Murder charge filed in Kansas City cold case, 24 years later

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In 2013, Timothy Stephenson, right, and his husband, Jospeh Ginejko, held their 6-month-old twin daughters while watching San Francisco’s Gay Pride parade. Stephenson was charged earlier this year with second-degree murder.

AP

On the surface, Timothy Stephenson had been living the good life.

A home in northern California, a doctor for a husband, twin daughters.

But he carried a secret, police say: He’d killed a man back in Kansas City.

His past recently caught up with him. Stephenson was arrested in California and extradited to Benton County, Missouri, where nearly a quarter-century ago the decomposing body of 26-year-old Randy Oliphant was discovered in the woods outside Warsaw.

Charged with second-degree murder in Oliphant’s death, Stephenson, 48, has pleaded not guilty. He was released last week on a $250,000 bond, placed on house arrest, and is staying with a family member in Benton County until his preliminary hearing, scheduled for August.

His arrest marks a surprise resuscitation of a murder case that received little media attention back in 1998 and had long gone cold. Multiple law enforcement agencies, including the Missouri Highway Patrol and the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, began investigating again after, police say, Stephenson told his husband he had committed the crime.

Stephenson’s Kansas City attorney, Stacy Shaw, told The Star that she does not believe the state has sufficient evidence to convict Stephenson. She emphasized that, prior to his arrest, her client had been volunteering at his children’s school and at a puppy rescue.

“If you’ve met him, he’s all Starburst and sprinkles,” Shaw said. “He’s just the most delightful person I’ve met in a long time.”

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Current News, a now-defunct weekly paper covering Kansas City’s gay and lesbian communities, published these photos of Oliphant after he went missing. Current News

The homicide

On March 21, 1998, two fishermen found a man’s body in rural Benton County, roughly 120 miles southeast of Kansas City.

He’d been dead for some time, from the looks of it. But his lower torso was mostly intact. There were shotgun pellets in the remains, and the man had been wearing black jump boots, jeans, and a Western-style belt.

In the pocket of the man’s jeans was a card for a bar in Kansas City. The Dixie Belle Saloon.

That clue led the investigating Missouri Highway Patrol officer to the Kansas City Police Department. A man named Randal D. Oliphant had gone missing two months before. He’d last been seen at the Dixie Belle, a gay bar at 1922 Main St. The clothes matched what Oliphant was wearing the night he disappeared: Jan. 17, 1998.

The search was called off. A murder investigation began.

Kansas City police received several tips, many of them from the city’s gay community. Oliphant was originally from Waco, Texas, had recently left a job at a Kansas City bank, and was living in a midtown apartment near 40th and Walnut streets.

A man with whom Oliphant had previously been romantically involved told police that Oliphant had been using and selling cocaine and had told him there were two hits out on his life. Oliphant’s mother told police that she’d heard the same thing, and that the supposed hits were ordered as a result of drug deals gone bad. (The man did not respond to requests for comment, and The Star’s attempts to reach Oliphant’s mother were unsuccessful.)

J.D. O’Neal, the publisher of Current News, a now-defunct weekly newspaper covering Kansas City’s gay and lesbian community, told police he’d heard Oliphant was a drug mule and owed $4,000 to a drug dealer named “Susy.” (O’Neal died by suicide three years later, after being indicted by a federal grand jury on credit card fraud charges.)

But the most likely suspect was Stephenson. A bartender at the Dixie Belle told police that he’d seen Oliphant leave the bar with Stephenson on the night he went missing.

Stephenson told police during the 1998 investigation that he had met an “unknown male” at a bar that night and taken him to his house, at 5125 Tracy Ave. After their encounter — the investigative files obtained by The Star do not explicitly state that it was sexual — Stephenson said he dropped the man off at another bar, and never saw him again.

Stephenson’s cellphone records were also suspicious. The day after Oliphant went missing, the phone incurred roaming charges from a cell tower in rural Benton County, where Oliphant’s body was eventually found. As it turned out, Stephenson’s father and grandmother both lived in that area, and Stephenson had visited often as a child and young adult. But he denied to police that he had been there in the prior year.

A few months after Oliphant went missing, Stephenson sold his Jeep Wrangler. Police considered Stephenson enough of a suspect back then that they tracked down the new owner of the Jeep, who told them that some carpet was missing from the rear wheel wells and the floorboard behind the front seats.

The new owner allowed investigators to take DNA, fiber and hair samples from the Jeep. They also found some blood. Ultimately, though, nothing came of it.

“Samples were taken from the rear cargo area, and a section of carpeting was seized, but a DNA profile was unable to be developed,” the probable cause statement says. “The laboratory prepared the samples for examination, but the samples were not examined at the time, pending the submission of DNA and other comparison standards for Oliphant and Stephenson.”

