By Sam Baltrusis
Steven Odegard stands trial in December for a casual hook-up turned violent murder, but it took the DA 11 months to make an arrest, and evidence isn’t conclusive. Is it beyond a reasonable doubt? Does the state really have the right guy?
Daniel Yakovleff’s mother, Peg Rux, says she knew something was terribly wrong when officers knocked on her front door one frigid winter evening in 2008. “The Connecticut State Police came up to our house and our dog was barking. It was dark and my husband answered the door and they told us we had to call Boston homicide. We knew right then and there it wasn’t a good thing.”
On that Friday, January 18, Rux learned that her youngest son was brutally murdered in a Savin Hill apartment located at 56 Tuttle Street in Dorchester. She and her husband, Nord Yakovleff, had just returned from a trip to Mexico. The yelps from the family dog, Obi, echoed throughout their neighborhood, an idyllic part of Ashford, with winding roads, views of the mountains and rolling pastures chock full of horses, cows, and livestock.
In Boston, Yakovleff, 20, had carried a fake ID the night of his murder, prompting investigators to initially identify him as a 30-year-old man. It took investigators more than a day to establish his real name from a Costco card and contact his parents.
Rux remembers that she and her husband had to wait until Saturday morning to make the trek to Boston. They couldn’t sleep. “I had to identify the body, and they show you pictures. It was extremely difficult. It’s an odd thing, but I wish I had seen him instead of just the pictures. I wanted to tell him goodbye,” she said.
During the 11-month investigation, Rux says the initial shock turned into a nightmare. “It’s upsetting because they torture you twice,” she emotes. “First, your kid gets killed and then the legal system gets a hold of you.”
Since the murder, Rux has agonized over a talk she had with her youngest son. It’s a chat that continues to haunt her. “When he was going through a tough time at around 14 or 15, I was driving Dan to school one day and he said something that I’ll never forget,” she pauses, takes a breath and then continues. “He told me that he didn’t think he would live past 30. At the time, I never could have imagined that his words would come true.”
THE SCENE OF THE CRIME
Yakovleff was murdered here. The charred remains of the scene of the crime, a brown, triple-decker located in Dorchester’s Savin Hill, stands as an eerie reminder of the horror that occurred in the early morning hours of Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008. Yakovleff, an openly gay Liquid Hair Studios stylist who had a heart of gold and treated his craft as art, was stabbed 10 times in the rear bedroom of Steven Odegard’s home located on Tuttle Street. The 20-year-old was found murdered in Odegard’s bed in the third-floor apartment after having suffered multiple stab wounds to his torso and back. When Boston Police arrived at the scene, they discovered the young man in a pool of his own blood and his arms clenched toward his face. Odegard’s kitchen knife was protruding from the victim’s chest.
In a strange twist of fate, almost one year later, an electrical short circuit starting on the first floor of the Tuttle Street building ignited a fire that engulfed the defendant’s apartment. Residents became trapped on the third floor—in the same apartment where Yakovleff was killed—and two tenants were rescued after neighbors lifted a ladder to the top-level porch. No one was seriously hurt in the fire, and arson was officially ruled out as a cause. Two weeks before the fire, Odegard was indicted for first-degree murder by a grand jury.
During a recent visit to the scene, the windows were boarded up, the house was uninhabitable, and black external scorch marks led up from the first floor, strangely pointing to the room where Yakovleff was found fatally stabbed.
The window to the bathroom was cracked from the intense heat of the three-alarm blaze. This was the bathroom where Odegard—after discovering Yakovleff’s body the morning of Thursday, January 17—washed his hands, grabbed his belongings, including a cellphone, coat and cigarettes, and popped some Klonopins, before heading down the stairs to call the police.
It’s still unclear precisely what happened in the hours leading up to the fateful 911 call around 6:30 a.m. when the defendant allegedly found the victim’s body, checked for a pulse and realized Yakovleff was dead. But, given the preponderance of evidence against Odegard, Yakovleff’s murder seems like an open-and-shut homicide. And District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office believes it has built a solid case against Odegard, based on sworn testimony from 16 players and exhaustive DNA and fingerprint evidence.
On Monday, December 14, Odegard will be tried for first-degree murder.
THE D.A.’s STORY
If the case is so clear cut, then why did it take 11 months to make an arrest?
Jake Wark, press secretary with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, insists that the department launched a “strategic and tactical” investigation to prove that Odegard’s guilt was provable beyond a reasonable doubt, telling Boston Spirit magazine that a homicide detective was assigned to the case as soon as Yakovleff’s body was found. “With a lot of indoor cases, there’s a smoking gun. Often times, it’s immediately apparent that the suspect killed the victim,” he said in an interview at his office in Government Center. “In a case such as this one, the smoking gun wasn’t immediately present, and there was insufficient evidence to make an arrest at that point.” The press secretary adds, “Unfortunately, we’ve learned in the past that rushing to make an arrest can blockade justice from being served.”
