Sometimes the shades are drawn early in a marriage, even for young couples so in love, like newlyweds Sarah and Ryan. Everything in life was still fresh, even at home on your average Monday night. After his workday as a sports planner for the county, Ryan said he plopped down on the sofa on an August night to chill with the Bengals' pre-season opener against Green Bay.
Sarah went upstairs to draw a bath in the master. She liked her calming baths. The young dental hygienist had been tormented with more of her headaches that afternoon. The young couple in the suburban Cincinnati home that evening had been married for just 114 days. They'd vowed “till death do we part,” and that moment was only minutes away from arriving.
They'd begun, the two of them, with a blind date at a pub that worked out.
Sarah--Sarah Steward--had been fixed up by her friend Dana Kist. Dana had an inkling that Sarah would really hit it off with her husband Chris' former college roommate, Ryan Widmer.
Dana Kist: I came home and I said, "Sarah is amazing," said, "I think this-- their personalities would really get along." He said, "Well, let's let 'em go to dinner and see what happens."
What happened over drinks and nibbles was chemistry. Laid-back Ryan, the college jock, a baseball player and super-organized Sarah, who needed everything just-so, talked about getting together again.
Dana Kist: He said, "Well-- well, let's get together again, you know, and do another date. And she said, "Well, let me check my book." So she gets out her little black book. And-- you know, sh-- she's lookin' through. And he's peekin' over lookin. Later he calls us and tells us, "You know, there was nothing written in her black book!" (laughter)
It was a fast-track courtship and before very long Ryan was bringing his new girlfriend home to meet his mom, Jill.
Jill Widmer: I liked her a lot, probably number one thing that struck me the most, was how-- beyond her years in maturity she was, you know. Sarah didn't have a problem telling anyone anything. So, if you made Sarah mad, you knew you made Sarah mad.
As for Ryan, he never got mad.
Chris Kist: I don’t think I have ever seen him upset. He doesn’t-- he doesn’t get mad, you know.
Dana Kist: He’s so laid back and kind of easy going, go with the flow. And she's on it, organized, this is where we have to be. And he just says, "Okay." (laugh).
Jill Widmer enjoyed her days with Ryan and his new girlfriend Sarah.
Jill Widmer: Our family tends to do a lot of barbeques and picnics and things like that. We would spend some time down on the lake in Kentucky. They would come down there.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline NBC Correspondent: Were you-- were you pleased she was becoming a serious part of the family?
Jill Widmer: I was very pleased, yes.
In early 2008, the inseparable Sarah and Ryan bought a nice four-bedroom house together in a good neighborhood. And soon wedding invitations were in the mail.
The bridesmaids knew they'd better snap to.
Dana Kist: She's a planner. So she had everything ready to go. She wanted to make sure all the girls wore the same makeup, same eye shadow, same-- bought us our little makeup kits for the wedding so we all looked the same.
Dennis Murphy: Chris, how's he doin'?
Chris Kist: He was just as happy, happier than I'd ever seen him with her.
Congenial guy that he was, Ryan even agreed to work on getting his first dance together for the wedding reception. He took some ballroom lessons.
Jill Widmer: And I was amazed. I mean, never in a million years, would I think--
Dennis Murphy: Your son at dance lessons?
Jill Widmer: Yeah. I think that she could get him to do more things-- than any woman he had ever dated before.
The wedding that April was a formal affair. The bride was beautiful. Ryan's dance came off without a hitch. And the happy bridesmaids all matched just as their friend Sara wanted.
Dana Kist: Very beautiful. I mean, every detail was planned, obviously, to a tee, because it was Sarah. But-- and she was gorgeous.
The newlyweds went to Costa Rica for their honeymoon and had a great time.
Then it was back to Cincinnati to begin their journey together as Mr. and Mrs. Ryan Widmer.
Jill Widmer: They worked really hard. They built a beautiful deck on the back of their house. They were gonna adopt a puppy and were really excited about that. They had a trip planned to Cancun. They had everything to live for.
Dennis Murphy: So, August 11 should've been just another day on the calendar?
Jill Widmer: It should've been.
August 11th. Monday night. Ryan downstairs watching the game. Sarah upstairs and in trouble.
Dispatcher: 911, what's your emergency?
