As John Stevens IV comes home from work each day to his newly toddling 15-month-old daughter outside of Kansas City, he often thinks of his father.
His father: the poem-writing nature lover, the Hemingway-enthusiast boat captain and the patient husband and dad. His father, John Stevens III, the man whose brutal death made international headlines a year ago Tuesday after authorities said they found then-19-year-old Austin Harrouff on top of his bloodied body, biting his face.
“I look at my daughter every day (and think) how much joy he would have gotten out of knowing her. But he’s not here,” Stevens said of his father. “And then I think about how I’m going to have to explain this to her one day.”
In the year since authorities say Stevens’ father and his father’s wife Michelle Mishcon were killed by Austin Harrouff in their Martin County home, Stevens said he’s spent time trying to mourn and stay strong for his family, but also making sure there is justice for his father and stepmother. Harrouff has been in jail since Oct. 3 on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder, with no trial date in the near future.
Stevens said it’s the hardest thing he’s ever had to do.
“It takes a piece of you away,” he said. “As an adult, husband and father you have to stand there (for your family). But it’s like nothing I can explain.”
‘A whole sense of loss of control’
On Aug. 15, 2016, Harrouff, a former Florida State University student, fatally attacked Mishcon and Stevens in their garage on Southeast Kokomo Lane just north of Jupiter. Law-enforcement records show Harrouff had exhibited “strange behavior” in the days prior to the attacks. He abruptly left a family dinner after a fight at a nearby restaurant.
Jeff Fisher, the next-door neighbor to Mishcon and Stevens, tried to intervene, but was attacked as well. He was able to make it back to his home to call for help. When Martin County sheriff’s deputies arrived, Harrouff was on top of an injured and bleeding Stevens, biting his face. Deputies yelled at the teen to stop, kicked him, used a Taser on him and used a K-9, but did not shoot him.
The story made international headlines and Harrouff was frequently referred to as the frat boy cannibal killer.
Originally, investigators said they believed Harrouff might have been on designer drugs, but toxicology reports said nothing was found in his system. Harrouff’s lawyers and his father have claimed his actions might be attributed to an undiagnosed mental illness. No diagnoses has ever been released.
Trying to comprehend what’s happened in the international spotlight, deal with the legal system and be a father has been “tough to balance,” Stevens said.
“It’s a whole sense of loss of control,” he said.
He said as much as he tries to go on with life, he still settles down at the end of the day and thinks about it. About Harrouff in protective custody in jail. About Harrouff’s lawyers rubbing his back in court to comfort him as he faces a judge on first-degree murder charges. Harrouff and Harrouff’s father and their jail phone calls recently released where he tells his son he did nothing wrong and that they’ll get him out of jail.
“They’ve become a part of your life even if you don’t want them to,” he said of Harrouff and company.
‘Since he was taken from us’
Milestones are the hardest for Stevens. Before his father was killed, Stevens and his family were set to come down to Martin County to baptize their daughter just weeks after the slaying. It would have been the first time Stevens’ father met his granddaughter.
Throughout photos on Stevens’ Facebook page of his gummy-grinned, ginger-haired girl with cherub cheeks, his father would express his love from hundreds of miles away. One even before she was born: On a photo of a sonogram Stevens shared his father wrote, “So perfect, can’t wait till she’s fully baked, so I can hold her!”
On what would have been his father’s 60th birthday and his 20th wedding anniversary, Stevens said he “tried to pretend it wasn’t happening.” It was too hard. He knows it’s especially hard for his younger sister, Ivy, who lived with the couple for 10 years and had only moved out weeks before the fatal attack.
While he tried to celebrate his first Father’s Day, it was another difficult reminder his own father wasn’t there. Days before Father’s Day 2016, just two months before his dad’s death, Stevens posted several family photos of him holding his stepson Tyson and Jameson, all grins.
The first comment on the photo is from his father. It read: “What a great dad.”
Stevens said he doesn’t know how he would have made it through the past year without his family, especially little “Jaime.”
He hopes to pass down what he learned from his father to her.
“He was patient. He wasn’t someone who was judgmental or intense in the way he raised me,” he said. “That’s the way I’ll raise my daughter … and to appreciate the small things in life, like nature.”
When Stevens went to his father’s home after the double homicide to pack up belongings, he was reminded of how his father was in the prime of his life when he was killed. A true “Old Florida man,” Stevens said his father was raised in Miami and saw “poetry in nature.” He loved the ocean and especially Martin County and the Jupiter area. Areas now that “are ruined forever for us.”
“He thought Florida was the best place in the world and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live anywhere else.”
One of the things he found in the home was a poem his father wrote when he was a boy. The poem is accompanied by a small sketch of a tree and speaks about humans’ relationship to nature.
“Trees are the earth’s way of telling people how much they love them, and in return we cut them down. Trees, giving off flowers, is really laughter, or an expression of laughter. But they die so when someone said, “all good things must come to an end,” it’s true.”
‘Then the fish came alive, with his death in him’
When Stevens returned home from Iraq where he served with the Marine Corps years ago, his father had bought a boat for the first time — a life-long dream. They took a fishing trip to Islamorada and for the first time they bonded as father and son as adults, enjoying life together.
Later, Mishcon told Stevens that his father said it was “one of the best days of his life.”
A few days after his father was killed, Stevens posted a photo of him driving his boat, with a cigar in his mouth and the wind in his hair. The quote on the photo comes from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” A passage Stevens said makes him think of his father whenever he rereads the book. While he said his father wasn’t afraid to die, he doesn’t think it was his time to go, either.
“Then the fish came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty. He seemed to hang in the air above the old man in the skiff. Then he fell into the water with a crash that sent spray over the old man and over all of the skiff.”
Stevens said he bought the boat after his father’s death and was recently able to take little Jaime out on it. He laughed when asked if she liked it, remembering the life jacket she had to wear. He hopes one day she’ll love it like he does and his father did. A way for her to connect with him and enjoy the little things in life.
“He wanted to enjoy his life and take it easy,” Stevens said. “For Jaime, I’ll raise her to be kind to people. As hard as it is in the world we live.”