She drowned; he’s in prison. But was her death really a murder?

She drowned; he’s in prison. But was her death really a murder?

Writer still seeks answers in sensational 2008 Ohio case

Analysis

By Janice Hisle

Image for postSarah and Ryan Widmer on their wedding day, April 2008. (Copyrighted photo used with permission/photographer requested anonymity.)

Every year since 2008, I have been unable to allow Aug. 11, the day that Sarah Widmer drowned, to pass unnoticed.

For the first few years, I confronted that date as a news reporter assigned to write the obligatory annual story marking the anniversary of the sensational ?bathtub case? for my employer at the time, The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Sarah, 24, drowned in her own bathtub; Ryan, then 27, was accused of killing her four months after they promised to be together forever.

The saga of these college-educated, suburban newlyweds captivated southwest Ohio and gained national attention while Ryan stood trial three times. In 2009, a jury?s guilty verdict was thrown out because of juror misconduct. In 2010, a second jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision. The third trial, in 2011, ended with the jury convicting Ryan of murder.

But the story didn?t end there for many people, including me.

Even after I left the news business, Aug. 11 remained a red-letter date on my calendar, in my mind and in my heart.

Each Aug. 11, and on many other days, my thoughts have shifted to the unanswered questions about Sarah dying and about Ryan doing 15-to-life.

Good riddance, some say, Ryan is a justly convicted killer. Others call Ryan an innocent man who was caught in a broken justice system. They cite lack of motive and no obvious sign of injury on Ryan or Sarah after an allegedly murderous struggle.

As for me, my heart has ached for everyone even remotely tied to this baffling, tragic and controversial case.

Last year, I spent much of Aug. 11 at the Warren County, Ohio, courthouse. Ryan?s trials had drawn throngs of spectators. But on this occasion, a handful of folks showed up to talk about the 10-year anniversary of Sarah?s death. At least three Cincinnati-area TV stations, plus the Enquirer, covered the small rally as Ryan?s supporters remembered Sarah?s life, pleaded for further investigation into her death and asserted their belief in Ryan?s innocence.

One of the most poignant moments: A juror from Ryan?s second trial told reporters that she wanted to acquit Ryan because she had ample ?reasonable doubt? about the allegations; it bothered her that investigators left too many questions unanswered.

Citing new possible clues revealed in my book, SUBMERGED: Ryan Widmer, his drowned bride and the justice system, Ryan?s supporters said there was more reason than ever to suspect that Sarah succumbed in her bathwater because of a seizure, heart malfunction or other undiagnosed medical issue. As far as I have been able to find, tests for certain suspected disorders such as Long QT Syndrome Type 7 were never done; critics blame the county coroner and/or Ryan?s lawyers for dropping the ball on that. Another suspected disorder for ?sleepy? Sarah was narcolepsy, which can cause paralysis known as cataplexy.

Ryan?s supporters argue that it?s patently unfair to block testing of Sarah?s DNA for medical conditions that have been linked to unexplained drownings.

Days after that 2018 rally, CNN picked up the story, drawing national attention to the fight over Sarah?s DNA. In that CNN report, an expert opined that Ryan had a constitutional right to know whether Sarah might have tested positive for genetic disorders.

In the year that followed, there?s been utter silence from the powers-that-be.

But Ryan?s supporters launched a website, FreeRyanWidmer.org, which urges visitors to sign a change.org petition seeking release of Sarah?s DNA, and to contribute to a ?GoFundMe? account for the genetic testing, if the authorities ever allow it.

The DNA dilemma and other issues have been pending in federal court since 2014; the last action in the case occurred in 2017, when a magistrate judge recommended that the head judge turn down every contention in Widmer?s habeas corpus petition.

Brian Thomas, a radio talk show host who used to be a lawyer, was aghast when I told him about the years-long wait for the court ruling. ?You mean the judge has been sitting on this?!? he asked during his broadcast on Tuesday, Aug. 13. ?No comment,? I replied. Thomas says Ryan and the community deserve answers.

If the authorities truly care about truth and justice, wouldn?t they want to know if an important diagnosis was missed?

Preventing the DNA testing undermines public confidence in a controversial verdict.

If Warren County, where Ryan was tried, would adopt a conviction integrity unit like the one in northern Ohio, Cuyahoga County, the DNA testing would almost certainly be pursued. Conviction integrity units are tasked with reviewing claims of innocence.

In recent years, thousands of people have been exonerated in the U.S., thanks to the work of conviction integrity units and crusaders from The Innocence Project. Often, the exonerees were freed after serving decades in prison. A common factor in many of those cases: authorities? refusal to admit mistakes; ?the system? protects its own interests and egos while truly innocent people languish in prison.

Ryan claims he?s among the wrongfully convicted. He?s hoping that a court will agree.