Ryan Widmer: 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.
Jill Widmer: I got a call-- was Ryan. And he said, "Somethin's happened to Sarah."
The EMTs were rushing Sarah to the hospital. By then, they'd worked on her for 45 minutes but hadn’t gotten a response.
Minutes later Jill Widmer was with her son, waiting anxiously now in a room off Emergency.
Jill Widmer: Finally, a woman came in. We said, "Is she gone?" And she said, "Yes." He just dropped to his knees and was just bawling and sobbing, you know, into the chair.
Sarah Widmer--24-years old--the bride of less than 4-months--was dead.
Her husband Ryan told the emergency services people he was pretty sure she'd fallen asleep in the bathtub and drowned.
But those EMT's intubating her, pounding her chest, didn't understand one crucial observation they made at the home that night, that thing that caused them to tell the arriving police officer: There's something that doesn't look right here.
That Monday night the Cincinnati Bengals were looking more than decent against Green Bay. Fans across town like Jeff Braley wondered if this could finally be a miracle season for the hapless local team of the NFL. But Braley didn't get to see all of the fourth quarter. He's a cop. A detective and you don't get to pick your down time.
Lieutenant Braley: I'm home watching the Bengels game, and I get a call from my sergeant. “Lieutenant, we're out on a drowning. The paramedics are still workin' on her. But, something's not right here."
As he rolled to the house that night. He knew some of what to expect. When you're a cop for more than a decade you become familiar with the signs of a drowning, like the froth about the victim's nose and mouth.
Lieutenant Braley: Well, I-- I mean, your mind starts running immediately. You know-- about-- possibilities. They initially tell me I've got a 24-year-old drowning victim that died in the tub. I'm thinkin' that we're gonna find evidence of something. You know, we're gonna find some drugs or evidence if an overdose or-- or something.
As he pulled up, the victim was already loaded in the back of the ambulance
The arriving police officer was still inside the house and he gave the detective a fill on what he'd found when he was led to the master bedroom where the 24-year old woman lay on the carpet off the bath.
Lieutenant Braley: He felt for a pulse. He assisted on CPR on what he described as a completely dry body with her hair being only damp.
Dennis Murphy: Wet head, dry body?
Lieutenant Braley: That’s correct.
Dennis Murphy: For someone who drowned in a bathtub full of water?
Lieutenant Braley: Yes.
Dispatcher: Go ahead and get her out of the bathtub and get her on a flat surface.
Ryan Widmer: OK, OK.
The 911 dispatcher had been quite clear about it. He had instructed the husband to get his wife out of the bathtub and put her on the floor. The husband went away for a moment and came back on the line to say that he'd just moved his wife from the tub to the bedroom.
Dispatcher: OK, go ahead and get back to CPR, go and try CPR, they will be there in a little bit, ok?
Ryan Widmer: OK.
Detective Braley--already wondering along with the EMTs and the arriving officer why a woman who drowned in a bathtub would be 90 percent dry--needed to see the scene. What story would it tell him?
Lieutenant Braley: I’m mentally preparing myself based on what they've told me, you know? What do I wanna see versus what do I see?
He headed for the master bathroom.
Lieutenant Braley: I expected there to be water on the floors or towels, and it’s simply not there.
Dennis Murphy: You- dry dry?
Lieutenant Braley: There’s a very small remnant of water. What you might call some droplets on the bottom of the tub right around the drain. Other than that, there’s nothing.
Dennis Murphy: You got any-- bathmats? Wet towels on the floor? That kind of thing?
Lieutenant Braley: There’s a towel on the floor. There's a mat on the floor. But, everything's perfectly dry.
Now he had not only a drowning victim who didn't appear to be wet--someone who supposedly fell asleep in the tub and pitched face down in the water--but a bathroom itself that was both dry and undisturbed even though presumably the husband had to wrangle her limp body out of the tub as he moved her to the bedroom.
Lieutenant Braley: You know, whether it’s lotions or soap on the side, they weren't knocked off. That bothered me. If you're pulling somebody very quickly out of a tub that, that’s still together.
The detective, taking in the tub more closely now, making mental notes with his eyes.
Lieutenant Braley: All of a sudden it just hits me, well, that’s a used wipe. Someone’s wiped down the tub. Something was screaming to me, something’s bad wrong. Something bad-- something really bad has happened here. And more so than just a tragic accident where she drowned.
