Murders A-Z is a collection of true crime stories that take an in-depth look at both little-known and famous murders throughout history.
In September 2015 a landscaper hired to work at a residence near Monterey, California, discovered what appeared to be a skull while excavating the land in the backyard. The story of this gruesome discovery and the closure behind it was highlighted on a recent episode of Oxygen's "Buried In the Backyard," airing Sundays at 7/6c.
A forensics team was dispatched and discovered a woman buried in the grave – face down. A green plastic garbage bag had been placed over the woman’s head and her torso had no clothing from the waist down. A woman's purse and a calendar from 1982 were also found within the gravesite as well as a photograph of a black female, which hoped would lead to the identification of the victim and the murderer.
Investigators searched missing persons reports from 1982, and found that in December of that year a report of a missing woman matched the description of the photo found at the gravesite. The dental records of the missing woman, Sandra Steppuhn, matched those of the remains.
Steppuhn, a local mother of two children, had been separated from her husband in 1976. They maintained a friendly relationship because of the kids, according to Oxygen's "Buried In The Backyard." According to reports from family and friends, Steppuhn was a loving mother and outgoing friend. She took very close care of her kids and always worked with her husband to maintain a healthy balance, according to family and friends on the show.
On December 11, her kids were staying with their father when they received a phone call from Steppuhn's parents asking if they’d heard from their mother.
Steppuhn's parents filed a missing persons report indicating the last time she was seen alive was on December 9, 1982.
Steppuhn's roommates told authorities she had picked up a hitchhiker. The last time Steppuhn was seen was at a Quik Stop. According to SFGATE.com: “The clerk working that night said that Steppuhn came into the store and bought gas while ‘an unknown male’ remained outside with the vehicle.
By Christmas of that year, no one had heard from Steppuhn. A month after her disappearance, the family began to consider the possibility that she had abandoned them, which they recount tragically in Oxygen's "Buried In The Backyard."
During the investigation, police discovered that another homicide had occurred at the exact same residence in 1983.
Four months after Steppuhn vanished, another young woman, 30-year-old Suzanne Kay Nixon, also went missing. Friends and family recall the last time they saw Nixon was when she was with her friend Alfred Powell saying she was going to meet friends for pizza, but she was never seen or heard from again.
In 1983, investigators went to Powell’s residence— a garage with no lighting on a property where he had worked as a gardener. He told police that he had last seen Suzanne Nixon at 1:30am when she dropped him off after eating pizza.
But the policeman visiting Powell’s garage shined his flashlight on a clock radio that appeared to be splattered in blood. Powell claimed that a raccoon had tried to enter the garage and he had tried to wrestle it off.
After testing the blood, and discovering it had belonged to a human, police discovered Nixon’s remains wrapped in a trash bag in a tool shed attached to the garage.
She had died via blunt force trauma to the head and strangulation.
There were startling similarities in the Nixon and Steppuhn cases.
Both victims’ vehicles had been dumped in public lots and wiped clean of fingerprints, with their keys still in the ignition. Both bodies were found with heads and torsos in green plastic garbage bags. Both victims’ remains had been discovered naked from the waist down. Both had been found face down on the same property where Alfred Powell had lived while working for the homeowner as a gardener.
According to CBS SF Bay Area, Powell was sentenced in 1983 to 15 years to life for the murder of Suzanne Nixon and received another 15 years to life after pleading guilty in 2018 to the second-degree murder of Steppuhn.
Steppuhn had been listed as a missing person for 32 years.
“I was mad at her, I had to take care of my sisters and she was gone,” a daughter of Steppuhn's, who was 13 years old at the time of murder, told the Monterey Herald. "Now we have to mourn in a different way because she did love us, she didn’t just leave us."
Watch this episode of "Buried In The Backyard" now, and watch new episodes every Sunday at 7/6c on Oxygen.