The Meadville Tribune
VERNON TOWNSHIP —
Editor’s note: Readers are advised that testimony presented during a preliminary hearing Wednesday morning before Vernon Township Area Magisterial District Judge Michael Rossi contained brutal details about the alleged attack that killed Ohio resident Brandy M. Stevens on May 17. Some of those details have been included in the story that follows and may be offensive to some readers.
As the brutal story of the May 17 death of 20-year-old Ohio resident Brandy M. Stevens unfolded during a preliminary hearing lasting more than two hours, officers found themselves in a unique role. Following the hasty conversion of the Vernon Township Municipal Building’s public meeting room into a temporary courtroom, they distributed tissues as observers on both sides wept.
Ashley Marie Barber, 20, and Jade Nichole Olmstead, 19, both of 29558 Drake Hill Road, Cochranton, have each been charged by Pennsylvania State Police with one count each of criminal homicide, conspiracy to commit criminal homicide and tampering with physical evidence.
When the parking lot of Vernon Township Area Magisterial District Judge Michael Rossi’s court filled with friends and family members of the victim and her accused killers long before the preliminary hearing was scheduled to begin Wednesday morning, arrangements for a larger venue were quickly put into place.
Both Barber and Olmstead were bound over to Crawford County Court of Common Pleas and an Aug. 24 arraignment date has been tentatively set.
The obituary in her local paper noted that Stevens, a Youngstown native, enrolled at Youngstown State University to study sociology following her 2010 graduation from Boardman (Ohio) High School. While at Boardman, Stevens was a member of the orchestra, served on the staff of the school newspaper and was a member of the Italian and Key clubs. A regular attendee at literary meetings at the Boardman library, she was remembered as someone who loved music and writing and enjoyed reading.
“I want people to know that Brandy didn’t deserve this — she was a college student trying to make her way through life,” family friend Krysti Horvat of Youngstown, Ohio, told the Tribune after Wednesday’s proceeding came to an end.
The testimony began with the victim’s grandmother, Kathy Stevens of Poland, Ohio, who triggered the chain of events leading to the discovery of her granddaughter’s body and the subsequent arrest of her alleged killers on May 19 when she filed a missing person report with the Beaver Township (Ohio) police. Kathy Stevens testified that Brandy, who had lived with her for the past 3 1/2 years, always kept in regular contact with her by cell phone whenever she was away from home.
In response to a question from Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz, Stevens described her granddaughter’s sexual orientation as “gay — homosexual.”
At the request of the defense, shackles were removed before the start of the preliminary hearing from the wrists of both defendants, who have been held without bail at Crawford County jail since their May 24 arrests.
Pennsylvania State Police officers involved with various stages of the investigation testified about what Barber and Olmstead told police during extended questioning.
Troopers from the Meadville barracks’ Forensic Services Unit were sent to 29558 Drake Hill Road in Wayne Township on May 23 to investigate an apparent blood stain in the Drake Hill Road roadway in connection with the missing person investigation initiated days earlier by the Beaver Township (Ohio) police.
When a preliminary test indicated the substance was indeed some kind of blood and certain unnamed items were found in the nearby house during a preliminary search, troopers were sent to obtain a formal search warrant and a cadaver dog was brought to the scene.
After spotting tire tracks leading across a grassy area from the road into nearby woods, officers followed the tracks to a logging road they then followed.
Approximately 50 yards into the woods, they located a makeshift “foundation” covering dirt that wasn’t the same color as its surroundings. When a stick pushed into the dirt indicated that it was not evenly compacted — a sign that digging may have recently taken place — Crawford County Coroner Scott Schell was called to the scene and hours of extremely careful excavation began.
The grave under the makeshift foundation was only 22 inches deep. In the grave, police found Stevens’ clothed body — minus shoes and socks — with a yellow-colored rope wrapped around her neck.
An empty 16-ounce water bottle, a black ski mask, a black “Ohio State” hoodie sweatshirt and three or four large rocks were found with the body. One especially large rock with blood on it was found on her chest area.