The crime-scene techs had arrived by then and were taking photos, cutting out sections of the bedroom carpet where the mixture of blood and fluid, common in drownings, had stained the carpet.
What they wondered is, was there another explanation for the stains?
Lieutenant Braley: We wanted to get those things to our lab right away to start-just start checkin’ out some things.
Even though it was early hours in an incident--and so much would depend on the findings of an autopsy--the detective knew that this was not a case that was going to be closed out that night.
Lieutenant Braley: When I left the house at 2 a.m., I knew I had a suspicious death.
Still there were questions. How long had Sarah been out of the tub? And had she been out of the tub long enough for her body to air dry?
Was it possible for Ryan to lift Sarah out of the tub without knocking over those bottles of soap and shampoo? And that Lysol wipe, perhaps Sarah routinely wiped down the tub before her bath?
And that overriding question: What had happened to the young wife in her master bedroom?
Lieutenant Braley: We knew that she had drowned just from the scene itself. It was the manner in which she drowned that had raised all the questions.
He would have questions for the husband.
Sarah Widmer had died of drowning in her home and her body would be examined by the pathologist.
There was nothing for Ryan, her husband of four months, to do but leave the hospital and head home. His mother, Jill Widmer, took him back to the house in the wee hours.
Jill Widmer: Ryan asked me--he said, “Mom, I can't go back in there. Can you go in and grab some clothes for me?” And so I went upstairs. And when I got upstairs to their bedroom, there were a couple of pieces of carpet cut out of their carpeting, which I thought was odd.
It hadn't occurred to mother or son that the authorities were already looking at Sarah's death as anything but a tragic explainable incident of some sort.
Jill Widmer: There were a million questions in our mind. Did she have an aneurism? Did-- you know, did something medically happen to her? Did she have a seizure?
It was Tuesday, daylight, and word was spreading that Sarah was gone.
Dana and Chris, the couple who'd hooked the newlyweds up, could not believe what they were hearing.
Dana Kist: We had just gotten back from a trip. And I told her that I'd call her as soon as I got back so we could get together for dinner. And I didn’t even get a chance to do that.
Chris Kist: It's shocking news, to say the least. Shocking news.
Dana, a nurse, tried to make some sense out of what had happened to her dear friend. She thought back to her last conversations with Sarah.
Dana Kist: She was complaining of headaches. She would call and say, you know, "What do you think from a medical background?" And I said, "Well, maybe you should get your blood pressure checked, you know. I was telling her, "You just basically need a check-up. You know, how long's it been since you've been to the doctor?"
And then there was that funny trait Sarah had that people used to kid her about. The way she seemed to fall asleep at the drop of a hat. Maybe that was something not so funny at all but an underlying condition of some sort that might explain her sudden death? Her mother-in-law had noticed it when she was first getting to know Sarah.
It was Christmas 2007 and Jill was taking home videos.
Jill Widmer: And-- all of a sudden, I panned over... And Sarah was sound asleep in a chair in my family room. We were--15, or 20 people in the room. We're all laughing, talking, kids runnin' around. And she could just go to sleep.
Sarah asleep at the dinner table, riding in the car. Everyone joked about it.
Dana Kist: She would always fall asleep in the beginning of movies. So he would always-- be nudging her the whole time, "Sarah. Sarah, wake up and watch this movie" (laughs)
Dennis Murphy: Was it-- was it as-- so noticeable that you guys joked about it?
Chris Kist: We teased her all the time. Every time we went somewhere, even at the dinner table, we'd be laughin', like, "Sarah, don't fall asleep.”
Dana Kist: And I would always say, "Sarah, you have narcolepsy." And she would say, "Dana, I do not. I'm just tired all the time.”
Had Sarah fallen asleep and drowned in the tub? Was that even possible to do? Ryan seemed to think so. He said as much to the 911 dispatcher.
But all the observations about sleepy Sarah--Sarah with her headaches--was just anecdotal information, not the stuff of real scientific and medical investigation.
The pathologist, the medical examiner, would have the first real results about Sarah's death.
Dennis Murphy: What was he finding?
Lieutenant Braley: No evidence of stroke . No evidence of a heart attack.
