tv Dateline MSNBC November 26, 2020 7:00pm-9:00pm PST
and so at this point, it feels like the fight is over. the grieving process for me has just begun because there's nothing left to fight for. >> that's all for this edition of "dateline." i'm craig melvin. thank you for watching. venus was my friend, my coworker. she was family. it just makes you sick thinking about it. it's like, you want to know where she is, but at the same time, you do not want to know. >> hi, mom. >> this woman had gone out to get the mail and disappeared in her pajamas. >> the case was never closed. >> it was consuming all of us. >> the individual was wearing a baseball cap, hoodie with the hood pulled up and large mirrored sunglasses. >> oh, my gosh, did this really happen? >> i'm like, no, dude, i can't
do this. there was a scream. a drop of blood came from her nose. >> it was like a game. he was a part of this game. >> we're done with the games. it needs to stop. it needed to stop. michigan snow blankets field and woodland with silent beauty, sometimes encasing ugly secrets hidden beneath, never meant to be disturbed until finally they're revealed and all is made clear. >> i know a lot of people say, you wanted to find her. yeah, i wanted to find her, but then it was going to become so real to me. >> maybe you don't want to find her. >> yeah, yeah. >> reporter: start with the mother of two who vanished as she stepped outside her door to pick up mail.
>> she wasn't there, and i was walking back into the house. there was limestone gravel all over the sidewalk. bare spots right down to the dirt in the driveway and it looked like a struggle had taken place. >> reporter: an awful confrontation she herself had predicted. >> she had a conversation with my dad the day before the night it happened, and she says, i think he's going to come kill me. >> reporter: this is the night before is this. >> the night before. she just felt it. i don't know if you have an idea somehow of if you know when your time is up. >> she said, dad, when i'm dead and gone, you remember this conversation. the next day she was gone. >> reporter: it was a mystery, a disappearance that would take two investigators years to finally unravel. >> i think it becomes kind of personal. it's just how we do business. we don't lee those little pieces unturned.
>> reporter: a crime in western michigan kept the rumor mill churning for eight years. where was she? this victim of a murderous scheme in which an xbox live gamer had investigators seeing double. it's country out here. cornfields everywhere. two-lane roads and where a cheerful girl named venus was growing up with her family. a goddess to her mom before she was born. >> i dreamed about this beautiful little girl with big dark eyes, and when she came out and i looked at her, i said, there's venus. i can't even tell you how much i loved her. i can't even describe the love. >> reporter: but was venus a little more trusting than she should have been? it was her naivety that bothered her parents. >> she came home and told us she met this guy that secretly confided he was mafioso.
we found out he worked at mcdonalds and was too embarrassed to he will her that, but she believed him. >> reporter: at 24 venus was ready to go out into the world, a soon to be college graduate with a degree in criminal justice. >> she wanted to be an officer of the law and then found out she doesn't like guns so that wouldn't work. >> reporter: what did work instantly was her attraction to a guy doug stewart. she had a friend from work that knew jamie highway soft spot for guys in uniform. >> we set up the first date. there was three or four of us couples. we went out to a movie. they hit it off well. >> reporter: soon after my name is, the two had become inseparable. what did you see in her, doug? >> she was smart, articulate, beautiful. some would call it love at first site. four days later we were married. >> reporter: a lot of people
would go on a second date before they got married. >> i think we made it to the second date, but that's it. >> reporter: to say her percents were described a bit of an understatement. >> she showed up and she was married and we were dumbfounded. >> reporter: all very sudden, but dustin jasper, venus' brother got along with his brother-in-law. they both liked outdoorsy stuff. >> we went hunting together, fibbing together. >> reporter: it was a year after their quicky wedding that doug left the marines to keep his bride happy. >> i was looking at deployments and she had this fear that i was going -- something was going to happen to me, so she wanted me to get out of the military in 2003. >> reporter: in 2003 they began civilian life together. they moved into this house not far from where they grew up. venus worked at a bank and he at
applebees. >> venus hoped and parade for two little girls. i hoped and prays for two babies. we both got her wish. >> reporter: andd venus like being a mom? >> that was her number one priori priority. >> reporter: but stay-at-home mom wasn't for her. so you became mr. mom. >> absolutely. it was the best years of my life. >> reporter: when he kicked back, mr. mom enjoyed his xbox. thanks to the game's live feature he's talk to other first-person shooters far and wide. they became fast friends. he spent so many hours wandering the virtual world, he stopped looking for work in the real one. the marriage began to crack. arguments led to time-outs, separati
separations, and shared custody agreements. >> she was very immature, and venus just -- she wanted to be a mom. >> reporter: then venus had an idea for a fresh start. >> she wanted to move to williamsburg, virginia, miami, florida, or houston, texas. >> reporter: why did she want to go to such far flung places? >> she said there's, there's disney world, houston, sea world and six flags. williamsburg, there's u.s. busch gardens. >> reporter: all right, mom, on video. give me a smile. >> reporter: newport news turned out to be the place. >> that was it. it put us smack dab in the middle of everything we wanted. >> reporter: she was thinking about the kids. >> she said, is shouldn't we give them excitement and fun every day? >> reporter: and you said? >> i couldn't argue with that. >> wow, this place is gorgeous. there's the car sell. i told you. >> reporter: if the home videos
are to be believed the move from michigan was working. >> are you excited? >> the best place on earth. >> reporter: doug found a job as a truck drive and home was on the ninth floor of this building. >> she wanted to live in a skyscraper. always a dream of hers. >> reporter: things were okay? >> it was the best year of our marriage, the best year of our life. >> reporter: but doug and venus' problems ran deeper than anything an amusement parring ride would paper over. a year after making the move, venus had had enough and suddenly bolted for her parents place in michigan. doug was left alone in virginia, more than 700 miles away. big surprise to you. >> very big surprise. >> reporter: two months later, a chilly monday morning started like any day at venus' parents'
house. her mom went to work, her dad was sleeping and venus and the kids were slowly getting up. at 8:00 a.m., venus's father was groggy. he was startled awake. >> i heard the girls being loud out in the front room. i thought, why isn't venus quieting them down? she knows i'm in here asleep. >> the girls were on the couch, jumping. watching tv. i asked them where their mom was. i thought, maybe she's downstairs, putting a load of laundry in. >> reporter: she wasn't in the house. her cell phone and keys were. >> now i'm scared and -- i went outside. i look for her. she wasn't there. >> reporter: he immediately called 911. >> she's just not there? >> yeah, not here. >> is there a vehicle missing or anything? >> no. >> reporter: venus wearing
nothing but her thin pajamas vanished. coming up -- >> left her purse, phone, identification, everything. >> reporter: where had she gone? the search for venus begins. >> i was frantic. just kept calling over and over. >> reporter: signs of a struggle and sign of trouble. >> we might have a crime scene her i think the hair on the back of my neck stood up. >> reporter: when "dateline" continues. vicks vapopatch. easy to wear with soothing vicks vapors for her, for you, for the whole family. trusted soothing vapors, from vicks my job is to help new homeowners who have turned into their parents. i'm having a big lunch and then just a snack for dinner.
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>> the vehicle is here, her kids are here, and she is gone. >> okay. have you tried calling her? >> yeah, we can't get medal of her. >> larry called his wife who was at her restaurant job. her coworkers tried to calm her down. >> they said, she probably just went around the block. i just looked at everybody and said, get a grip. my daughter doesn't do that stuff. i said, i'm out of here. and i ran out the door. and i was shaking the whole way home. >> reporter: trooper aaron of michigan state police was on the scene. whenever a young adult goes missing police ask the family to wait 24 to 48 hours for things to shake out, but right away, the officersing issed this might not be someone who had take an a he can of her own volition. >> i didn't know what i had. like, we might have a crime scene here, so that's why we cordened it off and got additional units. >> reporter: he showed the patch
of the gravel driveway that was scuffed up. he pointed out a pink hair tie on the ground and something he hasn't spotted earlier. >> tar. cover, plastic wrapping with the bar code on it. i can't realize what it was. i just told them, that's out of place. he put a rock on it so the wind wouldn't blow it away, and they have people, i guess they're crime scene specialists that gather evidence. >> reporter: crime scene techs were able to lift a finger print off the wrapper. the wrapper was for a tarp sold at walmart. but the officer was most -- just two weeks prior, venus won custody of her two daughters. >> i think the hair the back of my neck stood up. >> reporter: mike scott, one of michigan's top detectives had been brought up to speed about the marriage on the rocks.
