By Keith Gushard
Judge Mark Stevens will decide if statements homicide suspects Ashley Barber and Jade Olmstead made to authorities allegedly confessing their guilt will be admitted at their trial in Crawford County Court of Common Pleas.
Barber, 20, and Olmstead, 19, both of 29558 Drake Hill Road, Cochranton, are charged by Pennsylvania State Police with brutally beating and then burying Brandy Stevens, 19, while she still was alive in a shallow grave near the home the two shared in Wayne Township on May 17 2012.
Defense attorneys for the two women and the commonwealth appeared Thursday before Stevens for a pretrial hearing in county court on a variety of issues including whether the initial detention of the two women by state police was valid; and if the women’s subsequent statements allegedly admitting the crime to police should be admissible at trial.
Stevens ordered defense attorneys Robert Draudt for Barber and John Knorr for Olmstead to file legal briefs on their respective arguments by Sept. 13 and gave District Attorney Francis Schultz until Sept. 20 to respond.
Pennsylvania State Police have charged Barber and Olmstead with homicide, conspiracy to commit homicide and tampering with physical evidence.
Authorities allege Barber and Olmstead lured Stevens of Beaver Township, Mahoning County, Ohio, to the Wayne Township home, brutally beat her and buried Stevens in the woods in a 22-inch deep grave while Stevens was still alive.
Police allege the crime stemmed from a love triangle between the three women.
The women allegedly confessed to police that they used a shovel to beat Stevens, cracked open Stevens’ skull and choked her with a rope before placing the woman in the shallow grave and burying her while Stevens still was alive.
Testimony at Thursday’s hearing, which lasted about four hours, came only from Pennsylvania State Police officers connected with the case. Neither of the women’s alleged taped confessions was played in court.
Pennsylvania State Police initially were involved in the case assisting Ohio authorities in Stevens’ disappearance since Stevens had intended to travel to the Barber home to visit the two women, according to testimony at Thursday’s hearing.
Stevens’ Kia Rio was found at the Barber home on Drake Hill Road, but Stevens was nowhere to be found. Police had spoken with Barber and Olmstead at the home but wanted to speak with them further about Stevens.
On May 23, 2012, James Barber, Ashley Barber’s father, signed a Pennsylvania State Police “Missing Person Declaration” alleging his daughter was missing, Trooper Eric Mallory testified.
Both Barber and Olmstead were found the afternoon of May 23, 2012, by Trooper Joseph Streyle, who was off-duty at the time and traveling at the Park Avenue Plaza.
Streyle testified Thursday he spotted the women near the woods under the overpass of Smock Bridge in Vernon Township. Streyle testified the women matched the descriptions of Barber and Olmstead and that both women turned away from him when he drove by them in his own vehicle.
Streyle said he saw the women then get in a car driven by an unknown man and Streyle decided to follow after, contacting the state police barracks in Meadville.
Streyle said he caught up with the vehicle with the man, Barber and Olmstead at a traffic light at Willow Street and Park Avenue in Meadville. Streyle said he exited his vehicle, identified himself as a state trooper, showing the driver his police badge, and asked the driver to park in the parking lot of the former Sandy’s European Marketplace building.
Streyle said the driver complied and Streyle got some information from both women before both Meadville Police and state police officers arrived on the scene a few minutes later.
Cpl. Kurt Sitler testified both Barber and Olmstead were advised state police wanted to speak to them about Stevens’ disappearance and Barber also was told that her father had declared her a missing person.
Sitler said both women were asked to go to the state police barracks but that they were not in custody nor were they under arrest. Both women voluntarily rode with officers in separate vehicles back to the barracks where they were interviewed, Sitler said.
Barber and Olmstead initially were interviewed separately — Barber by Mallory and Olmstead by Trooper Dale Wimer.
Both Wimer and Mallory testified Thursday that Olmstead and Barber were not handcuffed or restrained during their interviews.
Mallory testified that Barber’s initial interview concluded when Barber asked to see either Olmstead or a lawyer.
“It’s all going to come out anyway. I want to talk to Jade first.” Mallory quoted Barber as saying.
Barber’s request to see Olmstead was granted and the two women were allowed to spend time alone together in an interview room with food and drinks, Mallory said.
Mallory said he and Trooper Todd Giliberto re-entered the interview room after Barber and Olmstead were allowed to eat and Mallory advised the women of their rights.
Both women were interviewed together but later were separated, Mallory said.
In her subsequent separate interview, Olmstead eventually provided additional information about Stevens’ death, Mallory said.
Barber then was interviewed again alone and told of Olmstead’s statement, Mallory said. Barber then provided information on Stevens’ death, Mallory said.
Following Thursday’s hearing, both women were returned to the Crawford County jail without bond.
Barber and Olmstead currently are scheduled to go to trial in Crawford County court in November.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.