Hunt for Facebook Killer Ends With McDonald’s Sighting and a Suicide

Two days after an extraordinary crime, a murder that the killer recorded on video and posted to Facebook, it was a hankering for something as reassuringly normal as a McDonald’s meal that tripped him up on Tuesday, when a manhunt ended with a tip to the police, a brief chase and the gunman’s suicide.

The search for Steve W. Stephens had spread across a wide area of the country, with apparently false sightings reported in eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, Indiana, Michigan and even Texas. But he ended his life near Erie, Pa., about 100 miles from Cleveland, where on Sunday he walked up to a stranger, Robert Godwin Sr., fatally shot him, and then posted the video for the world to see.

Driving a white Ford Fusion sedan, Mr. Stephens, 37, pulled into the drive-through lane of a McDonald’s on Buffalo Road around 11 a.m. and bought a 20-piece order of Chicken McNuggets and a large order of French fries for $5.35, Henry Sayers, the restaurant manager, said in an interview. After a worker recognized Mr. Stephens, the restaurant staff tried to stall him by holding on to his fries while calling the police.

“But he just took his nuggets and said, ‘I have to go,’ and he drove off,” Mr. Sayers said, adding that Mr. Stephens did not speed away but left the restaurant at a normal clip.

Pennsylvania State Police troopers, soon joined by officers from the borough of Wesleyville, chased Mr. Stephens westbound for about a mile along Buffalo Road, the state police said. In front of an abandoned school, a state trooper bumped his car against a rear corner of Mr. Stephens’s car, in a technique called a PIT maneuver that is designed to force a suspect to lose control.

As his car spun to a stop, “Stephens pulled a pistol and shot himself in the head,” the state police said in a statement on Facebook.

The killing of Mr. Godwin, 74, and the resulting video, widely viewed before being removed from Facebook, set off outrage and renewed questions about how the social media giant polices violent and offensive content.

The suicide of the gunman, who had no criminal record, left investigators with no ready explanation for the story. In his video, he said he was looking for someone to kill and settled on Mr. Godwin apparently at random. He demanded that his victim say the name of Mr. Stephens’s girlfriend and added, “She’s the reason this is about to happen to you.”

In another video he posted, he said that he had killed multiple people, but the police said there was only one known victim. He later spoke with the police by phone, although officials have not revealed what was said.

“We would like to have brought Steve in peacefully, and really talk to him and find out exactly why this happened, because there might be other people out there in similar situations that we can help,” said Calvin D. Williams, the Cleveland police chief.

The killing, and Mr. Stephens’s flight, set off intense news coverage, widespread fear and a vast hunt involving the F.B.I., the United States Marshals Service, and several state and local police agencies. Investigators had picked up a “ping” from his cellphone near Erie on Sunday and had searched the area without success, Chief Williams said.

Wanted posters showing Mr. Stephens’s face and name appeared on digital billboards across the country, a $50,000 reward was offered, and the police received nearly 400 tips from people claiming to have information about him. Several schools in Philadelphia were placed on lockdown on Monday after the police received multiple reports that he had been spotted at a park. The police said on Twitter that there was no indication he was in the area, and on Tuesday, the Baltimore Police Department on Twitter debunked reports of sightings there as “unfounded.”

Mr. Stephens had worked since 2008, without any disciplinary problems, at Beech Brook, a behavioral health agency that serves children, the organization said. All 270 employees there were notified on Sunday night to stay home on Monday, said Nancy Kortemeyer, a spokeswoman for the agency. At Beech Brook’s 70-acre headquarters campus in Pepper Pike, a Cleveland suburb, and at a family drop-in center in Cleveland, the police “did a walk through to make sure he was not there,” she said.

Upon learning of Mr. Stephens’s suicide, “there was a mixture of sadness and relief” at the organization, Ms. Kortemeyer said.

Pennsylvania State Police investigate the scene where Mr. Stephens was found dead on Tuesday.CreditGreg Wohlford/Erie Times-News, via Associated Press

Debbie Godwin, one of the victim’s six daughters, said in an interview: “We are not happy about the outcome because we would’ve preferred that he turned himself in and paid the penalty for taking my father’s life. We forgave him, but even the Bible says the law is the law. Him dying serves us no purpose.”

In news conferences, officials took what Clinton Van Zandt, a former F.B.I. profiler and negotiator, called “a softer, velvet glove” approach to Mr. Stephens, appealing to him to turn himself in while trying not to provoke him. They referred to him as “Steve,” avoided harsh comments on his actions, and said his family and friends were waiting to hear from him.

That the chase ended in suicide was no surprise to manhunt experts, given Mr. Stephens’s behavior. According to news reports, he was a gambler who struggled with debts, had recently been evicted from an apartment for failure to pay rent and, on his video, he described himself as having lost everything.

Mr. Stephens had not taken steps to cover his tracks that other fugitives have done, like discarding his cellphone, changing vehicles or traveling far from home. Even the killing, Mr. Van Zandt said, “was, I think, an impulsive act and that his escape may not be as thought-out.”

In the end, it was a simple trip through a McDonald’s drive-through that brought the manhunt to a close. “I think we interacted with him for like 15 seconds,” said Mr. Sayers, the manager.

Officials did not immediately say whether the restaurant employees would collect the $50,000 reward for information leading to Mr. Stephens’s capture.

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