>> as he put it, it didn't look good. >> there was a history. >> certainly was. >> reporter: you want to talk to the husband. >> first thing we wanted to find him. >> reporter: you knew he was living in virginia. >> yes, newport news. >> reporter: the day he went missing, she called doug's cell phone. >> i was frantic. kept calling over and over again. >> reporter: finally detective sp scott reached him that night. what did he say to you? >> he was in virginia that day. >> he goes, douger your wife's missing. my first reaction is, is my wife pulling something? . by missing is she just missing from the house? is she missing -- what's going on? fill me in? he says i can't do that. where were you today? >> he gave me a couple of
locations to support that, one being his lawyer's office. >> he said, can your lawyer verify? i said, no, he wasn't there it was just the two secretaries. >> reporter: it checked out. two women on the lawyer's staff confirmed it. they said they saw him come in that day. >> a bit shocking when they checked it out and he had an alibi. >> reporter: the parents with were adamant in their belief doug had come and snatched venus away. they describe for investigators the flights aplenty their daughter had with her husband, but eyewitnesss were putting him in newport news, virginia, more than 700 miles away. and there was surveillance video in his apartment building and garage and car do back up his story. how could doug be in two places at once. that wasn't possible, was it? coming up, a mysterious man by
the lake. you're getting citizen calls, people saying i saw a funny looking guy at the lake. >> yes. >> reporter: had venus gone missing before? >> came home. she wasn't there. kids were there. i didn't know what to do. now who find holiday decorations, gifts and great deals at lowes.com. alice loves the scent of gain so much, she wished there was a way to make it last longer. say hello to your fairy godmother alice. and long-lasting gain scent beads. part of the irresistible scent collection from gain!
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was thrilled when venus was baptize in the 2009 at the age of 30. in the first days after her disappearance dustin would any way his faith to believe she would be found soon and alive. >> i figure it was another desperate attempt of his to try to get her back. since she wasn't having contact with him and he wanted to manipulate her and coax her into coming back to him. >> so we'll just stay on the fence. >> reporter: but police feared the worst and began looking for a body. they searched miles of rolling farm country, thick wooded areas throughout western michigan. >> helicopters came out. >> yeah, yeah, a helicopter came out. >> yeah. dogs. >> dogs. >> reporter: a lot of water around here. >> we live around a river, so, you know, it's all around us. >> reporter: immediately after her disappearance, lead detective mike scott zeroed in on the obvious -- the husband.
but when fbi agents verified his story he'd been in virginia scott had to start thinking bigger picture. >> reporter: woman goes out the front door in pajamas and is never seen again. is there somebody crazy on the loose abducting you? >> absolutely. >> and you're getting citizen calls. i saw a guy by the lake. >> he was wet and approached the witnesses for a cigarette. >> right now with this case, we have so few clues to go on we're not going discount anything. >> reporter: police dredged the chilly lake after report of the soaking wet man by the water's edge. they worked around the clock but found nothing. >> it was miserable conditions. i didn't hear anybody complain once. >> reporter: doug stewart was not involve in the any of the searches. when detective scott reached him
that night april 26th, he was in virginia and remained there. >> reporter: he gave a reporter from wood tv a telephone interview. >> now that the time line is done so far, i'm getting very worried and concerned. >> reporter: despite their ceaseless marital battles doug insisted he still cared for her. >> i don't know what's next. just going to keep watching the news and pray and hope for the best. >> reporter: he was also still bitter about losing his kids in the custody showdown two weeks before, so his take on her disappearance was a unique one. he wasn't upset, he said, because he believed venus was a runaway mom. >> my theory, my wife pulled another fast one. she ran off. couldn't handle the commitment of the situation she was in with the children by herself. >> reporter: the way doug saw it this was no different than that time two months earlier when venus had suddenly and surprisingly bolt with the kids.
>> i came home. venus wasn't there, kids weren't there. the dog wasn't there. i didn't know what to do. >> reporter: doug says he thought venus disappeared that day, too. >> i called her cell phone. she didn't respond or pick up the phone. i got very worried. i called the police. said, my wife hasn't come home. this isn't like her. >> doug tried to file a missing person's report. >> reporter: but police told doug not to bother. venus had been to the station herself earlier that way to file a complaint against him. when police refused to look into it. she decided to take off for michigan with the kids and the dog, effectively end thing marriage. >> the police officers informed him that she was not missing that we knew where her whereabouts were, and she was not coming home. >> reporter: now it was early may and her parents and michigan authorities were sure venus was
missing this time, in danger or worse. michigan police went down to newport news to talk to him. >> we went down to investigate the disappearance of venus. didn't know what we were going to find. >> reporter: he rolled in with his own forensic team. they met up with a detective from newport news. together they went to doug's parm. >> we did not disclose we were from michigan. >> reporter: they didn't want doug to clam up or lawyer up, so they let the local cop do the talking. >> he didn't seem overly concerned about the disappearance. he felt like she had simply run away and that was some sort of stunt she was pulling. >> reporter: he said he didn't jump to any conclusions. >> i hadn't had a decision one way or the other whether she had run away or been abducted. >> reporter: with a search warrant in hand, they listened to doug's story, searched the
apartment, and seized his computers. >> she was very cooperative. he told us ability all the computers in the house. >> reporter: the michigan cops who knew about the bad blood between doug and venus were looking for any trace of her. >> what were you hoping to find there? >> we knew we wanted to search his parm for her clothes because that's the last thing she was seen in. wanted to try to find her clothes if possible. >> any signs of venus being around that apartment? no, nothing. >> reporter: but the forensic experts kept looking. they searched doug's truck. the truck was an absolute mess. the debris from a disordered life, but there amidst the french fries and crumpled paper was awe unexpected clue. once it was analyzed the investigation would shift into another gear. coming up -- >> when he called me he said, are you sitting down? >> reporter: a tiny piece of
painer is about to provide a big rip -- >> they were able to locate a reseat for the purchase of a tarp, a shovel, gloves sba, and hat. >> where was the reseat from? >> it was from a walmart. it's giving-your-dog -your-fitness-tracker easy. oh, good boy. yes, you got it! woo! already got my 40,000 steps today... can i get a what what! no pain, no gain! haha... it's geico easy. with fast and convenient claims service. look how fast i'm running! good boy, chester. the #1 pediatrician recommended brand, pampers, helps keep baby's skin dry and healthy. so every touch is as comforting as the first. pampers. the #1 pediatrician recommended brand . unlike ordinary memory want supplements-ter?
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hey, there. i'm joshua johnson. here's what's happening -- the layoffs are getting deeper at disney. the company plans to cut 32,000 jobs mostly from theme parks. meanwhile, jobless benefit applications rose for the second week in a row. 778,000 workers filed for unemployment insurance last week. one more impact from covid-19. more than 2,000 people died nationwide yet, the worst one-day death toll since may. now back to "dateline". >> reporter: ten days into the
investigation, the search for venus stewart and whoever abducted her was now heating up in two states, michigan and virginia. in michigan, police were trying to develop the few clues they found outside her parents' house. the finger print was waiting for analysis at the state crime lab. and then the plastic wrapper for a tarp the police belief had been used in venus' abduction. they were running down the bar code. >> looks like it had been recently purchased from walmart. but we didn't know which walmart. >> reporter: the wrapping ends up at what you thought was the murder scene. >> reporter: venus's daughters stay with her family in michigan. venus' aunt mary organized the search groups and when she wasn't out looking she kept a shovel in her car so she could rush over the help dig anywhere,
anymore. >> you look for anything that's out of place. if the ground has been dug up a year ago you would be able to tell. >> reporter: more than 700 miles southeast in newport news, virginia. investigators were also searching. after nothing jumped out at them in doug's apartment, the special forensic unit began combing through his truck. >> the truck looked like a sty. >> it was in disarray, yes, it had not been cleaned. >> reporter: it looks like leftovers from a college road trip, but all this dirt was about to become pay date of birth. one smudged receipt suddenly got the team's attention. >> they were able to locate a reseat for the purchase of a tarp, a shovel, gloves and a hat. >> reporter: they couldn't believe their eye osar their luck. >> we thought they were joking. who leaves that in a truck? but they weren't kidding.