But the medical examiner had discovered something else: bruising to Sarah's scalp and the nape of her neck. What had caused those injuries? The investigators checked off what they had so far: A young woman supposedly drowned in a bathtub with damp head of hair and a dry body. Didn't figure.
Lieutenant Braley: If you're pulling somebody directly out of a tub of water, the body has to be wet. There is no other way around it.
A victim with unexplained bruises. A husband whose story they didn't believe about a ho-hum Monday night watching football then finding his wife dead in the bath.
Lieutenant Braley: Ryan’s story, it doesn't fit. It doesn't fit at all. We determined at that point we had a homicide.
Sarah Widmer murdered. And the authorities believed her husband did it. Just days after the bride's death, 27-year old Ryan Widmer was charged with aggravated murder.
Lieutenant Braley: By Ryan’s own admission, he was the only one in the house. So, Ryan murdered Sarah, or he's covering for somebody that did.
It didn't seem possible at first glance: a clean cut young couple, him without a criminal record of any kind, them with no history of arguments, no problems in their marriage. Where was the motive for murder on a Monday night?
Dennis Murphy: Any boyfriend/girlfriend issues here?
Lieutenant Braley: There was no evidence whatsoever to point that are was a-- a girlfriend/boyfriend, anything--
Dennis Murphy: Money trouble?
Lieutenant Braley: Not that we could find.
Dennis Murphy: Do you find any anger issues in-- in the guy?
Lieutenant Braley: No-- no.
Dennis Murphy: You're not really getting a negative picture of this couple?
Lieutenant Braley: No, we're not.
As unlikely as it may have seemed, police said there was no other explanation for Sarah’s death. So just four months after he stood before a priest for his marriage vows, he was now standing before a judge, being charged with his wife’s murder.
Jill Widmer: Ryan and I were so brokenhearted. I could not have ever conceived, nor could Ryan, that they would've had any idea that he would've been the person to hurt her. And that it wasn’t just a tragic accident.
Dana Kist: Just broke my heart. I mean, just knowing that he was-- was feeling that grief and fear for his own life, too.
Dennis Murphy: Is there any moment when you think, "maybe"--
Dana Kist: No way.
Dennis Murphy: --"I didn't know the guy. Maybe there was this"—
Chris Kist: Never.
Dennis Murphy: --"this instant of something awful happen"?
Chris Kist: Never. I’ve never seen him where he was remotely angry.
Even Sarah's family was behind Ryan. The dead woman's brother, Mike Steward, asked the judge to lower Ryan's bond amount so he could attend the funeral for his late wife.
Bonded out, Ryan Widmer went to live with his mother until he could make his case to a jury months down the road. Couldn't everyone just see that he loved his wife and she just died. death that perhaps even a medical examiner could never satisfactorily explain, but it wasn't murder?
Sarah Widmer had been a daughter, a wife, a loyal friend in her brief life, but in death--to those who would never know her--she had become simply The Victim. And the case could be summarized as breezily as the title of a true-crime paperback: The Bathtub Murder.
On talk-radio in the greater Cincinnati area, host Bill Cunningham could feel the court of public opinion responding to the story. The Bathtub Murder Case had the phones ringing.
Bill Cunningham: The idea that such a young man could be watching a Bengals’ game and within a few seconds turn from a Bengals’ fan, long suffering, to a murderer was a little bit shocking.
For months, listeners debated whether the husband could have done it.
Bill Cunningham: I had a large number of callers who said to me “He didn't do it, he doesn't fit the profile, there's no history.” And I said to them, “Wait a minute. Wait till the trial takes place. I'm led to believe that there's gonna be clear and convincing evidence.
Eight-months after Sarah Widmer's death, the only jury that mattered was sworn in to hear the case against 28-year old Ryan Widmer, a charge of aggravated murder.
The couple's friends were still hanging by him.
Chris Kist: Basically, his life hangs in the balance of 12 jurors.
Dana Kist: That's a scary thought.
Chris Kist: It is a scary thought. There is a chance that he could go to jail.
In the courtroom, Sarah's family sat across the aisle from Ryan's family. During the months of trial preparation her family's support for him seemed to have eroded.
