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A.K.A.: "Bonebreaker"
Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Juvenile (17) - Kidnapping - Torture
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: July 4, 1994
Date of arrest: July 31, 1995
Date of birth: 1977
Victim profile: Christian Steiner, 14
Method of murder: Drowning
Location: Columbia County, Wisconsin, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison on November 7, 1997

At an age when most boys get their kicks by chasing girls and sneaking beers, 17-year-old Joe Clark of Baraboo, Wisconsin, got his through the imprisonment and torure of other boys. If not for his last victim's seemingly endless amount of resolve and a literal never-say-die attitude, Clark's crimes most certainly could have escalated in their brutality.

Clark's eventual imprisonment did not come soon enough for 14-year-old Chris Steiner, however. Steiner's parents found him missing from the family's home on July 4, 1994. When police arrived they clearly saw the signs of an abduction. Steiner's bedroom window screen had been sliced open, muddy footprints were evident on the carpets, and a patio door was discovered to be unlocked. Despite local authorities best efforts Steiner was found dead six days later draped over a partially submerged tree on the edge of a Wisconsin River sandbar.

Strangely, an autopsy showed no traumatic injuries on Steiner's body, though police remained convinced fould play was definitely involved. His death was caused by drowning and officially listed as 'undetermined'. The mysterious crime was something new to the rural town of Baraboo. No doubt locals hoped that the young boy's death was an isolated, one-time tragedy. But Steiner's killer was living among them and waiting to strike again. In the early morning hours of July 29, 1995, he did.

Thad Phillips awoke that night and felt himself being picked up from the living room couch a and carried through the house, thinking one of his parents was escorting him to bed after he had fallen asleep watching TV. Instead he was hoisted outside and set down by a young man he could not quite recognize but quickly assumed was a family friend. Unfortunately, it was Joe Clark and when he told Phillips to run with him, the groggy and confused boy agreed.

Not until the two arrived at a ramshackle home about a mile away did Thad realize he might be in trouble. Clark introduced himself by his first name and then forced Phillips to his upstairs bedroom, tossed him on the soiled bed, and proceeded to viciously twist and turn one of Phillips' ankles until it snapped and splintered. Immediately showing his fighting spirit, Phillips managed to free himself from Clark's grasp and limp his way downstairs where his abductor caught up and threw him onto a couch. No doubt angered, Clark pushed Phillips' leg upward toward the boy's own head and leaned in until the thigh snapped. The abuse continued into the night when, after dressing Phillips shattered legs in crude casts of socks and ace bandages, Clark left his victim alone on the bed while he went out, apparently convinced the boy was no longer a threat to escape with due to the extent of his injuries.

He underestimated Phillips. The gutsy youngster dragged himself down the stairway, making it into the kitchen when Clark and a girl arrived and sat down on the couch unaware that he lay silent in the next room. Unfortunately, when Clark's friend left, the sadistic youth discoverd Phillips lying in the kitchen and after recovering from suprise, dragged him upstairs yet again to continue the brutal punishment and for the first time threatening to kill, though that was certainly the ultimate intention all along.

On the evening of July 30, Clark again left the house but was taking no chances with Phillips this time. He locked the battered boy in the bedroom's closet before leaving. Inside the darkened cubicle Philllips had to have realized he was running out of chances to escape and even his enormous willpower had to be fading. Feeling around with his hands in the dark he found an old, heavy guitar and battered the door down with it. Dehydrated and his legs useless, Phillips slowly dragged himself down the stairs again, passing out repeatedly from pain and fatigue until he reached the kitchen phone and managed to shake the cord until the reciever fell from the hook. He then dialed 911 and explained his location and predicament to a suprised dispatcher.

Officers quickly responded to the Clark house and rescued Phillips. He had been held capture for about 43 hours in total and had sustained horrible fractures to both legs which would require several surgeries over the years and result in a permanent limp. Soon afterward Clark was arrested and Phillips told officers that Clark had spoken of brutalizing two other boys, one who's name was Chris and another that he can't recall to this day. A subsequent search of the Clark home uncovered a ghoulish list of boy's names, some of which were listed under the heading, "The Leg Thing". Thankfully, Phillips bravery ensured that none of those potential victims would experience the torture that he and Steiner did.

Clark was first tried in the Phillips attack and entered a plea of no contest to attempted homocide and other charges. He was sentenced to a 100-year prison term but claims to have no recollection of the Thad Phillips' abduction and torture.