>> reporter: maybe the single biggest piece of evidence. >> yes. >> reporter: an investigator on the forensic team immediately called detective scott back in michigan. >> he called me and said, where you sitting down? >> reporter: in all this garbage there's a receipt, huh? >> a hat, gloves, a shovel, and an 8 by 10 tarp. that was an item we were looking for because of the wrapper found in the mccomb residence was for an 8 by 10 tarp. >> reporter: where was the receipt from? >> it was from a walmart. >> reporter: specifically a walmart in ohio. >> i doubt we would have found that purchase had we not had the receipt. >> the date was smudged. we didn't know when the items were purchased. the investigators began contacting the walmart store to try to determine the date. we learned right away those
items for purchased the evening before venus student went missing. >> ohio is not near michigan or newport news. what's going on? >> it's in direct route in between newport news and michigan. >> reporter: but the feds proved doug had been in virginia. how did the ohio receipt get there? meeting in the war room, they suspected someone else was involved. but if that was true, they had no idea how. that didn't matter to mcdonough, then the youngest elected prosecutor in michigan who was itching to arrest doug right now. >> i said, all right, we got him. let's charge him now. >> reporter: it didn't happen. cooler heads prevailed. >> i had to listen to chuck and detective scott telling me, calm down. let's get everything ready to go. >> reporter: the fact was, the investigation was missing key
evidence, not the least, a body. do you say, let's go slow? nobody's going anywhere? let's see where this take us? >> correct. i felt there was more to be done to tie up any loose ends and put this case together better. >> reporter: mike scott, working his last case before retirement knew the biggest loose end was discrediting doug's i was in virginia alibi. he asked the detective from newport news to keep digging. >> this case became a top priority for me. >> reporter: todd fine, who kept an open mind when he first interviewed doug in his apartment was skeptical. >> lucky for us that receipt was not in a landfill between here and michigan. >> reporter: he went back to the law office where he was spotted the day she disappeared. he had some follow-up questions to ask, ones the fbi left off their list. coming up --
>> the individual is wearing a baseball cap, a hoodie with the hood pulled up, and large mirrored aviation type sunglasses. doug in disguise to visit his lawyer? downright strange. >> generally people don't come in disguising their appearance unless they're up to, you know, something of questionable activity. >> when "dateline" continues. e. the secret is, tide pods work no matter how you wash. so, everyone is right. it's got to be tide. try garnier micellar water rose. with rose water and micelles that work like a magnet to gently cleanse and remove oils and makeup. and now, even hydrates skin. it's cleansing, reinvented. micellar waters by garnier, naturally. ...this one's for you. you inspired us to make your humira experience even better... with humira citrate-free. it has the same effectiveness you know and trust,
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one month after venus went missing her father, a truck driver had a heartbreaking decision to make. by then doug moved out of their newport news apartment and moved to michigan sophomore he headed south. >> the people that ran the apartment complex where she lived called us and said, there's all kinds of stuff like the kids' toys, pictures. would you be interested we'll send them to you. i said, i'll come and get them. i went down and got all the girls' toys, i got all the pictures that i could find. it was very painful. >> reporter: he found comfort from venus' neighbors. >> i saw where my daughter lived and everybody in the complex was so supportive. nobody likes doug, but everybody likes venus and the girls. >> reporter: it's somewhere in
these same weeks that venus' grandfather gets a call. >> my dad calls and said, venus is alive. he said somebody called and at first it sounded like venus and at the end somebody didn't sound like venus, because all they would say was, i'm sorry, grandpa. couldn't get nothing out of her. but they kept saying, doug didn't do this. >> during the phone call, the woman said, i'm in illinois near a relative's home. but the phone records didn't support that. we do not believe that phone call came from venus. we think that was somebody playing a sick joke on the family. >> do you think it was doug putting somebody up to it. >> i can't say that with certainty, but expect it. >> reporter: back in michigan there was a court proceeding taking place, but not the kind venus' family wanted. >> come on, doug, where is she? you're a disgrace to the marine
corps. >> reporter: the preliminary hearing today as doug stewart works to get custody of his two young daughters. >> reporter: strange as it seems the court is going ahead with the custody issue. >> yes, and doug was dragging us into court trying to get custody back. there was no way he was getting those girls. >> reporter: doug's claim is he's the dad, he's around. the mother isn't. so he should have custody, not venus' parents. hanging over the hearing was the strong suspicion doug was the reason why his children were motherless. venus' father didn't pull any punches. >> i asked him if he murdered anybody lately. it was something that popped out of my mouth. >> reporter: the judge scheduled another hearing for three weeks later, but in the meantime denied doug custody and visitation rights. >> relieved. feel really relieved. that's all i have to say. >> reporter: while the court was delaying a final decision,
detectives in michigan and virginia were stepping up their investigation. in newport news, detective fowler suspected doug's alibi was a ruse. >> michigan state police told us doug had gone to his lawyer's office to make a payment on the pends child custody dispute. the fbi went out to the office and confirmed he showed up and made a payment to them the morning she disappeared. >> reporter: but detective filer had his own follow-up for the secretaries in what was beginning to look like an outlandish scheme. >> one, the secretaries could have had a relationship with him and may have been lying to the fbi to cover his tracks. or that somebody posing as doug had come to the law office and
made a payment, and indeed it wasn't doug. >> reporter: the woman described the man they had seen. but this time in greater detail. >> the individual was wearing a baseball cap, hoodie with the hood pulled up and large aviator style sunglasses. generally people don't come up with hoods and large glasses disguising their appearance unless they're up to, you know, something of questionable activity. >> reporter: so detective filer asked them if they were positive it was doug stewart, and he got an important admission. >> neither one of them said they were 100% sure it was doug. >> reporter: as they now recalled it, even though the man in the hoodie made a payment as doug, he never looked them in the eye, and there was no small talk. then he rushed off instead of waiting for his receipt. filer called the detective scott in michigan with his take. >> i don't think it was him at
the lawyer's office. he said, that's great. >> reporter: a complicated, clever scheme was coming into the focus for investigators, centering around doug stewart and some mystery man in virginia. >> these points all represent cell phone towers. >> reporter: back in michigan, this detective was checking doug's cell phone records hoping to come up with answers. what jumped out at you? >> three or four days prior to venus' disappearance, there were numerous calls between 7 and 15 calls a day to and from doug to one particular number. >> reporter: detectives also noticed a gap. the day before venus went missing the cell phone turned off. didn't go back on until the next night. >> all of a sudden the calls start coming back to and from this same number. >> reporter: the question becomes, who's at the other end of this phone call, right? >> right. >> reporter: it was quick work finding out who it was.
the calls traced to delaware to a young man named ricky spencer. he was a college kid living with his parent. you check to see if there's a sheet on him. >> yep. >> reporter: he's coming up clean. >> the father has a veterinary clinic. well to do. mother and father are caring. he has siblings. >> reporter: it doesn't make sense. why would he have anything to do we the older man? michigan detective krieger and chuck christiansen decided to find out. they got in the car and headed east. destination, bear, delaware. would the man on all those phone logs hold to key to what happened to venus stewart? coming up -- >> we have a guy who i believe is an interest. he looks like doug. he could pass for doug. he didn't want him to know we were coming. >> reporter: police pay a
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to find out detective shane kreeger and chuck christiansen drove to delaware to question a college kid named rickey spencer. >> we've got a guy who i believe is of interest. he looks a lot like doug. he could pass for doug. >> on june 21st, 2010, the detectives made an announced visit to this house. >> we did not want him to know we were coming. >> we thought he might have some information to help us in a case we were working over in michigan. >> at the barracks in an interview room the two cops appraised rickey. playing shoot-'em-ups and talking long distance for a year and a half.