Image for postSarah Widmer?s grave, photographed in August 2019, 11 years after her death./Janice Hisle

This year, as Aug. 11 approached, I felt compelled to go to two places that are unpleasant to visit: Sarah?s grave and Ryan?s prison.

I entered Butler County Memorial Park, five miles from the house where Sarah grew up, and made my way to the spot where a white urn, containing her ashes, was buried. I was saddened to see that weeds had partly overgrown her granite-and-brass grave marker; there were no flowers, no sign that anyone had visited recently.

A pair of scissors, which I happened to have in my car, came in handy to snip away the surrounding crabgrass. After that was done, I placed a glass vase, filled with neon-colored ?crazy daisies,? said to be Sarah?s favorite flowers, atop the gravestone.

I silently contemplated several ironies:

  • I was once again paying my respects to a woman I?d never met, but wished I?d been able to know.
  • Her grave is rather nondescript, easy to miss amid a sea of impressive monuments. Yet her passing was likely among the very best-known among the dead now resting in that cemetery.
  • A bench marked with a family surname, ?JUSTICE,? sits nearby; I wondered about that word, as it applies ? or doesn?t ? to Ryan being held responsible for Sarah?s death.

Before leaving, I prayed aloud, asking for clarity, for answers, and for peace for all concerned.

Image for postThe Ohio prison that houses Ryan Widmer, who was convicted of murder. He asserts that he is innocent and that his wife?s death was not a homicide.

On Sunday, Aug. 11, the actual anniversary of Sarah?s death, I drove to Orient, Ohio, to visit Ryan Widmer at the prison known as the Correctional Reception Center.

I stay in touch because I intend to follow the outcome of Ryan?s case no matter what. So far, I haven?t caught him in a lie, and he hasn?t refused to answer a single question from me. He remains on notice: If I find something truly incriminating, I cannot and will not ignore it.

We mostly made small talk. The elephant in the visiting room: THAT DATE was here again ? the date when Sarah lost her life; the date when Ryan became known as ?that guy who drowned his wife in the bathtub.?

Many people slapped that label onto Ryan based solely on the accusation of murder ? well before a jury?s verdict made that distinction an official one.

That?s the way most people are wired in America; as soon as we hear a media report about the crime du jour, we look at the mugshot and say, ?look at that scumbag who _____(fill in the blank).? We overlook the ?detail? that the person is ?accused.? They ?did it,? we say. And we go on our merry way, oblivious to the fact that we just declared a person ?guilty until proven innocent,? the antithesis of the most basic precept of American justice.

What we think we ?know? is sometimes flat-out wrong.

Over the years, I?ve heard countless people assert that they ?know? Ryan is guilty ? or innocent ? because of one factoid or another. For them, a small point ?proves? that belief.

But many of them ignore ? or, frankly, never thought of ? the overarching question that has left legions of folks staring blankly when I pose it: Absent any drugs to incapacitate the victim, how can one person forcibly drown another in a bathtub, yet leave no obvious sign of trauma on either of them?

That?s what happened here. Those are the facts. And, for many people, those facts suggest this conclusion: There was no struggle; Sarah drowned on her own, rather than being forced underwater by Ryan.

Ryan?s twin brother, Ayran, has asked: ?If you can?t say how he did it or why he did it, how did you convict him??

Among the nagging Widmer questions, those two are the granddaddies of them all.

Those questions and others cry out for answers ? or at least attempts to answer them.

Many people who think Ryan is guilty couldn?t care less about those questions; for them, justice has been served, and they hope they never hear another word about Ryan Widmer. Shut up and serve your time, they say.

But those who think he?s innocent ? or, at least have concluded that the evidence appears too ambiguous to support his conviction ? recognize that the criminal justice system isn?t set up to correct its own failings.

The system, in its current form, is set up to perpetuate the problems that plague it ? and, if serious errors are substantiated, no one will likely be held accountable, no steps will be taken to prevent a recurrence of a miscarriage of justice.

I have no idea what happened in the bathroom of Ryan and Sarah Widmer the night she died. But I do know that the case was built on a shaky foundation: a homicide declaration within 12 hours of Sarah?s death and charges leveled against Ryan within 48 hours of her death. Police never interviewed him, even though he said he was willing to talk; a coroner?s investigator spoke to Ryan for less than five minutes the night his wife died ? the only official interview ever conducted with him.

Seasoned homicide investigators say officials moved awfully fast to formally accuse Ryan, raising questions about whether tunnel vision set the wheels of small-town justice into motion. After that, it?s nearly impossible to slam on the brakes, put in the clutch and shift into reverse.

Still wondering about all of this, while visiting Sarah?s grave and while visiting Ryan in prison, I silently promised to continue seeking the truth about this real-life mystery ? for Sarah, for Ryan and for everyone who cares about justice in its truest sense.

Janice Hisle spent more than two decades as a news reporter, focusing mostly on criminal justice. The Ryan Widmer case was the most puzzling one she ever encountered.

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