Wednesday, May 5th, 2021
Coach sentenced to 55 years for murder
2 other women in case await trial
By Sydney Albert
PORTLAND, Ind. - Esther Stephen, the former Fort Recovery High School softball coach convicted of murdering her child's father, was sentenced to 55 years in prison Tuesday, bringing one part of the murder case to an end.
Jay County Circuit Court Judge Brian Hutchison handed down the sentence after allowing friends and family members of both 30-year-old Stephen and her victim, 31-year-old Shea Briar, to speak in court.
Those speaking on Stephen's behalf pushed for her to receive the minimum sentence for murder in Indiana, which is 45 years. Those close to Briar felt she should receive the maximum 65-year sentence.
Stephen declined the opportunity to speak Tuesday before her sentencing. Her friends and family described her as a hard worker, someone who was active in the community and who children loved. They described her as having virtuous characteristics and several stated they still loved Stephen despite what she did.
"You can't turn that off," said Ashley Gaerke, who said she'd known Stephen for 10 years.
While some acknowledged the events of Jan. 11, 2020 - when Briar was killed - were tragic, they stated they believed in forgiveness and that the events of that night did not define Stephen as a person.
Those arguing for the maximum sentence talked about struggling to deal with Briar's death.
Angela D. Smiley, a pastor at Briar's church, said his loss had devastated his church family.
Tiffany McLaughlin said that after being told of her nephew's death, she knew Stephen had done it, saying she was the "only person in the world" who could have wanted him dead. Telling her parents that one of their two grandchildren was dead was one of the hardest things she'd ever done, but dealing with Briar's death in the days that followed was another struggle entirely, McLaughlin said. While she felt there would never truly be justice because nothing could bring Briar back, she said she believed Stephen deserved the maximum sentence.
Briar's grandmother, Sharon Taylor, used to dream that her grandson would have a family who would live at the farmhouse that had been the family home since 1849. Now her dream is gone, and instead she tends Briar's grave, she said.
Taylor tearfully described her grandson's murder as a heartless act of evil and cruelty. She said Stephen deserved the maximum sentence. However, in concluding her statement to the court, Taylor said God still offered Stephen hope for eternal life.
Tracey Hoevel said she'd prayed many times her son hadn't been able to feel anything as he'd laid alone on the ground, still alive for hours after being shot in the back. She never thought her last word to her son would be "Oatmeal," a text in response to a question about cake.
Defense attorney Brandon Murphy argued that while Briar's murder had caused a tremendous void, certain mitigating factors should qualify his client for a lesser sentence. Stephen had no criminal history prior to the events, had been a servant of the community for years, was unlikely to commit another crime and is the mother of a young child, Murphy said.
Jay County Prosecutor Wes Schemenaur requested the maximum 65-year sentence. Briar's killing was not a spur of the moment action, he said. Stephen had plotted for weeks with younger women she'd recruited for the act, and she had been the ringleader, leading astraywomen she'd once been a coach and mentor to, he said. He said Briar's young daughter would have to find out her mother was responsible for her father's murder.
"I can't think of anything more tragic," Schemenaur said.
Video footage during Stephen's trial had shown Briar's final hours of life after he'd been found, during which he had been "writhing" on the bridge, "moaning and screaming." That, he said, was the definition of torture - to be left on the side of the road to suffer and die.
"We wouldn't do that to an animal," he said, as several of Briar's loved ones cried in their seats.
In delivering his judgement statement, Hutchison told the court he had to take into account both mitigating and aggravating circumstances. Mitigating circumstances might lead to a lesser sentence, while aggravating circumstances might lead to a harsher one. While both existed in Stephen's case, it was his opinion they did not outweigh each other, and he felt a 55-year prison sentence was appropriate.
"There are so many victims in this case," Hutchison said to Stephen. "There are victims you have created on each side of the courtroom."
Hutchison said he had seen no real remorse from Stephen during the entirety of the case. The only emotion he said he'd seen from her was fear, and that concerned him.
She had shown a callous disregard for human life, and while Hutchison said he'd heard much about church involvement during the statements made Tuesday, he noted one of the 10 principle teachings of the church: Thou shalt not kill.
"You denied your child an opportunity to know her father, and in doing so, denied her an opportunity to know her mother," he said.
Two other women also have been charged in connection with Briar's murder. Shelby Hiestand, Portland, Indiana, is scheduled for a jury trial Aug. 9-12 in Jay County Circuit Court and Hannah Knapke, Fort Recovery, is scheduled for a jury trial Nov 15-19, also in Jay County Circuit Court.
Hiestand is a former assistant softball coach for Fort Recovery High School and Knapke is a former Fort Recovery High School softball player.