10 Years “Wasted” in Prison

Man still denies drowning his young wife; waits for federal ruling on DNA, other issues

Janice Hisle
11 min readFeb 16, 2021


In prison, time passes differently. Yesterdays melt into todays and tomorrows with little variation.

Yet, despite the regimented sameness of each day behind bars, every inmate has an internal alarm clock that chimes reminders on certain days: birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. For Ryan Widmer, one of those red-letter days has just passed.

For him, Feb. 15th isn’t just the day after Valentine’s Day. That date left its mark in 2011, when he was convicted of killing the woman he loved, his bride of just four months.

Ten years have passed since then — and 10 times, Widmer has watched the calendar flip to Feb. 15 as he sits in a central Ohio prison cell. Each time, Widmer catches himself thinking:

“Jesus, I can’t believe another year is gone — wasted in here.”

Age and incarceration take a toll. From left, Ryan Widmer, when first booked into jail (2008); after his murder conviction (2011) and now (2021).

While Widmer’s detractors say he deserves every hour of the 15-to-life sentence he’s serving for the 2008 bathtub drowning of his wife, Sarah, Widmer still asserts: “I’m in prison for something I didn’t do.” He still has supporters who say the evidence against him was less-than-solid. But so far, appeals have failed.

For more than half of his incarceration, Widmer has been waiting for a federal judge in Dayton, Ohio, to decide whether he was wrongfully imprisoned based on a flawed trial and insufficient evidence. His supporters cite reasons to believe that Sarah’s death wasn’t a murder at all. And they are convinced that a rush to judgment, investigative missteps and jurors’ misperceptions landed an innocent man in prison.

An unforgettable true-crime drama

Now 40 years old, with forehead creases and salt-and-pepper facial hair, Widmer was a clean-cut, fresh-faced 27-year-old when he became embroiled in one of southwest Ohio’s most-debated criminal cases. As a news reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer, I was assigned to cover the case, giving me a front-row seat to a spectacle that dominated the local news for three years.

Widmer and his young wife, Sarah, 24, looked like “the kids next door.” The college-educated couple’s quiet suburban life seemed idyllic. Both had good jobs; she worked as a dental hygienist and he was a sports-marketer. They were just settling into the rhythms of married life when the unthinkable happened. Sarah drowned in her own bathtub — and Widmer was accused of being her killer.

Friends and family rallied around him, saying authorities had to be mistaken. Even Sarah’s relatives supported Widmer — at least at first.

The consensus: He was polite, quiet and a little socially awkward. He was a sports fanatic and a talented baseball player. “Not a mean bone in his body,” one person said. Heck, people who knew Widmer best could hardly picture him getting angry enough to stomp the life out of a bug. He would never be capable of doing what prosecutors alleged: cruelly forcing Sarah’s beautiful face into the water until she went limp and lifeless, friends said.

But, ahh, hardly anyone admits: Yeah, I can totally picture so-and-so being a killer. More often than not, people fail to detect a murderer in the making. Cops say almost anyone is capable of killing, under the right circumstances; I agree. But I also think almost anyone can be wrongfully accused. And therein lies the rub.

Almost instantly, the case became a cause célèbre.

It seemed everyone had an opinion about “the bathtub case.” And the small-town rumor mill went into overdrive, churning out creative falsehoods faster than I could investigate them.

More than a dozen years later, the furor has quieted. Yet the Widmer saga still reaches out and captivates many people locally, nationally and even internationally. As the author of an award-winning book about the case, I have received emails and Facebook inquiries from as far away as Australia.

I’ve fielded reports of medical misdiagnoses, near-drownings in bathtubs from seizures and other disorders, and hypotheses about what may have really happened in the Widmer bathroom. Online searches for the case spike nearly every time the Oxygen channel reruns Dateline NBC’s 2009 special on the Widmers, “Mystery in the Master Bedroom.” Even people who feed themselves a steady diet of true-crime stories often tell me: This story has gripped them like few others have.

Victory for prosecutors didn’t quell questions

For many folks, the Widmer case is mystifying because the evidence seems ambiguous at best; the motive, unclear.

Sarah and Ryan Widmer, all smiles, in undated photo.

Widmer did not profit from his wife’s death, as no life-insurance policy was in force. There was no proof of marital infidelity. And Widmer was a college-educated newlywed with no prior history of violence. Friends said they seemed to be a very happy couple. But prosecutors said: No one knows what discord might lurk behind closed doors.

Prosecutors made three attempts before they scored a conviction on Feb. 15, 2011.

Just before the 10-year anniversary of that date, Widmer said: I’ll never forget the verdict being read, and hearing those awful words…”

Guilty of murder.

