The drowning of Sarah Widmer

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In August of 2008, 24-year-old Sarah Widmer was a newlywed, married to her husband, 27-year-old Ryan Widmer. The two met on a blind date in August of 2006 at a pub & had been inseparable since. Ryan was described as laid-back, a baseball player, sports fanatic, clean cut, quiet, a little socially awkward & someone who didn’t have a mean bone in his body. Sarah was described as super organized & someone who liked things just so. She was also very mature & honest. Sarah was the one in the relationship who planned things & took charge while Ryan was happy to just go with the flow. After purchasing a four bedroom house together in a nice neighborhood in Morrow, Ohio, they got married; at the time of this story, the couple had been married only four months. Friends said that they’d never seen Ryan happier than on his wedding day in April; he’d even taken ballroom dancing lessons to perfect the first dance.

They had gone to Costa Rica for their honeymoon & were planning their next trip to Cancun. Life was exciting as they dreamed of their future together which included getting a puppy in the very near future. They were working on their house together & had built a beautiful deck in the backyard. Sarah worked as a dental hygienist at a practice in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, about forty miles from their house & Ryan was a sports marketer. 

On the night of Monday, August 11, 2008, the couple came home after work & ate leftover hamburgers, corn on the cob & cheesy potatoes for dinner & watched TV. Ryan said that they watched some of Sarah’s favorite shows until she let him switch over to the Bengals first preseason football game against Green Bay. While Ryan continued to watch football, Sarah headed to their primary bedroom to take a bath. Before Sarah went upstairs, Ryan remembered that she asked him to make sure the doors were locked before he came to bed & then they both said, “I love you.”

At 10:49 pm, Ryan called 911 & in the call that lasted less than seven minutes, Ryan told the dispatcher that his wife had fallen asleep in the bath, “My wife, she fell asleep in the bathtub, I think. I was downstairs. I just came up here & she was laying face down in the bathtub.”  He told the dispatcher that Sarah falls asleep in the bathtub “all the time.” He said she was still in the tub but the water was draining & moments later he said that the water was completely drained. The dispatcher instructed Ryan to take Sarah out of the bathtub & walked him through how to perform CPR. Ryan put the phone down & lifted Sarah out which took about 29 seconds. Ryan began CPR & police arrived within six minutes of Ryan placing the call. When they arrived, they found Sarah lying naked on their bedroom floor & police immediately noted that her body was warm & dry but her hair was wet. Ryan was also in the bedroom, dressed only in his boxer shorts & Deputy Steve Bishop did not observe any trauma or injury to Sarah.

CPR was started when Bishop found no pulse & noticed a pinkish-white frothy discharge coming out of Sarah’s nose & mouth. Paramedics who later arrived also noticed a similar frothy discharge coming from Sarah’s vaginal area. They made two attempts to intubate Sarah as she lay on her bedroom floor but both attempts were unsuccessful. They also tried to shock her heart back into rhythm using a defibrillator but were unsuccessful. At this point, Sarah was transferred to the ambulance & intubation was attempted two more times but again, unsuccessful. While Sarah was being treated in the ambulance, Ryan briefly spoke with law enforcement & admitted that he had four beers earlier in the evening. Ten minutes after Sarah was placed in the ambulance, they decided to transport her to the hospital. Ryan rode along with the ambulance & was described as visibly upset. The fifth attempt at intubation was also unsuccessful; as they arrived at the hospital, Sarah wasn’t breathing & had no pulse. The ER physician was able to intubate Sarah within 60-90 seconds of arrival. In the meantime, a nurse began to gather information from Ryan who told her that he found Sarah face-up in the bathtub, not breathing.  

At 11:41 pm, after twenty minutes of arriving to the ER, Sarah was pronounced dead. As Ryan’s mom, Jill Widmer stood by, she said that Ryan dropped to his knees & sobbed when he heard that his wife was gone. As they left the hospital, Ryan told his mom that he couldn’t go back into the house & asked her to grab some of his things. As Jill went into the primary bedroom, she noticed a couple of pieces had been cut from the carpeting which she found odd. It never crossed her mind that her son would end up a suspect in his wife’s death.

