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By Echo Menges
I’ve been biding my time on our coverage of the alleged murder of Bill Steffen, 81, at his home three miles north of LaBelle in Lewis County nearly two months ago. We have been patiently waiting for the family to reach a level of acceptance and to look to the question askers, the journalists of the region, to step up to the plate and do what we do best – question things.
As a rural reporter, I know we experience every story differently from our city cousins. As the colleague and friend of one of Steffen’s beloved nieces, Emilie Rumble, my experience of learning of his passing was rather unique, however, not at all unexpected in our rural and tight-knit setting.
On the day Bill’s body was discovered during a propane delivery, I got a telephone call from a family member at exactly 8:57 a.m. The caller’s voice was frantically wanting to know where I was, and if I could go be with Emilie because a terrible tragedy had occurred.
“Emilie’s Uncle Bill is dead. He killed himself,” she said.
The caller didn’t want Emilie to be alone or to find out from someone outside of the family. I was strictly directed to go be with her, to not tell her the terrible news – and wait for reinforcements to arrive, which were mobilizing post haste.
As this process of a “down-home family notification” ensued on their end – get to Edina ahead of the grapevine – I got the lead out and immediately went to our office. First, to tell our Emilie Happy 65th Birthday and shower her with love on her milestone – a day we had been looking forward to for some time. As far as not telling her the news, well, that’s not really what happened.
“Get ready. Very bad news is coming. Your uncle has died. I’m sorry.”
It all happened very fast, and seemingly moments later, Emilie was again hearing the news for the first time (to them) from two people she loves and love her. The difference in the delivery is that she was also told, “Bill killed himself.”
To be clear, they were saying this because they were told this.
The race was once again on to get to another family member ahead of the grapevine, and the three went on.
It was a Friday.
I notified Mike Scott, our Publisher, of the tragedy and elected to stand down on the “question asking” because we do not commonly cover suicide cases.
It was days before Bill’s family realized as a complete unit: No, Bill did not kill himself. He was killed.
However well-meaning the rumor starter may have been, by possibly assuming Bill killed himself, and stating it as fact – sent ripples of bad information through the family and community.
This false rumor did a lot of harm, not only to the psyche of his loved ones but arguably – to the investigation.
The rumor was also very effective at inhibiting the “question askers”, like me, and stifled the flow of factual information.
How would people know to keep a keen eye out for an assailant with a possible bullet wound?
How would anyone in Lewis County know that a serious crime and possible murder is under investigation?
This kind of information is pretty crucial to the public.
It is standard for county coroners to make death notifications to the immediate family members of the deceased. I have an extremely hard time believing any county coroner would allow such a rumor to proceed.
After much confusion and heartache, the truth of the matter outgrew the rumor of suicide.
The family rightly would not accept that the man would do that, and upon speaking to each other were able to piece together some of the details.
Bill took four bullets in the torso, three in the chest and one in the side. His .357 was located on or near his body, possibly having been discharged. Blood believed to belong to someone else was found at the scene, according to his son.
Three days after Bill’s body was found, on July 19, 2021, The Edina Sentinel submitted an extensive list of questions to the Missouri State Highway Patrol Troop B Public Information Officer Corporal Justin Dunn and Lewis County Sheriff David Parrish loaded with basic questions about the investigation.
Corporal Dunn responded immediately, just nine minutes later, saying only, “The Lewis County Sheriff’s (Office) is handling this investigation. They will be your source of information.”
In further email communications, Corporal Dunn said, “I will not be able to comment on their investigation.” And, “I would call the Lewis County Sheriff’s (Office) and talk to the deputy who is working the case or the Sheriff. I would start there. I am sorry I can’t help you any further. Since they are handling the investigation we don’t comment (or) give information (in) reference to their case.”
The Edina Sentinel did call the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and confirmed the Sheriff received the same email, and asked for a call from Sheriff Parrish. The Edina Sentinel has since called several more times and emailed more questions for the Sheriff. He has not responded to any of our inquiries over the telephone or by email as of our publication time.
Five days after Bill’s body was found, on July 21, Sheriff Parrish put out a meager press release on the LCSO’s website and Facebook page containing only 110 words arranged in five sentences asking for people to report any information about Bill’s “suspicious death” and stated “Further and final results are pending until forensic analysis is completed.”
Despite not discussing the matter with The Edina Sentinel whatsoever, Sheriff Parrish is attributed in a story published by KTVO-TV Channel 3 NEWS last Friday, on September 3. KTVO Anchor John Garlock reported the following: Lewis County Sheriff David Parrish said his office is treating the case as a homicide. He said they have no suspect and zero leads at this time. They haven’t ruled out anything and are looking at all angles.
The family of Bill Steffen is tired of waiting for answers. At the time of this publication, they have waited for 51 days to find out what happened to their loved one.
The family is actively asking the community to help by sharing information with law enforcement. As of last week, they began offering a reward for information leading to a conviction or convictions of Bill’s killer or killers.
According to Bill’s son, they are considering hiring their own investigator, and they are disheartened by the lack of information being released.
Of course, The Edina Sentinel will report what is made public by Sheriff Parrish, MSHP, or any of the investigating parties, and, going forward, we will pursue public information through sources using Missouri’s Sunshine Law. Outside of that, I doubt any investigators will answer our questions on the open investigation.
In closing, I’d like to point out to our readers that public officials who believe themselves to be beyond reproach, and above being questioned about their duties to the public, should probably be questioned more often and more thoroughly by their constituents. And, to remind folks that when there is a lack of credible information furnished to the public by the very bodies tasked with making those communications, wild rumors are allowed to emerge and spread. Gone unchecked, that bad information is quite capable of doing much harm.
The following questions have been asked by The Edina Sentinel to Lewis County Sheriff David Parrish. They have yet to be answered.
Questions Sent to LCSO and MSHP by The Edina Sentinel on July 19, 2021
Are you investigating the death of Mr. Steffen as a homicide or as a suspicious death? Why?
What agencies are investigating? Is the FBI also investigating?
If foul play was involved, do you have any suspects in custody? If so, will you please send me their mug shots?
What is the preliminary cause of Mr. Steffen’s death? Can you release the type of firearm found and how many times the victim was shot?
Will there be an autopsy? Where will it be? When will it be? How long will it take to get an autopsy report?
Where, when, and by whom was Mr. Steffen found?
If the public has any information/tips about the suspicious death, who should they contact?
Were you using a helicopter to search for any suspect(s) on Friday evening at LaBelle? Why?
Questions Sent to LCSO by The Edina Sentinel on September 3, 2021
Can you please contact me about the Steffen investigation?
Why haven’t you turned this over to MSHP detectives?
Are you waiting for harvest season to see if any bodies turn up in nearby fields?
Did you deploy police dogs to try to track the shooter after the body was found? If not, why not?
What is the LCSO’s policy on deputies discussing open investigations with members of the public?