Wark says the evidence supports that Yakovleff was out at South End eatery Tremont 647 with friends—including with a mysterious “third party”—on the night of Wednesday, January 16, when he separated from them, walked to the gay bar The Eagle by himself. There he met up with Odegard, who had been frequenting several bars on Tremont Street throughout the night. The two left for the defendant’s apartment in Dorchester, where according to Wark, Odegard and Yakovleff smoked cigarettes and marijuana. The defendant was also taking Klonopin and other medications, which mixed with his alcohol intake. The two had sex. Odegard then grabbed a knife from his kitchen and fatally stabbed Yakovleff multiple times in the bedroom.
Wark stresses that only two men were present that night—Odegard and Yakovleff—and that exhaustive DNA and fingerprint samples recovered from the scene and compared to profiles of three people—the victim, defendant and another man Yakovleff had sex with the night prior to the murder—support the claim. Detectives tested a genital and anal swab taken from the victim, a charred piece of rolling paper, a pair of underwear seized from the defendant’s bedroom, 58 cigarettes butts and a bloodstain from a light switch found outside of Odegard’s bathroom.
But, in what may turn out to be a pivotal point in the court proceedings, DNA samples of the alleged “third party” were never collected or tested. Why not? “The chances of a third person being in the room and donating DNA to the scene is infinitesimal,” Wark claims.
While the DNA is convincing, Wark claims one piece of evidence as the prosecutor’s smoking gun. Odegard phoned his employer at 2:45 a.m. His words to the boss who planned to drive him to work later that morning: “Don’t pick me up.” In the past, Odegard had never called his employer in the middle of the night.
Wark is confident prosecutors have their perpetrator.
JOHN SWOMLEY’S VERSION
Steven Odegard, according to his attorney, John Swomley, sees things differently. And, Odegard’s story has been consistently the same from the beginning, despite the fact that Odegard had no legal representation during his initial questioning that Thursday, January 17, 2008, morning at the Suffolk County police station.
During the interrogation, Odegard claimed that he was at the Eagle where he met two men—Yakovleff, and an unidentified “Italian-looking man.” All three drove to 56 Tuttle Street where he and the 20-year-old victim had sex. Odegard said he then let Yakovleff and the third party use his bedroom while he passed out on the couch in his living room. Around 6:30 a.m. Odegard heard noise, and a door closing. In the bedroom Odegard found Yakovleff’s body still warm and could find no pulse. Odegard headed to the bathroom, washed his hands, grabbed his belongings and walked down the stairs to Tuttle Street where he called police. After talking with the 911 dispatcher, Odegard phoned his friend and former partner, David Oliveri.
After the initial police interview Odegard was presented with a list of qualified attorneys. He contacted Swomley.
Attorney John Swomley is part of Boston’s elite “murder panel,” a crew of regional lawyers who have the credentials and expertise to take on the complexities of a homicide case.
Swomley is skeptical of the investigation techniques of the state’s homicide detectives in this case, saying that police spent three days investigating the scene of the crime and didn’t look at the whole picture. He, on the other hand, went out in the field and sent a private investigator to show a photograph of the defendant to the employees and patrons of the Eagle. “The police spent their first three days in his apartment and I spent the first three days talking to witnesses,” Swomley says in an interview in his North End office.
Swomley also dismisses rumors over the integrity of Odegard’s testimony, noting that Odegard’s first statement was given without access to counsel. “He was interviewed without a lawyer,” Swomley says. “He contacted me within a period of time after the initial interview. I met him within hours of him talking investigators.”
Swomley says that Odegard was presented with a lineup of photos two weeks after the murder and paused over the headshot of the so-called third party known as Uri Presser. According to investigators, Odegard wasn’t able to positively identify anyone from the initial group of pictures, but the attorney claims that Odegard later recognized Presser as the third person who he met outside of the bar and with whom he and Yakovleff went to Dorchester that evening.
Presser, who moved to Florida and “lawyered up” during the investigation, was later interviewed by police where he claimed that he did meet Yakovleff for drinks and dinner at Tremont 647 but parted ways around 11:30 p.m. as the evening progressed. Receipts uncovered during the investigation support Presser’s timeline of events. However, his account of what happened after leaving Tremont 647 cannot be verified.
Swomley insists that Odegard paused over the photo because he didn’t want to finger the wrong guy. It’s a quality the lawyer says reflects his client’s personality.
