night and could not report his time until after he took a taxi home.
But Wilson has denied any involvement – and no physical evidence has ever linked him to the shootings. “His hands were subjected to trace metal analysis and a neutron activation test to determine if he had recently fired a weapon. Both tests were negative,” The Oregonian reported in January 1975. Wilson also underwent two polygraph tests, which were reviewed by five independent polygraph analysts.
The district attorney dropped the charges against Wilson after he was in jail for nearly four months. After his release, he went to Aloha High School to complete his senior year.
According to his 2000 obituary, Wilson was born in Portland and died of a heart attack at age 43.
He was a freelance landscaper and a member of the First United Methodist Church, according to the obituary. Previous media coverage, found in the archives of The Oregonian, reported that Wilson’s father was killed in Tehran, Iran – where his parents had immigrated from – in 1957, when Wilson was just 9 months old.
Sheriff Pat Garrett has formally apologized to Wilson’s loved ones for the wrongful arrest nearly 50 years ago.
“[I]It is clear that Wilson was innocent and should never have been arrested,” the sheriff’s office said in a news release. The sheriff’s office said it was unable to identify or locate any surviving family members to issue a personal and direct apology.
Even while Wilson was in police custody, a detective named Jim Welch never believed Wilson was responsible for the murders, Povolny said. Welch died more than 10 years ago, Povolny said.
Welch had continued the investigation despite Wilson’s arrest.
“His investigation in 1974 documented and preserved vital evidence,” Povolny said, acknowledging and thanking the late detective. “Without his excellent police work, this case would never have been solved.”
Welch had identified Criss as a suspect weeks after the shooting after learning that Bartron had worked at a restaurant with him. Criss, 17 at the time, had “reason to be mad at Donny,” Povolny said, without explaining why.
In December 1974, about two months after the shooting, Criss was arrested for theft. Deputy Jim Spinden, who was later elected Washington County Sheriff, found a .22 caliber handgun illegally concealed in Criss’ car, and the gun was taken in for testing the same day.
But the crime lab reported the gun did not match the shooting scene at the Oak Hills Recreation Center. Back then, ballistics testing typically involved an expert using a microscope to compare a test shot of the suspect weapon to a slug recovered from the crime scene. The method was far from infallible. The sheriff’s office has not confirmed the method used for the ballistic test 48 years ago.
The gun was returned to Criss, and he later joined the United States Army, where he was based at Fort Lewis in Washington state.
On October 8, 1976, Criss shot and killed his commanding officer, Sgt. Jacob “Kim” Brown.
“Criss had damaged Brown’s car and owed him a few hundred dollars. Instead of paying his debt, he shot Sgt. Brown five times in the head,” Povolny said.
Criss used the same caliber handgun that was found in his car in 1974. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 35 years in military prison. He was paroled after 12 years.
Because that conviction was obtained by confession, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office never returned to check the ballistics, a spokesperson told The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Either way, the crime labs didn’t have the technology they have today. 3D imaging and other similar methods can now be used to match a bullet to a gun.
“There have been substantial advancements (in technology) since the 1970s,” said Deputy Brandon Toney, public information officer at the sheriff’s office.
Earlier this month, the Oregon State Police crime lab confirmed that the weapon Criss had when he was arrested in December 1974 was the same one used to kill Brown in 1976 – and teenagers in 1974.
Criss did not have a personal relationship with Bartron and Zito, sheriff’s officials said, but they had a meeting at a restaurant earlier in the evening on the day the boys were killed.
The match – and other unspecified new evidence – led to Criss’ arrest on Wednesday near his Aloha home. He worked in Hillsboro, police said.
This week, the case came before a grand jury, which indicted Criss on two counts of first-degree murder.
Detectives want to speak to anyone with information about the murders or Criss’s life since his release from prison in 1988; they are investigating the possibility that he was responsible for other homicides.
In an article published the day after the murder, Zito’s mother, Faith Zito, said he was a “nice boy” whose greatest loves were his 1956 Oldsmobile and the family’s four cats. He had dropped out of Aloha High School, where he was on the football team for a short time, and got a job as a dishwasher, but had spoken of plans to graduate through Portland Community College .
In 1975, on the first anniversary of the boys’ deaths, Bartron’s mother, Irene Bartron, who died in 2017, said she felt detectives had worked hard on the investigation.
“We are not bitter that no one was caught,” she said in an Oregon Journal article. “I just think it’s very unfair not to know. It hurts too much to be bitter.
Faith Zito said she thought the investigators were “doing a good job”.
“Justice will be served,” Faith Zito said in 1975. “I don’t know what form it will take, but God will be the judge.”
– Savannah Eadens; [email protected]; 503-221-6651; @savannaheadens
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