|Prosecution Witness : Det. Jeff Braley|
|Written by Mike Mayleben|
|Friday, 06 May 2011 18:41|
Direct Exam: John Arnold
Braley confirmed that he was the lead investigator in the case. He is a detective-lieutenant for Hamilton Twp.
He was called to the Widmer home the night of Aug. 11, 2008 and arrived about 11:18 p.m. He passed the ambulance as he was driving into Crested Owl Court. Several officers approached him to update him about what was going on at the scene. After he was briefed, he called Doyle Burke, who went to the hospital and Braley remained at the house.
He took a tour of the house with Officer Short. He recalled magazines, towels and a rug in the bathroom that were dry. All the items around the tub and the floor were dry but the tub had drops of water near the drain, which was the only water he saw. The bathroom floor was dry and he noticed the pinkish-red stain on the carpeting and what he thought was vomit near the stains. He didn't collect any evidence or take photos at that time, but instead returned outside to question Deputy Bishop and other officers, one at a time, about what they observed when they arrived at the scene.
Arnold placed a diagram of the master bedroom on the screen and Braley pointed out where the stains and vomit were on the floor. He said the home didn't appear as if anyone had broken in. He spoke to Doyle Burke on the phone and Burke told him that Ryan had given consent to search the house, collect evidence, and take photos. He said they needed to show the house as it was when they arrived.
Braley instructed Officer Short to start by photographing the exterior of the home and proceed to the interior starting with the first floor. While the officer was doing that, he took his gloves off and got down on his knees to feel if the carpet was wet where Sarah had been lying. He emphasized that his gloves were not on because if the carpet was wet, he would not have felt moisture. He "crawled" from place to place to feel for moisture on the carpet and after he was finished he put his gloves back on.
He said they began collecting evidence from the bathroom and then worked their way outward. He and the officer entered the bathroom and started with the bathtub. One of them would pick up an item and the other would photograph it. They collected the magazines which were all dry, except the one closest to the tub was very wrinkled. The clothing, the bathroom rug and the towels were all dry. He looked in the shower, which is separate from the tub, and it was also dry.
From the bathroom, they moved into the bedroom and collected a battery and some wrappers from medical personnel which were lying near the stains. He decided they would collect carpet samples of the stains. Using a hook knife from his evidence kit, he cut the carpet and padding underneath, being careful to leave several inches as a boarder so they would get all of the stain. He looked at the underside of the carpet and noticed there was moisture on it, as well as the padding and also on the floorboard. He then gave the samples to officer Short who bagged and sealed the items. They were taken to Braley's vehicle, and later to the police station.
They briefly looked through the laundry room, checking the washer and dryer. There were a couple empty beer cans in the kitchen and garage. They didn't look through drawers or cabinets at that time because the home wasn't classified as a crime scene. It was considered a suspicious death but they had no hard evidence that a crime had been committed. Even though he had received oral permission from Ryan to search the house, he still had to get a written copy of a search warrant, which he did the next morning after Sarah's autopsy was finished. He left the home, at about 2:00 a.m.
The search warrant was executed at 9:00 a.m. on Aug. 13th and this second search was more thorough. They searched cabinets, drawers, turned over the mattress and emptied the vacuum cleaner bag, looking for anything that was hidden. He knew that someone had accessed the house prior to this search because Ryan's mother had called him to tell him that the dog was missing. Braley told her the dog was found but neither he nor police officers escorted her to the house to get the dog.
He dusted the bathtub for fingerprints, wearing gloves and shoe covers and at one point he stepped into the tub. He immediately stopped dusting when he found the two sets of streak marks on the back of the tub, which he pointed out in a photo. He contacted the crime lab to assist in processing the tub. He said he had basic training in dusting procedures so he followed the procedures he had learned. He didn't assist with removing the tub from the house, he said.
Arnold asked if he was familiar with a Forensic Files episode called "Summer Obsession" and Jay Clark objected. After a bench conference, Braley said he was aware of the episode. Arnold then asked if there were similarities between this investigation and that episode. Braley said there were and briefly described the episode; a man called 911 saying his wife drowned in the bathtub, the man had been drinking and said he was downstairs watching a sporting event. Braley said those were the similarities, but there were things in the TV show that were not the same as this case. Subsequent investigation of that case showed there was more to the story. He thought the episode aired in 2005. Nothing further.