“I got to know him over the past year,” the attorney remarks. “It’s inconceivable to me that he’s a murderer. He’s a mild-manner guy. While I can’t be a character witness, he doesn’t appear to have it in him,” Swomley says, adding that he’s keeping his client away from the press but hopes to put Odegard “on the witness stand long enough so the jury can see him as he really his.”
The attorney insists that Odegard has cooperated with investigators from the beginning—allowing them to collect DNA samples, fingerprints and pubic hairs. Detectives also “tore apart” the scene of the crime. Swomley contends that his client cooperated extensively with investigators and didn’t spend a single evening at the apartment after the murder, having stayed with his friend David Oliveri in the South End and later having moved to Dorchester Avenue during the investigation.
Swomley, wearing a button-down shirt with jeans and waving his arms theatrically throughout the sit-down interview, points out that Odegard has told the same story each time since the morning of the murder, while Presser and his boyfriend, Swomley claims, have backtracked and changed their accounts throughout the investigation.
On July 2, 2009, attorney Swomley filed a motion calling on the court to throw out the grand jury’s indictment. He claimed that the DA’s office misled jurors with its presentation of DNA evidence and claims prosecutors unfairly portrayed Odegard as being uncooperative with the investigation. The motion was denied.
The piece of evidence Swomley believes is important? An odd text message retrieved from Presser’s cell sent from his boyfriend in the early morning hours of Thursday, Jan. 17. It’s a text that was delivered when the two allege they were together: “Are you alive and well my little diamond?”
WHO IS DAN YAKOVLEFF?
Yakovleff’s friends and family are concerned that Swomley’s drive to prove Odegard’s innocence, and his over-the-top antics during the highly publicized arraignment last December, is coming close to “blaming the victim.” Swomley’s theatrical, arm-waving courtroom banter portrayed the stylist as someone who lived life on the edge.
Gerry Yakovleff, a family member based in Washington State, says she’s afraid that Swomley’s approach is impeding justice. “The one thing that has bothered me about the case is Odegard’s lawyer,” Yakovleff’s aunt says. “The Boston courts have slapped him down with orders and to cease and desist from telling stories that aren’t based on evidence—not only to the public but in court. That’s the scary part to me, that Dan won’t get justice because of this lawyer.” The aunt continues, “It was such a horrific time for the family. Peg had to identify her youngest child from photographs. The pain she was feeling is incomprehensible. When Dan was cremated, they handed her baby boy to her in a plastic bag. She was sitting there, in complete shock, with her child’s ashes in a bag. It’s horrible.”
Travis Wright and Elle Jarvis, close friends with the victim and co-founders of the Daniel Yakovleff Memorial Fund, echo the fear. “I was working at the restaurant [Tremont 647] across the street and that was the last place any of us saw Dan,” says Jarvis, adding that she wasn’t at the restaurant the night of Yakovleff’s murder. “The private detective hired by Swomley was there [at Tremont 647] all the time to the point that the owner had to tell him to come before or after service. He was very invasive. This was within a week [of the homicide].”
Jarvis who fondly remembers Yakovleff as an upbeat, kind soul, says she found out that her best friend was murdered on Friday, January 18. “We were being questioned before we were even able to mourn. At that point, we were still in shock,” she remarks.
Wright, one of Yakovleff’s former partners and a close friend, says he was confronted by Swomley’s investigator, Robert Dias, before talking to police. Wright remembers the series of questioning as overwhelming. “The whole process of going into a homicide unit and sitting down in a room with a tape recorder and closed door was intimidating.”
Yakovleff’s close friends and family remember Dan as good-natured young man with a passion for hair. “We would have dinner once a week and we would give each other mani- and pedicures. When Dan walked into a room, it would light up,” Jarvis remembers, adding that her friend was known to change his hairstyle on a regular basis.
Friends say the 20-year-old did have a history with “whiskey, cocaine and pot,” but only occasionally experimented since moving to Boston to become a hairstylist when he was 18.
Those close to Yakovleff insist that he was extremely concerned with HIV and AIDS prevention. Yavoleff’s aunt says and the victim’s mother, Peg Rux, found a stash of condoms in Yakovleff’s room in Roxbury when they were packing up his belongings. “As a nurse practitioner, Peg has been an advocate for HIV prevention, so she was happy to see the condoms,” adding that the family is convinced that Yakovleff was HIV negative.
Wright says he witnessed the good-natured spirit of his friend’s family when he accompanied Yakovleff’s mother to Odegard’s indictment last December. “She asked if Odegard was receiving his medication while he was in custody,” Wright remembers, trying to hold back the tears. “I mean, she was at the arraignment for the man accused of killing her son and she was concerned if he was getting his meds? That tells you a lot about Dan. Like his mom, he was always concerned about the well-being of others.”
