By Keith Gushard
The Meadville Tribune
Editor’s note: This story may be too graphic for some readers.
“We were going to kill her,” Jade Olmstead said when questioned in Crawford County Court of Common Pleas why she invited Brandy Stevens to the Cochranton area about 18 months ago.
“Yes,” Olmstead responded when asked Thursday by Judge Mark Stevens if she had killed Brandy Stevens. Judge Stevens is not related to the murder victim, Brandy Stevens, 19, of the Poland, Ohio, area.
On Thursday, a tearful Olmstead pleaded guilty in county court before Judge Stevens to first-degree murder. She was given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole following a more than three-hour plea and sentencing hearing.
Olmstead, 20, and Ashley Marie Barber, 20, were charged by Pennsylvania State Police with luring Stevens, 19, from her home to the Wayne Township home Olmstead and Barber shared with Barber’s parents. Barber is scheduled to go to trial in county court in January for her alleged role in the case.
Police claim that once Stevens arrived at the home on May 17, 2012, Olmstead and Barber then brutally beat Stevens and buried her in the nearby woods in a shallow grave while Stevens still was alive.
Police allege the crime stemmed from a love triangle between the three women.
Olmstead was set to go to trial later this month in county court on all three of the charges against her. However, with Olmstead’s guilty plea and sentencing to first degree murder on Thursday, the conspiracy to commit homicide and tampering with physical evidence charges against her were withdrawn by the Crawford County District Attorney’s Office.
In questioning by the judge before entering her guilty plea, Olmstead laid out the course of events that lead to Brandy Stevens’ death.
Olmstead said she and Barber talked about and agreed to lure Stevens to their home in order to kill the woman. When Stevens arrived, Olmstead walked her to the nearby woods where Barber was in hiding and the pair surprised Stevens, Olmstead testified.
Olmstead said she and Barber punched and kicked Stevens, knocking her to the ground. Olmstead then hit Stevens in the head with the blade edge of a shovel four times as Barber held Stevens face down on the ground, Olmstead testified. That testimony by Olmstead brought soft sobs from some of the 10 Stevens’ family members and friends in the courtroom gallery Thursday.
“Yes,” Olmstead responded when asked by the judge if she saw visible injuries to Stevens’ head. Olmstead also admitted to seeing a lot of blood.
Both she and Barber then placed Stevens in a shallow grave they had dug prior to the incident, Olmstead said. The two then covered Stevens with dirt, Olmstead testified. Olmstead said she and Barber 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.
District Attorney Francis Schultz said an autopsy found Brandy Stevens “had 15 lacerations to her scalp, multiple scalp and facial contusions, a fractured skull, hemorrhage in her brain, multiple contusions and lacerations on her body, broken ribs, and dirt in her nasal passages and in her bronchial tubes that proves she was breathing when this defendant buried her in the ground.”
Schultz said that writings Olmstead made in a notebook following Stevens’ death and found by police showed the homicide was planned and thought out.
“That person didn’t deserve to have life,” Schultz read, quoting a passage in Olmstead’s notebook made after the killing. “Do I feel guilty? No, I feel proud.”
Four of Stevens’ family members and friends spoke prior to Olmstead’s sentencing — each embracing Stevens’ memory and chastising Olmstead.
Carrie Rosine, Stevens’ mother, said that her daughter looked for the good in everyone, was sensitive to others’ needs and was just starting her adult life when she was killed.
“She was cruelly and unjustly taken,” Rosine said.
“She was taken from us — it’s been very hard every day,” a sobbing Kathy Stevens, Stevens’ grandmother, said. “She never hurt anybody.”
Christy Horvat, one of Stevens’ friends, said there were no clear answers as to why the murder happened.
“We’re all different people since Brandy was taken away,” Horvat said.
“A cruel and sick-minded person” is how Brenda Barrett, the victim’s aunt, described Olmstead when given the opportunity to address the court. “You deserve much more than life in prison. You deserve every bit of torture you gave Brandy — and then some.”
However, Olmstead’s father, Donald Olmstead, and her defense attorney, John Knorr, said tried to paint a different picture of Olmstead.
“Me and my wife — our hearts go out to the family,” a tearful Donald Olmstead said. “When we moved to Maryland, we hoped to keep her away from people she had trouble with in the past.”
Mr. Olmstead told the court his daughter had been molested by a neighbor when she was 13, but the man was never prosecuted.
“I don’t want her portrayed as a monster,” he said. “I’m truly sorry for the family.”
Knorr said his client was a different person than who she was when the murder took place.
“What Jade Olmstead did 18 months ago was monstrous, but she’s not a monster,” Knorr said.
“She’s guilty and freely acknowledges that,” Knorr said of why Olmstead was entering a plea. “She does not want to make Brandy’s family sit through a trial. She knows how terrible the thing is she and Ashley have done to their daughter.”
Speaking on her own behalf, a crying Olmstead said she was “truly and deeply sorry for what happened. Brandy did not deserve what happened to her.”
In pronouncing the sentence, Judge Stevens said he couldn’t imagine what the victim’s family was going through. He continued to say he hoped some good would come from the imposition of the life sentence.
“Not that it will bring Brandy back, but I’m hoping it will bring some sense of closure to the family,” he said.
Following the sentencing, Knorr told the Tribune the case “was a tragedy all the way around.”
Schultz said he was happy to have a guilty plea to first degree murder resulting in a life sentence without parole in connection with the case.
Schultz also commended the work of Pennsylvania State Police in investigating the case and Trooper Eric Mallory, the lead investigator, in doing “an outstanding job in bringing this defendant to justice.”
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.