The prosecution team's story for the jury was uncomplicated. There'd been a violent confrontation in the Widmer house that night for reasons unknown. The prosecutors began with the first moments of the case: Ryan's call to 911.
Dispatcher: 911, what's your emergency?
Ryan Widmer: 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.
Dispatcher: in the water?
Ryan Widmer: Yes.
Dispatcher: She's in the bathtub?
Ryan Widmer: Yes, she's, the water is draining right now.
On the stand the emergency dispatcher testified that the voice on the phone that night was giving more details than he usually hears in a call like this.
Dispatcher: It seemed the caller was rather calm. Usually, I can't get anything out of them.
To the lead detective's ears, the husband was giving too much information.
Lieutenant Braley: He started his story with, “I was downstairs watching TV. And my wife fell asleep in the tub.” Well, how does he know that? Why is it important to establish where he's at and what he's doing?
And so much of the prosecution case was built upon the observation of the next witness up, the first arriving officer.
When he began administering CPR, he noticed something was weird about the whole situation:
Officer Bishop: I noticed her body was dry, her hair was damp.
And others on the scene corroborated his observation. Wet head. Dry body.
Lisa: Things were not adding up.
And this officer noticed something else: the victim's fingers and toes. We all know what happens to them when they've been soaking in a hot bathtub.
Lisa: It was my understanding she’d been in water for 20 or 30 minutes. I would have thought her toes or fingers would have been pruned up in that amount of time.
Dennis Murphy: Did you see any indication of that?
From simple observations, the murder case had grown. The jury was being told that Ryan Widmer's story didn't jive with what officers on the scene had taken note of: like the bathtub and surrounding tiles that should have been soaking wet if you believed Ryan's account of lifting his 140-pound wife out of the tub and moving her to the bedroom. Should have been dripping wet but weren't. And that implicitly raised a question for the jury: Is it possible that this young woman who drowned had never been in the tub in the first place?
Prosecutor Arnold: The bathroom was dry, the floor was dry, the carpet was dry. Sarah was dry.
And an expert witness on sleep spoke to the issue of whether a person can actually fall asleep and drown in a bathtub. Her testimony was no. That can't happen.
Aniesa Marie Das: It would be virtually impossible for someone without the influence of drugs or alcohol or something external to fall asleep and not wake up.
So first the sensation of water on the face would wake you up./ number two would be the gag replex entering your airway and number three if that didnt, the drop in oxygen would wake you up."
But maybe Sarah hadn't fallen asleep. Perhaps she'd suffered a catastrophic but perfectly natural event. Something to her heart. Her brain.
The coroner didn't find that.
Prosecutor Arnold: Any evidence of heart problems?
Coroner Uptegrove: No.
Prosecutor Arnold: Any evidence of brain injury or seizure?
Coroner Uptegrove: No.
And to him, the bruising to Sarah's neck and scalp revealed in the autopsy looked ominous.
Prosecutor Arnold: Do you have an opinion on the manner of death?
Coroner Uptegrove: Yes. Manner of death is homicide.
And that took prosecutors and investigators alike into the realm of speculation. What had happened in that bedroom that night if it hadn't been a bathtub drowning? This forensic pathologist had one scenario explaining a damp head but dry body.
Coroner Uptegrove: Her head was pushed over the edge of the tub or toilet or sink or forwards or backwards, either in running water or full water.
The husband holding his wife's head under water until she drowned. But the jury had to wonder: What the motivation would be for such an awful crime?
Prosecutor Arnold: Who knows what evil lurks in hearts of men and who knows what lurks behind the doors of a marriage?
Lieutenant Braley: And that’s the question that we will never know.
Dennis Murphy: I imagine it's probably not totally satisfying state for you as the investigator that I have a killer who kills without motive?
Lieutenant Braley: Right, but that’s where the facts leave me.
They couldn’t establish a motive, yet there was no doubt in the prosecutors’ minds that Sarah Widmer would not be dead had it not been for her husband.
Prosecutor Arnold: I ask you to return a just verdict in this case, find the defendant guilty of aggravated murder. Thank you.
Was the prosecution's case too thin? Too much observation-lite with not enough persuasive hard evidence?
Rittgers: We don’t know what time she got in the tub.
The defense would argue passionately that it was. That Ryan had had nothing to do with his wife's sudden death.