When the chief investigator for the coroner’s office arrived at the hospital, he noticed that Sarah’s hair was damp but her body was dry & had no evidence of pruning or wrinkling on her body & no visible injuries; it was investigators understanding the Sarah had been in the bath for 20-30 minutes but this is just a guess. No one knows how long it took her to fill the tub or if she did something else before getting in. When Sarah’s hands were bagged to preserve evidence, he noted that her nails were well manicured & weren’t broken or chipped & she had no defensive wounds on her hands, feet, elbows or knees. Ryan had no marks on his body. 

When police spoke with Ryan at the hospital, he told them that he & Sarah had been at their home that night, just the two of them. He explained that at about 10 pm, while he watched the football game on the downstairs TV. Sarah went upstairs to take a bath. Ryan said that he had been afraid that Sarah would fall asleep in the tub. When he was asked if she’d ever fallen asleep in the tub before, he said no, but she did fall asleep very easily. Ryan then consented to have his house searched. Investigators started to notice inconsistencies in his story, initially telling the 911 dispatcher that he found Sarah face down, though later told a nurse at the hospital that he found her lying face up. He told the 911 dispatcher that Sarah often fell asleep in the tub but when asked later, he said she’d never done it before. 

Police searched the Widmer home & noticed that the mat in front of the bathtub, a towel, a magazine & discarded clothing on the floor appeared dry. Other than a few drops of water around the drain, the bathtub was also dry. The majority of their bath products were lined on the edge of the tub, but inside the tub was a cup, loofah & a bottle of Dial soap. It struck an investigator as odd that the bottles had managed to stay lined up on the edge after Sarah had reportedly been pulled out in what was likely a frantic manner.  He also noticed a used Lysol wipe that could have been used to wipe down the area. Police clarified that Ryan was watching the Cincinnati Bengals game on downstairs TV but when investigators checked, the TV was set to a different channel while the TV in the primary bedroom was set to the Bengel’s game. Ryan explained that he had switched the channel to check on the Olympic games. Police found blood stains on the bedroom floor in the area they had found Sarah as they arrived at the scene, specifically in the area where her head & vaginal area had been. The carpet was otherwise dry.

The Warren County Coroner, Dr Russell Uptegrove completed Sarah’s autopsy & confirmed that her death had been caused from drowning. He noted both internal & external injuries to her body; faint bruising to the right side of her forehead, a petechial hemorrhage on the inner surface of her eyelid, bruising on the left side of her neck, a contusion on the back of her neck, an abrasion on her left armpit & bruising & lacerations on her upper lip.  Sarah also had deep muscle hemorrhaging in the anterior of her neck & contusions to her scalp. There were no abnormalities found during the exam of her internal organs.  The manner of death was listed as homicide. Dr Uptegrove determined that the injuries found on the autopsy were not consistent with what would be expected with injuries commonly resulting from CPR. It was determined that the injuries occurred before her death. Toxicology reports found no drugs or alcohol in Sarah’s system.

On August 13, 2008, two days after Sarah’s death, Ryan was arrested & charged with aggravated murder. Prosecution focused on the 911 call, the scene & Sarah’s injuries & believed that Ryan had forcibly held his wife under water, drowning her in the bathtub. When police dusted the bathtub for prints, they found streak marks located near the middle of the tub that were believed to be from human hands. Using a superglue fuming process & reflected ultraviolet imaging, finger marks & smear marks were also observed on the bathtub. The bathtub was removed from the home & further examined though any prints present lacked identifying characteristics & were deemed of no comparison value. A few months later, a senior criminalist with the city of Cincinnati, was contacted to examine the bathtub; he found markings that indicate it had been wiped down but couldn’t determine when. He found a forearm impression on the bathtub & determined from the presence of hair follicles that the impression was made by an adult male though it couldn’t be determined when this impression was made. 

Ryan went to trial on the aggravated murder charge in March of 2009; prosecution focused on the fact that the items found in the bathroom were not wet; had a 140# adult been pulled from the tub it would be expected that the floor & other items present would be wet. They also discussed that Sarah’s body was dry when police & paramedics arrived six minutes after Ryan said he’d pulled her from the tub. The prosecution told the jury that a violent confrontation took place in the Widmer home that night for reasons that were unknown. An expert was called to testify & explain that it is virtually impossible to fall asleep & drown in the bathtub unless drugs and/or alcohol are involved. They argued that the sensation of water on a face would wake a person or the gag reflex as water entered their mouth and airways. If not, the drop in oxygen would cause a person to wake up before they were able to drown. 

