GILBERT, Ariz. — It all started on a bus. Guy sees girl. Girl flashes a smile. It’s a meet-cute you’d think only happened in the movies.
But that’s exactly how Nicole Williams met Steven Howells.
“We were both heading on the bus to the same place. And he had this gorgeous long, curly hair. And so I smiled and we started talking and started dating from there.”
This was 1993 in Hawaii, according to Nicole. A paradise for the young couple. Within five months of meeting, they married.
She was 17 and he would have been around 22 years old.
“I mean, we were young,” she said. “And so there was always a financial struggle, especially in Hawaii, where it's so expensive to live. But it was great.”
Nicole remembers Steven was very involved in the music business. She said he studied at the Art Institute of Seattle, played saxophone, and worked with bands. He and some friends would go to the beach and play improv jazz for hours.
“You know, he never had the goal of being the frontman leading the act,” Nicole shared. “But he loved being behind the scenes and doing the music, mixing and recording and helping from the back end being able to put music out.”
About a year into their marriage, Nicole started noticing a shift.
“At first it was small things,” she remembered. “And he would make little comments that were just a little off. They started progressing more, we had a park that we would walk by. And he started talking to me about a frog he met there, and the conversations he was having with this frog. But it took me a little bit to realize that it wasn't just him talking, he was hearing the frog talk to him.”
She said he started experiencing delusions. And that they started affecting his work. She said she saw him get worse over time. And his aspirations of working in the music industry gradually devolved into just trying to get by day by day.
Despite trying, help was hard to come by.
“And he still had so many dreams and things that he wanted to do,” Nicole remembered. “And as the years went by the reality in himself was that those were probably not going to happen.”
She said his goals changed to keeping a job, living on his own.
“And so it has been really hard on that and watching him struggle,” Nicole said. “Struggle with medications and start getting a little better and then those wouldn’t work and kind of yo-yoing up and down in his mental health.”
Locked Inside: Steven Howells and the murder at Tilda Manor
The yo-yoing became too much for both of them. They divorced in 1994. After the split, Nicole said she and Steven kept in touch, but it wasn’t easy. Steven would eventually move to Arizona where he had family. Nicole said he’d try staying in places like group homes with supported living, but it was hard to keep track of his every move.
“We talked on the phone when he was doing good,” she said. “When the meds would kind of stop working, he would disappear. And then if he got on something new and it would start working, he would call me. And eventually, he just felt that he was holding me back from living my life. So he stopped the connection.”
Even though Steven stopped reaching out, Nicole never stopped thinking about him. She’d even try to look for him whenever she went back to Hawaii to visit. Just to check in.
“I would check the Social Security death index once a year to see if he showed up,” she remembered. “I would walk through a lot of the homeless shelters, and things like that in case he was out on the street. Making sure he's OK. That was the main thing. We want to know he's OK.”
But Steven wasn’t OK.
'So, you guys left the house without any keys?'
The sun was just starting to rise on April 12, 2021, when two police officers pulled up to a quiet street in Gilbert, Arizona. They were dispatched to the scene after a frantic 911 call.
OPERATOR: Sir, we have a bad connection. Where are you at? 3583 East Wildhorse?
It’s the address for a group home called Tilda Manor. The home is licensed by the state as a behavioral health facility, meant to provide care and oversee treatment for people placed in the home.
Tilda Manor looks like most other homes on the street. It’s a two-story beige house with big windows. The blinds are typically drawn.
The facility is supposed to provide 24-hour supervision to its residents, people who need behavioral and mental health services, according to its state license.
On that morning in April, a group home staff member made a muffled call for help.
OPERATOR: I’m sorry I’m having a hard time understanding you. What did he do?
CALLER: I said one of our clients just attacked us.
CALLER: It’s a group home.
The group home staff member dialed 911 after running outside the home with his coworker. He said one of the group home’s residents tried to attack them that morning.
OPERATOR: We have officers on the way. Does anybody need medical? Do you need the paramedics to come check on you?
CALLER: No, not yet. We’re outside waiting. Just the police.
OPERATOR: Just the police? OK. Where is your client now?
