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Steven David CATLIN





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Poisoner - Parricide - To collect insurance money
Number of victims: 3
Date of murders: 1976 / 1984
Date of birth: 1944
Victims profile: His fourth wife, Joyce Catlin / His adoptive mother, Martha Catlin / His fifth wife, Glenna Kaye Catlin
Method of murder: Poisoning (herbicide Paraquat)
LocationCalifornia/Nevada, USA
Status: Sentenced to death in California in 1990

Steven David Catlin, 62, poisoned by paraquat his adoptive mother and two of his six wifes in May 1976, March, 1984 and December, 1984. Convicted in 1990.


High Court Upholds Death Sentence in ‘Poisoned by Love’ Murders

By Kenneth Ofgang - Metropolitan News Enterprise

Tuesday, July 17, 2001

The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence given a Fresno man convicted of killing his mother and two wives by poisoning.

Steven David Catlin was sentenced to death by Kern Superior Court Judge Lewis E. King in 1990 for the 1984 murder of his mother, Martha Catlin, after being convicted of her murder and that of his fourth wife, Joyce Catlin, which occurred in 1976.

The case was the subject of the 1993 television movie “Poisoned by Love: The Kern County Murders.” Steven Catlin was portrayed by Harry Hamlin, better known as one of the stars of the television series “L.A. Law.”

The two crimes were tried together under an information filed in 1985, but the death penalty did not apply to the murder of Joyce Catlin because it occurred before California reinstated the death penalty. Catlin was tried separately in the 1984 death of his fifth wife, Glenna Kaye Catlin, and convicted in 1988.

Catlin’s court-appointed appellate attorney, Horace Freedman of Culver City, argued that it was unfair to prosecute his client in Joyce Catlin’s death because two possible witnesses had died in the interim. Had he not been tried simultaneously for Joyce Catlin’s murder, Freedman further argued, he might not have received the death penalty for killing Martha Catlin.

In any event, Freedman contended, the two murders shouldn’t have been tried together.

Unknown Microorganisms

Joyce Catlin died in a Bakersfield hospital three weeks after being admitted with flu-like symptoms. The death certificate listed the cause of death as acute respiratory  failure to due unknown microorganisms, although paraquat poisoning was suspected.

Paraquat is a herbicide used to control weeds. Experts testified that tests capable of disclosing the presence of the substance more than 72 hours after administration didn’t exist in 1976.

After Martha Catlin died in 1984, doctors concluded she died of paraquat poisoning. After police interviewed doctors who treated and autopsied Joyce Catlin, Steven Catlin was charged with both murders.

He was also convicted in Monterey Superior Court of the murder of Glenna Kaye Catlin, who also died of paraquat poisoning, and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, prior to the Kern County trial.

 Prosecutors at the Kern County trial presented evidence of all three murders, although jurors were not told until the penalty phase that Catlin had been convicted in the Monterey case.

They were then told to consider the prior-murder-conviction special circumstance along with the financial-gain, murder-by-poison, and multiple-murder special circumstances they had already found true.

Financial Motives

Prosecutors presented evidence that Catlin had financial motives for killing the women—he was the beneficiary of life insurance policies on his wives and the sole beneficiary of his mother’s estate. There was also testimony that he had expressed fear his mother might disinherit him and leave her estate to charity instead, and that she had disapproved of his multiple marriages and divorces. 

There was also evidence that Catlin—who worked in agriculture in the 1970s—had access to paraquat and had told people that it could be used to poison someone. Police obtained a bottle of paraquat, with a 1977 date marked on it, from a garage that Catlin shared with Glenna Kaye’s father.

Prosecutors also presented testimony from a jailhouse informant that Catlin asked for assistance in intimidating his third wife—who had persistently told authorities that Catlin murdered the three women—and that Catlin had admitted the killings. In the penalty phase, there was evidence that Catlin had assaulted his first wife in the 1960s.

Catlin testified that he never killed anyone, didn’t have access to paraquat, and never told anyone about the substance’s deadly properties.

Chief Justice Ronald M. George, writing for the high court, said there was no error in trying Catlin for the murder of his fourth wife, or in joining that charge with that of murdering his mother.

Catlin didn’t show that the deceased potential witnesses—employees of the Kern County Coroner’s Office at the time of Joyce Catlin’s death—would have given favorable testimony, the chief justice said. Nor was Catlin prejudiced by his own loss of memory over the intervening nine years, the chief justice said, since there were no significant details that he might have forgotten.