In 2006, a study showed that on average, one American drowns in a bathtub, hot tub or spa every day.

The prosecution called Coroner Uptegrove to the stand to discuss the findings of the autopsy & what picture he believes the findings painted. He argued that the findings of a dry body with wet hair would indicate that her head had been pushed over the edge of the bathtub, toilet or sink. It could have been pushed either forward or backward, under running water or in a full receptacle. The prosecution said that Ryan held Sarah’s head under water until she drowned & based on that fact, he should be found guilty of her murder. 

The defense argued that there was no evidence to suggest that Ryan killed Sarah & they argued that the couple was very much in love & Ryan had no motive to kill his wife. People who knew him said that it was not in his character to become violent, angry or even raise his voice. Friends said that they were happy together & making plans for the future. 

The defense had their own autopsy conducted two days after the initial autopsy, on August 15, 2008 & it was completed by Dr Werner Spitz. Dr Spitz agreed that drowning was the cause of death but rather than ruling it a homicide, he ruled Sarah’s death as “undetermined.” He observed the injuries to her neck, arms, upper lip, scalp, a tear in her liver & hemorrhaging to her neck. He could not determine if the injuries had been sustained during CPR & for that reason, he would not list it as a homicide. Those present say that EMTs tried to resuscitate Sarah for about 45 minutes & that the areas of bleeding deep inside Sarah’s neck most likely came from the IV line that was inserted to this area as EMTs were unable to gain IV access in her arms. 

The defense argued that the home showed no sign of a violent altercation that night; Ryan had no defensive injuries & Sarah’s nails weren’t broken or chipped. Female DNA was found under Sarah’s nails though no match was found. They argued that the injuries found were from CPR as well as multiple attempts at intubation & believe that something medical caused her death such as a seizure or cardiac issue. They argued that her skin was dry because skin simply dries faster than hair. They also said that when Ryan first discovered his wife unconscious, he instinctively pulled the drain plug while he tried to figure out how to help her & call 911. This sequence of events explains why her body was drier than expected. An experiment conducted by an expert witness indicated that a person climbing out of a bath could dry in seven minutes. The 911 dispatcher who handled Ryan’s call, Ron Kronenberger made several statements about Ryan’s “performance” during the call, saying it sounded as if he was just blowing into the receiver, pretending to do CPR. 

The jury found Ryan not guilty of aggravated murder, but found him guilty of murder. Aggravated murder is a murder made more serious by its violent circumstances & one that was premeditated. On July 22, 2009, a new trial was granted after the defense discovered that jurors in the trial had conducted their own experiments to see how long skin takes to dry after a bath.  In the meantime, Ryan posted bail & went to live at his mom’s house until the new trial began. On Wednesday, October 14, 2009, a report was released that the 911 dispatcher, Ron Kronenberger, was written up by the operations services manager in the dispatch center for mishandling the call. She wrote that it sounded as if he came out of a sound sleep & was struggling to comprehend what the caller was saying, continuing to repeat himself. The report indicated that Ron was a habitual sleeper on duty. In December of 2009, an internal report was released indicating that Ron answered the phone within three seconds of the first ring, ahead of two other operators who were also working & had answered a call three minutes before this call came in. This report indicates he was not sleeping. The second trial began in May of 2010; the jury was unable to reach a verdict, resulting in a mistrial.

Ryan’s third trial began in January of 2011 & additional evidence was submitted at this time. It was the defense’s goal to establish that Sarah may have suffered from an unknown heart or neurological defect that caused her to lose consciousness & drown in the bathtub. Several medical experts testified to suggest that it was possible but on the other side, the State called medical experts to refute these claims.

Sarah’s coworkers testified that she would sleep in her car before starting her shift at the dental practice as well as during her lunch break. They also testified that she had allergies & suffered from headaches & stomach pains. They said that at one point, her headache was so bad that her vision became blurred & she had to go into a dark room until it passed. Dr Benjamin Mesmer, a dentist at the practice where Sarah worked, testified that the day that Sarah died, she had complained about both a headache & a stomach ache. A friend had spoken with Sarah later in the evening & Sarah mentioned that she had a headache & the back of her neck was hurting & her friend said she sounded tired. 