CALLER: He’s inside the house. We’re outside waiting.
But that employee was wrong. Someone did need medical help.
Audio of the Tilda Manor group home 911 call:
RELATED: Body camera video shows staff members left Gilbert group home murder suspect alone inside with other residents
OPERATOR: How is he going to react to my officers? Is he going to be cooperative for my officers? Is he going to be hostile toward my officers?
CALLER: Actually, I don’t know because right now he’s kind of violent.
The two officers arrived armed with that information — that a potentially violent resident could be inside the home.
Body camera video from Gilbert Police Department shows they parked the car and walked up to the two group home employees standing in the street.
GPD Officer: What happened today?
Staff: He was naked and he attacked me.
GPD Officer: And how did he attack you?
These employees tried to explain that a resident inside the home tried to hurt them and that they ran outside. They said that resident was a man named Christopher Lambeth.
BODY CAM: Was he in his room when you guys left?
Staff: He’s in the house
GPD Officer: So, we’ll go and talk to him real quick.
The footage shows the two officers and two staff members walking toward the door. One of the officers tried to twist the doorknob.
GPD Officer: It’s locked. Do you guys have a key? It’s locked.
The officers learned the door was locked and neither employee had a key.
GPD Officer: How are you going to get back in? Do you normally go on the side of the house?
GPD Officer: Is there a spare key in the van anywhere?
GPD Officer: So, you guys left the house without any keys?
At this point, about six minutes after the officers arrived, body camera footage showed them standing at the locked door, pondering how to get inside. Then, one of the officers peered through the window to the left of the door. And what he saw changed everything.
GPD Officer: There’s a man inside bleeding from his head.
It was a man lying in a pool of blood on a bedroom floor. The officers called for back-up and their pace instantly changed. One of the officers started kicking the door while the other asked if the employees could hop the fence into the backyard and get in through a door in the back. One employee and one officer raced to the back gate while the other officer kept kicking the front door. Eventually one of the residents opened the door and the officers rushed inside, trying to get to the man bleeding on the floor.
One officer told the other that he had no pulse. They started what sounded like chest compressions in that body camera video. Then, one of the officers noticed something else.
GPD Officer: There’s something in the shower right now.
GPD Officer: Gotcha.
GPD Officer: Just watch your step, OK? There’s blood coming from the bedroom…
The trail of blood led to a closed door. It turned out to be the bathroom and the shower was running.
GPD Officer: You know what? Somebody probably walked up through this and went into the bathroom and took a shower. That’s what happened. So, whoever is in the shower is the one who actually walked through this.
The officers called for firefighters to come in and try to help the bleeding man. Then the bathroom door opened.
Parts of this audio and video were redacted by Gilbert police, so it’s not clear what was said in these initial moments with the person in the bathroom. The audio and video that was not redacted shows the officers were talking with a man who just got out of the shower. He was getting dressed and told the officers his name was Christopher Lambeth.
The officers knew this was the man the group home employees called about. Once he was fully dressed, one of the officers turned him around and put him in handcuffs. The officer walked Lambeth through the halls and toward the front door as he explained to Lambeth that he had the right to remain silent. They stepped outside into a yard teeming with first responders and beelined toward a police car. The officer put Lambeth in the back.
By the time the firefighters got to the man lying in blood on the floor, it was too late. The chest compressions didn’t work.
Steven Howells was declared dead at 5:46 a.m.
'This should have never happened.'
The first photo posted on Steven Howells’ online obituary seemed like it was taken years ago. It shows a young guy with dark eyes and brown hair, half-smiling at the camera. He was wearing a denim jacket with the collar popped.
The first few lines said Steven was born in Hawaii and moved to Arizona in 1998. He lived to be 49 years old.
The comments on the page appeared to be mostly from family or friends who knew him way back when, revealing glimpses of a man once full of life who’d been dealt a really hard hand.
His ex-wife Nicole shared some photos of her own and left a heartfelt message.
“He never deserved to end like this,” she wrote. “I am who and what I am today because of him.”
She ended with a heartbreaking, “I love you always.”
When Steven was killed, Nicole estimated it had been about 10-15 years since she last spoke with him.
