Trial underway in death of woman

File photoDouglas Steeves, center, during a 2016 appearance in Salem District Court. 

SALEM — Douglas Steeves Jr. was angry. Both the prosecution and the defense agree on that. 

They also agree that Steeves, 53, of Salem, killed his estranged wife of nearly three decades, Carmela Saunders, 48, in her Salem apartment sometime in the early morning hours of Aug. 2, 2016. 

But was it a case of premeditated, first-degree murder when Steeves "quite literally choked the life out of" Saunders, as prosecutor A.J. Camelio suggested to jurors in his opening statement Wednesday? 

Or was it, as defense lawyer Raymond Buso suggested, "that perfect storm" of a pending divorce, the loss of a job and a place to live, and finally, a phone call from a man Saunders had started seeing, that led Steeves to kill her in the heat of passion, making it a case of manslaughter?

A jury of seven men and eight women, 12 of whom will ultimately decide the answer, began hearing evidence against Steeves as his trial got underway in Salem Superior Court on Wednesday. 

Steeves is charged with first-degree murder and violating a restraining order in the death of Saunders, who had filed for divorce after 28 years of marriage. 

"This is a case about anger, a case about rage, a case about jealousy," Camelio told the jury. "This is a case about a relationship gone bad and what happened when anger, rage and jealousy took over." 

To make his point, Camelio read a series of angry text messages sent by Steeves to one of his adult daughters, messages that revealed Steeves' ongoing obsession with his wife — even as he was living with another woman in a mobile home in Peabody. 

The messages, some containing foul language, blamed Saunders for the end of the relationship and made lurid accusations against her. 

"She's out slutting around, making a fool of me," Camelio read from one of Steeves' messages to his daughter. "Her days are numbered." 

In another, he warned, "I'm not taking it anymore," then claimed to know where the man Saunders had started seeing lived and threatened him. 

Still, when the other woman Steeves had been living with asked him to leave, he called his old home, asking one of his daughters to let him come by to take a shower. 

That was on Aug. 1. 

Saunders then allowed him to stay for dinner, Camelio told the jury. 

Daughter's fiance testifies

Charles Caughey, 63, who is currently engaged to one of the couple's daughters, was spending the night with her in the apartment on Chandler Street with Saunders. He told jurors he was surprised to learn that Steeves was staying for dinner. 

"No one was talking," Caughey testified. He said he tried to break the ice. "Isn't it nice to be able to have the whole family together?" he said he asked. But no one responded. After another try, Caughey testified, Steeves stood up and left the room, "which I found to be odd." 

Later that night, Caughey and Savannah Steeves went to her bedroom with her kids to watch "The Wizard of Oz." 

During the evening, he told the jury, Steeves "would just pop in," three times. The last time, Caughey told the jury, Steeves asked him, "Have they killed the Wicked Witch yet?" 

A couple of hours later, Caughey testified, he decided to do the same to Steeves, who was in Saunders' bedroom. In there, he said, he saw Saunders in bed, her arms folded, her face illuminated by the light of the television. Steeves, in a chair, had his back to the door and was looking at his phone. 

"I had a really odd feeling," Caughey testified, before Buso raised an objection. 

Buso questioned Caughey's motives and suggested that Steeves was simply a concerned parent and grandparent who was checking on his family's well-being.

"Can you understand why a grandfather might be concerned about someone older than himself having a relationship with his daughter and his grandchildren?" Buso asked during cross-examination. 

Before Caughey could answer, Camelio objected to the question. 

Defense: 'He snapped'

In his opening, Buso, speaking in a near-whisper, his voice breaking several times, showed the jury a series of photos of the couple, who had met as teenagers and bonded over the troubled homes they had both grown up in. At 17, Saunders moved into Steeves' family home. "They were in love," he told the jury, as Steeves, dressed for court in a shirt and tie, began to cry behind him. 

Buso told jurors that Steeves had "put up" with Saunders for years, contending that Steeves simply wanted to keep his family intact. 

"I apologize to the family, because we need to be brutally honest here," Buso told jurors. "You're going to hear plenty of bad things about Doug Steeves.

But, Buso told the jury, "It wasn't just one side." 

Buso then went on to accuse Saunders of drinking to excess on a daily basis, even as his client, he said, "never drank, never did drugs." 

Even after the divorce filing and a restraining order, Buso said he will show jurors evidence that the two were in contact, even discussing a plan to make a fresh start in California with one of their daughters. 

When he got the phone call that night from a man who knew his nickname, "Binky," and who warned Steeves to stay away from Saunders, Buso said, Steeves was "angry at her for not being honest with him. 

"It hurt him to know his family was being destroyed and he could not do anything about it," Buso said. 

During the argument, Steeves contends that Saunders grabbed his shirt and then his face, putting her fingers in his mouth. 

"He snapped," said Buso. "He lost it. He strangled her."

Then, Buso said, he left and went to a place Buso described as his club in Beverly, where he got a ladder, hung a noose from a ceiling beam and then penned a suicide note.  

Prosecutors have said Steeves was a member of the "Broken Bones" motorcycle club in Beverly. 

He did not go through with his plan. 

Instead, he went to the Salem police station, shortly before 4 a.m.

Sgt. Gil Priddy was at the station. 

Priddy asked Steeves how he was doing, and how he could help him. "He sighed," Priddy testified. "He looked a little despondent." 

That's not unusual for people showing up at a police station, Lt. Matthew Desmond, who was also in the station, later testified. 

What Steeves said next was unusual, however.

"Yes," Steeves told Priddy. "I just killed my wife." 

"You what?"

"I just killed my wife." 

Was there a chance they could still help her? 

"Probably not," Steeves responded. 

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. 

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