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Someone raised the subject of "Steve's ordeal" about midway through Stephen Wilson's funeral service last week.
"It's hard to imagine what Steve and his family went through after his arrest," a close friend of Wilson's told those gathered at the Grimshaw Bethany Chapel. "But he stuck it out and stayed sober. He was an example of faith, hope and courage."
Several in attendance wept a little harder upon hearing that. Everyone present knew the friend was referring to Wilson's 1989 arrest and trial for allegedly murdering and molesting Phoenix paper boy Brian Bleyl in 1981.
The disappearance of 12-year-old Bleyl has been one of Arizona's most enduring tragedies. In 1981, paper boys just didn't disappear from middle-class, north-central Phoenix neighborhoods in broad daylight, never to be seen or heard from again.
Though Wilson became the chief suspect, compelling proof against the Phoenix native had been hard to come by. The boy's body never was recovered, and there was no persuasive evidence to link Wilson to a crime.
The case languished.
In 1989, however, Phoenix police announced the arrest of Steve Wilson and a "solution" to the lingering mystery. News stories portrayed Wilson as an HIV-infected pervert. Police reports detailed Wilson's alleged 1982 murder "confession" to two acquaintances and, in a separate conversation, to a Phoenix doctor.
In arguing for Wilson's guilt, county prosecutors cited the twin towers of murder prosecution--motive and opportunity.
Motive? Brian Bleyl and other youths had hurled homophobic insults at Wilson, which caused him to strike out against Brian. (An out-of-the-closet gay man, Wilson didn't mask his effeminate leanings.)
Opportunity? The Bleyls found Brian's bike a few yards behind Wilson's apartment, and a neighbor said she'd seen the boy at Wilson's front door around the time he vanished.
But a trial jury didn't buy it. It acquitted Wilson of all charges.
After the trial ended, deputy county attorney Cleve Lynch sent feelers to Wilson through intermediaries: Just tell us where you put the body, so the Bleyl family can finally have some peace, Lynch wanted to tell Wilson.
But Wilson and his family saw no reason for further discussion.
"He's not going to say he did it because he didn't do it," his mother, Stella, said at the time.
Wilson's dad, L.B., says his oldest son gave no confession before dying at the Wilsons' home December 23 of AIDS-related causes.
Steve Wilson had been very ill for some time, L.B. Wilson says, but he had felt up to attending the Nutcracker performance with family members the night of December 22.
Early the next morning, he died. Wilson was 44.
After his 1989 acquittal, family members say, Wilson had continued to make jewelry and tried to keep his frail health intact. A nearly fatal heart attack a few years ago sapped much of his remaining strength, and he spent his last days at his parents' Phoenix home.
But Wilson's family and many friends didn't want to dwell on sad matters at his well-attended funeral service. Wilson's younger brother, Rick--a major with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office--recalled "Steve's generosity, his friendship. . . ." Friends spoke openly of his long battle to maintain sobriety.
Those who spoke also referred to Wilson's wacky sense of humor, which, they said, he displayed to the end of his days.
"Steve was about having fun," one friend said, gesturing to the open casket a few feet away. "He'd say, 'Life is too goddamned short. I've got so many things I want to do.'"
The friend added that he and Steve Wilson often spoke of death and dying, and Wilson didn't seem frightened about his premature fate.
"I asked him if he'd be keeping an eye on me after he died," the friend said. "He said, 'I'm going to haunt you.' We had a good laugh about that one.