HARRISBURG—When Steven Crawford saw vehicles getting towed for questionable infractions at the Uptown Plaza Shopping Center in August, he immediately took action.
He stood up for drivers he didn’t even know, literally standing in between a tow truck and a parked vehicle that had its tires over the white lines to prevent the vehicle from being impounded.
Crawford stayed at the lot for hours, warning incoming drivers about the aggressive towing policy and advising people who had been towed of their options.
That was classic behavior for Crawford, friends say, trying to make a difference. That’s how he spent the past 14 years after being freed from prison for a wrongful murder conviction— helping friends, relatives and strangers alike.
“If he came up and seen something that wasn’t right,” childhood friend Stacey White said, “you can believe he wasn’t going to walk by and pretend like he didn’t see it.”
Crawford died Saturday at his mother’s home in Harrisburg from a heart attack, according to friends. He was 60 years old. No funeral arrangements have been announced.
His life cut short was made all the more tragic because he had spent nearly half of it behind bars after being accused at age 14 of killing a 13-year-old neighborhood paper boy. A series of articles by Patriot-News reporter Pete Shellem helped to highlight flaws in the case and free Crawford in 2002.
Crawford always maintained his innocence, even turning down plea deals that would have set him free in 1977.
“Even though his freedom was assured, he refused to enter any plea, to any thing, which was consistent with his maintaining his innocence from day one,” said William C. Costopoulos, who served as Crawford’s trial attorney in the early 1970s. “It was in his control, and he did not go there.”
Crawford’s life since his exoneration could have played out much differently than it did, friends said. He could have been bitter about spending 28 years behind bars after a county detective, state police officer and state police chemist put forth bad testimony that helped to convict him.
Instead, he lived an optimistic, upbeat life focused on bettering the city, according to people who knew Crawford. He won a lawsuit from his wrongful conviction that gave him a fresh financial start with at least $1.2 million.
Once he was freed, Crawford needed a place to live. He answered an advertisement for a townhome in Hummelstown owned by Charlie DeBrunner, now the Harrisburg Controller.
“He was a sweet man. It didn’t seem like he was holding any grudges,” DeBrunner said. “I think I’m an easy going guy, but I don’t think I could forgive and forget like he did. He was just a glass half-full kind of guy. I thought he was remarkable.”
Police Chief Thomas Carter knew Crawford as a child and also crossed paths with him periodically once Crawford was freed from prison. Each time they saw each other, Crawford gladly greeted Carter.
“We’d talk and talk and talk,” Carter said. “He adapted well to the environment which was fairly new to him.”
Crawford tried to reduce violence in the city, Carter said, by mentoring youths, mediating disputes and advising against things that could get them locked up.
“He understood the problems the youth were having around here, shooting back and forth,” Carter said. “He would be up on Sixth Street to get them to stop fighting when they were leaving school.”
“I have a brother that was very, very kind to me,” Thompson said in 2009 when asked about her finances.
Crawford spent a lot of his money helping other people, White said. He moved out of his Hummelstown townhome after several years and back home with his mother in Harrisburg.
At one point, he started a car service for politicians in Harrisburg and ferrying passengers to Washington, D.C. to generate income, Carter said.
Crawford used his experience in the legal system to help others, White said. She remembers running into him at the courthouse in Carlisle where he was helping a friend.
“He became a sort of paralegal,” White said. “Guys he knew in jail, he would go to their hearings and stand with them at hearings. He was instrumental to a lot of people.”
White last saw Crawford three weeks ago at her sister’s wedding. He talked about raising a boy whose mother needed help.
“The boy wasn’t even his own son, but he was raising him practically by himself,” White said. “He just wanted to give him a better life.”
Crawford also lamented about the violence in the city.
“We talked about how bad some things in the city were getting with these kids,” She said. “He was very concerned about that.”
Although Crawford died too young, White said she was glad he had the chance to redeem his name and spend more time with his family.