Investigation Discovery’s ‘A Time to Kill: Frozen Stiffs’ chronicles how 81-year-old Elsie Steppa and her 50-year-old nephew, Clarence Thornton, were brutally murdered in Ethelbert, Canada, in late December 2012. The police discovered the bodies almost a month later, and the residents of the sparsely populated town came forward to help the authorities solve the double murder. If you’re interested in finding out more about the case, including the killer’s identity, we’ve your back. Let’s begin then, shall we?
How Did Elsie Steppa and Clarence Thornton Die?
On January 19, 2013, the unincorporated town of Ethelbert in Manitoba, Canada, received drastic news that shook the entire urban community. The Ethelbert mayor called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to perform a welfare check on an elderly resident named Elsie Steppa. It had been several weeks since anyone had last seen her. The neighbors had not seen any smoke coming out of the chimney, even in the freezing temperature, and neither had the dogs been spotted in weeks.
According to reports, Elsie and her adult nephew, Clarence Harold Thornton, had moved from Ontario around 1994 and settled in the Polish-Ukrainian community. Their neighbors stated they mostly kept to themselves, and the duo previously worked in the food and hospitality industry. Court records noted the locals viewed her as an eccentric woman who harbored as many as 20 stray cats at a time, thus earning the moniker — the ‘Cat Woman.’ Her nephew, Clarence, was diagnosed with mental health issues.
The local police described him as a ‘nuisance’ in town, including several cases of causing a disturbance in which he would tell people he was Jesus. Court documents noted he had legally changed his name to ‘Harry Jones’ upon arriving in Manitoba — apparently to evade a Hamilton arrest warrant which remained uninvestigated until the day he died. When the officers reached the household, they were suspicious after seeing the front entrance door slightly ajar. The authorities entered the residence to discover it to be a mess.
There were stacks of VCD players and chords everywhere, with everything piled up on one another. It seemed like a hoarder’s home, and they stumbled upon a makeshift shrine in the living room with religious artifacts scattered all around. The electricity was off, and the entire house was freezing and dark. The police made their way to the back after hearing dogs barking nearby. As they opened the jammed door, the two dogs ran out, and they found Elsie’s body lying face down. She had an axe sticking out of her fractured skull, with all her hair removed.
Police reports stated she was missing her right arm and part of her left arm, both ears and throat had been slit. The officers also found a bloody hammer and saw near her body. Crown attorney Jay Funke recalled, “The walls were covered in religious and political ramblings.” They found Clarence’s body underneath a pile of pallets in the back of his pickup truck behind the house on January 21. His autopsy report specified his throat had also been slit, and portions of his head and skull were missing. They located a bloody axe in the snow near the truck.
Who Killed Elsie Steppa and Clarence Thornton?
After the investigators found Elsie Steppa’s body, they initially were suspicious of her nephew, Clarence Thornton, who had some mental issues. The officers learned he had an arrest warrant in his name after trying to steal items from a Hamilton convenience store. When the authorities called the police, and they arrived at the scene, Clarence attempted to resist arrest and, in the process, broke a law enforcement official’s arm. His shady past made him a prime suspect in the homicide, as the medical examiner tried to figure out her time of death.
However, Ethelbert’s freezing temperature, which revolved around 17 °F to -15 °F, froze the corpse, making it impossible to determine the exact time of death. The authorities mounted a massive search for the missing nephew until they stumbled upon his pickup truck at the rear end of the sprawling rural property. The police were shocked to find Clarence’s mutilated body inside the vehicle, and the Manitoba cold ensured the coroner could not find exactly when he had died either though it was established they had been dead for weeks.
With a double murder, the investigators interviewed the entire community of 300 residents. However, they could not find any leads or evidence since there was no motive to kill 81-year-old Elsie. The authorities found Clarence had a bone to pick with several people, and the officers pursued each lead until they were ruled out as suspects. They interview one of Clarence’s accomplices, Marcus, who pointed them toward Payton Saari. Marcus alleged Payton was angry with Clarence as he suspected he had stolen his snowboard.
When law enforcement initially interviewed Payton, he laughed at Marcus’ claims and dismissed them. However, his girlfriend and her mother contacted the authorities and told them he had told her about seeing Clarence at the city dump on December 22, 2012. He told his girlfriend the pair got into a fight, which ended with Payton hitting the other in the head with a two-by-four. Since the conversation happened before the bodies were discovered, his girlfriend was unsettled, and the investigators again called Payton in for another interview.
Payton dismissed the allegation and claimed he was joking. Attorney Jay Funke stated, “He said he made it up to see how she would react if he confessed to a crazy criminal act. And that she had passed the test.” However, Payton made a mistake when he told the authorities he had spoken to Clarence days before he was found dead — something the investigators knew was impossible, considering he had been dead for weeks. The police asked him for a polygraph test the next week, and days later, he called the detectives and confessed to the double murder.
Where is Payton Saari Now?
According to the episode, Payton was a First Nation male, and he lost his cool when Clarence allegedly uttered a racial slur during their December 22 altercation. He hit Clarence several times with a two-by-four before slitting his throat and hiding the body inside the victim’s truck. He drove the vehicle to the Steppa residence, but Elsie saw him as he was parking. Fearful that she might rat him out to the police, Payton used an axe to kill her before slitting her throat with a saw. The missing limbs, ears, and hair are believed to be caused by her dogs.
Payton claimed he drove around Clarence’s truck for several days — his body still in the back — so neighbors thought he was alive. He also made several trips to the Steppa residence to steal electronic devices to sell at local pawn shops. Video footage from the Dauphin pawn shop spotted him doing so, and the officers found Payton’s jacket at the crime scene. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and sentenced to life, with his parole eligibility raised to 20 years. The 30-year-old will be eligible for parole in 2033.