then they met face-to-face for the first time during ricky's spring break from college april 2010, april fool's day. ricky was there for a week. >> we went to busch gardens one time for, like, the day. and we were tryin' to go to the clubs. i'm not 21 yet, so -- >> you're not 21 yet? >> no. >> okay. >> then we just played xbox. i mean, he was a chill guy. but it was just awkward, you know. >> yeah. >> 'cause he's like, close to his 30s and i'm like in my 20s. >> right. when's the last time you saw him? >> my spring break, might be in the beginning of april. >> okay. >> reporter: but the detectives suspected that wasn't true. by then, they'd stitched together a solid timeline of the ricky/doug communications based on cell phone logs. on april 25th, the morning
before venus disappeared, ricky's cellphone pinged in bear, delaware. >> the last call he made before shutting off his phone was to doug stewart. >> reporter: then they both turned off their phones, except ricky briefly turned his back on. good for the investigation, bad for ricky. >> his phone hit off a tower just north of doug's apartment later that morning. >> reporter: so he's not in delaware. he's all the way down in coastal virginia? >> correct. >> reporter: ricky then told the detectives that he'd recently learned from doug that something happened to his wife. >> he was like, "ricky, she's missing." i'm like, "what, dude?" 'cause he was tellin' me like, she does weird stuff, like weird stunts. >> reporter: was ricky still covering up for both doug and himself? lt. christensen thought so. he tried to shake him up, taking a turn as the bad cop. >> i'll be blunt. doug stewart abducted and killed
his wife, okay? we also know that somebody went into a legal office down there in newport news, virginia to pay a legal bill for him. we also know that you were down in that apartment during that time. >> yeah, i wasn't. wait. sorry. what? >> the 25th of april. and the 26th. >> of april? no. i was only there on spring break. >> he was reluctant to admit the truth. >> reporter: but he was starting to distance himself from doug, bit by bit. >> i googled his name again. and i saw some weird [ bleep ]. they found a receipt or somethin' from a different state close to michigan. and i was like, what the [ bleep ]? at that point, i was like, i'm not talking to this guy. that's weird. >> reporter: so detective criger put on his good cop hat, soothing, supporting, sympathetic. >> you're probably thinking,
"what am i gonna do? i didn't know any of this was gonna happen." you know what i'm saying? >> that's some [ bleep ] >> it is. i know. and i don't think you're involved with the planning of that. i think it was more him. and you just kinda got caught up in something you realized after the fact. "whoa, this is way over my head. i don't want any part of doing this anymore." you got a couple sisters, right? >> yeah. >> what if this happened to your sister? you close with them? >> yeah, i'm pretty close with them. >> what if someone took your sister? >> be upset. >> you'd be upset, wouldn't you? >> yeah. >> that is what's going on with venus' family. they're right now going, "we need closure to this. we really do." you need to help us with that. because you are part of this game now, but not our main concern whatsoever. >> reporter: the detectives sensed ricky was ready to come clean. >> like shane said, if -- if we thought that you were -- you were a main player in this, do you really think we'd be dealing with you like this? absolutely not. so my first question to you is did he tell you he was gonna
kill her before this happened, before you went down there? what did he say? >> he needed -- take care of business up in michigan. >> reporter: finally, ricky sighed and started to unspool his story, a spellbinding thriller involving doubles and deception with doug stewart as its mastermind. >> what was the business he said you need today take care of? >> to go see his wife. >> okay, did he say why? >> to get rid of her. >> lieutenant christiansen called detective scott back in michigan. they'd broken it. >> he's our guy. and mike's reaction was something to the effect of holy cow. >> reporter: mike scott, who'd preached patience with the prosecutor before, immediately dispatched officers to apprehend doug stewart. trooper aaron steensma was part of the team that tailed him to
this convenience store. >> we just walked in and said, "douglas stewart, you're under arrest, and he turned around and placed the hand cuffs on him. >> were you surprised? >> absolutely. absolutely. i thought it was a mistake, and i'd get an apology. >> reporter: doug had told police from the beginning he thought venus skipped out on him and his kids. after his arrest, he said it again to detective scott. >> i got very upset. i told him, i said, "i've worked with you from day one. i do not know where my wife is." >> therese, how did you learn that doug had been arrested? >> oh, the state police came to the house and told us. the same day they told us venus was deceased. >> i didn't want to accept that he would do that to her. >> reporter: police had declared her dead even without finding her body and prosecutors were preparing to file a first degree murder charge. but as doug stewart got ready to
stand trial for murder, venus' family's trials were far from over. >> coming up -- >> douglas stewart caused the death of venus stewart. >> he was very good at presenting himself as the all american guy. it was very bizarre. you're on trial for murring your wife and none of this seemed to effect him one bit. >> when dateline continues. o effect him one bit >> when dateline continues vicks vapopatch. easy to wear with soothing vicks vapors for her, for you, for the whole family. trusted soothing vapors, from vicks my job is to help new homeowners who have turned into their parents. i'm having a big lunch and then just a snack for dinner.
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february, 2011, a courtroom in centerville, michigan, in st. joseph county. it had been nearly a year since venus stewart disappeared in her pajamas. her husband, doug, was now on trial for her murder, even though the body was never found. a fundamental fact of the defense's case. doug pleaded not guilty, and said he was surprised he was
even arrested. >> this is my opening statement. >> reporter: the responsibility for prosecuting doug stewart fell to baby-faced john mcdonough. >> douglas stewart caused the death of venus stewart. >> reporter: seated at the defense table, doug stewart wearing casual guy sweaters and sweater vests. >> courtroom demeanor, what'd you see, john? >> he was very good at kinda presenting himself as kinda the all-american guy. it was very bizarre. 'cause we would go into chambers, he would talk out loud like he was one of the guys. you're on trial for murdering your wife. none of this seemed to affect him one bit. >> reporter: as the prosecutor began his case, his opening witnesses focused on april 26th, 2010, the day venus vanished. state trooper aaron steensma, first on the scene, testified that he believed he was looking at a crime as soon as he talked to venus' parents. >> i pulled into the driveway and i was met by a female who was hysterical and crying. >> and what did you do next? >> she told me that he took her. he took her. he took her.
>> reporter: early on, mcdonough wanted the jury to meet venus' parents, to see them as the stable decent and loving people they were. venus wasn't some kind of wild child bad mother. >> was it odd that your daughter would've left her children alone? >> it was more than odd. it was something that would not happen. >> reporter: after sketching out the last day that things might ever be normal for venus' parents, the prosecutor turned the clock back 24 hours and moved the scene from michigan to northwest ohio. april 25th had been a chilly night in van wert, ohio. the man who walked in the front door of the walmart was easy to remember, according to the walmart security officer. despite the weather, he was wearing a loud shirt and flowery hawaiian shorts. >> that's the customer entering right here in the striped shirt. there he is right here. >> what is this a clip of? >> this is associate rebecca hill with the customer following her. >> reporter: jurors watched
intently as the video showed doug marching through the aisles. at the defendant's table, the accused knew what was coming next, an inventory of the items he bought that night. he picked up a shovel, gloves, a tarp, and a hat. >> can you tell what's in his hand? >> this appears to be a shovel and the tarp in his left hand. >> reporter: the clerks at walmart had no trouble remembering the customer. >> most people weren't wearing shorts at that time. >> reporter: donna stiffler, a cashier in the lawn and garden section, remembered approaching the customer who looked like he was going to a luau. >> i said, "welcome to walmart. can i help you?" and the first thing i think he asked for was lime. >> reporter: why would he ask for lime? >> you throw lime on anything that's decaying. it almost acts like baking soda would to absorb odors. >> reporter: donna told the shopper, sorry, they didn't sell lime. she said he grunted and kept on moving. minutes later, he was back at her register to check out.
