Thursday, March 18th, 2021

Jury hears details of murder in Stephen trial

By Sydney Albert
PORTLAND, Ind. - An interview between a former Fort Recovery softball coach charged with murder and detectives was examined in court Wednesday, with prosecutors arguing it was a confession while the defense implied their client was coerced.
The second day of Esther J. Stephen's trial centered around a recording of an interview with law enforcement, by the end of which she was to be booked into jail and charged with murder.
Initially, Jay County Sheriff's Office Detectives Ben Swartz and Mitch Sutton in the interview ask Stephen about what she had done the weekend of Jan. 11, which was when 31-year-old Shea Briar was killed. Briar, who fathered a daughter with Stephen, had been shot in the back and the bullet had gone through his heart, Sutton explained in the video.
Stephen said she didn't own a firearm, and gave an initial timeline of events officers said didn't line up with what they'd heard from others they'd interviewed, including an account from Kristi Sibary, who had been watching the pair's daughter the night of the shooting.
Additionally, when officers told her they knew she'd called Briar around midnight on the night of the shooting, Stephen admitted she had done so, saying it was to check up on him.
As Swartz and Sutton pressed her, Stephen eventually said Hannah Knapke and Shelby Hiestand were with her when Briar was killed. They took Knapke's van, and Hiestand brought the rifle used to shoot Briar, Stephen told them. Stephen described the rifle Hiestand had brought as black.
When the women picked up Briar, they drove around before eventually ending up at a bridge on County Road 125 W. in Jay County. While Knapke and Hiestand exited the vehicle and Hiestand got the rifle, Stephen said she talked with Briar to distract him before he was shot.
A diagram of the events at the bridge was made during the interview and submitted as evidence by prosecutors Wednesday. Swartz initially said Stephen had made the diagram, but upon questioning from defense attorney Jill A. Gonzalez, admitted he hadn't been paying attention and it could have been made by either Stephen or Sutton. Sutton later said he believed he drew the diagram.
Both Swartz and Sutton stated that at the time of the interview, they had Briar's cell phone records and knew when his device had last received a signal and what cell tower it had been in range of. They did not have the records of Stephen's, Hiestand's or Knapke's devices. Swartz said he didn't know if the women's phones had pinged off the same tower as Briar's before Briar's phone had gone dark.
On Tuesday, law enforcement officials testified they had not found Briar's cellphone upon searching the area by the bridge. During the taped interview, Swartz asks if Stephen threw Briar's phone in the water after Briar was shot and she agrees.
The manner in which the interview was conducted was put under the microscope by Gonzalez. She pointed out that detectives had talked over each other in a way that had confused Stephen and interrupted Stephen multiple times when she tried to speak. Gonzalez also said Swartz had at one point raised his voice and pounded on the table separating them. Gonzalez implied her client had been coerced into her confession by what she construed as leading statements from the detectives.
Gonzalez further argued the detectives kept Stephen from contacting a lawyer, and had leveraged allowing Stephen to call her mom in exchange for a written statement. Stephen did ask to call her mom during the interview, which detectives allowed. The discussion can be seen and heard in the video. By the end of the tape, Stephen had never made a written statement.
Stephen's trial continues today starting at 8:30 a.m. in Jay County Circuit Court, Portland, Indiana.
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