MEADVILLE — Editor’s note: This story may be too graphic for some readers.
“I don’t have much to say — I have no explanation,” Ashley Barber said during sentencing Thursday in Crawford County Court of Common Pleas of why she killed Brandy Stevens. “You may not believe me, but I do apologize.”
Dressed in green prison garb and shackled both at her hands and feet, Barber, 20, pleaded guilty Thursday before Judge Mark Stevens to first-degree murder and was given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole for her role in the May 2012 killing in Wayne Township. Judge Stevens is not related to Brandy Stevens.
Barber was set to go to trial in January on Pennsylvania State Police charges of criminal homicide, conspiracy to commit homicide and tampering with physical evidence for the death of Brandy Stevens, 19, of Poland, Ohio. With her guilty plea and sentencing Thursday to first-degree murder, the conspiracy to commit homicide and tampering with physical evidence charges against Barber were withdrawn by the Crawford County District Attorney’s Office.
According to authorities, the homicide stemmed from a love triangle between Barber and co-defendant Jade Olmstead, 20, and the Stevens woman. Barber and Olmstead lured Stevens from her home to the Wayne Township home Barber and Olmstead shared with Barber’s parents and killed Stevens on May 17, 2012, authorities said.
On Oct. 31, Olmstead pleaded guilty before Judge Stevens to first-degree murder and was given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
Both Barber and Olmstead admitted to severely beating Stevens, waterboarding the woman and burying her alive.
Barber’s comments, sometimes as her voice shook with emotion, came Thursday near the end of a more than three-hour plea and sentencing hearing for her before Judge Stevens.
“One action done does not define someone’s life,” Barber told the judge. “This, too, shall pass for me. ... Overall, I’m sorry.”
In pronouncing the sentence, Judge Stevens noted the lives of Barber, Olmstead and Brandy Stevens permanently and directly were changed by the events of May 17, 2012, and “hundreds of other lives” of their family and friends changed as well.
“The punishment dictated by the law fits,” Stevens said before pronouncing the sentence, adding, “We have to protect society.”
The judge also said he was perplexed by the homicide.
“This case more than any other asks the question ‘Why?’ and I don’t have an answer and the system doesn’t have an answer,” Stevens said. “I just wish I knew why.”
In questioning by the judge before entering her guilty plea, Barber admitted to killing Stevens.
“To get her to leave us alone,” Barber said when asked why she and Olmstead lured Stevens to the Wayne Township home.
When Stevens arrived, Olmstead walked her to the nearby woods where Barber was in hiding and the pair surprised Stevens, Barber testified.
Under questioning by the judge, Barber said Olmstead punched Stevens and then she joined in the fight with Stevens eventually knocked to the ground. Stevens fought back, Barber said, and the pair continued to assault Stevens.
Olmstead hit Stevens in the head with a shovel several times, opening a wound in Stevens’ skull, Barber said. Barber said she grabbed Stevens by the neck and hit Stevens’ forehead on a stump several times before putting a rope around Stevens’ neck. Barber said she then used the rope to drop Stevens’ head on the stump. Barber also said she got behind Stevens, putting her weight on Stevens’ back and pulled the woman’s head up with the rope.
Barber testified she dropped a boulder on Stevens’ face and then poured water in Stevens’ mouth in further attempts to kill the woman.
Many of the 10 Stevens’ family members and friends in attendance left the courtroom gallery before Barber’s graphic testimony began. Many had heard similar testimony about the homicide two weeks ago when Olmstead entered her guilty plea.
“Yes,” Barber said when asked by the judge if she saw injuries to Stevens’ head. Olmstead also admitted to seeing a lot of blood.
Barber said she and Olmstead put Stevens in a shallow grave they dug and then covered Stevens with dirt. Barber said Olmstead said she burned Stevens’ shoes and some of Stevens’ personal possessions and put Stevens’ car in a garage at the home in an effort to cover their crime.
“Heinous” is how District Attorney Francis Schultz described the homicide by Barber and Olmstead. “In my 16 years as a prosecutor, I have never seen anything like this.”
“Brandy Stevens wasn’t bothering anybody,” Schultz said. “They lured her here to kill her.”
Schultz said that writings Barber made in a notebook following Stevens’ death and found by police showed the homicide was planned and thought out and revealed Barber’s true nature.
“I (expletive) murdered your 20-year-old mistake,” Schultz read, quoting a passage in a letter Barber wrote in a notebook to Stevens’ mother. “She deserved it (expletive).”
That letter was dated May 17, 2012, the same day of the homicide, Schultz said.
Olmstead had made similar writings in a notebook as well.
As they did at Olmstead’s sentencing, four of Stevens’ family members and friends spoke prior to Barber being sentenced. Each embraced Stevens’ memory and chastised Barber for the killing.
“She was brutally and unjustly taken,” Carrie Rosine, Stevens’ mother, said on Thursday, noting her daughter’s adult life “was cut off by Ashley Barber. Many lives have been shattered.”
Brenda Barrett, Stevens’ aunt, told Barber “No one deserves what you put her through.”
“You deserve much more than life in prison,” Barrett said. “You deserve every bit of torture you put Brandy through — and then some. You are an evil and immoral person. You have taken so much from us.”
When given the opportunity to address the court, Barber’s mother, Marie, said while sobbing, “I want to extend a heartfelt apology and sympathy to Brandy’s family and friends. The way our daughter is portrayed is not the girl we know and love.”
Mrs. Barber said her daughter was an activist for causes and wanted to join the Peace Corps.
“I pray one day she’ll prove her value to society,” Mrs. Barber said in her brief remarks.
Following the sentencing, Robert Draudt, Barber’s court-appointed defense attorney, said his client entered a plea to spare the Stevens family from going through a trial.
“This is a terrible case,” Draudt said. “It’s just a shame that it occurred.”
Schultz said he was happy to have a guilty plea to first-degree murder from Barber resulting in her receiving a life sentence without parole — just as her co-defendant did.
“It’s a good result in this horrific case,” Schultz said.
Schultz commended the work of Pennsylvania State Police and Trooper Eric Mallory, the lead investigator, in investigating the case.
“The state police did an excellent job in not only gathering physical evidence, but in obtaining confessions — detailed confessions from both defendants,” Schultz said. “I can’t say enough about the police work done in this case.”
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.