>> do you remember what that person bought? >> a tarp, shiny shovel, silver, duct tape and gloves. >> do you see that person in the courtroom today? >> yeah. >> what was that? >> yes. >> could you point him out and describe what he's wearing? >> i'm so nervous. he's over there. >> what is he wearing? >> a white vest. i remember his eyes more than anything else. >> you could tell that she was just terrified of this guy. my god. you know, i sold this guy these things that helped him kill his wife. >> reporter: and there was something else that tripped doug up, a credit card blunder. before he went to michigan, doug bought a throwaway cell phone
called a trac phone that normally assures anonymity. except, as you can see doug swiping here, he's just bought it with a credit card that created an electronic receipt revealing the phone's unique i.d. that made the phone, and doug's movements, easily traceable. >> he didn't think we would find these trac phones that he had. >> reporter: master criminals don't save receipts and buy on credit cards. >> absolutely not. >> reporter: criger could then follow the path of that particular trac phone through gps technology, just as if it were a personal cell phone. >> using the phones, how close can you get him to his wife's driveway? >> pretty close. within five to seven miles. >> reporter: but, by now, something else put him even closer, old-fashioned forensics. remember, the smudge on the plastic tarp wrapper found outside venus' parents' house? it was a fingerprint, turned out, doug stewart's fingerprint, placing him at the scene of venus' disappearance. prosecutors believed it was damning evidence. >> yeah, i swear. >> reporter: but to close the
deal, they'd have to put on the stand the college-kid impostor with a head-spinning tale to tell. would it be too incredible to be believed? coming up -- >> he said this is where you come in, ricky. i want you to be my alibi. >> reporter: ricky spencer lays it all out: a plan to murder. >> it was like a game. he was part of this game. >> when dateline continues. >> when dateline continues comer and make our own holiday magic. because a gift for home brings joy to all. find holiday decorations, gifts and great deals at lowes.com. alice loves the scent of gain so much, she wished there was a way to make it last longer. say hello to your fairy godmother alice. and long-lasting gain scent beads. part of the irresistible scent collection from gain!
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and the rest of the evidence that you hear -- >> reporter: chief prosecutor john mcdonough called on his star witness who, in the course of two days, would tell one of the most mind-boggling stories ever heard in this st. joseph county, michigan courtroom. >> please call your next witness and we'll have him sworn in. >> we call ricky spencer. >> reporter: ricky, now 21, seemed like a young boy in a grown-up world. his dress shirt, not his customary tee, ran big in the sleeves. >> how do you know mr. stewart?
>> i met him on xbox live in december of '08. >> how often did you play xbox live with mr. stewart? >> anywhere from six to ten hours. >> a day? >> yeah, on a daily basis. >> this was his life. some people might sit and read, he played xbox. >> reporter: even though he'd never met him, ricky told the jury he felt a strong tie to the former marine. >> would you say he was your best friend? >> yes. he called us brothers from another mother. >> what did you -- >> brothers from another mother. >> this was his idol. probably one of the very few people he had social contact with. >> reporter: doug and ricky met in person on april fools day in 2010, nearly a month before venus disappeared. doug was living alone and invited ricky down for spring break. surveillance camera footage showed ricky in virginia. >> "you know, we can party, you can drink and i can help you with your papers." >> reporter: ricky testified that for the first three days, they went to the busch gardens
amusement park, played xbox live, and drank. they hung out like frat brothers. on day four, the prosecution asserts that doug got down to business. >> he's like, "hey ricky, i want to tell -- tell you something, it's really important. let me finish before you interrupt me." >> reporter: ricky testified that doug began to vent on his estranged wife venus. ricky said doug was portraying venus as an abusive, even dangerous mother to his two girls. that wasn't true, but ricky didn't know that. doug then told ricky he needed to do something desperate. >> he's telling me that he's going to go kill his wife. >> when he was telling you this, what were you thinking? >> i was just shocked. i couldn't, like, believe what i was hearing. >> okay. >> and he said, "this is where you come in, ricky. i want you to be my alibi, just pretend to be me and live in my apartment. >> reporter: ricky's immediate reaction was an emphatic no. >> i was like "no dude. i don't want to [ bleep ] here
anything about this." and he didn't talk about it for the rest of the day. >> reporter: but doug kept at it over the next two days. despite everyone else's portrait of venus as mom of the year, doug pushed negative venus stuff on ricky, telling him how she smacked around their older daughter. >> how did that make you feel? >> i felt bad for him. he was saying, like, "if only, you know, someone could be my alibi." i'm like, "no, dude, i can't -- i can't do this." >> reporter: doug kept ratcheting up his stories of abuse, concluding with the most graphic one -- venus had tried to choke one of the girls. >> "ricky, if i wasn't there at that moment, the kid might have died." >> he again asked you to help him kill his wife? >> yes. >> and what did you say? >> i said -- "okay, dude, i'll be your alibi." >> reporter: ricky caved, and, according to the prosecution, doug had a plan ready to go. he took his recruit to a nearby park for a crash course in how to get away with murder.
>> he asked me, like, "ricky, if you're trying to kill someone and you don't want any evidence, what do you use?" and i told him, "well, not a gun because it leaves evidence. and he says, "right, not a gun, so what is it?" "not a knife 'cause that leaves evidence." and he says, "right, not a knife. so what is it?" doug said, "you choke somebody." >> reporter: and right there in the park, doug demonstrated on ricky his military chokehold. >> he gets me in that headlock, two seconds, and he puts me down, and i'm, like, out of breath. he says that if i do that to somebody for 10 seconds, you know, they pass out. do it for over 30 seconds, they're no longer alive. >> reporter: doug coached ricky to be aware of surveillance cameras. to pull off this double vision ruse, ricky would need to wear sunglasses, a cap and a hoodie pulled up and over. ricky returned to delaware to
wait for doug's signal. it came on april 15, 2010. doug drove up from virginia, ricky from delaware, and they met at a gas station in bethesda, md., outside the nation's capital. that's where ricky said doug gave him the things he needed to turn into doug, his clothing, cellphones, keys to his car and apartment, and a credit card. >> what's that a photograph of? >> this is the parking space area where i met with doug stewart. >> where did you go? >> i went -- i drove to virginia. >> where did doug tell you he was going? >> to michigan. >> what was he gonna do there? >> he didn't say kill his wife, but he said to take care of business up in michigan. >> and -- >> but i knew what he meant. >> reporter: sure enough, surveillance cam pictures taken april 15th show ricky easing into doug's life in newport news. he parked in doug's garage, as instructed, and hung out in doug's apartment. >> this is the lobby in virginia. this is between 10:00 and 11:00.
here's me with a hoodie, a piece of paper sticking out of my pocket, the wendy's bag. >> reporter: with doug's credit card, ricky had bought a double cheeseburger and fries at wendy's. >> why did he want you to use the credit card there? >> to make it look like that he was in virginia. >> somewhere deep down, prosecutors wondered, did ricky, a little slow on the uptake, think that this was all pretend? >> act like you're me. don't look at the camera. keep your head down. you know, wear this sweatshirt." and it was like a game. he was a part of this game. >> this was ricky's little mission. >> but the mission, "mortal mission i" in gamebox-speak, had gone amiss. doug had to hit the reset button. on his way to michigan, he'd been pulled over in the wee hours by a state trooper in ohio who said he was weaving lanes. the traffic stop was irrefutable proof that he wasn't in virginia. >> i got a phone call from him. he said, you know "the plan's off." and i was relieved to hear it. >> reporter: but doug wasn't ready to call it quits after one bump in the road. he kept on talking. >> "hey ricky, i want to try doing this again." and i told him i didn't want to. it was like, a one-time deal, and i didn't even want to do it the first time.
