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Oregon man arrested in 1974 cold case murders of 2 teens

Steven Paul Criss, 65, used the same .22 caliber gun in the 1974 homicides of the two teens and then in a 1976 slaying of his commanding officer in the Army, officials said.

An Oregon man was arrested this week after being linked to the 1974 cold case homicides of two teenagers, authorities said.

Steven Paul Criss, 65, of Aloha, was a teenager himself when he allegedly used a .22 caliber gun to fatally shoot teens Donald Bartron and Peter Zito Jr. in the parking lot of a recreation center on Oct. 3, 1974, according to a statement from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

The bodies of Bartron, 16, and Zito Jr., 18, were found on the ground next to a 1956 Oldsmobile that had its hood popped open as the teens worked on it. Bartron and Zito were shot in the head, according to the sheriff’s office.

Det. Mark Povolny said Friday during a news conference that Criss was an early suspect in the case, after he was arrested in December of 1974 for theft and a deputy found a .22 caliber gun. The weapon was tested to see if it matched evidence in the teens’ slayings, Povolny said.

After there was no match, the gun was returned to Criss, who joined the Army and was assigned to Fort Lewis in Washington in 1976. He used the same .22 caliber gun to kill his commanding officer Sgt. Jacob “Kim” Brown, officials said.

Criss had damaged Brown’s car and owed him a few hundred dollars, Povolny said.

“Instead of paying his debt, he shot Sgt. Brown five times in the head," he said.

Criss was sentenced to 35 years in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, but only served a dozen years and was paroled in 1988, according to the sheriff’s office.

Newspaper accounts in 1976 confirmed Criss was accused of killing Brown and then pleaded guilty in the slaying.

Detectives this year sent the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives evidence for testing, which showed Criss’ .22 caliber gun was used in the teens' 1974 slaying and matched the weapon used to kill Brown only two years later, authorities said.

“The gun Steve Criss used to murder Sgt. Brown was in fact the same gun he used to murder Donny Bartron and Pete Zito Jr.,” Povolny said Friday.

Detectives decided to take a second look at the ballistic evidence because testing hadn’t been done in nearly 50 years, Povolny said.

After the ATF determined Criss' gun was used in the separate slaying cases, the Oregon State Police Crime Lab confirmed the match, officials said.

Authorities did not disclose what motive Criss had for allegedly fatally shooting Bartron and Zito Jr.

Barbara Zito, of Kent, Washington, was 26 years old when her brother was killed.

She told NBC News on Friday, "I'm glad there is a shot at justice here."

Zito recalls her younger brother's death was a "profound loss" and not knowing why he was killed was devastating.

Investigators have told her that her sibling might have just been unlucky.

"It looks as though Peter was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," she said. “He was there when his friend was shot and the killer shot my brother because he was an eyewitness.”

Relatives of Bartron were not immediately reached Friday.

A grand jury indicted Criss on two counts of second-degree murder and he was arrested Wednesday. Criss was arraigned on the charges Thursday and was held on no bail, according to officials with the sheriff’s office and district attorney’s office.

A county prosecutor said a defense attorney had not been provided for Criss as of Friday afternoon. Relatives for Criss were not reached Friday.

The sheriff’s office also apologized in its statement and during the Friday news conference for arresting an innocent man for the teens’ slayings in 1974. The charges against that man, Joseph Amir Wilson, were dropped in January 1975, officials said.

“I am extremely thankful the charges were dropped before prosecution,” Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett said Friday. “But that does not change the fact that he spent several months in jail, charged with two murders he did not commit.”

Wilson died in 2000, officials said.

Garrett also praised investigators in the 1974 case, including then-deputy Jim Spinden, who arrested Criss for theft and preserved evidence that led to his arrest 48 years after the teens were killed.