The tentacles of the Ryan Widmer murder case aren’t letting go.
Just when it seems that the controversial case is about to drift away, something happens to get people talking about it again.
Most recently, Widmer’s mother, Jill, was found dead at age 58 in deplorable conditions in her Mason home July 29. Many argue that stress and heartache helped send her to an early grave.
Sunday marks five years since newlywed bride Sarah Widmer, 24, drowned in her Warren County bathtub, plunging her family and friends into sorrow. Her death also spawned a controversial criminal prosecution against her husband, Ryan. Now 32, he’s serving 15 years to life in prison for murder, a crime he insists he didn’t commit.
The case captivated Greater Cincinnati with through three sensational trials. Debate over the case polarized the community – an effect that seems to have lingered.
“There are people who think three trials is two trials too many – that he should have just been convicted and kept in prison after the first time,” said Mark Krumbein, a defense lawyer who attended parts of all three trials. “Others feel that three trials still aren’t enough, that there were a lot of problems with the case. They think he’s still an innocent man and he should get a fourth trial and have his freedom.”
But another lawyer who watched the case closely, former Hamilton County prosecutor Mike Allen, identified perhaps its most extraordinary aspect: “It’s almost as if there’s a curse associated with this case, when you look at the trail of tears behind it.”
“Of all the cases I’ve been involved in, either as a defense lawyer, prosecutor, judge or police officer over the last 35 years, there’s not one that comes to mind where there’s been so much tragedy spread around.”
Allen also has never seen a criminal case maintain such a strong grip on the Cincinnati psyche for so long, nor has he seen a case undermine so many people’s confidence in the criminal-justice system.
“I still get questions about it, when I go to Kroger or I’m walking down the street – and people are passionate about it,” Allen said. “They’re passionate about it on both sides – about whether he’s guilty or not guilty. And if you get people in a conversation about it, you almost can’t get them out of it.”
Although Jill Widmer’s death remains under investigation and effects of the case on her health may be impossible to gauge, Allen said “it’s a pretty safe bet” that the incarceration of her son and the death of her daughter-in-law hastened her demise.
She could be considered the latest addition to a long, varied list of casualties tied to the case, Allen said. “It was obvious to anyone who ever met her: She was devastated and heartbroken by all of this,” he said.
The litany of losses begins first and foremost with the death of Sarah Widmer, Allen said. Regardless of her husband’s guilt or innocence, her life is gone – and her family will suffer forever, Allen said.
The case also decimated the once-promising career of Jeff Braley, the lead detective on the case. After Widmer’s lawyers exposed false claims about his credentials in employment records, he resigned.
“Although he brought most of it on himself by his actions, Detective Braley suffered from the Widmer curse,” Allen said. “He rose quickly among the ranks in law enforcement and his demise was just as quick…I highly doubt that he will ever have a meaningful job in law enforcement again.”
Allen also notes the tragedy that befell another prominent figure in the case, Rachel Hutzel. She was the Warren County prosecutor who pressed the case against Widmer. By the time he was convicted, she had become a judge; Hutzel died in 2012.
“Although Rachel sadly died from cancer, her association with this case could possibly be viewed by some as being part of the Widmer curse,” said Allen, who was a friend of Hutzel. “She took so much flack and grief for even prosecuting Ryan in the first place, but she was ultimately vindicated by the jury’s decision in the third trial. Rachel was a rock through all of this and I think she should be commended for that.”
Meanwhile, Ryan Widmer’s ordinary, middle-class family was financially and emotionally ruined while enduring the rigors of three trials.
Last month, details were made public for the first time, as Gary Widmer, Ryan’s father, shared his story at the University of Cincinnati’s Blue Ash campus.
Speaking to more than 100 people at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, he cited a study showing that “only death causes more stress on a family than the incarceration of a loved one,” adding, “that pretty much sums up my family’s life.”
He and Jill Widmer, Ryan’s mother, divorced in 1990. Tensions arose and the two became estranged. Gary Widmer watched “from the background” while Ryan, his twin brother and another son grew up. Eight years with no contact passed.
Then, in August 2008, Gary and his second wife were on the verge of being debt-free. “We were ready to plan a huge champagne dinner,” he said, and all extra money would be socked away for a comfortable retirement.
But then came Sarah Widmer’s death on the night of Aug. 11, 2008. “The world came crashing down,” he said. By Aug. 14, his son had been charged with murder.
“I was numb. I couldn’t move. The gnawing pain in me told me that my life and my family’s life was changed forever,” Gary Widmer said. “Ryan was not the only one arrested that day. My whole family was too.”
He and Jill Widmer joined forces. Then came Gary Widmer’s first chance to visit his son at the Warren County Jail. His mind raced. “You haven’t seen this kid for years and you know you’re only going to have a few minutes. What are you going to say?” Gary Widmer said. “My first question to Ryan was, ‘Did you do this?’ I didn’t know. …He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘No-I-didn’t.’”
After that moment, Gary Widmer’s belief in his son never wavered.