Cross Exam: Jay Clark
Braley said he thought he saw the show in 2005 and the differences between that case and this were: The suspect poisoned her drink with an overdose of sleeping pills, then tried to strangle her but she was conscious when he placed her in the tub and she fought back sustaining bruises on her legs, knees, etc. Her cause of death was strangulation, not drowning.
Clark asked if he has ever spoken to Jennifer Crew and he replied, "No". Clark then showed him an internet print off of Summer Obsession from the Forensic File web site, showing the case was rerun on June 8, 2010. Investigators interviewed Jennifer Crew on June 17, 2010.
Braley admitted that the motive in the TV case was financial. The suspect had financial problems as a result of a Ponzi scheme. Braley admitted that Sarah and Ryan didn't have any financial problems, Sarah didn't have a big inheritance that Ryan would benefit from, and she didn't have life insurance. He also admitted that the suspect in the TV case had $100,000 cash hidden in the attic, but there was nothing in the safe under the bed that indicated a motive and investigators didn't find any large amounts of cash in the house.
Braley agreed he and Doyle Burke gave the coroner the information about what they found at the house during their investigation. Braley had said, "Something didn't seem right", and admitted that he expected to find evidence of drugs but didn't remember if officers had told him before he arrived that no drugs were found. He expected to find water all over the place, based on what he had been told, but admitted he didn't know what the environmental factors were that night that might have caused water to evaporate. Clark asked if he "saw what he wanted to see instead of what he expected to see" and Arnold objected/sustained.
He said he called Doyle Burke, the coroner's investigator, before 11:30 p.m., 20 minutes before Sarah was pronounced dead. He admitted that when he saw the Lysol wipes, he thought they might be important so they were taken as evidence and sent to the lab. When Clark asked him if they were of any value, Braley replied, "No".
Braley interviewed several of Sarah's friends and Clark asked him how those friends described Sarah's cleanliness habits. Arnold objected/sustained. He didn't recall interviewing Sarah's mom, so he didn't know that Sarah was very conscientious about germs; she wiped down the hotel room and sprayed the bed with Lysol spray.
He said he made the conclusion that "something was wrong" based on what he saw. He felt it was more than a tragic death. The autopsy began at 9:00 a.m. Aug. 12th, the morning after Sarah died. He didn't remember how long it went, but a standard autopsy is about two hours so it might have concluded about 11:00 a.m. and at that time the coroner told him it was a homicide. Braley said he went with what Dr. Uptegrove told him.
He said he didn't find any evidence that Ryan had a temper or anger issues or that Sarah and Ryan were involved in domestic violence or unhappy. He didn't find any evidence that Sarah had a boyfriend or that Ryan had a girlfriend. He went thru both cell records but didn't find anything that indicated a motive. Clark asked if he thought it was possible Sarah Widmer had a natural death, but Arnold objected. Braley said the death looked suspicious and after Uptegrove said it was a homicide, he started to believe it wasn't a natural death and wanted to do a full investigation.
He agreed that an investigation should be done without preconceived notions and the investigator should be open to all options but he didn't believe she died a natural death. Clark asked, "So when you left the house, you knew it was a "suspicious" death?" Braley replied, yes, but he was open to all possibilities.
The blood spots were a cause of concern for him but admitted that he didn't remember that Sgt. Elliott told him Sarah was bleeding from the vaginal area. Clark handed Braley a typed statement from Elliot and the statement said there appeared to be blood coming from Sarah's vaginal area. Asked if he remembered seeing feminine hygiene items on the floor by the overturned trash can in the bathroom, he said he didn't remember seeing them and didn't collect the contents of the trash can. He saw the contents of the trash can dumped on the floor, but he wasn't sure how it got there. When he found out Deputy Bishop had overturned the can, that became a factor in his investigation.
When he left the autopsy, the coroner didn't have the toxicology report or the microscopic slide results of the heart at that time. Uptegrove told him that based on trauma, there had been "a forceful drowning." Clark asked if Uptegrove had already decided the death was a homicide before he got the tests and toxicology reports back and Braley replied, Yes. Cause of death: Drowning. Manner of death: Homicide
Braley collected Sarah's cell phone and either he, or Officer Short examined the messages. Clark asked about the contents of the text messages to and from Sarah's phone and Braley replied, "Sir, I don't remember the content of the text messages, but there was nothing that raised a red flag." Clark asked if the text messages from Ryan and to Sarah were loving in nature? Arnold objected/sustained. Clark asked if the other officer showed him anything suspicious and he replied "no".
