Aloha man arrested for 1974 murder of 2 high-school students thanks to new ballistics evidence

An Oregonian newspaper delivery driver spotted them just before 4 a.m. next to a parked car at the Oak Hills recreation center in Beaverton.

Peter Zito, 18, was lying on the ground next to the driver’s door of a 1956 Oldsmobile. Sixteen-year-old Donald Bartron was slumped over the hood. He’d been working on the engine.

The Aloha High School students had been shot multiple times in the head at close range.

It was Oct. 3, 1974.

Forty-eight years later, an Aloha man has been charged in the brazen murders.

Washington County detectives this week arrested Steven Paul Criss, 65.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office says it has matched ballistic evidence from a gun Criss used to murder another man in 1976 to the shooting two years earlier of Bartron and Zito.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said it’s the oldest comparison and match on a prosecutable case ever made.

Twelve hours after Zito and Bartron’s murder, 18-year-old Lincoln High School student Joseph Amir Wilson was arrested. Wilson had been assaulted by someone at the rec center a few hours before the murders, and detectives thought he wanted to “get even,” said Detective Mark Povolny, whose been working on the cold case for Washington County Sheriff’s Office and provided a timeline during a Friday morning news conference.

“They suspected Wilson wanted to get even with the person who beat him up and his brother, but instead killed Donny and Pete in a case of mistaken identity,” Povolny explained.

1974 Washington County cold case

A Jan. 15, 1975 article from The Oregonian’s archive included an interview with Joseph Wilson when he was released from jail after the murder charges against him were dropped.

Detectives at the time said Wilson was in the area of the shootings that night and couldn’t account for his time until after he had taken a taxi home.

But, Wilson denied any involvement – and no physical evidence ever connected him to the murders. “His hands were subjected to a trace metal detection analysis and a neutron activation test to determine whether he recently fired a weapon. Both tests were negative,” The Oregonian reported in January 1975. Wilson also underwent two lie detector tests, which were reviewed by five independent polygraph analysts, confirming his innocence.

The district attorney dropped charges against Wilson after he’d been in jail for nearly four months. After being released, he went to Aloha High School to finish his senior year.

According to his 2000 obituary, Wilson was born in Portland and died of a heart attack at 43.

He was a self-employed landscaper and a member of First United Methodist Church, the obituary said. Previous news coverage, found in The Oregonian’s archives, reported that Wilson’s father was killed in Tehran, Iran — where his parents had immigrated from — in 1957, when Wilson was just nine months old.

Sheriff Pat Garrett formally apologized to Wilson’s relatives for the wrongful arrest nearly 50 years ago.

“[I]t is clear Wilson was innocent and should never have been arrested,” the sheriff’s office said in a news release Friday.

Even while Wilson was in custody, a detective named Jim Welch never believed Wilson was responsible for the murders, Povolny said. Welch died more than 10 years ago, Povolny said.

Welch had continued the investigation despite Wilson’s arrest.

“His investigation in 1974 documented and preserved vital evidence,” Povolny said, acknowledging and thanking the late detective. “Without his excellent police work, this case would’ve never been solved.”

Steven Criss

Steven Criss, 65, of Aloha, has been charged with two counts of first degree murder in the 1974 shooting deaths of Aloha High School students Peter Zito, Jr. and Donald Bartron.

Welch had identified Criss as a suspect within weeks of the murders after learning that Bartron had worked at a restaurant with him. Criss, 17 at the time, had “reason to be upset with Donny,” Povolny said, without explaining why.

In December 1974, about two months after the murders, Criss was arrested for theft. Deputy Jim Spinden, who later was elected Washington County Sheriff, found an illegally concealed .22 caliber handgun in Criss’ car, and the gun was taken for testing the same day.

But the crime lab reported the gun was not a match to the murder scene at Oak Hills Recereation Center. At the time, ballistics testing typically involved an expert using a microscope to compare a test fire from the suspected gun to a slug retrieved from the crime scene. The method was far from foolproof. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office did confirm what method was used for the ballistics test 48 years ago.

The gun was returned to Criss, and he went on to join the U.S. Army, where he was based at Fort Lewis in Washington state.

Oct. 8, 1976, Criss murdered his commanding officer Sergeant Jacob “Kim” Brown, he admitted.

“Criss had damaged Brown’s car and owed him a few hundred dollars. Instead of paying his debt, he shot Sgt. Brown five times in the head,” Povolny said.

Criss used the same caliber handgun that had been found in his car in 1974. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 35 years in a military prison. He was paroled after 12 years.

Because that conviction was obtained through a confession, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office never went back to check the ballistics, a public information officer told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

At any rate, crime labs didn’t have the technology they do today. 3-D imaging and other such methods now can be used to match a bullet to a gun.

“There’s been substantial advancements (in the technology) since the 1970s,” said Deputy Brandon Toney, public information officer at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

Earlier this month, the Oregon State Police crime lab confirmed the gun Criss had when he was arrested in Dec. 1974 was the same used to kill Brown – and the teenage boys in 1974.

Criss did not have a personal relationship with Bartron and Zito, the sheriff’s office said, but they’d had an “encounter at a restaurant earlier in the evening” the day the boys were killed.

The match – and other new, unspecified evidence – led to Criss’ arrest Wednesday near his Aloha home. He worked in Hillsboro, police said.

This week, the case was presented to a grand jury in Washington County, which indicted Criss on two first degree murder charges.

Detectives want to speak with anyone who has information about the murders or Criss’ life since his release from prison in 1988; they’re investigating the possibility he was responsible for other homicides.

– Savannah Eadens;; 503-221-6651; @savannaheadens

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