Drug-fueled Northern California camping trip ends in murder, attempted cover-up
05/21/2018 2:24 pm PDT
A camping trip in Northern California ends with one person dead, another clinging to life, and the lingering question: What really happened?
This terrifying campfire story unfolds on the banks of Bucks Lake in Northern California at a popular camping spot.
Sheldon Steward, 23, and Trevor Holminski, 20, are camping out for the night in August 2015.
Trevor's mother Allyson had no reason to believe her son would be in any danger when they went camping at Bucks Lake because Trevor was an accomplished woodsman graduating with honors from a long, grueling wilderness survival course when he was in his late teens, and then made a film about the life-changing experience titled A Blue Crow. Trevor's sunny nature and sense of humor endeared him to anyone who met him.
Trevor had just recently decided to follow a childhood dream and join the Marines. But it's a choice that would ultimately change the entire course of his life. Because after being accepted into the military, Trevor wanted one last hurrah before shipping out: a farewell camping trip with his buddy Sheldon Steward.
Trevor had seen his parents just a few hours before he and Sheldon were to make the two-and-a half-hour drive to Bucks Lake. His mom and dad could never have imagined the terrible fate awaiting their son and his pal.
Two best buddies left the Bay Area to do a little camping, a simple two-day trip. But what happened over the next 48 hours is still a little unclear.
The grim mystery begins to unfold when firefighters respond to early-morning reports of a raging brush fire at Bucks Lake on August 22, 2015. As firefighters are trying to bring the blaze under control, they make a horrifying discovery: Sheldon Steward, savagely slashed and nearly unconscious.
"There were approximately 10 stab wounds on the side of his neck, and one was a little bit worse than the rest," said Plumas County Sheriff's Detective Chris Hendrickson.
Then firefighters find something else that makes them recoil in horror.
"They came across a hot spot, and it turned out to be a body," said Det. Hendrickson.
Burned beyond recognition, lying in a campfire pit, smoke still rising from the charred skeleton. Investigators know immediately that the body hadn't been burned in the brush fire.
"How bad the body was burned, it would take more than just a regular fire. It would basically have to be stoked," said Det. Hendrickson. "This was definitely no accident at all."
A fire had suddenly become a murder scene, and Plumas County District Attorney David Hollister says investigators were scrambling.
"Getting the crime scene under control, figuring out what was going on, how many assailants might be out there, and exactly what happened, especially at a time when we were to trying to really fight a fire that we were concerned was going to take the whole forest," Hollister tells Crime Watch Daily.
Hollister says there are more questions than answers.
"What weapon was used to perpetrate the crime, where it happened. We're up here in the woods. It's very easy to hide things up here," said Hollister.
Just whose body is that? Investigators assume it's Sheldon's pal Trevor Holminski. But they're thrown for a loop when Sheldon regains full consciousness and tells them from his hospital bed that Trevor had attacked him with a knife and ran into the woods.
So now investigators fear Trevor could be a homicidal maniac who'd tried to kill his best friend and burned another camper alive -- and he's apparently on the loose at Bucks Lake.
Investigators have no reason to doubt Sheldon Steward, an easy-going Oakland chef with a clean record and a good reputation, is telling the terrible truth. As Sheldon recovers from his wounds, he tells investigators a story about a camping expedition that turned out to be real bad trip -- in more ways than one.
"He gives me some tabs and some little pieces of paper and we've taken them and we're having a really good night."
Sheldon tells detectives they ingested around 20 hits of LSD, otherwise known as "acid," and also smoke marijuana.
"He's being really aggressive."
They were both tripping so badly that, Sheldon says, Trevor did something that shocked him.
"He was hitting on me, but he wouldn't come out and say it."
"Are you guys, like kinda sorta in a relationship?"
"We've never had any type of physical relationship like that. It's always just been me hanging out with my best friend."
Sheldon tells detectives Trevor was bisexual.
"But I never thought that he was attracted to me. He's never said anything about that to me."
Until Trevor falls deeper under the influence of the LSD. Sheldon says his friend said:
"'Well dude, we have a fire. All you have to do is sleep with me and we can go on with the rest of our lives.' And I was like, 'I can't do it, Trevor.'"
Sheldon claims Trevor tried to rape him, then attacked him with a knife as he was trying to go to sleep.
"I just kinda open my eyes and look behind me, like this, without moving, and the next thing I know he's stabbing me in the neck. They said I got stabbed in the neck like 10 times. I really don't remember that happening. I just remember him standing over me. I kicked him and stood up, and he realized the knife wasn't sharp. And he just threw it and he pulled out another knife."
Sheldon says he and his best friend wrestled each other for the knife.
"He realized he was bleeding also. 'Cause I know that I stabbed him in the arm, probably at least two times. And he just left."
"He walked away?"
"You don't know where he's at?"
"No, I didn't see him in hours. As far as I know, he's probably still somewhere around the campsite."
While Sheldon Steward is bleeding profusely from his neck and clinging to life.
"I laid there for a couple of hours, thinking I'm gonna bleed to death. There's a couple of times I blacked out, and I woke up and I was still by the fire. I thought I was in hell."