The Steiner case was a different story and Clark elected to plead not guilty, though an exhumation of Steiner's body had revealed taht he sustained injuries to his ankles that were identical to those Phillips endured. Clark's parents' testimony that their son was home asleep in his room on the night of the killing did not hold water in the face of other witnesses that claimed Clark regularly snuck out of the house via an upstairs window.

Also damning was testimony by a former fellow juvenile detention inmate of Clark's who said Clark had admitted to her that he had killed a boy and placed his body over a tree. All said it was obvious that Clark had murdered Steiner and on November 7, 1997, was found guilty of intentional homicide and sentenced to life in prison plus fifty years. Clark mainains his innocence in Chris Steiner's murder from a prison cell to this day.


Death Investigation

On July 4, 1994, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, Chris Steiner, fourteen, disappeared from his home. He was not the type to run away, and what happened to him was told in an episode of Cold Case Files called “The Tortured Truth.” Indications that he had been kidnapped included a shoe impression outside his bedroom window and muddy tracks inside.

Five days after he disappeared, his body was found caught on a tree along a bank of the Wisconsin River. An autopsy was performed and the cause of death was attributed to drowning, but the manner of his death—accident or otherwise—remained undetermined.

One aspect of death investigation involves evaluating the cause, mechanism, and manner of death. A cause of death is whatever made death occur, such as strangulation, and the mechanism is what happens physiologically—e.g., oxygen deprivation. The manner of death, according to the NASH classification, places it on one of four categories: Natural, Accident, Suicide, or Homicide. If it cannot be classified, such as was the case with Chris Steiner, then its manner is considered undetermined. It is estimated that some 15–20 percent of deaths around the country occur in a manner that is undetermined. With no clear leads or ideas about what had happened, the Steiner case went cold. No one in his family knew how Chris could have drowned, but since it was not clearly a murder, the police did not look for a perpetrator.

A year passed and another boy, Thad Phillips, was taken from his bed in the same town while he slept. But he survived to tell the story. He woke up to find himself a captive to an older teenager who called himself Joe. To Thad’s astonishment, Joe grabbed and twisted one of his ankles until it broke. Though in agony, Thad still tried to escape, but Joe caught him, brought him back, and then broke his other ankle in the same manner as the first. He seemed satisfied that this would now keep his captive in place. While it may appear that Joe was merely being practical by disabling his prisoner, he actually proved to have a sick obsession. He admitted to Thad that he liked to hear bones break. But he also liked to attend to them, and he wrapped Thad’s injuries in socks and braces. Thad remained in Joe’s bedroom for two days, but despite his physical distress he awaited an opportunity to make a second escape attempt. Finally it arrived. He managed to get to a phone and call the police, who surmised from earlier incidents that his captor was a seventeen-year-old named Joe Clark.

After the police rescued Thad, he told them that Joe had admitted to killing Chris Steiner. This came as a surprise, since the pathologist who had examined Steiner at the time had found no sign of an injury. Nevertheless, the case had been mysterious and the body had been bloated from being in the water; the pathologist could have overlooked something. Then investigators learned that no X-rays had been taken.

There was only one way to discover whether Chris Steiner had been subjected to the same bizarre treatment that Thad had endured, and thus to link the two crimes to a single perpetrator: They had to exhume Chris Steiner’s remains. In other words, they had to reopen his grave, remove the casket in which he lay, open it up, and remove the body for a closer examination.

Once this was done, the forensic pathologist went over the small body once again, and this time, armed with more information, he identified four separate breaks in Chris Steiner’s legs. It was apparent that had the boy been thrown into the water in this condition, he could not have used his legs to swim and could easily have drowned—as he actually did.

That discovery gave detectives probable cause to search Joe Clark’s bedroom, where they found a notebook with three lists, all written in his handwriting, that included the names of eighteen local boys. Their headings were “Get to now,” “Can wait,” and “Leg thing.” Clark claimed to be innocent in Steiner’s murder. His mother backed him up with an alibi. She said that if he had left home on the night Steiner was abducted, she would have known, because he’d have passed through her bedroom. However, it was shown that she was a heavy sleeper and that he’d managed to slip by her before. Thus, Joe Clark had no alibi. A jury found him guilty of Chris Steiner’s murder, and this case was finally closed with a conviction.



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