The investigative files do not give a specific reason for why this DNA evidence was not pursued in 1998, and investigators declined to comment on the case.

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Timothy Stephenson was booked into the Benton County jail in March on second-degree murder charges. He bonded out in May and is awaiting a preliminary hearing set for August. Benton County Sheriff’s Office

A crack in the case

Stephenson, who had previously been married to a woman in Kansas City, eventually moved to California, marrying a doctor named Joseph Ginejko in 2008. A photograph captured by the Associated Press during a 2013 Gay Pride rally in San Francisco shows the couple looking happy with their twin baby girls, now 9 years old.

His life was not without blemish in California. Court records there indicate that a woman in Kings County, south of Fresno, was granted a restraining order against Stephenson in 2010, and that Stephenson in 2014 attempted to file a restraining order against a different woman in Fresno County. The Star’s attempts to reach the parties were unsuccessful.

According to the probable cause statement filed this year by the Missouri Highway Patrol, sometime in 2014 Stephenson told Ginejko that, years ago in Kansas City, he had killed Oliphant in the bathroom of his home at 5125 Tracy.

Stephenson told him that “he shot Oliphant, how Oliphant pleaded for his life, how Stephenson shot him again and killed him, and how Stephenson disposed of Oliphant’s body in Benton County, Missouri,” according to court documents. He said he later “remodeled the bathroom in an attempt to conceal the crime scene and evidence of the homicide.” Ginejko tried to research Oliphant’s death but found little online, according to the probable cause statement.

Ginejko initiated a divorce from Stephenson in January 2020; the matter is still pending in Contra Costa County Superior Court. Ginejko also sought a restraining order against Stephenson related to alleged domestic violence.

Court documents do not indicate if or how the divorce led to law enforcement’s renewed interest in the murder case. But that same year, 2020, a section of bone that had been preserved during Oliphant’s autopsy was submitted to the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, and the FBI “was able to develop a DNA profile for Oliphant,” according to the probable cause statement.

In March 2021, all the DNA, fiber, hair and other trace evidence samples gathered from Stephenson’s Jeep in 1998 were resubmitted to the Missouri State Highway Patrol laboratory for reanalysis — this time, alongside Oliphant’s DNA profile. The highway patrol declined to comment on the case.

The following month, Ginejko participated in an undercover operation with law enforcement in Blackwater, California. According to court records, Ginejko met with Stephenson and asked him again about Oliphant’s murder. The conversation was captured on audio and video recording.

According to the probable cause statement, Stephenson gave Ginejko “several conflicting answers” as to what had happened that night in 1998. He initially claimed he’d never told Ginejko he killed Stephenson. Then he acknowledged that he had told him, but only “to scare him and to see if he would stay with him.” Then Stephenson said one of Stephenson’s former lovers, now dead, had killed Oliphant. Then Stephenson said that the former lover hadn’t actually killed Oliphant and had instead hired his own private investigators to figure out who killed him.

Benjamin Easter, who is Stephenson’s co-counsel alongside Shaw, told The Star that Ginejko “seems to have aided the investigation. Other than that, I can’t say to what extent he’s been involved.” Ginejko and his attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

Armed with new evidence, Benton County prosecutor Karen Woodley and assistant Jackson County prosecutor Jennifer Tatum filed charges against Stephenson in December 2021. Tatum, who confirmed to The Star that she was involved in the investigation but otherwise declined to comment, was appointed special prosecutor on the case. A Benton County judge then issued a warrant for Stephenson’s arrest. He was brought into custody in California on Jan. 2.

The case is important enough to the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office that top prosecutor Jean Peters Baker made the two-hour trip to Warsaw last week for Stephenson’s bond hearing.

“The state argued vigorously to deny my client bond,” Shaw said, adding that the hearing lasted nearly two and a half hours. (Baker’s office confirmed she made an appearance at the hearing but had no further comment on the hearing or the case.)

The state lost. Per the judge’s order, Stephenson is now living under house arrest at an aunt’s home in Benton County, his travel restricted to visits to court and the bondsman. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for Aug. 12. If convicted, he faces 10 to 30 years in prison, with no eligibility for parole until 85% of the sentence is served.

Shaw said she doesn’t think that’s in the cards.

“We think this will be dismissed at the preliminary hearing, that the state does not have probable cause to move forward,” she said. “He’s a marvelous person, and I believe he will eventually be exonerated.”

This story was originally published May 16, 2022 5:00 AM.

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David Hudnall is a narrative writer for The Star. He is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Missouri. He was previously the editor of The Pitch and Phoenix New Times.