New ballistics evidence helped arrest an Aloha man for the 1974 murder of 2 high school students

Aloha man arrested for 1974 murder of 2 high-school students thanks to new ballistics evidence
Aloha man arrested for 1974 murder of 2 high-school students thanks to new ballistics evidence

Just before 4 a.m., an Oregonian newspaper delivery driver noticed them next to a parked car at the Oak Hills Recreation Center in Beaverton.

Peter Zito, 18, was found unconscious on the ground next to the driver’s door of a 1956 Oldsmobile. Donald Bartron, sixteen, was slumped over the hood. He’d been tinkering with the engine.

The Aloha High School students had been shot in the head multiple times at close range.

The date was October 3, 1974.

An Aloha man has been charged with the heinous murders 48 years later.

Steven Paul Criss, 65, was arrested this week by Washington County detectives.

The County Sheriff’s Office claims to have linked ballistic evidence from a gun Criss used to murder another man in 1976 to the shooting of Bartron and Zito two years earlier.

According to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, it is the oldest comparison and match on a prosecutable case ever made.

Joseph Amir Wilson, an 18-year-old Lincoln High School student, was arrested 12 hours after Zito and Bartron were shot. Wilson had been assaulted by someone at the Rec Center a few hours before the killings, and detectives believed he wanted to “get even,” according to Detective Mark Povolny, who has been working on the cold case for the Sheriff’s Office and provided a timeline during a news conference on Friday.

“They suspected Wilson wanted to exact revenge on the person who had beaten him and his brother, but instead killed Donny and Pete in a case of mistaken identity,” Povolny explained.

Detectives said Wilson was in the vicinity of the shootings that night and couldn’t account for his time until he took a taxi home.

Wilson, however, denied any involvement, and no physical evidence ever linked him to the shootings. “His Hands Were Analyzed For Trace Metal Detection And Neutron Activation To Determine If He Recently Fired A Weapon.” The Oregonian reported in January 1975, “Both tests were negative.” Wilson also took two lie detector tests, which were looked at by five independent polygraph analysts.

After nearly four months in jail, the district attorney dropped the charges against Wilson. He attended Aloha High School to complete his senior year after his release.

Wilson was born in Portland and died of a heart attack at the age of 43, according to his obituary from 2000.

According to his obituary, he was a self-employed landscaper and a member of First United Methodist Church. From old articles in The Oregonian’s archives, we know that Wilson’s father was killed in Tehran, Iran, in 1957, when Wilson was only 9 months old. This is where Wilson’s parents were born.

Sheriff Pat Garrett gives Wilson’s family a formal apology for the wrong arrest that happened almost 50 years ago.

The Sheriff’s Office stated in a news release that “it is clear Wilson was innocent and should never have been arrested.” The Sheriff’s Office says that it hasn’t been able to find or identify any family members who are still alive so that they can apologise directly and personally.

Even while Wilson was in custody, a detective named Jim Welch did not believe Wilson was responsible for the murders, according to Povolny. Povolny stated that Welch died more than ten years ago.

Despite Wilson’s arrest, Welch continued the investigation.

In 1974, his investigation documented and preserved vital evidence, which Povolny acknowledged and thanked the late detective for. “Without his outstanding police work, this case would never have been solved.”

Steven Criss, 65, of Aloha, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Aloha High School students Peter Zito, Jr., and Donald Bartron in a shooting in 1974.

Within weeks of the shootings, Welch had identified Criss as a suspect after learning that Bartron had worked at a restaurant with him. Povolny stated that Criss, who was 17 at the time, had “reason to be upset with Donny.”

Criss was arrested for theft in December 1974, about two months after the shootings. Deputy Jim Spinden, who later became the Sheriff of Washington County, found a.22-caliber handgun in Criss’s car that was hidden in a way that was against the law. He took the gun to be tested the same day.

The gun, however, did not match the shooting scene at Oak Hills Recreation Center, according to the Crime Lab. Ballistics testing at the time usually entailed an expert using a microscope to compare a test fire from the suspected gun to a slug recovered from the crime scene.

The method was far from perfect. The Sheriff’s Office has refused to confirm the method used for the ballistics test 48 years ago.

Criss received his gun back, and he went on to join the United States Army, where he was stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington State.

Criss shot and killed his commanding officer, Sgt. Jacob “Kim” Brown, on October 8, 1976.

“Criss had caused damage to Brown’s car and owed him several hundred dollars.” Instead of repaying his debt, he shot Sgt. Brown five times in the head, according to Povolny.

Criss used the same-caliber handgun he discovered in his car in 1974. He pleaded guilty and received a 35-year sentence in a military prison. He was released after serving 12 years in prison.

A spokesperson for the Oregonian/oregonlive said that the Washington County Sheriff’s Office never went back to check the ballistics because the conviction was based on a confession.

“There have been significant advances in technology since the 1970s,” Deputy Brandon Toney, Public Information Officer at the Sheriff’s Office, stated.

The Oregon State Police Crime Lab confirmed earlier this month that the gun Criss had when he was arrested in December 1974 was the same one used to kill Brown in 1976 and the Teenage Boys in 1974.

Sheriff’s officials said Criss didn’t have a personal relationship with Bartron and Zito, but they had an encounter at a restaurant earlier that evening on the day the boys were killed.

The match, along with other new, unspecified evidence, led to Criss’ arrest near his Aloha home on Wednesday. According to the police, he worked in Hillsboro.

The case was presented to a grand jury this week, which indicted Criss on two counts of first-degree murder.

Detectives want to speak with anyone who knows anything about the killings or Criss’ life since his release from prison in 1988; they’re looking into the possibility that he was involved in other homicides.

Faith Zito, Zito’s mother, said in an article published the day after the killings that her son was a “gentle boy” whose greatest loves were his 1956 Oldsmobile and the family’s four cats. He’d dropped out of Aloha High School, where he’d been on the football team for a short time, and gotten a job as a dishwasher, but he talked about going to Portland Community College to get his diploma.

On the one-year anniversary of the boys’ deaths in 1975, Bartron’s mother, Irene Bartron, who died in 2017, stated that she believed detectives had worked hard on the investigation.

“We’re not bitter because no one has been caught,” she said in an Oregon Journal article. “I just think it’s very unfair not to know. It’s too painful to be bitter.”

Faith Zito stated that she thought the investigators were “doing a great job.”

In 1975, Faith Zito stated, “Justice will be done.” “I’m not sure what form it will take, but God will decide.”

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