“Moreover, the delay in prosecution was justified,” the chief justice went on to say.  “Because of limitations in forensic science and because of the manner in which Joyce’s tissue had been preserved, it would have been extremely difficult or impossible to make out a case against defendant at or near the time of the murder.”

A joint trial was appropriate, George said, because of the similarity between the two murders. And the other-crimes evidence concerning Glenna Kaye Catlin’s murder was admissible for similar reasons, the chief justice said.

“Paraquat poisoning is rare, and its occurrence with respect to two close relatives of one person is unlikely to be a matter of chance or to be the result of a spontaneous impulse,” George wrote. “When evidence of a third instance of the same type of poisoning is introduced, as it properly was in the present case, the inference regarding a common design or plan becomes very strong.”

The case is People v. Catlin, 01 S.O.S. 3394.


Steven David Catlin

Adopted as an infant, during 1944, by Glenn and Martha Catlin, of Kern County, California, Steven moved to Bakersfield with his new parents in the early 1950s. Dropping out of high school, he showed no interest in honest work and was arrested on forgery charges at age nineteen, serving nine months in a California Youth Authority camp.

Catlin's first marriage was stormy and violent, domestic problems exacerbated by his abuse of drugs. In 1966, he acquired a second wife without divorcing the first, employing a pseudonym on the marriage license.

A few months after the second, bogus wedding, he was picked up for stealing a credit card at the gas station where he worked. The judge called Catlin an addict and packed him off to the state prison at Chino, where he spent the next three years.

Upon release, Catlin divorced his first wife and legally remarried his second, using his real name, but the relationship was already doomed. The couple separated after ten months, and Catlin was married a third time, divorcing that wife eight months later. A fourth wife - Joyce -- was acquired in short order, but she would prove less fortunate than her predecessor in escaping from a dead-end marriage.

Catlin's fascination with cars led to a job with the pit crew of racer Glendon Emery, based in Fresno, California. Infatuated with Emery's step-daughter, Catlin began to court her while still married to Joyce.

In April 1976, Joyce Catlin was admitted to Bakersfield's Mercy Hospital with a severe case of "flu"; she seemed to improve, then took a sudden turn for the worse and died, of "pneumonia," on May 6. Husband Steve ordered her body cremated without delay.

A year later, in May 1977, Catlin married his fifth wife -- Kaye -- and moved to Fresno, finding employment at a local garage. Quick promotions placed him in charge of forty employees, but Catlin had expensive tastes and cash was always short. On October 28, 1980, his adoptive father died suddenly, the fluid in his lungs attributed to pre-existing cancer. Once again, the body was swiftly cremated on orders from Catlin.

In 1981, Catlin's employers at the Fresno garage noticed a sudden rash of missing auto parts. A routine background check on various employee's turned up Steven's unreported record, and he was forced to resign, though no charges were filed. Financially, the strain began to mount.

On February 17, 1984, Kaye Catlin suddenly fell ill while visiting Las Vegas with her mother. Returning to Fresno, she was hospitalized with fluid in her lungs. Physicians were still trying to diagnose her illness when she died on March 14.

Catlin, meanwhile, had acquired another fiancee, encountered on a visit to the hospital. His grief was tempered by her love -- and by the $57,000 he received from life insurance payments.

Back in Bakersfield, his third ex-wife had followed Catlin's eerie run of luck, and she approached the local sheriff with her dire suspicions. Joyce Catlin had been cremated after death, but Mercy Hospital still retained certain tissue samples, and these were submitted for analysis in November 1984.

A few days later, on December 8, Catlin's mother collapsed and died -- from "a stroke" -- shortly after a visit by Steve and his latest girlfriend. Catlin ordered the body cremated, but disposal was postponed until an autopsy could be performed.

The noose was closing rapidly on Catlin, now. Analysis of tissue samples from his mother and his two late wives revealed that all had suffered poisoning from Paraquat, an herbicide so lethal that its use was banned in the United States. A bottle of the stuff, complete with Catlin's fingerprints, was found in his garage.

Indicted shortly after marrying his sixth -- and final -- wife, the killer went to trial at Monterey, in May of 1986. Convicted on a single murder count -- for killing Kaye - -- he drew a term of life imprisonment. In Bakersfield, where other charges waited, prosecutors hoped to see him executed.

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans


Catlin, Steven David

(1944- )

SEX: M RACE: W TYPE: N MOTIVE: CE-inheritance

MO: Poisoned parents and two wives with herbicida.




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