But is Sheldon's real hell just beginning? An autopsy of the charred mystery body at the campsite soon reveals that it's Trevor Holminski -- who has suddenly gone from possible villain to tragic murder victim.
That charred body was Trevor Holminski. Trevor had been stabbed in his back and chest before being incinerated in a campfire pit.
What ultimately was the cause of death?
"It could have been either of the stab wounds, either the one to the front or the one to the back," said Plumas County District Attorney David Hollister.
And now Sheldon Steward goes from victim to main person of interest in Trevor's murder.
You knew that something was up with the friend?
"Yes. He was basically our number one suspect," said Plumas County Sheriff's Detective Chris Hendrickson.
Investigators were already suspicious of Sheldon's story that Trevor attacked him after he'd rejected his sexual advances when they got high on LSD and pot. And now they believe Sheldon's own knife wounds are self-inflicted.
"What was odd from the beginning, in looking at the wounds, is that most of them were superficial," said Hollister.
The cuts also appeared to be too uniform to match Sheldon's claims they were suffered while he and Trevor wrestled over the knife.
"Something you wouldn't expect to see if there was a fluid, violent fight where both parties are moving around a lot," said Hollister. The wounds were all in the same spot.
Detectives hit Sheldon hard in the interrogation room.
"Did you stab yourself in the neck?"
Then there are the slash marks on Sheldon's wrists, which he admits were indeed self-inflicted.
"Well, why did you cut your wrist, though, when you woke up?"
"Because my neck was bleeding. I thought that I was going to die up there and I felt sad that my best friend just left me there to die and stabbed me in the neck. I was screaming and nobody came to help me. I could [----] die out there. I knew I wasn't going to make it out."
But investigators think there's another reason Sheldon might have wanted to commit suicide.
"Once it became apparent to Sheldon that he had killed his friend and he was reaching for what story might work, I think he went back and forth between 'I'm gonna try and get away with murder,' versus 'I'm gonna try and kill myself,'" said Hollister.
They also don't believe Sheldon's claim that Trevor had attacked him.
"Based on the evidence, it was clear to us that the only person that used a weapon was Sheldon," said Det. Hendrickson. "He stabbed himself in the neck, he cut his own wrists. He also stabbed his friend."
"Each step of the investigation led us to a conclusion that while Sheldon may have come across as a very nice young man, on that evening he was nothing short of evil," said Hollister.
But Sheldon denies murdering Trevor when detectives turn up the heat.
"What if I told you that you were the one that was attacking him with the knife?"
"That's a lie. I didn't attack him first with the knife."
Sheldon also denies he burned his friend's body.
"Did you start that fire?"
"No. I didn't start the fire."
They suggest Sheldon may have killed his friend in a moment of homophobic fury when Trevor allegedly hit on him.
"Maybe you were upset at him for trying to advance on you sexually and you got upset at him and stabbed him."
"That's not what happened."
But investigators believe they now have all the physical evidence they need to support their allegations after finding Trevor's wallet and identification at the crime scene, as well as the knife used to kill him.
"We returned to the scene with the detectives and some metal detectors and other equipment and were able to find the location where Sheldon had buried not only the murder weapon, but some other items of evidence," said Hollister.
Confronted with the overwhelming case against him, Sheldon finally admits that he did indeed kill his best friend, but he says only in self-defense, and only when Trevor had pleaded with him to do it as he lay bleeding to death.
"And he asked me to put him out of his misery, and I did it."
"I don't know. I guess I had a knife and I just started swinging."
"So he asked you to put him out of his misery?"
"And what did you do to do that? You were being compassionate at that point? Is that what was going on?"
"Where did you stab him?"
"I don't know. I closed my eyes and just started swinging until I stopped hearing him move."
Then he built a bonfire and threw Trevor Holminski's body on it.
"Why did you burn him? Trying to cover the evidence?"
"I don't know. I'm going to prison for the rest of my life anyway, I figure. Yes. I started the fire. I was sitting next to him, contemplating what just happened, what I did, and I started the fire."
Could Trevor's death have been in self-defense?
"No, not from the evidence that we saw," said Hollister. "There was no other stab wounds that Sheldon had on him, other than the ones that it was pretty clear he inflicted himself."
He basically killed him out of mercy?
"Yes, that was the end story and the one the defense took into trial," said Hollister.
But it fails to convince a jury. Sheldon Steward was found guilty of murder one and sentenced to 26 years to life in prison.
"It gets easier as time goes on," said Trevor's mother Allyson. "Not that I miss him less or think of him less. Maybe you're just used to the gaping hole in your heart."
And exactly what happened between best friends Sheldon and Trevor at Bucks Lake that night may forever remain a mystery.
Do you have any idea what Sheldon's true motive was?
"I don't," said Hollister. "I think what caused Sheldon to do this is something that was known only by two people. And Trevor took that to his grave. Sheldon I just don't think is in a position now or at trial where he could tell us what really happened."
To keep the spirit of their son alive, Trevor Holminski's parents have decided to spread a little bit of his ashes every where they travel in the world, from Australia to Barbados as well Germany and even some at his sister's wedding location.
As for Sheldon Steward, his attorneys have said they will appeal his conviction.