That’s what a judge declared, reading the 12 jurors’ unanimous verdict.

Widmer remembers feeling “something wasn’t right,” when he learned the jury had reached a decision in about 12 hours, way faster than in his two preceding trials. In 2010, a jury deliberated more than 30 hours before deadlocking; a year earlier, Widmer’s first jury deliberated about 23 hours, ending in a guilty verdict that was tossed out because of juror misconduct.

Widmer said the relatively speedy verdict in 2011 made him question whether jurors had given due consideration to all the evidence. Jurors said they weighed it carefully. But some jurors got the facts wrong in public interviews; one even claimed Widmer may have drowned his wife in the toilet — a theory discussed in his first two trials but not in the third trial. Such statements made people wonder whether some jurors failed to follow instructions, which included admonitions to keep gossip or past media reports from infecting their deliberations.

And some key information that might have swayed the jury was left out of the trial, Widmer says.

In a federal “habeas corpus” petition, Widmer’s lawyer argues that jurors should have been allowed to hear about credibility concerns that swirled around the lead detective. (After Widmer’s conviction, the detective was subjected to an investigation; he denied any wrongdoing but resigned from the local police force.)

Another key piece of information that was missing from Widmer’s trial: analysis of DNA from Widmer’s dead wife, Sarah. His lawyer wants a court to order the DNA released so it can be tested for genetic disorders. Sarah suffered from strange bouts of sleepiness. She also exhibited other characteristics that, in hindsight, may have signaled that an undiagnosed medical problem contributed to her drowning.

Graphic prepared by author Janice Hisle in 2018, 10 years after Sarah drowned.

At trial, prosecutors said it was far-fetched to think that a hidden health issue caused Sarah’s drowning. Ryan and Sarah were the only occupants of the house that night, prosecutors said, and circumstances all pointed to Ryan as the perpetrator.

But others say incontrovertible facts cast doubt on whether Sarah was slain.

Investigators found no sign of a struggle in the Widmer home. They also found no “defensive wounds” on Sarah; her hands, feet, elbows, knees and knuckles were injury-free. Witnesses who encountered him in his boxer briefs at the scene all concurred: there was not a single scratch on Ryan, despite the alleged tussle. And investigators also found no trace of drugs that could have incapacitated Sarah, nor any injuries that would have knocked her unconscious.

All of that is undisputed.

Sarah, however, did suffer bruises on her head, neck and upper chest. Defense witnesses said those marks were consistent with lifesaving efforts; prosecution witnesses conceded that a large, four-inch-long bruise inside the crook of her elbow had been caused by a medic’s needle insertion.

The world’s foremost death investigator, Dr. Werner U. Spitz, who has testified in dozens of famous cases, was retained to do a second autopsy for the defense.

His opinion: Areas of bleeding deep inside Sarah’s neck most likely came from an IV line inserted there. But the county coroner disagreed. He opined that force caused the neck/chest bruising and was a key indicator of homicide.

Dr. Spitz, however, said it was impossible for anyone to pin down the manner of Sarah’s death, based on all the known facts.

Dr. Spitz called her death not just “undetermined,” but “undeterminable.”

How it happened remains a mystery

No witness was able to describe a murder scenario that accounted for the pattern of injury and non-injury, along with the dry condition of the bathroom — and the dryness of Sarah’s body.

The Widmer bathtub was dusted with black powder to expose latent fingerprints; none materialized. But some finger “streaks” did. Those may have been made by a smaller hand — an expert’s assertion that lacks scientific basis, Widmer’s lawyer claims in a federal court case.

First-responding medics and police testified Sarah’s body seemed dry for a just-drowned victim, raising suspicions that Widmer lied about the timing and events surrounding Sarah’s drowning. But Widmer’s lawyers say investigators incorrectly assumed that Widmer had fished his wife out of a tubful of water.

Instead, here’s what happened, according to Widmer and his lawyers: Upon discovering Sarah unconscious, he instinctively pulled the drain plug; the water began draining while Sarah was still in the tub as Widmer tried to figure out how to help her. This sequence of events explains why her skin seemed drier-than-expected, they say.

But Widmer’s critics don’t buy this explanation; they assert that a “normal” person would react by immediately lifting her unconscious body out of the water. They think he’s lying; of course, young women don’t just drown in their bathtubs without being drugged or forced underwater, they point out.

Yet drownings in tubs do happen more often than most people might guess. In 2006, a Scripps Howard News Service study found that, on average, one American drowns in a tub, hot tub or spa every day — and “federal officials admit tub drownings are little-understood and not often studied.”

Sarah’s relatives have made no public statements in reaction to alternative, non-homicidal theories. After an initial show of support for Widmer, Sarah’s family cut off contact with him. Over the years, her relatives declined interview requests, asking for privacy. However, when Widmer was convicted in 2011, her family issued a statement declaring: “justice has been served for Sarah.”

