“He didn’t react like a normal person whose wife is dead should have.”
-a member of the Jury
It was the 11th of August 2008. A Monday. Twenty four year old Sarah Widmer was at home with her husband , twenty seven year old Ryan Widmer. Sarah worked as a dental hygienist at a dental practice in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, United States and Ryan was a Sports Planner. That night, they both went straight home after work to have dinner together.
Ryan and Sarah met through mutual friends and went on a blind date at a pub. They were inseparable after that and bought a house together. They then got married. They had only been married four months and were still very much newlyweds and were making plans for their future together. For their honeymoon, they went to Costa Rica and were making plans for a vacation to Cancun. But the most exciting plan was in relation to a new puppy. They were in the process of buying one together.
Ryan and Sarah Widmer on their Wedding day
That night, the night of the 11th of August, Ryan and Sarah had some leftover hamburgers, corn on the cob and cheesy potatoes and watched a bit of TV. According to Ryan, they watched a few of Sarah's favorite shows before she let him switch over to a football game. Sarah then decided to take a bath in the bathroom in the master bedroom and Ryan recalled her asking him to check the doors before he came upstairs. He remembered her walking upstairs after they both said I love you:
"She walks on her tippy toes as she often did."
At 10.49pm that night, Ryan called 911. The call lasted seven minutes. He told the 911 dispatcher that his wife had fallen asleep in the bathtub at their home in Morrow, Ohio. Ryan told the dispatcher:
"My wife.She fell asleep in the bathtub, I think. I was downstairs, I just came up here and she was laying face down in the bathtub."
Ryan said that he was downstairs watching TV and when he went upstairs, he found Sarah in the bathtub laying face down. He told the dispatcher that she “falls asleep in the tub all the time.”
The dispatcher told him to take Sarah out of the bathtub and talked him through how to do CPR. Ryan put the phone down as he emptied the bathtub and lifted Sarah from the bathtub. It took around 29 seconds. Ryan attempted CPR. Police were at his house within six minutes of him making the 911 call. They found Sarah lying naked in their bedroom. She was on the floor. Police noticed that her body was warm and dry but her hair was wet.
They tried CPR and noticed that a pinkish-white, frothy discharge was coming out of Sarah's mouth and nose, signs that she had drowned. When the paramedics arrived, they made two attempts to intubate Sarah while in the bedroom. Both attempts were unsuccessful. They brought Sarah out into the ambulance and again tried to intubate her twice more. They spent ten minutes working on her inside the ambulance before bringing her to hospital. Ryan went with her. There was a fifth intubation attempt which was unsuccessful. The sixth one was successful. It was made when she arrived at the hospital by the treating emergency room physician. But it was too late. That same night, Sarah was pronounced dead.
Police spoke to Ryan at the hospital. Ryan told police that he was home alone that night with Sarah. Ryan said that he was watching a football game on TV downstairs and Sarah was taking a bath. It was 10pm. He told police he had been “afraid she may fall asleep in the tub.” Police asked him if Sarah had fallen asleep in the bathtub before. Ryan said no. But he said that Sarah would fall asleep in unusual places.
Even though Ryan told police that he found Sarah in the bathtub and he believed she fell asleep, police were not so sure. They were suspicious when they had arrived at the house to find Sarah's body dry but her hair wet. They also believed there were inconsistencies in his story. He told the 911 dispatcher that he found Sarah in the bathtub laying face down but they believe he told the nurse at the hospital that he found her laying face up.
When police searched the Widmer's house, they observed that the bathroom floor, mat in the bathroom and the towel on the floor were dry. The bathtub itself was mostly dry except for a few droplets around the drain. When they looked around the house, they found no wet towels.
Police found what they believed were further inconsistencies in Ryan's account as to what happened that night. Ryan had told police that he was watching a football match, a Cincinnati Bengals football game, on the TV downstairs when Sarah went to take a bath. But the TV downstairs wasn't set on that channel when they checked. The TV in the bedroom was set to that channel.
Police found blood stains on the carpet in the bedroom. Sarah had been lying on the floor in the bedroom when police arrived.
