At an age when most boys get their kicks by chasing
girls and sneaking beers, 17-year-old Joe Clark of Baraboo, Wisconsin,
got his through the imprisonment and torure of other boys. If not for
his last victim's seemingly endless amount of resolve and a literal
never-say-die attitude, Clark's crimes most certainly could have
escalated in their brutality.
Clark's eventual imprisonment did not come soon
enough for 14-year-old Chris Steiner, however. Steiner's parents found
him missing from the family's home on July 4, 1994. When police arrived
they clearly saw the signs of an abduction. Steiner's bedroom window
screen had been sliced open, muddy footprints were evident on the
carpets, and a patio door was discovered to be unlocked. Despite local
authorities best efforts Steiner was found dead six days later draped
over a partially submerged tree on the edge of a Wisconsin River sandbar.
Strangely, an autopsy showed no traumatic injuries on
Steiner's body, though police remained convinced fould play was
definitely involved. His death was caused by drowning and officially
listed as 'undetermined'. The mysterious crime was something new to the
rural town of Baraboo. No doubt locals hoped that the young boy's death
was an isolated, one-time tragedy. But Steiner's killer was living among
them and waiting to strike again. In the early morning hours of July 29,
1995, he did.
Thad Phillips awoke that night and felt himself being
picked up from the living room couch a and carried through the house,
thinking one of his parents was escorting him to bed after he had fallen
asleep watching TV. Instead he was hoisted outside and set down by a
young man he could not quite recognize but quickly assumed was a family
friend. Unfortunately, it was Joe Clark and when he told Phillips to run
with him, the groggy and confused boy agreed.
Not until the two arrived at a ramshackle home about
a mile away did Thad realize he might be in trouble. Clark introduced
himself by his first name and then forced Phillips to his upstairs
bedroom, tossed him on the soiled bed, and proceeded to viciously twist
and turn one of Phillips' ankles until it snapped and splintered.
Immediately showing his fighting spirit, Phillips managed to free
himself from Clark's grasp and limp his way downstairs where his
abductor caught up and threw him onto a couch. No doubt angered, Clark
pushed Phillips' leg upward toward the boy's own head and leaned in
until the thigh snapped. The abuse continued into the night when, after
dressing Phillips shattered legs in crude casts of socks and ace
bandages, Clark left his victim alone on the bed while he went out,
apparently convinced the boy was no longer a threat to escape with due
to the extent of his injuries.
He underestimated Phillips. The gutsy youngster
dragged himself down the stairway, making it into the kitchen when Clark
and a girl arrived and sat down on the couch unaware that he lay silent
in the next room. Unfortunately, when Clark's friend left, the sadistic
youth discoverd Phillips lying in the kitchen and after recovering from
suprise, dragged him upstairs yet again to continue the brutal
punishment and for the first time threatening to kill, though that was
certainly the ultimate intention all along.
On the evening of July 30, Clark again left the house
but was taking no chances with Phillips this time. He locked the
battered boy in the bedroom's closet before leaving. Inside the darkened
cubicle Philllips had to have realized he was running out of chances to
escape and even his enormous willpower had to be fading. Feeling around
with his hands in the dark he found an old, heavy guitar and battered
the door down with it. Dehydrated and his legs useless, Phillips slowly
dragged himself down the stairs again, passing out repeatedly from pain
and fatigue until he reached the kitchen phone and managed to shake the
cord until the reciever fell from the hook. He then dialed 911 and
explained his location and predicament to a suprised dispatcher.
Officers quickly responded to the Clark house and
rescued Phillips. He had been held capture for about 43 hours in total
and had sustained horrible fractures to both legs which would require
several surgeries over the years and result in a permanent limp. Soon
afterward Clark was arrested and Phillips told officers that Clark had
spoken of brutalizing two other boys, one who's name was Chris and
another that he can't recall to this day. A subsequent search of the
Clark home uncovered a ghoulish list of boy's names, some of which were
listed under the heading, "The Leg Thing". Thankfully, Phillips bravery
ensured that none of those potential victims would experience the
torture that he and Steiner did.
