A key witness in the Robert Ortloff murder trial recants what she's been telling authorities for 24 years
Lisa Pickett Steedman, a key witness in Robert Ortloff's murder trial, had just torpedoed the defense with startling courtroom testimony that contradicted everything she'd told authorities since 1984.
As she left the stand at the county courthouse in downtown Phoenix on Thursday, March 6, one of Tempe homicide victim Kathleen Smith's brothers clasped Steedman's husband by the shoulder in a friendly gesture.
The Steedmans then left Judge Warren Granville's courtroom as the brother, Kelly Smith, darted out after them into the lobby.
There, he embraced Lisa Steedman.
"I hope I did okay," she told Smith, in a brief conversation overheard by New Times. "I hope that I helped in some way."
"I think you did," he responded, before returning to the courtroom.
That was an understatement.
Defense attorney Dan Patterson had built his defense of Ortloff on two central themes — that government snitch Fred Tokars was lying about Ortloff's alleged prison confession and that Steedman's testimony would confirm that she'd seen Kathleen Smith's probable killer leave a shoeprint in a muddy flowerbed moments after the October 5, 1984 murder ("If The Shoe Don't Fit . . ." and "Bombshell," February 7 and 14).
Steedman and her grandmother, Ina Weisbaum, had repeated the same thing since Kathleen, 20, was murdered. (Weisbaum died in 1994 but had spoken to police and to an attorney representing Kathleen's survivors in a lawsuit against Ortloff.)
The pair said a man had sprinted past them, just a few feet around a bend from Kathleen's front door, and that he'd stepped into the flowerbed in the process, almost knocking the older woman over. Then he'd disappeared into the condo complex, about a mile west of the ASU campus.
"His foot was in the mud here, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, what big feet,'" Weisbaum said in 1989.
Steedman, 14 when Kathleen was killed, and Weisbaum said they saw smoke pouring out of Kathleen's condo moments after the man had run by them.
That seemed to counter what government witness Tokars claims Ortoff allegedly told him about fashioning a slow-burning toilet paper "wick" inside the condo. That was supposedly to allow Ortloff up to an hour to escape and build an alibi before the gasoline-fueled fire ignited.
Tempe police photographed the footprint after firefighters discovered Kathleen's bludgeoned and burned body inside her condo.
"There was reason to believe that the assailant left a footprint in the muddy flowerbed?" Dan Patterson asked retired detective Hal McCormick last year.
"Yes," replied McCormick.
Authorities long were certain that the footprint would match the shoe size of the killer, whom they and the Smith family always suspected was Ortloff, a business partner and friend of Kathleen's.
By late 1986, Ortloff had been imprisoned on a 50-year federal rap for attempting to murder a Fort Hood, Texas soldier with a mail bomb. The soldier, who wasn't seriously injured in the blast, had won the affections of a love interest of Ortloff's after Kathleen was killed.
But prosecutors couldn't make a case against Ortloff in the Smith case until Tokars claimed in 1999 that Ortloff had confessed to him at a federal prison in Wisconsin. A frequent jailhouse snitch, Tokars is an ex-Atlanta prosecutor and judge-turned-money-launderer in prison for murdering his wife.
In 2003, a county grand jury indicted Ortloff on first-degree murder and other charges.
But an expert hired by prosecutors shot down the Ortloff footprint theory in 2006, concluding that the telltale print in the flowerbed had been about a size 91/2. Ortloff wears a 13.
This made Lisa Steedman's eyewitness testimony at Ortloff's trial especially critical to his "reasonable doubt" defense.
Dan Patterson had interviewed Steedman in 2006.
"Okay," he asked her then, "when he ran past your unit, did he step in the flowerbed?"
"Yes," Steedman had replied.
"And that was a muddy flowerbed?"
"And did he leave a shoeprint?"
"Okay, [after] you kind of got your thoughts back together, did you go back to that flowerbed and look down and see that footprint? Or shoeprint?"
Last week, though, Steedman told a dramatically different tale on the witness stand.
First, she said she'd forgotten many "small details" of that terrible day nearly a quarter-century ago.
"I do remember the person running from [Kathleen's] door," she told prosecutor Noel Levy.
"Did he step anywhere but the sidewalk?" Levy asked.
"I don't recollect that," Steedman said.
Levy then revisited a six-man photo lineup that Tempe police had shown Steedman after the murder. She'd picked Ortloff and an unidentified man as most resembling the person who'd run past her and her grandmother.
But now, a generation later, Lisa Steedman recalled picking Ortloff out of the lineup (not the second subject), and said she believed that he, indeed, had been the mystery man.
Patterson began his cross-examination of Steedman by asking her if she'd spoken recently to prosecutor Levy. She said she had, without revealing details.
The defense attorney then read to Steedman from her earlier interviews. Steedman now claimed to recall very little about what she'd said in those extensive statements.
"Did you have any reason to lie in 1989?" Patterson asked her.
"In 2006, you weren't fabricating stories with me?"
Patterson never asked her whether she'd read the recent New Times stories on the case, in which she was portrayed as vital to Ortloff's chances of winning an acquittal.
On redirect, Levy asked Steedman to explain the discrepancies in her accounts.
It was the fault of her mother, Susan Pickett, she said.
"[Her mother] continued to go on and on and on about it," Steedman said, referring to the muddy footprint. Police reports suggest that Pickett arrived at the crime scene soon after authorities.
"Would you describe your mother as domineering?" Levy asked her.
"Yes, she would make suggestions," Steedman said. "My grandma saw certain things that I didn't see, and my mother wanted to play the death detective and try to help."
Either she was lying to the Smiths' attorney in 1989 and to Dan Patterson in 2006, or she was lying on the witness stand in the current trial.
Certainly, her testimony and the memorable moment with Kelly Smith in the lobby immediately afterward are eyebrow-raising.
The Smiths have been fixated on Robert Ortloff since they learned of Kathleen's murder.
Shortly after the slaying, family patriarch David Smith told a private investigator and two attorneys (Smith allowed the conversation to be taped) that he would be willing to bribe authorities to get Ortloff charged.
It's possible, of course, that Ortloff indeed is guilty as charged, though the evidence against him remains skimpy.
But it seems that Lisa Steedman's testimony has ripped a hole in Ortloff's defense that will be difficult for his attorneys to repair before a jury begins its deliberations in a week or two.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Inmates Accuse Arizona of Experimenting with Lethal-Injection Drugs
- 10 Things Arizonans Hate About Snowbirds
- Scottsdale Couple Are Pioneers in Tiny-Home Movement in Arizona