Sarah’s friends testified that she would sometimes fall asleep in unexpected places such as while tailgating at a Cincinnati Bengel’s game or while in the middle of a conversation at a bar at a table full of women. On some of these mentioned occasions, Sarah had been drinking alcohol. Sarah’s ability to fall asleep so easily became a known joke amongst those who knew her. One friend had even speculated that she suffered from narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that makes people very drowsy during the day; those who suffer from narcolepsy find it difficult to stay awake for long periods of time & may suddenly fall asleep, causing disturbances in their daily routine.  Some who suffer from narcolepsy can also experience cataplexy which causes a sudden loss of muscle tone, oftentimes triggered by a strong, usually positive emotion, especially laughter. It cannot be controlled & can last up to a few minutes.

Sarah’s mother, Ruth Ann Steward testified on behalf of the prosecution & claimed that she & her daughter were very close & spent nearly every Friday together since Sarah’s dad died in March of 2007. She said she  had never witnessed anything unusual about her daughter’s sleep patterns. She confirmed Sarah’s headaches though believed these were sinus related. She said she spoke with Sarah on the day that she died, while Sarah drove home from work & she didn’t mention a headache or other illness. Ruth testified that Sarah had no history of seizures or heart disease & no family history as well. Sarah had been diagnosed with a heart murmur in November 1984 & a cleft palate which was surgically repaired as a baby but during a physical exam in June of 2008, two months before her death, there were no findings of a heart murmur or any other concerning findings. Dr Charles Jeffrey Lee, an expert in pathology, testified that this type of heart murmur usually disappears within a few months to a year & Sarah’s murmur did not, in any way, contribute to her death. He agreed with the conclusion of the initial autopsy, that this was a homicide by drowning. Another expert in emergency medicine agreed that the injuries that Sarah sustained were not consistent with CPR or intubation attempts. 

Before the third trial began, a resident of Iowa named Jennifer Crew, contacted the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office with information about Sarah’s death. She testified that she had watched a Dateline episode featuring Sarah’s death & Ryan’s subsequent arrest. Afterwards, she went to a website that supported Ryan’s innocence & obtained information that allowed her to begin communicating with him via emails, phone calls & text messages. According to Jennifer, Ryan called her at 11:06 pm on October 26, 2009; he was upset & crying & said, “I did it. I did it. I killed Sarah. I did it.” She testified that he told her that he’d fought with Sarah in the living room of their home on the night that she died, their argument stemming from Ryan’s infidelity, drinking, smoking & pornography habits. He told her that their argument continued upstairs in the bathroom & things became physical when Sarah told Ryan that their marriage was over. Ryan told Sarah, “Nobody leaves me, nobody ever leaves me & I mean nobody.”  Jennifer told the court that according to Ryan, he punched Sarah in the chest which caused her to fall back & strike her head. He said he knelt beside Sarah & blacked out & when he came to, Sarah was on the floor, she wasn’t breathing & her hair was wet. 

Ryan then said that he “freaked out” & began wiping up water that was on the bathroom floors with towels while forming a plan to cover her murder. However, no wet towels were found anywhere in the house, including the dryer. He called 911 & when he was instructed to perform CPR, he only breathed into the phone, pretending to do so, knowing that Sarah was already dead. He also told her that when he was talking to the nurse at the hospital, he knew he screwed up & caught his error after telling the nurse that he found his wife face-up in the bathtub vs. face-down as he told the 911 dispatcher. 

Jennifer said that she promised Ryan that she wouldn’t tell anyone about their phone call & in response, Ryan said, “I hope not because I wouldn’t want you to be where Sarah’s at.”  Despite her fear, phone calls between Ryan & Jennifer continued until late November of 2009. When Jennifer discovered that the second trial resulted in a mistrial, she contacted officials to report what she knew. The defense tried to discredit Jennifer’s testimony & presented evidence about her former prescription drug addiction & convictions of misdemeanor theft. Another woman who befriended Ryan after seeing the Dateline episode testified she spoke with Ryan that same night until 11 pm & he made no such confessions. 

There was no evidence of infidelity within their marriage, financial issues or a history of arguments. Again, Ryan was someone who friends say they’d never seen even remotely angry, never even enough to stomp on a bug. Ryan wouldn’t profit from his wife’s death; there was no life insurance policy.