Clark was first tried in the Phillips attack and
entered a plea of no contest to attempted homocide and other charges. He
was sentenced to a 100-year prison term but claims to have no
recollection of the Thad Phillips' abduction and torture.
case was a different story and Clark elected to plead not guilty, though
an exhumation of Steiner's body had revealed taht he sustained injuries
to his ankles that were identical to those Phillips endured. Clark's
parents' testimony that their son was home asleep in his room on the
night of the killing did not hold water in the face of other witnesses
that claimed Clark regularly snuck out of the house via an upstairs
Also damning was testimony by a former fellow juvenile detention
inmate of Clark's who said Clark had admitted to her that he had killed
a boy and placed his body over a tree. All said it was obvious that
Clark had murdered Steiner and on November 7, 1997, was found guilty of
intentional homicide and sentenced to life in prison plus fifty years.
Clark mainains his innocence in Chris Steiner's murder from a prison
cell to this day.
On July 4, 1994, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, Chris Steiner,
fourteen, disappeared from his home. He was not the type to run away,
and what happened to him was told in an episode of Cold Case Files
called “The Tortured Truth.” Indications that he had been kidnapped
included a shoe impression outside his bedroom window and muddy tracks
Five days after he disappeared, his body was found
caught on a tree along a bank of the Wisconsin River. An autopsy was
performed and the cause of death was attributed to drowning, but the
manner of his death—accident or otherwise—remained undetermined.
One aspect of death investigation involves evaluating
the cause, mechanism, and manner of death. A cause of death is whatever
made death occur, such as strangulation, and the mechanism is what
happens physiologically—e.g., oxygen deprivation. The manner of death,
according to the NASH classification, places it on one of four
categories: Natural, Accident, Suicide, or Homicide. If it cannot be
classified, such as was the case with Chris Steiner, then its manner is
considered undetermined. It is estimated that some 15–20 percent of
deaths around the country occur in a manner that is undetermined. With
no clear leads or ideas about what had happened, the Steiner case went
cold. No one in his family knew how Chris could have drowned, but since
it was not clearly a murder, the police did not look for a perpetrator.
A year passed and another boy, Thad Phillips, was
taken from his bed in the same town while he slept. But he survived to
tell the story. He woke up to find himself a captive to an older
teenager who called himself Joe. To Thad’s astonishment, Joe grabbed and
twisted one of his ankles until it broke. Though in agony, Thad still
tried to escape, but Joe caught him, brought him back, and then broke
his other ankle in the same manner as the first. He seemed satisfied
that this would now keep his captive in place. While it may appear that
Joe was merely being practical by disabling his prisoner, he actually
proved to have a sick obsession. He admitted to Thad that he liked to
hear bones break. But he also liked to attend to them, and he wrapped
Thad’s injuries in socks and braces. Thad remained in Joe’s bedroom for
two days, but despite his physical distress he awaited an opportunity to
make a second escape attempt. Finally it arrived. He managed to get to a
phone and call the police, who surmised from earlier incidents that his
captor was a seventeen-year-old named Joe Clark.
After the police rescued Thad, he told them that Joe
had admitted to killing Chris Steiner. This came as a surprise, since
the pathologist who had examined Steiner at the time had found no sign
of an injury. Nevertheless, the case had been mysterious and the body
had been bloated from being in the water; the pathologist could have
overlooked something. Then investigators learned that no X-rays had been
There was only one way to discover whether Chris
Steiner had been subjected to the same bizarre treatment that Thad had
endured, and thus to link the two crimes to a single perpetrator: They
had to exhume Chris Steiner’s remains. In other words, they had to
reopen his grave, remove the casket in which he lay, open it up, and
remove the body for a closer examination.
Once this was done, the forensic pathologist went
over the small body once again, and this time, armed with more
information, he identified four separate breaks in Chris Steiner’s legs.
It was apparent that had the boy been thrown into the water in this
condition, he could not have used his legs to swim and could easily have
drowned—as he actually did.
That discovery gave detectives probable cause to
search Joe Clark’s bedroom, where they found a notebook with three lists,
all written in his handwriting, that included the names of eighteen
local boys. Their headings were “Get to now,” “Can wait,” and “Leg thing.”
Clark claimed to be innocent in Steiner’s murder. His mother backed him
up with an alibi. She said that if he had left home on the night Steiner
was abducted, she would have known, because he’d have passed through her
bedroom. However, it was shown that she was a heavy sleeper and that
he’d managed to slip by her before. Thus, Joe Clark had no alibi. A jury
found him guilty of Chris Steiner’s murder, and this case was finally
closed with a conviction.