The Wrongful Conviction of Fred Steese for the Murder of Gerard Soles
“I leave it to the public to judge Doug Herndon’s conduct in the Fred Steese Case. I know I have spent my entire career making sure people’s rights are protected and justice is served in every case,” states Ozzie Fumo, Esq., Herdon’s opponent in the 2020 election for Nevada Supreme Court Justice.
The year was 1992. Fred Steese, a homeless drifter with striking blue eyes, sat on the streets of Las Vegas holding a WILL WORK FOR FOOD sign. He’d had a rough life, having been abandoned by his mother at the age of ten and bounced in and out of foster homes as a ward of the state. At the first opportunity to run away, he did, learning how to strategically “ride the rails” with others like him to get around the country without being noticed. As a child, he had scored between 70 to 80 on IQ tests that placed him on the lowest end of the normal range of intelligence. Turning to alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism, Fred did all he had to in order to survive, resulting in a criminal record and a violation of parole. Under the alias of “Fred Burke”, he had made his way to Sin City, which seemed like as good a place as any.
Seeing the thin disheveled man panhandling, Gerard Soules pulled over and offered to buy Fred a meal. Fred accepted and hopped into his vehicle, not knowing that this was Gerard “Jerry” Soules, world-renowned trapeze artist. He had performed for the Queen of England and with the traveling Ringling Bros. Circus, flying through the air with a grace unlike others before him. An unfortunate trapeze accident had abruptly ended his career and forced him to redefine himself humbly as the ringmaster of his own troupe of trained poodles, which he named the “Poodles de Paree” Dog Show.
Years prior to meeting Fred Steese, Gerard’s long-time lover had passed away, leaving him desperate for love and attention. With a broken heart, he began his stint performing at the Circus Circus Hotel & Casino with his clever pack of poodles. The casino refused to allow Gerard to live on their property at their RV park due to the fourteen dogs that resided with him, so, to his great dismay, they were forced to park at the Silver Nugget Camperland in North Las Vegas. He had recently fired his assistant, Alexander Kolupaev, who repeatedly rejected his romantic gestures.
Finding Fred Steese seemed to be an answer to Gerard’s prayers. The two began a brief love affair, and Gerard offered Fred the position of working with him and assisting him in training and caring for the dogs. Just as Fred was becoming comfortable, the event manager at the casino informed him that he would need to acquire a work permit to continue working in the casino. He knew it was time to go; he didn’t have any valid identification, and with his parole violation, it wouldn’t matter if he did. Before Gerard knew it, Fred had hopped another train headed north. It was May 31, and Steese would be in Cheyenne, Wyoming before the day was over.
On June 6, Soules’ boss at the Circus Circus Hotel & Casino came looking for him when he didn’t show up to work. Asking a security guard for assistance to gain entry into his RV after not getting any response, they uncovered a horrific scene. Items such as his television and VCR were missing, and blood was everywhere. Soules was found naked in his bathroom, his throat slashed and his entire body had been stabbed over 35 times. The coroner placed the date of death to be approximately June 3, 1992.
An intense investigation began, which eventually led to detectives tracking down Fred and demanding that he return to Las Vegas. After stealing a semi-truck in Wisconsin, he drove 30 hours straight to Las Vegas, where he was pulled over and was arrested. Then the five-hour interrogation began without allowing him a chance to sleep.
This would be only the beginning of a nightmare that would continue for over two decades of Fred Steese’s life. Despite his insistence of innocence, the detectives were finally able to break him down and after six different scenarios that he tried to come up with to satisfy their need for a confession, he signed a statement stating that he had robbed Soules and spontaneously was forced to kill him only after he woke up during the burglary.
The lead prosecutors of the case were William Kephart – or “Wild Bill” as is colleagues liked to refer to him due to his aggressive nature in and outside of the courtroom – and Douglas Herndon, a well-respected prosecutor from out of town that had recently joined the District Attorney’s office. The case seemed like a major slam dunk, as it was handed to the prosecuting team as a death penalty murder case with a signed confession.
The defense team, Nancy Masters (now married and known as Nancy Lemcke) and James Erbeck, begged to differ. By the time the trial began, nearly two years later, they’d collected fourteen witness statements corroborating Fred Steese’s alibi and ten items of documentary evidence that supported their case that Fred couldn’t have committed the murder, as he was 670 miles away when it had occurred.
During the lengthy and dramatic trial that began in January of 1995, several questionable actions were taken by the prosecution to prove their theory that Fred Steese had planned to murder his estranged lover and conspired with his brother, Robert, to create a false alibi that he was elsewhere during the time the crime was committed. According to their explanation, Robert posed as Fred in Wyoming and Idaho and used his alias of Fred Burke to do so, even though in actuality Fred hadn’t spoken nor seen his brother since he was a young child.