Charlie Rittgers: It didn't add up that this man of 27 years who had never even shown anger in his entire life, would all of a sudden kill his wife.
Dennis Murphy: What was the toughest thing you had to surmount?
Charlie Rittgers: We had a lovely 24-year old woman who was dead and no one could explain why.
The defense wasn't going to be able to tell the jury what caused Sarah Widmer to drown that night, but they were going to show that Ryan Widmer had no reason to hurt his wife, had absolutely no motive, and damp hair, dry body? They would explain that. The bottom line for the defense...
Charlie Rittgers: I know one thing, Ryan Widmer had nothing to do with his wife's death.
Charlie Rittgers, Ryan Widmer's defense attorney, argued that his client was plagued from the get-go by his unhappy choice of words on that 911 call:
Dispatcher: Is she still in the bathtub?
Ryan: Yes, yes. She falls asleep in the tub all the time. It's…(crying)
Dennis Murphy: But electing to say she fell asleep in the tub sets the alarms going?
Charlie Rittgers: Exactly.
In other words, had Ryan told the 911 dispatcher only that his wife was unconscious, it wouldn’t have been so suspicious.
Charlie Rittgers: Only thing Ryan knows is that she fell asleep in the tub. But they jump on him and say he is a liar.
The defense attorney argued the coroner had been too quick to rule the death a homicide and had been unaware of Sarah's medical history.
Charlie Rittgers: He had no idea that she was suffering from a headache that day. He had no idea she had unusual sleep habits.
Remember, the prosecution's sleep expert had said it was impossible for Sarah to have fallen asleep and died in the tub. But to some who knew her sleep habits, not only was this scenario possible, but plausible.
Sarah fell asleep easily, and just about everywhere in fact, Sarah's boss, the dentist she worked for, testified that Sarah's quirky sleep habits were a well known fact around the office.
Becker: She would normally grab a quick lunch and then go out to her car and take a nap for 30 or 40 minutes. It was odd, because people don’t usually do that.
And the dentist recollected that Sarah hadn't been feeling well on that last afternoon of her life.
Becker: She had a sore throat that she mentioned towards the end of the day. Her stomach had been bothering her earlier in the day.
She was still feeling crummy later that evening when she spoke to a friend:
Amy: She had stated she had a headache, and the back of her neck was hurting. I mean, she sounded tired, she didn't sound like she felt very good.
Sarah turning off the day and retreating to her tub? That sounded just like the Sarah they knew.
Chris Kist: She would always leave our house and say she had to get home, 'cause she had to take her bath.
Dana Kist: Yeah. We would tease her about that. She had a really nice, big tub and she-- and, you know, enjoyed that at her new house.
And Sarah dozing off in the tub was a trait a friend from childhood days was very familiar with.
Katie: I know that she had fallen asleep in the bathtub before. We have talked about that because I had fallen asleep in the bathtub before too.
The sleeping habits, the headaches: The defense claimed they could very well have been the symptoms of an underlying and potentially fatal condition that went undetected, something an otherwise healthy young woman wouldn't take all that seriously.
And even with all their scientific art, argued the defense, sometimes pathologists simply cannot say why a person died.
A doctor who specializes in emergency medicine testified that unexplained deaths occur far more often than many of us would guess.
Dr. Smile: 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.
In other words, people sometimes just die and their autopsy may never reveal the cause. But the issue that would likely decide the case for guilt or innocence was the observation by the arriving officer and EMTs of damp hair and dry body.
What looked nonsensical and suspicious was easily explainable, said the defense. Hair simply stays wet longer.
Charlie Rittgers: You get out of a swimming pool, or bathtub, or whatever, isn't that normal that your skin dries before your hair?
The defense told the court you have to look at the clock, the elapsed time of the incident: The defense claimed that Sarah’s body dried off in the 6 1/2 minutes between the time Ryan called 911 and when the first responders arrived.
And what about the finger and toes that should have been pruned up but weren't? No one knows what time Sarah got into the tub.
Charlie Rittgers: We don't know when, how long it took her to fill up the tub. We don’t know whether she was primping in front of the mirror. We don’t know any of that stuff.
And as far as the prosecution's speculation about a violent struggle, no one on the scene that night thought there'd been one. Not the cop. Not the EMTs.
