A young bride drowns in her bathtub. Her husband of four months is accused of murder. What happened in their tiny suburban bathroom—and why—remains unresolved.Janice Hisle A decade ago, the drowning of Sarah Steward Widmer—and the prosecution of her husband, Ryan—captivated Cincinnati. The saga, which took almost three years to unfold in court, gets a fresh look in a new book, Submerged: Ryan Widmer, his drowned bride and the justice system, excerpted here. Janice (Morse) Hisle, a veteran journalist who covered the case for the Cincinnati Enquirer, worked with Cincy contributing editor Peter Bronson to publish the book through his company, Chilidog Press. For more, visit janicehisle.com.
Excerpt from Submerged: Ryan Widmer, his drowned bride and the justice system.
“My wife fell asleep in the bathtub and I think she’s dead.”
Those were the words that Ryan Widmer, then 27, breathlessly blurted into this lifeless bride’s cellphone on August 11, 2008, reporting that he found his 24-year-old wife, Sarah, submerged.
Almost from the get-go, alarm bells went off in investigators’ heads when they responded to Ryan’s 911 call in Warren County’s Hamilton Township.
Investigators found no sign that Sarah had taken drugs that could have contributed to her death. They also found no evidence that an intruder had broken into the Widmers’ home. So suspicion centered almost immediately on the only other occupant: Ryan.
Yet, behind the scenes, some pieces of evidence weren’t neatly fitting into the puzzle that authorities expected to show a murderous husband forcing his wife underwater as she bathed.
First-responding police and medics said Sarah’s body felt “not overly moist,” or rather dry when they touched her, but her hair was wet or damp. How was that possible if she had just been submerged in a tubful of water?
And almost everything in the bathroom seemed conspicuously dry for a drowning scene. Investigators were stumped as to why.
Besides finding no splashed water, investigators also found no wet towels—and no freshly dried towels in the clothes dryer. Either would have been a telltale sign that Ryan had cleaned up a watery mess in the aftermath of a forced drowning.
And there was no other glaring sign of a struggle.
Nothing in the bathroom—or elsewhere in the house—was in disarray.
There were no defensive injuries to Sarah’s French-manicured fingernails, nor on her toenails, neatly polished pink. There were no bruises or scrapes on the outsides of her elbows, her knuckles or her knees. In fact, police saw no obvious sign of injury on her at the scene—and absolutely no marks on Ryan, who was wearing only boxer briefs at the time.
Years later, precisely what happened to Sarah remained a mystery. Authorities said they never did figure out the exact scenario that ended her life. Neither did the jurors who eventually convicted Ryan.
But the case ignited controversies that shook public faith in the local criminal justice system—effects that would persist long after the jury had spoken.
End of excerpt
The case wound a torturous route through the criminal justice system, with plot twists that would put the best Hollywood scriptwriters to shame.
While investigators were scratching their heads over the puzzling circumstances of Sarah’s drowning, the defense secretly hired the world’s foremost death investigation expert, Dr. Werner Spitz, to perform a second autopsy on Sarah. That set up a showdown between Spitz and the Warren County coroner. The two experts agreed Sarah drowned. But they disagreed over how she drowned. Was it a homicide—a forced drowning—as the county coroner contended? Or was an undetermined medical problem to blame? Spitz said that was possible, and that medics may have inadvertently caused the bruising on Sarah’s head and neck areas—which the coroner viewed as signs of homicidal violence.
Sarah had suffered strange bouts of sleepiness and headaches that included her seeing spots. But she never underwent testing to find the root cause. Friends said the college-educated couple soared on a cloud of wedded bliss. Ryan, who worked in sports marketing, was too in love with Sarah, a dental hygienist, to have ever harmed her, they said. Sarah’s family even supported Ryan—at least at the outset of the case.
In 2009, a jury sided with the prosecution’s argument—that the chances of Sarah suffering a medical disorder were remote and the circumstances “just didn’t add up.” So the jury convicted Ryan of murder.
The conviction caused an uproar. Thousands of people called the conviction unjust, based on flimsy evidence. “Free Ryan Widmer” rallies were held—and the conviction was overturned after a judge ruled some jurors had violated court rules, tainting the verdict. An episode about the case scored a TV-ratings bonanza for Dateline on NBC.
The case went to trial a second time in 2010. The jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict despite 30 hours of deliberations. Several of those jurors said the evidence was so ambiguous, they doubted any jury could ever agree unanimously.
Ryan’s long-divorced parents banded together to support their son and spent upwards of $250,000 on his defense—mostly from their retirement funds. They had no idea how they would afford a third trial. An anonymous donor came forward and contributed $60,000 for attorneys’ fees.
Meanwhile, questions about the credibility of the lead Widmer investigator continued to swirl. The sole detective for Hamilton Township in Warren County at the time, Lt. Jeff Braley faced scrutiny for his role in raiding a purported underage-drinking bash in 2007—which turned out to be a birthday party for a 52-year-old man. Braley’s credibility also came into question because of false statements about his education and employment history in his personnel file. He denied making the misrepresentations.
When the case went to trial a third time in 2011, Braley was no longer sitting alongside prosecutors in the courtroom as he had during the two previous trials. But the judge forbade Ryan’s lawyers from attacking Braley’s credibility.
For the first time, prosecutors offered a witness who described a possible motive—and alleged that Ryan confessed to her.
Jurors said they disbelieved that witness. But they still convicted Ryan. His case remains under appeal while he serves 15-to-life; he will be eligible for parole in July 2025.
Now, about midway through Ryan’s minimum prison term, many people continue to wonder whether justice was served for the family of a beautiful young bride who died—or whether a gross injustice was committed against the man she dearly loved.
Trying to solve that riddle would require a deep dive into the Titanic-sized Widmer wreckage. The untold story remained submerged amid 10,000 pages of records and in interviews with dozens of people, including Ohio Prison Inmate No. A599952, Ryan Widmer.