Clark began to ask Braley about his career as an investigator. He said he started as a volunteer chaplain for the fire department in 1996 and he was a firefighter. He then became the director of human resources in 2000 thru 2005. He went through the Police Academy of Great Oaks in 2003 and was hired as a police officer for Hamilton Twp. but continued his job in human resources; he was termed a human resources officer. He agreed the police officer position was an entry level position that would be like a Private in the military. He went from Patrol Officer to Sergeant and then Lieutenant.
Clark repeated what Braley just said; December 2003 graduated, in July 2004 he was promoted to Lt., so he went from Police Officer to Lt. in 7 months? Asked if he took any promotional test or additional training, he replied that he took some training. Clark asked if it was "Spanish for Police officers" but he couldn't recall. He agreed he didn't take any training for crime scene processing, evidence collection or death scene investigations. He agreed that Lieutenant is his current rank.
During the time he worked for Hamilton Twp. there were 2 homicides; one active and one cold case. He worked on the active case from 2004-2008. The cold case was a body found in 2007, but had died years earlier.
He agreed he had very little experience processing death scenes so he called the crime lab to help with prints. The Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab report from Aug. 18, 2008 is shown on the screen. He said he received the report from Danny Harness. It was the report for the prints on the tub and Harness had reported there were no usable prints. Another fingerprint expert, William Hillard, was called in 3 months later, but not by him. He did meet Hillard at the police department to show him the tub, however.
He agreed that the first investigation was not thorough, but when he left the house he considered the scene as a suspicious death. Clark asked if it was because there wasn't any water, but Arnold objected/sustained. He said police looked for evidence of a possible cleanup before they left but didn't find anything. They looked in the dryer, which was cold, the garage and the cars but they didn't find anything. Air conditioning was on, but he did not take any temperatures. He agreed the A/C takes moisture out of the air. They also didn't take any temperatures in the house during the second investigation.
Braley said he arrived at the Widmer home about 11:18 p.m., six minutes after the ambulance left the scene. Asked about the beer cans he saw in the home, Braley said Sgt. Elliott had told him that Ryan told her he had four beers, but no one reported that Ryan was "falling down drunk" or that he had blacked out.
Officers relayed to him that there were no marks on Ryan's legs, arms or upper body, and no marks on Sarah that would indicate a physical confrontation. He agreed the ER doctor also said Sarah had no marks. Clark asked if he was told by officers that Ryan was upset and crying at the scene. Arnold objected and started to stand up, but the Judge said no, Clark is asking what information he was told by others. Braley then answered saying, yes, at least one officer said Ryan was "visibly upset."
Clark asked if Ruth Ann Steward ever told Braley, "Sarah will haunt you for charging Ryan." Braley said he never formally interviewed Ruth Ann. There may have been a phone call, but didn't remember her saying that. Arnold tried to get the question and answer struck from the record, but Bronson overruled.
Braley said they went door to door and interviewed all the neighbors. The neighbor next door said they heard yelling once, between Ryan and Sarah in the garage, but didn't know if it was a domestic issue because only one person was yelling. They didn't hear any yelling the night Sarah died. Clark asked if the yelling in the garage, could have been someone talking loudly on the phone and Braley replied, it could have been.
Braley said that on the afternoon of Aug. 13, 2008, while officers were still investigating, he went to the prosecutor's office to file an arrest warrant. He agreed he had not talked to any witnesses yet, had not looked at the text messages or phone records yet, and had not requested Sarah's medical records yet. No one in the neighborhood indicated that there were problems, he said.
He talked to Ryan's co-workers at the Warren County Visitor's Bureau and to Ben Huffman, who often traveled with Ryan for work. Huffman told him that Ryan never acted improperly or had any extramarital relationships while away from home. No further questions.
Re-Direct: John Arnold
Braley agreed the Forensic Files episode of "Summer Obsession" aired multiple times but didn't know when it aired in Iowa.
He agreed he would expect to see water on the floor if someone was pulled out of a full tub and also if a body was pulled out of a drained tub. He agreed he wasn't told if Sarah was on her period or if she had any urinary problems.
He agreed only one full-time detective worked in Hamilton Twp., now and in 2008 and he's the lead detective of one. There was soft laughter in the courtroom.
He said he never heard the comment Ruth Ann Steward allegedly made about him charging Ryan, until today. Nothing further.