And, by the way, suggested the defense, you can't have it both ways with a struggle theory. A struggle that the prosecution said left suspicious bruising to Sarah’s scalp and neck.
Charlie Rittgers: If it was a violent struggle then there would be water on the floor, on the counter on the counter, on walls everywhere. And if they wanna claim that it was a staged scene where you cleaned up the water, well, where’s the wet towel?
Say, for argument's sake, there HAD been a struggle. Surely Ryan would have gotten banged up while Sarah fought for her life. But Ryan didn’t have a mark on him.
The very notion of Ryan attacking Sarah is preposterous, say their friends. Laid-back Ryan doesn't have a mean bone in his body.
Dana Kist: Ryan's a lot like my husband Chris, in the aspect of, you know, when there's an argument, Chris just says, "Okay, what can we do to fix it, and let's move on." (laugh). And that's kind of how Ryan was.
Chris Kist: He's very laid-back and easy going.
And the supposedly ominous bruising noted to her neck and scalp? To the defense, those abrasions resulted from the EMT's working on Sarah so vigorously up in the bedroom.
Charlie Rittgers: We're talking about 45 minutes of resuscitation efforts. Not five, not ten. Forty five minutes.
It looked perfectly consistent to this emergency room doctor.
Dr. Smile: I was not surprised at the injuries at all based on the prolonged CPR and the number of innovation attempts – was actually surprised there were not more injuries to the body.
Add it all up – injuries not the result of a violent struggle, skin that may well have dried before the authorities showed up – and you were left, the defense argued, with an unexplained death, something that experts tell you happens, and not infrequently.
Defense: And jurors, the reasons you didn't hear about love affairs, messy finances or insurance issues? That's because none of those things existed.
Charlie Rittgers: Motive! They don’t have motive!
Charlie Rittgers: It didn't add up that this man of 27 years who had never even shown anger in his entire life would all of a sudden kill his wife. It-- it made no sense.
Attorney closing: I hope you agree Ryan Widmer is not guilty of any wrongdoing. Thank you very much.
Now it was up to the jury.
About the only fact of the case that was indisputable was that Sarah Widmer had drowned. But was it a natural death, in her bathtub?
Dennis Murphy: Is it possible that at the age of 24 this woman just died? That her moment came?
Lieutenant Braley: I can see the possible doubt run rampant. I can see that. But there are too many contributing factors pointing the other way.
Or had Sarah died at the hands of her husband, Ryan?
Charlie Rittgers: They had failed to prove their case. They had failed.
Inside the Warren County Courthouse, the jury had had the case all day. The couple's friends had long dreaded this moment.
Dana Kist: We are scared that the truth may not come out. We know without a doubt that Ryan did not do this. And we pray to God that everyone else sees that too.
Ryan Widmer would have wished that the listeners to Bill Cunningham's call-in radio show had been on his jury.
Bill Cunningham, Radio Host: I would say the calls split 90 to 10 in favor of Ryan Widmer. Because during the trial, there was no smoking gun.
The jury continued to deliberate long into the second day.
They had two counts to decide: Count 1, aggravated murder. Did Ryan premeditate the murder of his wife Sarah? And Count 2: non-premeditated murder. Did it happen suddenly, without prior thought?
Finally, after 23 hours of talking it over, the jurors sent a note that they had reached a verdict.
The lawyers were summoned. The two families hurried to the courtroom. Ryan Widmer took his place at the defense table.
Less than a year before, Ryan had entered a new phase of his life: marriage. He had been toasted by his brother, the best man, and soon began a life with his new bride, with hopes of a long happy life together. And now that was a thing of the past.
Judge: Okay, ladies and gentlemen. The - the bailiff has advised me that you've reached a verdict in the case. The defendant will please rise.
Bailiff: In the case of the state of Ohio vs. Ryan Widmer on verdict on Count 1, aggravated murder, we the jury find the defendant, Ryan K. Widmer is not guilty of aggravated murder.
It was a moment of relief for Ryan Widmer. The jury did not believe that he had premeditated the murder of his wife. But he still faced the second count of murder.
Judge: And, uh, the second verdict form, the state of Ohio, plaintiff vs. Ryan K. Widmer, defendant on a lesser included offense of murder, the verdict reads, “We the jury in this case find the defendant, Ryan K. Widmer, is guilty."