>> reporter: but then, according to ricky, doug upped the pressure. he told ricky if he didn't get onboard with the original plan, he was going to wipe out everyone, a massacre. >> instead of just making it look like she disappeared, he was talking about going in there and killing anyone that was inside the house, besides his kids. >> so what did you do next? >> i told him, "okay, dude. we'll do it again. i'll be your alibi again." >> reporter: there would be a "mortal mission 2." >> coming up -- >> a drop of blood came from her nose. >> reporter: a virtual world turns suddenly, violently real. and a spellbound courtroom hears the most harrowing part of the story. >> he was going to go to -- to bury her. >> when "dateline" continues. es. ...i can file and manage my claim, all on the geico app. it's not just easy. it's giving-your-dog -your-fitness-tracker easy. oh, good boy. yes, you got it!
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took questions from reporters and admitted he will certainly leave the white house if the electoral college votes for joe biden. meanwhile covid is surging across america. a record 90,000 people hospitalized tonight. and in a show of force a newly conservative supreme court blocked new york state's covid restrictions on religious services. justice amy coney barrett playing a decisive role in that decision. back to "dateline." do you recognize the person in this photograph? >> reporter: doug stewart was on trial for murder, but his sister jaime couldn't bring herself to be in the courtroom. >> i don't know what to believe if i did but that's the hard thing. and you just don't know what to believe. and i -- i really don't want to think that my brother did anything terrible. >> reporter: but dustin jasper -- the victim's brother -- was there on most days, grabbing a bench seat within good stare-down range of the accused, doug stewart.
>> he never made eye contact with me. i think he's too ashamed. >> reporter: but on the stand, shame didn't seem to figure into the bold-as-brass story about doug that ricky spencer was telling the jury, how after the first run to michigan was a bust, doug called ricky again. >> and he said, "hey dude, it's done. i killed her and her dad." and i was like, "what?" and he says, "no, i'm just kidding." and i told him that wasn't funny. >> so he said he was kidding and you told him it wasn't funny? >> yeah. >> reporter: ricky's second day on the stand as the star witness. prosecutor mcdonough picked up his questioning with ricky's description of mission number two, the assault on venus stewart. >> did you attempt it again? >> yes, we did. >> reporter: it was deja vu all over again. this time, sunday, april 25th. >> i went down to virginia. he was heading up -- back up to michigan. >> reporter: later that day, ricky said he made a call to
doug's boss, pretending to be doug, under the weather. >> and i said in a sick voice, like, "hey bobby, this is me -- doug. i'm feeling like [ bleep ], dude. i can't get to work." he said, "all right." so doug didn't have to come to work on monday. >> reporter: monday would be venus's last day alive, as ricky would explain in his chilling story of duplicity and death. it began, the prosecutor said, with doug in a field across from venus' parents' house. >> he parked there with his truck kind of watching things. i'd say probably 500 yards from venus' parents' house. >> reporter: doug called ricky at 7:00 a.m. from a trac phone and gave him his instructions. >> ricky, i want you to leave anywhere from 8:00 to 8:15. nothing later." >> reporter: doug then sneaked up close to the house, police said, hiding behind this woodpile. back in virginia, ricky was establishing the alibi. >> you recognize that photograph? >> it's me leaving the apartments on the 26th.
>> reporter: his next instructions were to wait for doug's call. that came just before 9:00 a.m. >> and what did he say? >> he said, "okay, dude, it's done." i was kinda shocked to hear that. and i said, "what happened?" he said that he called venus' parents' house in michigan and said that he was the mailman, he had a package for her and she came outside. >> reporter: just like that, ricky's virtual world had turned real. game over. he was displaying emotion on the stand for the first time. doug was showing nothing. >> and he jumped out. and he said that there was a scream, she only screamed once, and that she tried putting up a fight. but he was able to get her in that headlock and a drop of blood came from her nose and that was it. i asked him if it was worth it.
and he said it was, to protect his kids and give them some type of future. and he told me that -- he told me that -- he was gonna call me later 'cause he was gonna go -- to -- [ crying ] -- bury her. >> did he understand the consequences, ricky? >> i think when it was over it finally hit him, this really was a homicide. someone actually died here. it's not on the xbox. it's not somebody blowing up a cartoon figure. it was a real person. >> reporter: later monday, ricky continued in the supporting-actor role. he went to doug's lawyer's
office, dressed in the hat, hoodie and sunglasses. doug told him to make a payment to one particular secretary. >> he said that she's not all there in the head, and that -- just hand her the envelope, say who you are and tell 'em that you're in a hurry and tell 'em to mail you the receipt. >> did you do that? >> yes. >> reporter: later that day, ricky and doug drove to their meeting spot in maryland to exchange clothing, cellphones, keys and the credit card. they talked briefly. ricky piped up to express a newfound fear. >> i was asking him -- i said "hey, dude, are you going to kill me? he said, "no." i said, "good, 'cause if you did, that would suck." and then he asked why, you know, why did i ask that? and i says, "because i know what you did." >> that was the first thing that came to my mind. you know, why in the heck didn't doug kill this kid? why did he leave this witness out there for somebody to find? >> reporter: the prosecutors fully expected their case with
the jury would rise, or fall, on the shoulders of ricky spencer. >> reporter: and yet you've got to worry on cross-examination whether the defense is going to rattle his cage an undo him? >> that's always a worry. he probably could hold his own. but we didn't know. coming up -- >> quite honestly, his testimony is just so bizarre. >> was his a true tale or a tall one? ricky spencer's story, under scrutiny. >> what evidence do you have that venus stewart is dead? >> when dateline continues. >> when dateline continues i just stuff everything in. you have to wash on cold, because it saves energy. the secret is, tide pods work no matter how you wash. so, everyone is right. it's got to be tide. try garnier micellar water rose. with rose water and micelles that work like a magnet to gently cleanse and remove oils and makeup. and now, even hydrates skin. it's cleansing, reinvented. micellar waters by garnier, naturally.
michigan, much less killing his wife. >> i believe at the end of this case, the prosecutor is going to ask you to guess. >> reporter: after ricky spencer's riveting testimony, anticipation was building. would the defense be able to rock the wild story from the so-called double? the defense lawyers, jeff and kymberly schroeder, the married and highly regarded team, were poised to attack more than ricky's testimony. they were going after his character, too, and the deal, they claimed he'd made for leniency with the prosecution. >> my defense, my story, had to do with ricky evading life in prison, ricky being an accomplished liar. >> reporter: cross examination strategy number one was to muss up the clean-cut young man image he projected from the stand. they started with the x-rated screen name, the tag, he'd picked for himself when he played xbox live. >> ricky, your gamer tag is dark [ bleep ], isn't it? >> yes, that's correct. >> what's a [ bleep ]?
>> it means a bunch of guys. >> reporter: ricky explained to the jury the overt and very explicit sexual connotations of his online name. the defense wanted the jury to look at ricky as an unsavory young man without a moral compass. >> and if you believe his testimony, he decided to -- to help commit murder, rather than deciding to call the authorities. >> of course you don't want the jury to believe that story, but there's a moral issue that hangs over the testimony here. right. >> reporter: this guy could have thrown a wrench in the works and stopped it. >> he could have. >> reporter: he could have done the right thing, but elected not to. >> if you believe his testimony. and i think that's one of the reasons why his testimony's not believable. >> reporter: evidence that ricky could be shifty with the truth? he'd already admitted in direct testimony that he'd lied to his parents about what he was doing over spring break. >> did you want them to know that you were going to visit mr. stewart? >> no. >> why? >> because it seemed kind of strange to go meet up with somebody that you played xbox live with who's a lot older than
you. >> reporter: but the defense took a mostly hands-off approach with challenging ricky on all those very detailed recollections of his story. what he did which day in virginia, what he bought with the credit card, which security cams he played to. the defense stance was, jurors, a lot of detail here, but it's all a fantasy from a young man trying to save his own skin. >> thank you, that's all i have, your honor. >> reporter: after only 20 minutes of less-than-explosive cross examination, they got him off the stand. >> quite honestly, his testimony was just so bizarre. >> it's a strange story, isn't it? >> it's a very strange story. >> reporter: a story spun, says the defense, so ricky could cut a sweetheart deal with the prosecutor. in return for his testimony, ricky would not be charged with conspiracy to commit murder but he would enter a plea to a lesser charge. >> i think that he was coached many, many times to give the testimony in the way that he gave it. >> he was taught to become a good witness, you think?