Thoughts of what was — and of what might have been

Besides the day Widmer was convicted, Feb. 15, other dates that stand out in his memory include the date Sarah died, Aug. 11, 2008, and her birthday, Jan. 2, 1984; she would have just turned 37.

Around those two dates, loyal friends of Widmer continue to visit Sarah’s grave, often leaving flowers in Widmer’s stead. Widmer said those gravesite visits are among the nicest things anyone has done for him while he’s been imprisoned.

Another much-appreciated gesture: a friend sends gifts on Widmer’s behalf to his son for his birthday and Christmas. (That son, now 10, was born to a woman whom Widmer met a year after his wife died, while he was awaiting his second trial. That relationship, which stirred controversy for Widmer, ended early in his prison term.)

Widmer says his deceased wife, Sarah, is never far from his mind. Despite being blamed for her death, he symbolized his love for her with a prison tattoo on his left hand. In cursive letters, the name, “Sarah,” encircles his wedding-ring finger.

He often wonders, “What my life could have been with her,” if she hadn’t drowned. And he also wonders, “Unfortunately, what my life could have been without her.” He was referring to being acquitted, then continuing his life as a widower and a free man.

Widmer also wishes that his mom, Jill, were still alive. She believed in his innocence and emptied her retirement accounts to pay for his defense; the family spent about $250,000 for the first trial alone. It’s hard to say how much his defense cost for all three trials, but it most likely exceeded $500,000.

Distraught after her son’s murder conviction in 2011, Jill Widmer drowned her sorrows in alcohol and became hermit-like; she was 55 when Ryan’s twin brother found her dead on her kitchen floor in 2013. She had pretty much drunk herself to death; an autopsy confirmed she died from chronic alcohol abuse. Because the Widmer family would have had to pay for guards to watch Ryan, he did not attend her funeral.

Widmer used to get regular visits from family and friends, including one lady who has been “like a second mom” to him. But, because of restrictions intended to halt the spread of COVID-19, almost a year has elapsed since he and fellow prisoners have seen any loved ones. Ohio prisons stopped in-person visits in March 2020, as the pandemic took hold; visits were just starting to resume at some institutions this month, but Ryan’s prison was not on the initial list.

Widmer in prison, posing with rescue dog, Roxie, in 2019.

An activity that has helped Widmer feel like he is contributing to society — a dog-fostering program with various rescue groups — has also been curtailed because of the pandemic. During the past 10 years, Widmer has cared for an estimated 50 dogs in prison. He and his wife, Sarah, were dog-lovers and had taken steps to adopt a puppy just before her death.

Widmer still talks by phone with supporters, and exchanges email-type messages with them. He also occasionally schedules “video visits” with some of them. Now and then, he still hears from strangers who have heard about his case, including people who want to feature it on TV shows, blogs or podcasts.

Despite some disappointing experiences, Widmer still occasionally cooperates for those segments. “I’m already in prison for something I didn’t do, so things can’t get any worse for me,” he said.

While the risk of an unfair or inaccurate portrayal is always present, so is the chance for a benefit: Catching the attention of someone who can help uncover information that could lead to a reversal of his conviction.

At the very least, “If they do it and get a story out there in an accurate way, who knows who that story might touch?” Widmer said. He likes the idea of “shedding light on how things could go completely wrong” in the justice system.

Widmer said he would prefer to avoid the spotlight, but “I’m just looking for any help to get my life back.”

Unless the federal judge rules in his favor, Widmer’s first chance at release will come in July 2025.

No one seems to know why Widmer’s federal case, first filed in 2014 and argued in 2015, has been pending so long without a ruling. The Ohio Innocence Project (OIP), which fights to free wrongfully convicted people, is well aware of Widmer’s case.

His appellate lawyer, Michele Berry, is married to OIP Director Mark Godsey. But OIP typically doesn’t dive into cases until other remedies are exhausted — and Widmer said he continues hoping the federal court will rule in his favor.

“Each year that passes, I hope the next year will be the year I’m free,” he said.

Janice Hisle’s book about the Widmer case, SUBMERGED: Ryan Widmer, his drowned bride and the justice system, won the true-crime category in two national contests for independent authors in 2020: The IndieReader Discovery Awards and The National Indie Excellence Awards.

For more about the Widmer case, journalism and true crime, please follow www.facebook.com/thesubmergedbook.

Ryan’s supporters can be reached at www.freeryanwidmer.org.



Janice Hisle

True crime writer and bulldog journalist — with a heart. Diversions to maintain sanity: teaching fitness classes & critiquing travel destinations.