Gary Widmer pulled out all the stops, depleting his 401-K, re-mortgaging his house and otherwise scraping together money to pay mounting legal bills. He saw “the imploding of my normal life,” Gary Widmer said, noting that nothing prepares a person for dealing with a loved one being accused of murder.
Gary Widmer was a daily fixture at all three of his sons trials; during the final trial in 2011, Jill Widmer was too ill to attend because she had suffered a nervous breakdown, he said.
As the second trial approached, Gary Widmer found out “a baby is coming and Ryan is the father.” Although upset at first, Gary Widmer said that, in a way he couldn’t blame his son for “trying to move on.” Ryan Widmer became involved with the mother of his child more than a year after his wife’s death, and relatives were hopeful that he would be acquitted and watch his son grow up.
After the second trial ended in a hung jury, his baby was born – and trial No. 3 loomed. Ryan Widmer rejected a plea deal from prosecutors, refusing to admit to manslaughter and maintaining he committed no wrongdoing. But a jury convicted him.
“It’s a horrible, horrible feeling…and I can’t even come up with words to say how you feel at that point, especially when you lose him three times,” Gary Widmer said.
Now Gary Widmer, once an empty-nester, is rearing his grandson, and “we have no idea how long Ryan’s going to be gone.”
Gary Widmer holds onto hope and stays in frequent phone contact with his imprisoned son. “The saga still continues,” Gary Widmer said, noting the U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide Sept. 30 whether to consider his son’s appeal.
Allen doubts the appeal will succeed, “but you never know,” he said, adding: “Whatever happens, there will be a lot of public interest in it.”
Timeline of Widmer case
Aug. 11: Ryan Widmer, then 27, calls 911 and reports his wife of less than four months, Sarah, 24, is dead, and that she habitually fell asleep in their Hamilton Township bathtub. He says he made an attempt to perform CPR. Widmer is a native of Colerain Township and a graduate of Miami University; his wife was a native of Butler County, graduated from Raymond Walters College and worked as a dental hygienist in Fort Thomas.
Aug. 12-18: Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel says the county coroner found evidence of trauma that would not be consistent with a fall or any other accidental cause, and Widmer was charged with murder.
March-April: Widmer’s first trial begins. Defense witnesses testify that the coroner considered Sarah Widmer’s death suspicious before learning the extent of life-saving efforts that included manipulation of Sarah Widmer’s neck. But the coroner and other prosecution witnesses say they were confident the neck damage was a telltale sign of a forced drowning. After a trial that lasted nearly two weeks, a jury acquits Widmer of aggravated murder but convicts him of murder.
July 22: Judge Neal Bronson orders a new trial because of juror misconduct. Some jurors had conducted home experiments to see how long it takes a body to air-dry after showering or bathing.
Sept. 4: Widmer is released from the Warren County Jail on $400,000 bond as he awaits a new trial.
May 5: Bronson rules that defense lawyers cannot question the lead detective, Lt. Jeff Braley, about inaccurate statements in his personnel file about his employment history and education.
May 10: Widmer’s second trial begins.
June 1: Bronson declares a mistrial after the retrial jury reports it is hopelessly deadlocked. The jury had deliberated almost 31 hours over four days.
July: Prosecutors say a new witness emerged after the second trial and claimed to have heard Widmer confess to killing his wife. Under Ohio’s new Criminal Rule 16, prosecutors say they are withholding the witness’ identity for safety reasons.
February: Widmer’s third trial includes testimony from the so-called “mystery witness,” Jennifer Crew, an Iowa woman who struck up a text- and phone-friendship with Widmer after watching a “Dateline NBC” TV show about his case in September 2009. She asserts that Widmer confessed to killing his wife the next month, but Crew came forward only after Widmer’s second trial ended with a hung jury. Jurors convict Widmer of murder and he is sentenced to 15 years to life. The foreman later says jurors bought little, if any, of Crew’s testimony.
June: Braley resigns from the Hamilton Township police force after an independent investigator, hired after Widmer was convicted, reported finding sufficient evidence for township officials “to move forward with a predisciplinary hearing.”
Widmer’s appellate lawyer, Michele Berry, bases appeals on several arguments.
She urges courts to force prosecutors to turn over genetic material that could be used to test whether Sarah Widmer suffered from “Long QT syndrome,” a heart-rhythm problem that could have led to Sarah’s drowning. Sarah Widmer was short and had a cleft palate, two possible indicators of that syndrome, but was never tested for it.
Prosecutors argue that the law doesn’t require them to turn over the specimens – and even if evidence of the syndrome were found, that doesn’t disprove murder.
Berry also argues that authorities had no legal right to seize the bathtub from the Widmer home without a specific warrant and that Widmer’s trial lawyers should have been allowed to attack Braley’s honesty and credibility.
The appeals fail in Warren County and at the Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals in Middletown.
Berry attempts an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, alleging Widmer’s constitutional rights were violated when the bathtub was seized.