Ryan and Sarah Widmer
Dr. Russell Uptegrove, the Warren County Coroner, performed Sarah's Autopsy. He determined that Sarah's death was caused by drowning. There was faint bruising on the right side of Sarah's forehead and a petechial hemorrhage on the inner surface of her eyelid, bruising on the left-side of her neck, a contusion on the back of her neck, an abrasion on her left armpit, and bruising and lacerations to her upper lip.
Sarah had deep muscle hemorrhaging in the anterior of her neck and contusions to her scalp. He determined that the manner of Sarah's death was a homicide. It was his opinion that the injuries Sarah sustained occurred before her death and were not consistent with injuries commonly resulting from CPR.
Toxicology reports revealed there were no drugs or alcohol found in her system.
On the 13th of August 2008, just two days after Sarah's death, Ryan was arrested on a charge of aggravated murder.
It was the Prosecution's case that Sarah died as a result of drowning. It was their case that the cause of Sarah's death was not so much is dispute but the manner in which she died was. How did she drown?
The Prosecution argued that the 911 call, the scene and Sarah's injuries were all enough to prove that Ryan killed her. He held her forcibly under water, drowning her in the bathtub. Police dusted the bathtub for fingerprints and found streak marks believed to have been made by human hands.The marks were located near the middle of the bathtub. Using a superglue fuming process and reflected ultraviolet imaging, fingermarks and smear marks were observed on the bathtub. A forearm impression was found on the bathtub and the testing presence of hair follicles determined the impression was made by an adult male. But it could not be determined when it was made.
Furthermore, the Prosecution argued that there was nothing wet inside the bathroom. If Sarah had drowned and Ryan pulled her out of the bathtub, the floor should have been wet along with other items in the bathroom. They also alerted the Jury to the fact that when police arrived, just minutes after Ryan called 911, Sarah's body was dry. They made reference to the 911 call and it was their case that Ryan had said too much. He told the dispatcher what he had been doing that night. He was orchestrating the 911 call.
The Prosecution told the Jury that there had been a violent confrontation in the Widmer home that night for reasons that were unknown. They called an Expert to testify that it was virtually impossible to fall asleep and drown in the bathtub unless drugs and/or alcohol was involved. It was their testimony that the sensation of water on a face would wake the person up, or the gag reflex entering the airways would. If that didn't happen, then the drop in oxygen would cause the person to wake up.
The Prosecution called Coroner Uptegrove, who carried out Sarah's Autopsy, to give evidence about what he believed happened to Sarah that night. He testified that for Sarah to have a dry body and wet hair, one likely explanation would be that her head was pushed over the edge of the bathtub or toilet or sink. It may have been pushed either forwards or backwards, either in running water or full water.
It was the Prosecution's case that Ryan held Sarah's head under water until she drowned and on that basis, he should be found guilty of her murder.
It was the Defense's case that there was no evidence to suggest that Ryan killed Sarah. They argued they were very much in love. There was no motive whatsoever for Ryan to kill Sarah. People who knew Ryan had never seen him get angry or raise his voice. Their friends believed they were happy together and making plans for the future.
The Defense had their own Autopsy conducted.
On August 15, 2008, two days after the initial Autopsy was carried out a second Autopsy was performed by Dr. Werner Spitz. Dr Spitz was retained by the Defense. He agreed that the cause of Sarah's death was drowning. But in his opinion, he would have ruled her death as "undetermined." He observed the injuries to her neck, to her left and right arms near the crease of her elbow, to her upper lip, and to the nape of her neck and injuries to Sarah's scalp, a tear in her liver, and hemorrhaging to her neck. He was unable to determine whether Sarah's injuries were caused by CPR. And for that reason, he would not have ruled her death a "homicide."
The Defense argued that if there had been a violent altercation, as the Prosecution had argued, there would have been evidence of it. Yet there were no injuries on Ryan and Sarah's nails were not broken or chipped.Female DNA was found under Sarah's fingernails. No match was found. They argued that the injuries found on Sarah were a result of the prolonged CPR and multiple intubation attempts that had taken place that night, from inside the house, inside the ambulance while it was parked outside the house, on the way to the hospital and at the hospital.
It was their case that something medical must have caused Sarah's death. Something like a seizure or cardiac ailment. They also gave an explanation as to why Sarah's body was dry but her hair was wet. They said that that was simple. Skin dries faster than hair.
The Jury found Ryan not guilty of aggravated murder but he was found guilty of murder.