DAVID OLIVERI’S TAKE
David Oliveri is the first person Odegard phoned after making the fateful 911 call early on Thursday, January 17. The defendant’s former partner and long-time friend of 13 years recalls picking up his cell and hearing the shocking news.
“It was early in the morning and he told me that he just found someone stabbed in his bed,” Oliveri emotes. “He told me what he told police from the beginning: They met a third guy outside of the Eagle, the third guy drove them to Dorchester; he fell asleep after sex on the couch and that a noise, which he thinks was a door, woke him up. I asked him if he called 911. He said ‘yes,’ and I told him to wait for the police.”
Oliveri continues, “I’m not a gullible person and I’ve looked at all of the evidence that I’ve been allowed to see, and everything his lawyer has been able to find validates Steven’s account of the evening.”
For example, Oliveri says he’s seen his friend intoxicated in the past and that “he becomes sleepy and exhausted” when he combines his medication—which includes Klonopin—with alcohol. Also, Odegard’s best friend says the defendant was wearing the same clothes from the previous evening when he was released from custody on January 17, 2008.
“You would think there would be blood on his clothes or some indication that he was involved with a stabbing,” he says. Also, Oliveri pointed out that there’s “no record that there was a cab involved,” which has been an ongoing point of contention with the investigation because both Odegard and Yakovleff don’t drive. The DA’s office hasn’t confirmed how it thinks the two ended up in Dorchester.
Oliveri is apprehensive to discuss Odegard’s medical history, but believes that it’s a necessary part of the story. “He’s been so sick in the past that I thought he wasn’t going to make it. Somehow he has. He’s always been resilient. I’m hoping he can make it through the trial.”
Odegard crashed on Oliveri’s couch in the South End for weeks after the murder. He says that their group of friends regularly didn’t go out in public during the 11-month investigation, but were confident the police would do the right thing.
However, Oliveri’s perspective changed after the grand jury indicted Odegard and the DA’s office launched a nationwide manhunt for him while he was visiting family in Minnesota during the holidays. “It’s weird, but you would think that there would be police at the airport if there was a manhunt. No one was there. His lawyer and I picked him up at Logan and there was no sign of the police.”
Oliveri contends that Odegard was mistreated in the weeks leading up to the arraignment. “Combined with their fabrication of a nationwide manhunt, I believe they enjoyed making him look as bad as possible during the indictment,” he adds.
Standing next to her husband Nord, Rux smiles as she flips through old scrapbooks chronicling her two sons, Daniel and Damon, growing up in rural Ashford, Connecticut. When Yakovleff’s mother takes off her glasses, it’s like looking at a picture of her son. Their resemblance is striking.
“If people got to know him, they loved him,” she says, pointing out some of her favorite photos of her son throughout the years. “He could talk to anybody. He would have clients—gay and straight—it didn’t matter. He could start a conversation with anybody. People were always drawn to him. Since he was a kid, he’s always been very warm and outgoing.”
When she talks about losing her son, she’s still in disbelief. “As far as that night, it’s hard to understand why it happened,” she says. “For me, it’s like the fickle finger of fate. It was a random act of violence. That’s the only way to explain it. We may never know what happened, but it was full of rage. There was no reason for somebody to do that to him.”
During a recent visit to Yakovleff’s childhood home, it’s clear that his family is still mourning the loss of their son. Memories of their youngest child are scattered throughout the home, including artistic pieces of pottery perched on a bookcase and notches carved in a door showing Dan’s growth from a young boy to a man.
Yakovleff’s father Nord built a memorial in their backyard and last winter, he used some of the $4,000 donated to their son’s trust to name a trail in his honor. It’s a breathtaking journey in the center of Ashford’s Josias Byles Sanctuary. Light shimmers through the trees and shines on a plaque bearing Yakovleff’s name as well as his birth and death dates. A boulder Nord found from a neighboring Boy Scout camp serves as the memorial’s foundation.
Yakovleff’s father is usually quiet, but when he speaks it’s powerful. “Losing a child is like losing a limb,” he says. “It’s like having your arm cut off. The pain may fade over time, but you’ll never get your arm back.”
When he speaks about his son, Nord’s eyes well up with tears. While Rux plans to attend the trial in December, Nord says that he’s staying out of the courtroom because he wants to remember his son as he was before that fateful night in January.
“I’ve been told by the DA’s office that they’ll bring justice to my son’s murderer,” Yakovleff emotes. “But, justice will not bring my son back. No one can bring my son back.” ¥