During state police interviews with Barber and Olmstead, several versions of events leading up to Stevens’ death emerged.
During her first interview with police, Barber allegedly said she was involved in an intimate homosexual relationship with Olmstead. According to Barber, she and Olmstead had been a couple several years earlier and had broken up; during their breakup, Olmstead had a relationship with Stevens. At the time of the incident, Barber and Olmstead were living with Barber’s parents in their Drake Hill Road residence.
The first story Barber allegedly told police ended with Stevens walking up Drake Hill Road, never to be seen again — after telling Barber and Olmstead to clean the car she had driven to their home and hide it.
Later the same day, Barber implicated her father as the person who delivered the death blow, allegedly telling police she had lied earlier because she was afraid.
During a one-on-one interview, Olmstead allegedly told police she contacted Stevens and asked her to come to the house because she wanted to leave with her. Olmstead also allegedly said that the real reason was because they wanted to kill her.
During another one-on-one interview, Barber allegedly told police her mom and dad weren’t involved. In fact, they weren’t even home. This time, Barber told police she and Olmstead planned the whole thing to scare Stevens because of a previous abusive relationship. According to that plan, Olmstead would bring Stevens to the “fort” (where her body would eventually be found) and Barber would jump out and scare Stevens.
Stevens was allegedly brought to the fort.
The alleged attack
No estimate was given of the amount of time that may have elapsed from the beginning to the end of the alleged attack. However, reports from officers who interviewed the defendants both individually and together indicate that a combination of events took place, based on their statements during interrogation.
Barber and Olmstead allegedly admit to both punching and kicking Stevens until she fell to the ground. While Stevens laid face-down on the ground, Barber allegedly said she grabbed her by the head and beat her head against a tree stump multiple times. While Olmstead allegedly hit Stevens on the head with a shovel about four times — twice with the flat side to stun her and then several times with the sharp edge, striking one blow that resulted in a large cut and another that broke through her skull and revealed the brain — Barber allegedly grabbed the yellow rope, which was already at the site, looped it around Stevens’ neck and pulled on it to strangle her.
Olmstead allegedly told police that Stevens was screaming for her life. “It was like she was seeing someone nobody else could see,” she was recorded as saying.
Together, they allegedly proceeded to place Stevens’ body in the shallow grave.
At that point, they realized she was still alive; Barber allegedly told police that her shirt was pulled up and she could see Stevens’ chest rise and fall. Barber then found a large rock and threw it on Stevens’ face. After being hit with the rock, Stevens’ ears began to turn purple and Barber poured water onto her face and nose area. At first, the water gurgled. When it stopped, Barber and Olmstead allegedly covered Stevens with dirt.
Both Barber and Olmstead told police they put the sweatshirt into the grave because so much blood had gotten onto it. The hat was included because they had used it to pick up pieces of her brain and put them in the grave.
State Police testified that only Dr. Eric Vey, who performed the autopsy on Stevens, was qualified to testify about the principal cause of death. Vey, a forensic pathologist who performs autopsies for 12 counties in northwest Pennsylvania including Crawford County, was not present for Wednesday’s hearing.
However, the combination of events appears to be supported by observations about the physical condition of the body recorded during the autopsy. For example, examiners noted sustained blunt force trauma to the head including 15 lacerations to the scalp; multiple scalp and facial injuries; a skull fracture and hemorrhage; blunt force trauma to the body; a ligature around the neck; evidence of suffocation including an article of clothing placed in her mouth; and evidence of suffocation involving “organic and earthen ground liquid.” The observations were summed up as “suffocation in a setting of blunt force trauma and ligature application”; it was briefly noted that dirt caused her to suffocate.
As for the missing shoes, Barber and Olmstead both allegedly told police that they burned them — along with their own bloodstained clothing and some of Stevens’ personal possessions.
District Attorney Schultz said he is weighing his options in regard to considering it a death penalty case and will make that decision closer to a trial date, which is not yet determined.
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.