Just a few months later, a new Trial was ordered. The Defense discovered that Jurors in the Trial had conducted their own tests in relation to the length of time it would take them to dry after having a bath.
Ryan's second Trial took place in May 2010. The Jury were unable to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared.
Ryan and Sarah Widmer
In January 2011, Ryan's third Trial began. There was additional evidence submitted at this Trial.
The Defense sought to establish that Sarah may have suffered from an unknown cardiovascular or neurological defect which caused her to lose consciousness and drown in the bathtub. They called several Medical Experts to testify to suggest it was possible. But the State also called Medical Experts to refute the claims.
Sarah's coworkers gave evidence and testified that she would sleep in her car before starting work in the mornings and go out to her car to sleep during her lunch break. They also testified that she had allergies and suffered from headaches and stomach pains. They recalled that on at least one occasion, her headache was so bad, that her vision was blurred and she needed to go to a dark room until it went.
Dr Benjamin Mesmer, a dentist at the practice, testified that he was working the day Sarah died and he said that she complained of a headache and stomach ache that day.
Her friends also gave evidence and told the Court that Sarah would fall asleep in unusual places , such as at a game or when she was in the middle of a group talking. It was so bad that one of them told her she must have narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder characterized by excessive sleepiness, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and in some cases episodes of cataplexy (partial or total loss of muscle control, often triggered by a strong emotion such as laughter).
Sarah's mother, Ruth Ann Stewart, testified on behalf of the Prosecution. She claimed that she never witnessed anything unusual about her daughter's sleep pattern. She did notice that she got headaches but believed this was a result of her sinuses acting up and nothing more. She said she spoke to Sarah the day she died, when Sarah was on her way home from work, and she never mentioned that she had a headache. Ruth testified that there was no history of seizures, heart disease or cardiac problems in the family. Sarah had a heart murmur when she was a baby and had a cleft palate. But in June 2008, Sarah underwent a physical examination and there was no mention of a heart murmur still being present in the report. There was also no mention of any cardiac ailment, neurological defect or disease.
One of the Prosecution's witnesses, Jennifer Crew, gave evidence. Jennifer contacted Ryan when he was in prison after she watched an episode of Dateline that had featured Ryan's case. According to Jennifer, Ryan called her at 11.06pm on the 26th of October 2009. Jennifer told the Court that he said:
"I did it. I did it. I killed Sarah. I did it."
Jennifer testified that Ryan told her that he fought with Sarah in the living room of their home in relation to his cheating, drinking, smoking and pornography habits. According to Jennifer, the argument continued upstairs and Sarah told him their marriage was over. She claimed that as a result, the argument became physical and Ryan said:
"Nobody leaves me , nobody ever leaves me and I mean nobody."
Jennifer told the Court that Ryan told her he punched Sarah in the chest which caused her to fall back and hit her head. He blacked out and when he came to, Sarah was on the floor. She wasn't breathing and her hair was wet.
Jennifer claimed that Ryan only pretended to attempt CPR when on the 911 call as he knew there was no point as Sarah was dead. She continued to have calls with him after that conversation. She reported the conversation to police after his second Trial ended in a mistrial.
The Defense tried to discredit Jennifer's testimony and presented evidence in relation to her former prescription drug addiction and convictions for misdemeanor theft.
The Defense argued that they could not say or give an explanation as to what caused Sarah to drown that night. Dr Smile testified on the Defense's behalf and said that
"Nationwide, there are approximately 300,000 episodes of sudden death a year, and of those episodes of sudden death, 1 to 2 percent occur in young people under 35. But one third of those young people that die have normal autopsies, no evidence of any cardiovascular, respiratory or central nervous system injury."
There are certain situations where people die and their Autopsy may never reveal the cause.The Defense urged the Jury to look at all the facts surrounding the case. Ryan had no reason to hurt Sarah.
Ryan was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 15 years to life is prison.
One of the Jurors in the third Trial said that it was Ryan's behavior in Court was one of the biggest reasons he found him guilty. Ryan did not react when the Autopsy photos were displayed in Court.
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"The criminal justice system will take a hard look at what happened to Matthew Eappen. It is up to the rest of us to take an even harder look at who is minding our children."
- Eileen McNamara, the Boston Globe
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- Sandra Pupatello
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