>> i think so. i think that he had to do a good job. you know what, if he didn't bring the case home for the prosecutor, it's my belief that he thought he would be facing those charges. >> reporter: the defense called no witnesses. >> the defense rests. we're ready for closing arguments, your honor. >> reporter: doug stewart didn't take the stand. but he did sit down with "dateline" for an interview. >> after hearing everything that i've heard, everything that i've seen, i still haven't seen anything showing me that my wife is hurt, she's harmed. >> reporter: so what did he make of the star witness, the sensational testimony of ricky spencer, his young xbox buddy? >> i don't understand any of his testimony on the stand. i mean, he got locations right, as far as he came down, he was on spring break. >> why does ricky come down? >> he mentioned to me, "well, i got spring break coming up from college. i'm coming down there to busch gardens with some friends." april 1st, i got a phone call, and he goes, "well, i'm almost there." and i said, "almost where?" "i'm almost to your apartment." he just showed up. >> now the guy's in your apartment. you're the host, and he's a sort of the uninvited guest.
is that what's happening? >> i felt comfortable enough with him where i said, "okay, i guess you could stay here." >> so the story that he would tell authorities and then testify, under oath to in the court almost like a spy movie plot, none of that stuff is true? >> the whole idea of hurting my wife or doing any of that stuff is very strange and very weird. none of that is true. >> reporter: in his closing statement, jeff schroder hoped he could convince at least one juror that, without a body, there was reasonable doubt. >> what evidence of that kind in this case do you have to demonstrate to you that venus stewart is dead? >> reporter: so what about all those purchases at walmart? doug stewart seen walking the aisles in loud, floral shorts? they asked rhetorically would a man about to commit a murder be so dumb as to call that kind of attention to himself? >> is he trying to hide things? he's wearing hawaiian shorts asking people where things are. does that sound like somebody who's going to use it in a crime? >> reporter: and he bought a shovel, the defense attorney
noted. so what? >> what evidence have they shown you that a shovel was used in the killing of venus stewart? they haven't. >> reporter: schroeder summed it up for the jury. he claimed the prosecutor had an illusion of evidence, a circumstantial case woven together with ricky spencer's tall tale. >> they've tried to make you think they have all this evidence, but they don't. and they haven't proved their case. you have a duty to do. and that's to find doug stewart not guilty. >> coming up -- >> you believe she's alive? >> i've gotta believe she's alive. >> reporter: what would the jury do? >> the clerk will read the verdict. >> verdict and a whole new chapter in the mystery. >> he showed up to the door.
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>> reporter: march 11, 2011. the jury had been deliberating. was doug stewart responsible for the murder of his wife venus? >> i dream about her a lot. thinking that she's still alive. then hugging her, you know. and then i wake up. reality hits me. >> you believe she's alive, or not? >> i've gotta believe she's alive. if she's not, i -- i don't think i can handle it. i don't think my kids can handle it. >> if she's alive, that would be incredibly cruel, what she's doing. >> i could never forgive her. >> on the record, the people versus stewart. the jurors indicated they've reached a verdict. >> reporter: the moment had arrived. venus' brother and mother knew a guilty verdict would be small consolation, but they wanted to hear it anyway. a few feet away stood the accused, eyes blinking, face twitching. >> the clerk will read the verdict.
>> members of the jury find douglas harrie stewart, as to count one, guilty of first degree premeditated murder. >> reporter: guilty. jurors clearly believed the star witness ricky spencer's story of being the alibi and the double. but they also determined that doug's fingerprint found at the crime scene on the plastic wrapper was powerful evidence. >> it's a scheme. it's a conspiracy. there's one other person that knows what's going on, and that's ricky. is he lucky to be alive in your opinion? >> yes. he made the case for us. >> and if doug had killed him? >> it would be very difficult to prove this case without ricky. >> reporter: outside the courtroom, the young prosecutor, john mcdonough, hugged venus' mother. >> i was so happy to be able to reach out and say to her, you know, "we got him." we promised her we would do it and we did it. >> what difference does that make? my daughter is not here. that's all i could think about, that was venus isn't here.
>> reporter: sweater vest gone, shackled at the legs and hands, doug wasn't giving an inch. >> i'm innocent. i did not do these crimes. >> reporter: his story, rejected out of hand by a jury that needed only three hours to convict him, was nothing if not consistent. "dateline" found that out in our interview the month after the verdict at the st. joseph county jail. why did you want to talk today because you didn't have to talk. >> my biggest issue i wanted to talk was at the end of this trial i wanted to know what happened to my wife, where my wife is, if anything happened to my wife. i wanted answers. i didn't get them. so i guess i would -- i would ask that the police department does not fold this case closed. because even though they believe it is it's not. >> you're saying you didn't do it, and you don't know where she is? >> absolutely not.
>> reporter: the judge saw it differently. >> i am sentencing the defendant to life in the michigan department of corrections without possibility of parole. >> reporter: doug stewart was sentenced to life without parole. and ricky, after testimony that swayed the jury, was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge, a conspiracy to commit manslaughter, and was sentenced to one year in county jail. venus' family didn't think that was enough, not by a long shot. >> he could have saved my sister. he could've let the authorities know. they could've been waiting for him at my -- my parents' house, and it'd been over. >> reporter: the killer was put away for life. but for two detectives in michigan the story of venus stewart wouldn't be case closed until they found venus' remains. but where to look? >> maybe do we want to split up and have a group on this side and have a group on this side? >> reporter: the search picked right back up again in this vast countryside of woods, fields and farms. two lawmen driven. >> why pursue it? >> yeah, i mean, the case was never closed. the criminal part, yes, but because her body was never
located, that's the missing piece to the case was that we were never able to locate her. >> reporter: and venus' family waiting and hoping for a closure. >> it's not too late for doug to do the right thing. he can repent for his wrongdoing. tell us where my sister's body is. >> reporter: four years after the trial, lt. christensen and det. petersen of the state police decided to call on doug in prison. maybe he'd be willing to tell them more now. >> our first strategy when we went to the prison was to simply go and talk to him and see if anything had changed. that was back in 2015. i know we both felt after our meeting, that he was hostile. he was still hanging on to the fact that he had nothing to do with it. he was still trying to cast blame -- >> wrongfully accused, wrongfully convicted -- >> yes. >> somebody else did it. i'm not your guy. he's still holding on to that? >> he's holding on to that so much so that when we walked out of the room, we both had the
conversation that i don't think he's ever going to give it up. >> reporter: doug was no help. so detectives decided to re-investigate an old rumor. one that had buzzed through the community for years. it had to do with a barn owned by doug's sister jaime. the same sister who introduced doug and venus years ago. jaime had poured a new concrete floor in her barn right after venus had gone missing. >> and what was the question you had for her, todd? >> i told her that there was a tip that you know, that venus had been buried and was underneath the concrete in her barn. she immediately knew what i was talking about. she was aware of those rumors that were in the community. and she was real emotional about it, because it always kind of weighed on her mind what if he could have actually done it. >> do you remember that? were you expecting anyone? >> no. no, not really. but he showed up to the door. i knew he was there for doug. he wanted -- excuse me. he wanted to go over the concrete. he said that it was part of the case. >> reporter: investigators had
chased this lead before. but now they were armed with a new technology, a ground-penetrating radar that could see through concrete. >> these rumors were going on for years, weren't they? >> oh, yeah. sister's got venus buried under her barn. and we're gonna follow dad in the pickup truck. they were sure he was gonna -- he was gonna dig her up and move her. and, you know, it -- yeah, it was hard. >> reporter: she knew full well there was nothing in that barn but compacted soil. and sure enough, the radar revealed nothing. but that didn't mean jaime believed her brother was innocent. >> i had an old employer that i -- i ran into grocery shoppin', and she goes, "do you think he did it?" and i just kinda, you know, and she's like, "in your heart do you think he did it?" yeah, i do. >> reporter: a heart that was also heavy with guilt. the responsibility she felt for introducing her brother doug to venus back then. >> that does go through your mind. you know, thinking, jeez, if i never introduced this, this
would have never happened. you know, but we also wouldn't have -- >> you beat yourself up for that? >> oh, for years. >> reporter: so the day the detective showed up at her doorstep, it was as though she'd been waiting all these years for just this kind of visit. she wanted to show the detective some rumpled pages of writing. >> she mentioned to me that she'd had this letter in her purse and she pulls it out and it's -- i mean, obviously you could tell that it had been there for seven years. and it was to venus' mother, therese. >> and never delivered? >> never delivered. she said she didn't -- just couldn't get herself to deliver it, 'cause she was afraid of the rejection. >> reporter: but now, by reaching out, making the first move, the convicted killer's sister would set in motion a sequence of events leading to the unravelling of the last mystery in the case. the sister and the victim's mother would unite and work together to find venus. >> coming up -- >> i wanted her to have venus back. i wanted everyone to stop hurting. >> where was venus? after all these years would they finally learn the truth? >> you want to know. you want to know where she is.
