In a state prison near Lebanon, Ryan Widmer lies awake, in disbelief that anyone could think he is some sort of criminal mastermind.
“I mean, I’m a regular guy, but yet one night I grow into the perfect assassin? That’s really what they’re trying to make me out to be,” Widmer said.
If he had killed his wife, Sarah, when she drowned in the couple’s suburban bathroom in 2008, he would have pulled off a near-perfect crime, he said.
No evidence directly links him to her death. He suffered no wounds. If there was a struggle that night, there was no obvious sign of it.
“In my eyes, it’s clear-cut that I’m innocent,” he said.
All but a handful of the 36 Warren County jurors who heard Widmer’s three trials voted him guilty of murder. Some theorized Widmer drowned his wife in the toilet, though prosecutors argued she drowned in the bathtub.
After two mistrials and much public debate, some hailed Widmer’s Feb. 15 conviction as justice served; others decried it as a horrible injustice.
In the Enquirer interview, Widmer revealed why he never testified in his own defense, which the “Dateline” segment did not address. He discussed being prosecuted and subjected to intense scrutiny. He described what happened the night 24-year-old Sarah Steward Widmer’s life ended – and his life changed forever.
“In the back of my mind, I know that I’m here 15 years to life,” he said in a visiting room at Warren Correctional Institution. “But I’ll never give up hope … there’s just too many things that I feel like could happen to make this right.”
To that end, Widmer, 30, keeps paper and a pen handy. He jots down angles to be explored, questions to ask lawyers working to get his conviction overturned.
That conviction, prosecutors say, is supported by circumstantial evidence and suspicious bruising on Sarah Widmer’s head and neck.
Defense lawyers counter that medics repeatedly manipulated her neck and stuck it with needles. They’re trying to prove that an undiagnosed medical problem led to her drowning and that a misguided jury convicted Widmer.
“All I do 24/7 is think about this,” Widmer said. “I think the only reason I sleep at night is I wear myself out mentally.”
Before his wife drowned on Aug. 11, 2008, Ryan Widmer was an ordinary citizen with no criminal history. But after 114 days of marriage, the college-educated Colerain Township native was accused of being a killer. The strange “bathtub murder” case drew national attention and riveted his hometown.
“I’ve lost my wife, the person I love most, and a day later I’m fighting for my life,” he said. “I was blind to the system. I thought there was no way you would ever be convicted of something you didn’t do.”
He traces his predicament to people like Jeff Braley.
Braley, the lead detective on the case, recently resigned from the Hamilton Township police force after an investigation raised concerns about misrepresentations in his employment credentials.
Widmer thinks Braley, who had little death-investigation training, likely influenced the county coroner to call Sarah’s death a homicide. That set the stage for Widmer to be charged with murder less than 48 hours after his wife drowned.
Widmer said he was aghast to learn he was accused. “How can this be happening?” All he can figure is, “They jumped to a conclusion and they were never backing down.”
Widmer said if he were guilty, he would have admitted it to spare his family from emotional and financial ruin. Legal battles drained $500,000.
He stands by his decision to reject prosecutors’ plea offer: five years in prison, at most, for manslaughter. “I would have to admit to taking somebody’s life – my wife’s life – which I didn’t do,” he said.
About the night his wife drowned, Widmer said: “I can’t explain what happened to Sarah. I wasn’t in the bathroom with her.” He has no information, he said, that would shed light on her drowning – so that’s the biggest reason he didn’t testify.
If he hadn’t listened to a recording of his 911 call reporting his wife unresponsive, Widmer said, he would have recalled only the basics of what he said. He misspoke a couple times on the call, he said, because he was upset – and he feels he’s been pilloried for it.
For instance, during the 911 call, Widmer said he found Sarah in the tub face-down. A nurse testified that he told her Sarah was face-up. Widmer said the conflicting statements, portrayed as incriminating in his trials, were just an honest mistake made while he was flustered. Wid- mer said she was face-up, with her whole head underwater.
“It’s a hard thing to remember exactly, because my main concern was her,” he said.
“You’re taught to call 911 if you need help,” he said. “I did what I was supposed to do, and look where it got me.”
He said it’s unfair that other people are allowed to misspeak – but he isn’t. During his three trials, some witnesses changed testimony, omitted facts or said they forgot certain facts, he said.
During the Enquirer interview, Widmer frequently interrupted himself and spoke in incomplete sentences. His phrasing was sometimes awkward. People who know him say that is how he typically speaks, no matter the topic.
When Widmer told a dispatcher his wife fell asleep in the tub, it was not an attempt to concoct a story to cover up a forced drowning, as prosecutors asserted, Widmer said. Rather, he assumed his wife had fallen asleep because he had found her asleep in the tub before. One evening, “she literally fell asleep on me in mid-sentence,” he said.
His wife, a dental hygienist, also slept during work breaks and complained to her Fort Thomas co-workers about severe headaches, making her see spots.
After she died, authorities “didn’t do their jobs” to fully investigate, Widmer said.
“She was not feeling well … I don’t know what happened to her,” he said, “and hopefully we can find out because, unfortunately, I’m left to prove that I’m innocent.”
Widmer said incidents of other drownings traced to seizures raise awareness that people can drown because of medical issues, or can die suddenly without explanation. “You can’t just jump to a (conclusion) like you did on me … and not even look at anything else,” he said.
“The sad thing about this whole situation is that Sarah, my wife, has gotten lost so much in all of this,” he said.
A year and three months after his wife died, he became involved with another Sarah – Sarah Manherz of New York.
“It doesn’t take away from the love I have for my wife, Sarah,” he said.
Widmer knows local people were shocked in May when “Dateline NBC” revealed Manherz had given birth to his son last August. But he said: “People that lose a loved one move into different relationships all the time. Mine’s being scrutinized more because my whole life’s been scrutinized.”
After “Dateline” first aired a segment on his case in September 2009, dozens of men and women reached out via emails, text messages and phone calls. It felt good knowing people believed in him, Widmer said.
Among the supporters was Manherz, a pretty blonde who worked as a medical technician.
“One thing led to another and we fell in love,” Widmer said.
Manherz, now 30, believed she was unable to get pregnant. But after being intimate once in November 2009, the couple conceived a child. Widmer initially bemoaned the timing: His second trial was looming.
“But when the news sunk in, I was just overjoyed. It was like, ‘Something good is finally happening in my life.’”
Widmer had thought the arrival of his son was a sign that he might be acquitted: “I thought, ‘God would never give me this unless things were going to be OK.’”
Now known as inmate No. A599952 in a close-security prison, Widmer said his desire to “be there” for his son strengthens his resolve to regain his freedom.
Manherz and others bring the baby to visit Widmer in prison.
“He’s another reason that I’ll never give up,” Widmer said.