Steven Morphis, 67, was bludgeoned to death on Sept. 19, allegedly by a Tacoma man who with his wife conspired to kill him in order to steal his house and nearly 7-acre property outside of Renton.
Jeremy Shaw spent weeks researching rural King County properties and instructing himself on the law of “adverse possession” — how to gain ownership of land by simply occupying it, according to prosecutors.
He settled on a nearly 7-acre parcel southeast of Renton and drove with his wife by the property where 67-year-old Steven Morphis, a recently retired Boeing worker, lived alone, according to King County sheriff’s detectives who investigated Morphis’ Sept. 19 homicide.
Shaw was charged Monday with first-degree murder, accused of bludgeoning Morphis to death with a cylindrical object — possibly a large flashlight — in order to steal the older man’s home and property, charging papers say. Morphis suffered at least five blows to the head, any one of which would have been fatal, according to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. His throat also was slashed, the charges say.
Shaw, 39, and his wife, Lorena Shaw, were together charged with residential burglary, first-degree conspiracy to commit theft and second-degree arson. The couple was charged with arson for torching Morphis’ car in a University Place parking lot and Lorena Shaw, 37, was also charged with first-degree rendering criminal assistance, a felony.
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The couple was arrested Sept. 26, a week after Morphis was killed. When Jeremy Shaw was detained, he was wearing a jacket bearing the Boeing logo that detectives say was among the items stolen from Morphis’ house, according to charging papers.
Jeremy Shaw’s bail, originally set at $1 million, was increased to $2.5 million because detectives found numerous instruments and devices to make fake identification cards in his Tacoma house, making Shaw a significant flight risk, Senior Deputy Prosecutor David Seaver wrote in charging papers.
The increased bail also “takes into account the chillingly cold-blooded manner in which the brutal murder of Steven Morphis, a complete stranger to Jeremy Shaw, was methodically planned for weeks and then carried out,” Seaver wrote.
Lorena Shaw’s bail also was increased, from $100,000 to $500,000, jail and court records show. Prosecutors say she agreed to her husband’s plot to kill Morphis, and helped Jeremy Shaw burglarize the residence and dispose of evidence connecting him to Morphis’ death.
On Sept. 19, Shaw knocked on Morphis’ door, pepper-sprayed him in the face, then bludgeoned him to death, according to the charges.
The evening after Morphis was killed, a contractor who had recently done yardwork at the property in the 16700 block of 196th Avenue returned to pick up some equipment, charging papers say. When the contractor arrived, Morphis did not come out to greet him, as was his custom, and the contractor noticed a freshly dug hole at the rear of the house in the shape of a grave, say the charges.
The contractor found Morphis’ body, which had been wrapped in a tarp, inside a shed and called 911. Morphis’ wrists and ankles had been bound with zip ties, according to the charges.
Sheriff’s detectives learned that Morphis’ debit card had been used in the days after his death, and one failed transaction was to Aryan Enterprises, a business owned by Jeremy Shaw, the charges say. They also tracked Morphis’ cellphone, which showed it had been in the area of Shaw’s Tacoma house and had returned to the area of Morphis’ property, but by then, Morphis’ body had been discovered and there was a large police presence at the home, say the charges.
When detectives searched the Shaws’ house, they found a number of Nazi-themed and “white power” items, along with methamphetamine, charging papers say. They also found “Star Trek” memorabilia believed to have been stolen from Morphis’ house, say the charges.
“Also found at the Shaws’ residence were a variety of items, including writings and printouts, showing that research had been undertaken into a number of properties in rural King County, including Morphis’ residence,” the charges say. “The properties shared telling commonalities — all were large parcels with homes not visible from the adjacent street, all appeared to be occupied by a single resident, and all appeared to be free and clear of any mortgage, lien, or other encumbrance on title.”
Detectives recovered a warranty deed, dated Sept. 6, purporting to transfer title to Morphis’ property from Morphis to Jeremy and Lorena Shaw, the charges say.
Property records show Morphis lived in a secluded three-bedroom rambler on nearly 7 acres, across Highway 169 from the Cedar River southeast of Renton. He helped his father build the house in 1989 and lived alone after his parents’ deaths, a sheriff’s spokesman said last week.
Morphis’ sister told detectives her brother was happy to be recently retired, had no intention of moving, and anticipated living at his property until old age prevented him from living alone, say the charges.