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>> reporter: pummeled with guilt that just wouldn't go away, jaime, doug's sister, wrote two letters. one for her two nieces. one for venus' mom. >> what was the message, jaime? >> oh, just told her how terrible we felt. you know, what -- what doug had done. and that, you know, venus was my friend. she was my co-worker. and she was family. and basically i just wanted to be a family again. missing out on those last eight years of these girls growing up, i missed that. i missed eight years. >> reporter: so when detective petersen knocked on her door that day, jaime asked him for help in reconnecting with venus' mom, therese. he set up a meeting at his office. >> does this begin with words or kind of wary glances at one another? >> oh, no. i was -- >> she hugged -- >> i was just --
blabberin', blubberin' fool. i mean, i just sat there and just cried profusely. and i was there to tell her i was sorry for what my brother had done. and here she comes across the room and gives me a big hug and tells me she's sorry for what my brother did to our family, which just -- >> where were you coming from, philosophically, at that point? was this about forgiveness or -- >> i -- she didn't do nothing to be forgiven for. you never done anything to be forgiven for. >> reporter: the building of family bridges was too late for venus' dad larry. cancer had taken him six months earlier. but the two families, at odds for years, were now talking again, doing their best to reconnect and heal. doug, in the meanwhile, was sitting in his cell, still insisting he did nothing wrong. >> you know, he complains about being in there and how terrible it is. but guess what? we're all -- we're all out here living it. >> reporter: his sister had had enough, and she told him so.
>> i wanted her to have venus back. i wanted everyone to stop hurting. and it's -- and that's the approach that it took. it took going to doug and telling him we're done. we're exhausted. >> once he found out that we were talking and were friends, then the jig was sorta up, because he had lied to her, he had lied to me. >> reporter: with his appeals exhausted, and his family applying pressure to reveal where the remains were, detectives went back to see doug. seven years after the trial now, his stance had changed. >> i didn't sense the anger that was there from our prior meeting. we spoke in hypotheticals about if you work with us, can you bring us to the location of where she's buried? >> reporter: a few months and a couple of visits later, doug, a lifelong gamer, was ready to play. he made demands for his cooperation. >> when we spoke to him though, he had -- he had a specific list that he gave to us in terms of what he would like for a consideration.
>> so "i will take you guys to the body, but i want this stuff on my list"? >> hypothetically, i could take you to the body, but i would like to have these items for me. >> reporter: on his list, doug wanted to teach in prison, join the canine program, and be permitted to attend his parents' funerals when their time came. and, one more request for his unit, a gaming console. and not just any. he wanted, no substitutes, an xbox. >> are you kidding? that's where this whole thing started. the xbox game? >> yes. >> he wanted one for inside? >> specifically mentioned xbox because they were being used throughout the country in some of the other prisons. >> at first we both thought there wasn't a good chance we'd get all that. i believe in that first meeting we said, hey, if we can't get 1 100% of this, does that mean the deal is off, and he said no.
and that was an eye opener he was serious about getting some things to make i guess his circumstances better unreturned. >> the michigan department of corrections said yes to most of his requests. an xbox in the unit was already in the works anyway. detectives went to see doug again. they'd delivered, would he? >> i told him specifically, "this is the time right now. if you wanna do this, we're going to do it. if you don't want to do it, we're out. we're done." >> reporter: detectives say he took a long pause and then -- >> he started out, i believe, by saying, "you know i didn't kill her at home." and that's kinda where the narration started, where he described getting to the house and calling her from the house that morning. that when she came out is where he attacked her and began to put her in, like, a chokehold. >> reporter: doug says she passed out, and he put her in the bed of his truck. he then drove to a wooded clearing he remembered from his teenage years. there, he said, venus revived
and they argued before he stabbed her. detectives weren't sure they believed the details of his story, but were struck by the fact doug showed no signs of remorse as he laid out the grisly details. >> i didn't see a whole lot of feeling there. there's a little bit of emotion right at that -- that moment where he describes where he takes her life. >> reporter: next doug needed to reveal the site where he buried the body eight years before. he quickly zoomed in on and pointed to a spot on a google map. >> it's a dirt road on -- in the southern portion of kalamazoo county. right at the entrance off of this dirt road to a soy bean field. very wooded. >> you got him here in shackles and you're walking through the site? >> yes. >> yeah. >> how certain was he that this was where he had disposed of the body? >> positive. >> he knew it. this -- >> positive. no doubt in his mind. >> reporter: this police video, shot in october 2018, shows doug, in shackles, leading the detectives through the thick
brush. >> this was the biggest open area. >> reporter: without hesitation, he pointed to the place where they should dig to find his wife's remains. >> i walked right into here and everything -- there were so many stumps, trees and debris, like he's standing, there's so much debris. like, this was the open spot. >> and then you started to dig. >> yes. >> what's he doing the whole time that you're digging? it takes you an hour or so to -- >> we talked to him up here in the clearing there and had him away from it. i think you could tell he really didn't want to be near it where it was actually taking place. but he knew that we had to keep him here just to confirm that we were in the right spot until that point. >> reporter: and it was the right spot. after about an hour and a half of digging and sifting, the years-long search was over. the remains were positively i.d.ed and detectives reached out to venus' mom and doug's sister whose rediscovered friendship had led to this moment. >> you want to know. you want to know where she is. you want to know what he did, but at the same time you do not want to know. >> no. >> you don't. >> i don't want to know the
particulars. >> no. >> i never do. i'll never want to know that. >> reporter: the family had a burial service for venus in december 2018. the bond between the two families, once sundered, has been growing stronger every day. >> how do you describe your relationship? >> i'd say she's like my daughter. >> yeah. >> jaime, you agree? >> yeah, i'd agree. yeah. >> yep. we can be a family. and we enjoy each other's company. we go -- we -- she loves the girls so much now. >> the kids have a joint family now. that's the important thing, therese. right? >> yes. yes, yes. >> reporter: several cold winters later, the mystery of the missing venus stewart has finally been put to rest. but memories of a loving mother, a daughter and a friend will be kept alive by those who hold the story of venus close to their hearts. >> she was my best friend. i never went a day without talking to her. never. the girls miss -- they missed out on a really good mom. >> is she alive in their memory? >> oh, yeah. i talk about her all the time.
>> we all do. >> reporter: as for doug stewart, the gamer, his decision to finally confess and give it up, changes nothing in his sentence. he, and his new xbox, will be in prison for the remainder of his life. we were definitely really close. people kept asking where my mom was, and i couldn't give an answer. it just seemed wrong. that was the real kind of stake in the heart. >> reporter: it was one of the most baffling cases investigators had ever seen. >> this tops the charts for most bizarre. >> no one can believe that this actually happened. >> reporter: a single mom and whip-smart computer whiz who seemed to disappear. >> i started getting text messages saying she had quit her job. >> she had something down in kansas.