Guilty! The jury had decided that Ryan Widmer did indeed murder his wife Sarah.
Judge: Mr. Widmer, is there anything that you wish to say either in mitigation of your sentence or as to why your sentence should not be imposed at this time?
The accused - now the convicted - would address the court for the first time. He hadn't taken the stand, as was his right.
Ryan Widmer: I love my wife, I did not hurt her. I was not given a chance. The day after she passes away, they charge me with murder. I didn't even...If I had the answer, I would give the answer of what happened to her, but I can't. I was not in the bathroom with her. I love my wife, and I did not hurt her.
Ryan Widmer was given the mandatory sentence: 15 years to life in prison. He was cuffed and moved back to the holding cell.
Jill Widmer: He stopped next to me and said can i say goodbye to my mom and they said no keep moving.
Dennis Murphy: How difficult is that?
Jill Widmer: Beyond difficult. Anyone who knows my son knows he doesn't have a mean bone in his body.
Detective: I think it was a very quick very violent angry episode that just happened. And i dont know that there is a complete reason for it.
Dana Kist: She wasn't murdered. One of my best friends.
Dennis Murphy: So there isn't a whisper of doubt that says, "My best friend may have been killed by this"--
Dana Kist: Absolutely not.
Dennis Murphy: Close as you were to her, you still defend him?
Dana Kist: I do.
Charlie Rittgers: It was awful. It was on my shoulders. It was my duty to my client to get a proper verdict and I failed.
They didn’t think it was possible for Ryan to have removed Sarah’s body from the tub and place her on the floor in the master bedroom all in the 29 seconds elapsed on that 911 call.
To the Widmer jury, it was the accumulation of evidence that persuaded them to vote guilty--from the absence of water on Sarah’s body and around the bathroom to the husband’s story, they believed the prosecution’s theory that the 911 call was orchestrated.
But as Ryan Widmer got processed into the Ohio prison system, it wasn't quite the end of the bathtub murder case. The verdict was so unpopular in the court of public opinion, that candlelight vigils were staged to protest the jury vote.
Bill Cunningham: There has never been a case where hundreds of Americans come out of their homes carrying candle lights to listen to prayers about a condemned, convicted killer. It's never happened before.
Talk radio host Bill Cunningham, who regards himself as a “hang ‘em high” conservative, felt it was justice denied.
Bill Cunningham: Judging this case against a hundred other murder trials, this is one of the flimsiest and one of the weakest I've ever seen.
Then something else: The fax machine in the defense lawyer's office began spitting out pages. It was one of the jurors claiming there'd been forbidden monkey business during the Widmer deliberations, monkey business over nothing less than the biggest issue in the trial: damp head, dry body.
Charlie Rittgers: He said that two or three of the female jurors had done home experiments where they had showered and then air-dried.
Dennis Murphy: So they were testing out this theory of how quickly --
Charlie Rittgers: That's correct.
Dennis Murphy: --the body dries coming out of the tub or shower?
Charlie Rittgers: Yes.
Dennis Murphy: At home?
Charlie Rittgers: At home.
If the faxing juror was correct, the panel had directly violated the judge's instructions to consider only what they'd heard in court. The allegation was jury misconduct, a serious matter. The judge began reviewing affidavits from a number of the jurors about what just went on during deliberations.
And in one of those sworn statements, a juror said of those taboo home experiments: "The times to air dry...influenced my decision."
Apparently the judge found enough smoke about the verdict that -four months after Ryan Widmer's conviction-- he ruled that the husband will get another trial. The not guilty verdict on the aggravated murder count remains, the Prosecution can only retry him on the second count of murder.
And just two weeks ago, Ryan Widmer walked out of the Warren County jail after his mother, with great difficulty, managed to scrape together enough cash and collateral on family properties, to post bond for him.
He's staying with his mother at her home. That's where he'll live until his new trial.
Dennis Murphy: Is-- is this case gonna go up in flames, do you think?
Lieutenant Braley: I guess there's-- there's that possibility. I don’t know.
Jill Widmer: I'm prepared to go towards to the day I die. If I have to live on the street in a cardboard box at the end of this, I'm gonna do whatever it takes to get my son out of this.