In the years after their divorce, she got remarried and became a mom. She now lives in Colorado. Nicole wound up taking a trip to Seattle soon after she learned Steven was killed. She said it brought some closure, in a way, as Seattle was where he did his music studies. She started processing how Steven’s death could have happened.
“That should have never happened,” Nicole said. “I've worried about things like that happening, but I worried about it on the street. Not in someplace that's supposed to keep them safe."
No one at Tilda Manor ever commented on the killing or the events leading up to it.
However, a police report released by Gilbert police shed light on the events that morning.
Steven Howells was one of nine residents living at Tilda Manor, three women and six men. Christopher Lambeth had reportedly already been living there a few years when Steven Howells moved in. It’s not clear exactly when Steven went to live at Tilda Manor, but one of the staff members told police he had been living at the home about four months at the time he was killed.
Other housemates told police Steven Howells and Christopher Lambeth didn’t really know each other. Lambeth would usually keep to himself, in his own room, according to the police report. It also detailed that Steven originally had a roommate, but that person moved out, meaning Steven Howells had a room to himself, right by the front door. The same room where officers found him bleeding.
The night before he was killed, the two employees told police that they clocked in for their overnight shift. They told police it started out quietly. Everyone was in their rooms.
The employees told police they did bed-checks at 2 a.m. and noticed Christopher Lambeth was pacing around his room. By 4 a.m. they thought he went to sleep.
The police report details that around 5 a.m., one of those employees was prepping medications for the residents when he suddenly heard a fight. He ran toward the living room and saw his coworker struggling with Christopher Lambeth who wasn’t wearing any clothes. Lambeth apparently tried to punch the other employee in the face and both workers ran outside.
At first, the workers told police that Lambeth followed them to the driveway, but he ultimately went back inside and locked the door, locking the employees out. It’s not clear whether Steven was attacked before or after the employees got locked out.
“If anything, I could see him being the person who would stand up and try to calm somebody down or de-escalate him,” Nicole said of Steven Howells. “And although I don't know what happened in the room, that would be my bet of what happened.”
Christopher Lambeth admitted on the scene that he “killed him,” the police report stated. That he “bludgeoned” Steven Howells “to death.” He later told police he saw Steven go and use the bathroom and then he followed Steven back to his bedroom and started choking him. Lambeth said he didn’t know why he did this and no one else saw what happened.
After he was arrested, he appeared before a judge who said he was charged with second-degree murder in the death of Steven Howells. In video from that court proceeding, you can see Lambeth appear virtually from what appeared to be a jail cell. He was staring at the camera through his glasses, looking through a crack in the doorway. He didn’t say a word as the judge spoke to him.
The judge told him he would have a lawyer assigned to him and that he’d be held on a $2 million bond. He later submitted a plea of “not guilty.”
Instead of sitting in a jail cell charged with murder, the police report detailed that April 12, 2021 should have been moving day for Christopher Lambeth.
RELATED: Suspect in Gilbert group home murder was supposed to move out the morning of the murder, according to police records
Tilda Manor staff told police he’d been living at the group home since 2018, although his move-in date is not part of the public record. Employees told police that in all his time at the home, they never had any problems with him. In fact, he was doing so well with his treatment at the home that he was set to move into his own apartment at 11 a.m. the morning of the killing.
One staff member told police that, “he could handle it.”
But in Lambeth’s life, April 12 stands out for another reason.
On April 12, 2005, exactly 16 years before the killing at the Tilda Manor group home, Christopher Lambeth was taken to a different jail as a suspect in a different deadly crime.
You can catch that story in the next chapter of Locked Inside: Guilty Except Insane starting April 19, 2022, wherever you listen to podcasts.
No one working with or representing Tilda Manor agreed to talk with 12 News at this point in our story.
Christopher Lambeth’s current attorney did not respond to any of our requests for comment at the time this episode was recorded.
Locked Inside Podcast: Tilda Manor coverage
Locked Inside, a new 12-News I-Team and VAULT Studios podcast, follows the harrowing and heartbreaking story of Christopher Lambeth and those who crossed his path along the way.