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Home > News > Crime News > Former death row inmate seeks new evidence review in 1979 police officer murder

Former death row inmate seeks new evidence review in 1979 police officer murder

By Bob Conrad

Steve Olausen, who is serving a life sentence for his part in the 1979 murder of Reno Police Officer James Hoff, today argued in court for a review of evidence that originally sent him to death row.

Olausen pleaded guilty to murder, kidnapping and robbery in the late ‘70s. He is the subject of the This Is Reno podcast, Solutions, which reported in depth on Olausen’s role in Hoff’s murder, as well as RPD’s fatal blunders that contributed to Hoff’s killing.

A recently released book by former RPD officer J. Andre Boles also details the fatal night of June 25, 1979. He said Olausen got a raw deal by prosecutors and judges.

Olausen, along with three others, met with Hoff near Idlewild Park after midnight on that day. It was to be a drug buy with Hoff working undercover. The four youth, one of whom was 16, were going to sell Hoff baking powder and take $16,000 in cash.

The James Hoff Peace Officers Memorial at Idlewild Park. Image: Ty O'Neil.
The James Hoff Peace Officers Memorial at Idlewild Park. Image: Ty O’Neil.

“We were there for protection,” Olausen, then 18, told detectives at the time. They had been led to believe by the group’s older ringleader, Tom Wilson, 21, that Hoff was a bad dude—a heroin dealer.

Wilson and Hoff went to the Truckee River, past midnight, for the handoff. A skirmish broke out between Wilson and Hoff near the river. Wilson cried for help, and two others—Fred Stites and David Lani—armed with knives, came out of hiding and stabbed Hoff.

Olausen said at the time, and continues to say, he came out of hiding after Hoff was stabbed, but he did punch Hoff, telling him to shut up, while he had a knife in his hand.

Wilson and Olausen then loaded Hoff into the back of Hoff’s borrowed car, and met back at a Fourth Street motel where they were staying. From there, they wrapped Hoff’s body in a bed sheet, drove to Verdi and buried Hoff in Dog Valley.

Upon the advice of legal counsel at the time, the four pleaded guilty. Olausen maintains that his public defender told him that, for his role in the crime, if the pleaded guilty, he would get sentenced to a few years in a boys’ camp.

He got sentenced to death instead.

Though the Washoe County District Attorney at the time, Cal Dunlap, had agreed not to seek the death penalty as part of a plea deal, Dunlap also noted during a sentencing hearing that the three-judge panel, by law, did not have to honor that agreement.

They didn’t.

John Steven Olausen's arrest photo, 1979.
John Steven Olausen’s arrest photo, 1979.

Decades of legal fights

Olausen has been fighting for his freedom since 1980, the year he was setenced. He received a major victory, after narrowly escaping execution, in 1989 and the Nevada Supreme Court ruled he received ineffective legal counsel.

The judges wrote:

“After his arrest in 1979, detectives interrogated Olausen for approximately one hour and ten minutes. Although the police officers ostensibly recorded Olausen’s entire confession, there were over fifteen minutes of time unaccounted for on the cassette tape. Mr. Olausen was present at his son’s interrogation, and later testified that the detectives turned off the tape recorder when Olausen began to become emotional. Moreover, although he remembered his son’s expressing remorse for his crime and sympathy for the victim’s family, Mr. Olausen testified that the final recording included none of these statements.”

They also said that his lawyer essentially advocated for the prosecution.

“[Olausen attorney James] Forman’s performance before the sentencing panel was remarkable not for the forcefulness of his advocacy, but rather for the ambivalence he showed toward Olausen’s case. In both his opening statement and closing argument, Forman alternated between comments intended to spare his client from the death penalty, and remarks that were more appropriate for the district attorney.”

The Court vacated Olausen’s death sentence. He’s since been serving life without parole essentially for kidnapping and robbery.

What happened today

With the reduced sentence from the Nevada Supreme Court, Olausen maintained he should not be serving a life sentence for the two crimes. And his attorneys today said that new evidence has come to light that warrants judicial review.

STEVE OLAUSEN has spent his entire adult life in prison. Recently graduated from high school in California, he was in Reno for a few months before he participated the murder of Reno Police Officer James Hoff. Olausen's advocates say his punishment does not fit his role in the crime. Image: Bob Conrad.
Steve Olausen has spent his entire adult life in prison. Recently graduated from high school in California, he was in Reno for a few months before he participated the murder of Reno Police Officer James Hoff. Olausen’s advocates say the punishment does not fit his role in the crime. Image: Bob Conrad.

Attorney Lyn Beggs: “Because there is new information that has not been considered by the court … we believe Mr. Olausen is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on those issues.”

In particular, there are conflicting testimonies about Hoff’s time of death, information that has not been presented to the Supreme Court.

“An evidentiary hearing would show that Officer Hoff was deceased prior to [his] body being moved,” she said. In addition, Olausen did not enter his guilty plea “voluntarily or knowingly.”

“This was not a voluntary plea,” she argued. “The record is there now, and we’ve been able to flesh out the record. We are challenging the validity of the guilty plea to the kidnapping and robbery charges. We are not asking to retry this case.”

Olausen, Beggs said, has a “solid claim of actual innocence.”

Washoe County wants Olausen to say behind bars

James Hoff as a canine officer.
James Hoff as a canine officer.

Olausen’s fight includes dozens of legal filings and lawsuits over the decades, and Washoe County district attorneys have been fending off those complaints for decades.

Deputy District Attorney Marilee Cate said today that Olausen’s case has already been tried and the decisions to keep him in prison should remain.

The Supreme Court repeatedly said “Olausen entered voluntarily pleas,” she argued. “All these things have already been addressed. Mr. Olausen is trying to unwind his plea. If he unwinds his plea, the state is in a position to [have a new trial].

“It’s already been decided. He’s contending he can offer new facts more than 40 years later,” she added.

Judge Connie Steinheimer will make that decision.

It’s not Olausen’s first time in front of Steinheimer. Olausen sought a sentence reduction in 2011. Steinheimer denied his request.

“Very interesting arguments, and a very serious issue for the Court to consider,” Steinheimer said today after the attorneys presented their cases.

Steinheimer said she would notify the attorneys on her decision as to whether to hold an evidentiary hearing. If so, it means parts of Olausen’s case will get a fresh review.

Olausen’s other attorney, Rick Cornell, appeared cautiously optimistic after today’s hearing.

In an interview Cornell told This Is Reno he’s been troubled by Olausen’s case for years.

“This case has really bothered me since I had it in 2003 in front of the [state] Pardons Board,” he said. “It seems logically what should happen is a whole new penalty hearing where kidnapping and robbery is not on the table. What’s on the table is exactly what he did and his background.

“Based on everything I know about this case, it’s not a life-without-[parole] case.”

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