Editor’s note: This article contains details of graphic violence that may be upsetting to some readers.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — One year before Craig Price’s potential release from a prison in Florida, a chilling tape has surfaced of his 1989 confession to the murder of a family of three, shedding new light on a crime that rocked Rhode Island three decades ago.
Price, 45, is currently imprisoned in Florida and is facing charges that he allegedly attempted to murder a fellow prisoner with a homemade knife. Depending on the outcome of that trial – which is set to begin Nov. 26 – Price’s sentence would expire in November of next year.
The Rhode Island attorney general’s office has also asked for Price to be held as a probation violator for a series of violent clashes he has had while behind bars.
The recording of Price’s confession was mailed anonymously to Target 12, and was authenticated by several law enforcement sources who have worked the Price case and are familiar with the events.
The audio tape was recorded on Sept. 17, 1989, which was 16 days after 39-year-old Joan Heaton and her two daughters, 10-year-old Jennifer and 8-year-old Melissa, were found brutally stabbed to death in their home in the Buttonwoods section of Warwick, where Price also lived.
Retired Warwick Detective Ken Anderson – who was at the crime scene that day and was one of the officers that took Price into custody – said it’s important that the public does not forget the horrific crime.
“People have to know, just because he was 15 at the time, he wasn’t just some poor little kid that went astray. He killed four people,” Anderson said. “Two of them were children – children. They were 8 and 10 years old. They’re never coming back. He’s still here.”
Anderson was in the unmarked police cruiser driving Price and his mother Shirley to the police station moments after they found the murder weapons stuffed in a trash bag in a shed at the Price home.
Anderson said he turned to the 15-year-old and said, “Give it up.” But Price wouldn’t cooperate.
“Then the shock of my life happened. His mother sitting next to him – who knew why we were there and why he was in custody – turns and looked at him and said, ‘Tell the policeman what he wants to know,'” Anderson recalled.
Later that day on the second floor of the Warwick police station, detectives Tim Colgan and Kevin Collins began their interrogation of Price with his mother in the room.
The audio recording begins with Colgan reading Price his rights, then saying, “I want you, in your own words, at this time, to tell me as clearly and as best you can what occurred there.”
Price responded by claiming he went to the house initially to steal a VCR, before things got out of hand. (Detectives have long doubted that, because Price entered the home with a knife and is believed to have known there was no man in the house.)
Price told detectives he took off his shoes and climbed through an open window in the bathroom, then went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator and “took a little swig of orange juice.”
“You should check the refrigerator door handles, too,” he tells detectives.
Then, Price said, he heard Joan Heaton first go into the bathroom, then walk into the kitchen.
“She seen me, then she kind of act like she didn’t see me, turned around and started to run like toward … back towards her room, that way, or towards her kids,” he said. “I don’t know where she was going.”
Price tackled her. In the chaos, he said the kids awoke and their mother screamed for them to call for help.
“She was just saying that, ‘Get to the phone!’ Get to the phone!'” Price said. Asked if either of the girls did so, he said, “Nah, [the daughter] was just standing against the side of the wall.”
For Anderson, the most chilling aspect of the tape is how nonchalantly Price talks about his murder spree.
“They say lack of remorse? He is nowhere near remorseful, this guy,” Anderson said. “He’s talking like he killed these people like it was nothing, like absolutely nothing. It’s incredible.”
Price said Mrs. Heaton fought back in the struggle.
“She bit me – you can see the mark right there,” he said. “She bit me there and I bit her back.”
Price said he ran to the kitchen and pulled knives from a block in the kitchen. He estimated he used six of them in the killing because they kept breaking.
During the struggle, Price said he got “careless” and stabbed his own finger through gloves he had taken from the Heatons’ house. Detectives would later find drops of blood throughout the house that they believed came from the killer. The injury would ultimately be part of Price’s undoing, once a patrolman spotted his injured finger and questioned the teen’s explanation that he cut himself trying to break into a car.
Price said his biggest concern that night was whether the police were on the way.
“They were screaming very, very, very, loud and I was running back to the window – back and forth to see if police were coming,” he said. “You can probably even see my forehead marks on the glass.”
Price said he took a towel from the bathroom and attempted to clean up, but stopped and turned his attention to getting the murder weapons out of the house.
“Then I just put everything in the bag,” he said. “I even got a garbage bag out of the bathroom.”
It was that bag – containing the evidence of the horrors at the Heaton house – that was found in the shed. Price asked detectives, “Did you find all Dixie cups and everything in it?”
“I think they did,” one of the detectives replies.
“Yeah, that was from their house,” Price responds.
Before leaving the house the same way he came in, Price said he covered Joan Heaton’s body with a blanket and the two girls with a rug. Asked why, Price said, “I couldn’t look at that.”
Instantly, Price became the prime suspect in another murder that had occurred two years earlier in the same neighborhood. Becky Spencer, 27, was found stabbed 58 times in the living room of her home by her brother, Carl Battey. Spencer’s killing was still unsolved at the time.
Asked on the audio recording if he also committed the Spencer murder, Price initially denied it, saying he was “glad” he got caught for the Heaton murders but wasn’t the killer in the other case.
“If you hurt Becky Spencer would you want to be caught for that?” Collins asked Price.
“Yeah – if I did. But I didn’t,” Price said. “You’ll see when you get your reports back.”
But hours later, under questioning by Detective Sergeant David Hornoff, who was investigating the Spencer homicide, Price reversed course and confessed to that, as well. Anderson said it’s possible Price figured it might be better to get it all over with while he was still a juvenile, rather than let it drag out until after he turned 18.
“For a 15-year-old, he was pretty savvy,” Anderson said. “He knew we had him for the Heaton murders, obviously. We had everything we needed, but he probably assumed – and he was right – we didn’t have anything on Becky Spencer.”
Under state law at the time, Price had to be sentenced as a juvenile, which meant he would have been released when he turned 21. But a patchwork of crimes he committed behind bars – beginning while he was held in the Rhode Island Training School, a prison for juveniles – have kept him locked up for three decades.
Price was shipped to Florida in 2004 due to his notoriety, and got into trouble there, too: he was convicted of stabbing a correctional officer during a brawl with another inmate. It’s his sentence for that violation which is scheduled to expire in November 2019.
That sentence was already extended two years ago, after Target 12 discovered that despite the 2009 stabbing, the R.I. Department of Corrections failed to dock Price some of the time off for good behavior he had earned. In the wake of the report, officials added more time to Price’s sentence.
In the meantime, Assistant Attorney General J. Patrick Youngs – who has worked the Price case for decades – has filed a detainer with the Rhode Island courts, asking the Florida Department of Corrections to hold Price when his sentence expires so he can be brought back to Rhode Island as a potential probation violator.
(Story continues below video)
In the above video, candidate for Attorney General Peter Neronha weighs in on Price’s potential release.
With Price’s case about to be thrust back into the spotlight in Rhode Island, Anderson said the tape Target 12 obtained is an important reminder, and a warning.
“This kid – this man now – belongs in prison the rest of his life,” Anderson said. “Never let this go. Never let this go.”