The defense argued that they didn’t have an explanation as to what caused Sarah’s death that night, but an expert in emergency medicine, Dr Dave Smile testified that nationwide there are approximately 300,000 episodes of sudden death annually & 1-2% occur in those under age 35 (which would equate to up to 6,000). 33% of those have normal autopsies with no evidence of cardiovascular, neurological, respiratory or central nervous system injury. He also agreed with the earlier point that  with the extent of resuscitation that was performed on Sarah, he was actually surprised there weren’t more injuries seen to her  body.  The jury was asked to look at all the facts surrounding the case & know that Ryan had no reason to hurt Sarah.

An expert in biomedical engineering, human factors engineering & injury biomechanics testified for the defense & felt that the injuries that Sarah sustained weren’t consistent with forcible drowning. Had Ryan tried to drown her in a face-to-face approach, injuries to the small bones in the neck would be expected  as well as defensive wounds to the hands & feet. With a strangulation attempt from the rear, it would be expected to see injuries to the victims knees, thighs & pelvis & none of these injuries were identified during Sarah’s autopsies. 

After about 12 hours of deliberation, Ryan was found guilty of murder & sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. The jury made their decision based on the absence of water on Sarah’s body & in the area around the tub, to Ryan’s story & the belief that his 911 call was orchestrated. A juror from the third trial felt that Ryan’s behavior in court  was one of the biggest reasons he felt he was guilty. When the autopsy photos were displayed, they felt Ryan showed absolutely no reaction. Ryan hadn’t taken the stand though he did address the court after the verdict was read: “I love my wife, I did not hurt her. I was not given a chance. The day after she passes away, they charge me with murder. I didn’t even.. If I had the answer, I would give the answer of what happened to her, but I can’t. I was not in the bathroom with her. I love my wife and I did not hurt her.” One of Sarah’s best friends, Dana Kist, firmly believes that Ryan is innocent. The verdict was so unpopular that candlelight vigils were held to protest the jury vote. 

Ryan’s lawyers want a court order to order the DNA released so it can be tested for genetic disorders such as long QT syndrome (LQTS) which is a heart signaling disorder that can cause sudden fainting & seizures. According to Mayo Clinic, young people with LQTS have an increased risk for sudden death. Some people are born with altered DNA that causes LTQS & it may occur later in life & is said for some unexplained events in children & young adults such as unexplained fainting, drownings or seizures. A 2000 article from the AHA indicated that researchers reviewed 35 cases of LQTS seen at the Mayo Clinic & determined that 6 patients who had a person or family history of drowning or near drowning. The study specifically mentioned swimming being a trigger though determined that unexplained drowning may have a genetic basis.

Ryan had a son, who is now twelve, who was born to a woman he met a year after Sarah died, while awaiting his second trial. The relationship ended early in his prison term. Ryan’s mom, Jill emptied her retirement funds to pay for her son’s defense, spending about $250k for the first  trial alone, likely in total, spending more than $500k. After he was convicted, Jill turned to alcohol to cope & was 55-years-old when Ryan’s twin brother found her dead on her kitchen floor, dying from chronic alcohol abuse. Ryan was unable to attend her funeral because the Widmer family was unable to pay for guards to watch Ryan. Ryan hopes that his story will somehow get out & lead to uncovering information that could lead to a reversal of his conviction. Ryan has been in prison for 12 years so far & unless a federal judge rules in his favor, his first chance at release will be July 2025. “With each year that passes, I hope the next year will be the year I’m free.”


  1. Collins Dictionary: Aggravated murder
  2. Mayo Clinic: Narcolepsy
  3. Chilling Crimes: Sarah Widmer
  4. Casetext: Widmer v. Warden
  5. NBC News: The Mystery in the Master Bedroom
  6. Mayo Clinic: Long QT Syndrome
  7. Medium: 10 Years “Wasted” in Prison
  8. WLWT5: Report: Widmer 911 Operator Was Not Sleeping
  9. Dayton Daily News: 911 dispatcher on Widmer call may have been asleep, report says
  10. AHA News: Genetic Drowning Trigger
  11. Dr Todd Grande: Bathtub Homicide or the Worst Juries Ever? Ryan Widmer Case Analysis

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