The trial was rife with inconsistencies and egregious prosecutorial misconduct throughout. First, William Kephart attempted to convince a 70-year-old witness not to testify, which she reported in a sworn affidavit. It was also brought to light during testimony that Michael Moore, a neighbor of Soules at the RV park, had originally told the police that he saw a short, balding, red-haired man at the trailer the night of the murder. However, when questioned during the trial, Kephart purposely showed Moore a misleading and suggestive photo lineup of suspects that would influence him to choose Fred Steese, which he did, even though Steese didn’t match his original description at all.
One of the biggest acts of troubling behavior by the prosecution that would ultimately lead to Steese’s exoneration was when Kephart and Herndon decided to withhold phone records that they had acquired from a friend, showing that Fred had called from payphones in Wyoming and Idaho during the week of the murder. In addition, Kephart refused to provide the defense with the friend’s unlisted phone number and made it difficult for them to try to retrieve it from the witness-support office. They also failed to provide evidence that their investigator had received from the National Crime Information Center which showed that Robert Steese, Fred’s brother, had been stopped by the police in Texas during the same time. All of this is considered exculpatory evidence (or evidence that would aid in the defendant’s defense), and is required by law to be presented by the prosecutors, per Brady vs. Maryland in 1963, a ruling by the United States Supreme Court. If that weren’t enough to raise eyebrows, William Kephart stooped to a shocking strategy of accusing the defense of doctoring evidence that they had presented to the court.
Due to withholding important evidence that would have proven Steese’s innocence, William Kephart and Douglas Herndon ultimately won their case. Fred Steese was convicted and sentenced to two life sentences without the possibility of parole. While he sat in prison, where he remained even after losing his mother and a sister during his sentence, Herndon was promoted to the Special Victims Unit and Kephart achieved his goal of joining the Major Violators Unit. Later, they would both win in elections to become District Court judges earning taxpayer-funded salaries, after retiring from their former District Attorney positions with full benefits. They were never reprimanded, disbarred, sanctioned, or in any other way made to face appropriate consequences for their actions.
After serving more than twenty years in prison, the hard work and diligence of the federal public defender’s office uncovered all of the evidence that was withheld by the prosecution and therefore violated Fred Steese’s right to a fair trial. In October of 2012, District Court Judge Elissa Cadish issued an Order Regarding Actual Innocence for the first time in the Eighth Judicial District. She declared publicly that Steese had not killed anyone. Although this was a huge win, it was only the first step. The state prosecutors coerced Steese into accepting the Alford plea as opposed to having his case appealed and retried a number of times by the DA’s office (a process that could last years). Instead, they would release him immediately. He could maintain his innocence while accepting the conviction, foregoing his rights to sue the government for wrongful imprisonment. It would also prevent the prosecution from owning up to their misdoings.
In February of 2013, Steese accepted that plea and was released without compensation. He struggled to survive, depending on the kindness of his lawyers who allowed him to wash and shave at their office and gave him money sporadically. Four years later, he was completely exonerated and pardoned in November of 2017 by the Nevada Supreme Court.
In the meantime, Kephart continually had several of his other convictions thrown out for improper and deliberate comments and conduct. It became so much of an issue that in 2001, a Nevada Supreme Court justice called Kephart out in a misconduct ruling, stating, “Now either he doesn’t want to learn, or he’s a very slow learner,” and “the district attorney’s office just continues to let him try major cases and give us these problems.”
But this story isn’t over. Just last year, Assembly Bill 267 was successfully passed. This new legislation made Nevada the strongest state in compensating exonerees who had been found innocent after a wrongful imprisonment. One of the key advocates for the proposal of the new bill was none other than Kaitlyn Herndon, Douglas Herndon’s daughter, who began researching the state’s inadequate policies without knowing her father’s involvement in the Fred Steese case. He testified in support of the bill before state lawmakers, admitting his part in convicting an innocent man.
Now, both William Kephart and his former colleague Douglas Herndon are running in the upcoming judicial election.
William Kephart is running for District Court Judge, Department 19 opposite Fikisha Miller, a dedicated public defender.
Douglas Herndon is running against Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, who currently represents District 21, for Nevada Supreme Court Justice.
“All too often when we see injustice, we think that it is terrible, but we do nothing or we say nothing. We remain silent and that is consent for injustice to remain. William Kephart will remain on the bench unless the voters speak truth to power. Right this wrong with your vote,” Judicial candidate Fikisha Miller states emphatically. She continues, “Evil is bad sold as good, wrong sold as right, and injustice sold as justice. We now know the truth of Fred Steese’s innocence and the wrongness of Kephart’s actions. I am only asking for the good people of Clark County to do what is right. Just right this wrong.”