ST. MARYS — Stephanie and Wesley Sweigart were all smiles when they posed for family portraits they published on social media in October 2019. But four months later, the couple had a fight only one would survive.
That fateful day on Feb. 8, 2020, stands in stark contrast to the early days of Stephanie and Wesley’s relationship.
Stephanie struggles to talk about that night and the events that led her to do the unthinkable. But she has shared her story in the hopes that others can avoid what she and Wesley did not.
In beginning, everything was wonderful. She and Wesley shared everything with each other. It was easy, as Stephanie tells it.
Things slowly changed.
There were accusations of infidelity, as Stephanie recalled. Wesley’s drinking intensified — an issue which Stephanie attributes to the increasing financial stress in her husband’s life — and he gradually became more controlling, dictating when Stephanie should be home from work and leaving angry voicemails when she didn’t answer her phone.
Wesley’s temper was so severe, Stephanie recalls, that it could take days for him to calm down.
But the abuse, as Stephanie describes it, didn’t become physical right away.
Stephanie called the Auglaize County Sheriff’s Department in February 2018 to report an argument between her and Wesley.
The couple had been arguing for weeks about alleged infidelities and finances. But the fighting intensified with a Feb. 25 phone call in which Wesley allegedly threatened to damage the couple’s St. Marys home, prompting Stephanie to call police to ask what she could do to protect herself, according to the incident report.
While Wesley denied Stephanie’s account to police, according to the incident report, Stephanie told officers that night that this was not the first time he had threatened to damage their property.
The couple had recently moved to St. Marys from Van Wert, which Stephanie told police occurred after Wesley allegedly damaged the interior of their last house.
No charges were filed that evening, but police warned Wesley that destroying the couple’s property could result in a domestic violence charge. Both he and Stephanie told police that night that they wanted to file for divorce, according to the incident report.
But Stephanie decided to stay.
It was her first marriage, and while Wesley had been married before, Stephanie says she never held that against him.
“In my heart, this was the person that I chose to be with. I care about him,” she said. “I wanted to make things better. I wanted to fix us.”
‘I just killed him’
Six days after Stephanie was arrested on a preliminary murder charge on February 8, a grand jury was convened to hear evidence and consider whether Stephanie could be charged with a crime.
The grand jury quickly decided against an indictment.
Because grand jury proceedings are secret — intended only to determine whether enough probable cause exists to charge someone with a crime, which would be the first step toward a criminal trial — not much is known about what led the grand jury to its decision.
Auglaize County Prosecutor Edwin A. Pierce declined to comment on the decision beyond reiterating that the grand jury came to its conclusion after hearing the evidence and the applicable law.
But Stephanie did testify that day, which her attorney, Seneca Konturas, acknowledged was risky, as the defense is not present during grand jury proceedings.
“This was a horrible tragedy — there is no good outcome in all of this — but what had transpired ended up being, from Stephanie’s perspective, an act of self defense where she had no choice,” Konturas said. “She was attacked in her own home by the person she loved. And what transpired there led to her being cornered in a place that she had no escape. The only thing she could do to save her life was the unthinkable.
“As the detectives looked through that,” Konturas concluded, “everything lined up with what she described having happened.”
Using deadly force in self defense is allowed under certain circumstances in Ohio. The perpetrator must show that they did not start the fight and had reasonable grounds to believe deadly force was necessary to protect against an imminent threat, according to Toni Clarke, Ph.D., a professor of law at Ohio Northern University’s College of Law.
They must also prove they did not have a duty to retreat. But in Ohio, Clarke said, there is no duty to retreat from your home.
Clarke said the grand jury’s decision is not surprising, given the evidence that has been made public.
Other self-defense claims — particularly those involving domestic violence victims who kill their abuser during a lull in violence — are much harder to prove.
“Women have a hard time convincing juries of the imminence of the violence if he’s not actually attacking them,” Clarke said.
Those defenses often draw on Battered Women Syndrome (BWS) — alluding to the physical and psychological symptoms associated with long-term physical, emotional and verbal abuse — to explain the behavior.
Learned helplessness is one of those coping mechanisms, Clarke said, which develops when a spouse or partner is isolated and made to feel helpless, losing self-esteem.
“Over the long-term,” she said, “that has an effect on personality and decision making. But you can’t just throw (BWS) out there. You need expert testimony. You need a judge willing to consider it and talk about whether or not it’s the appropriate case to hear that kind of thing.”
‘A victim, charged with murder’
Konturas maintains that Stephanie feared for her life during that fatal encounter with her husband.
He pointed to her booking photo — the apparent stab wounds on her neck, her bloodshot eyes and bruised face — as evidence that she suffered severe trauma that day.
“She was slapped, punched, choked, threatened with a rather large knife,” he said. “Those are all the things that led to her having to do what she did. She truly feared for her life.”
She was, as Konturas puts it, “a victim charged with murder.”
Stephanie declined to retell much of the incident — worrying that revisiting the events of that night will make it harder for her family and the St. Marys community to heal — but as like other fights she described between the two of them, allegations of infidelity instigated their final argument.
It was a severe escalation over previous fights, per Stephanie’s account, and unlike anything she had ever experienced before. It felt like an eternity.
“I was the kid that avoided playing goalie in soccer because I didn’t want to get hit in the face with the ball,” she said. “I don’t like pain. I didn’t want to ever experience anything like that, so when it started happening, I didn’t even know what to think. I just screamed.”
Stephanie called police around 3:32 a.m. Feb. 8.
Stephanie admitted to killing Wesley during the six-and-a-half-minute call, telling the dispatcher that her husband had been beating and threatening her with a knife before she shot him from their bedroom.
“I’m scared. I don’t know. I just shot. I don’t know,” she said, crying. “I’m sorry.”
Stephanie cooperated with the dispatcher as police arrived and was booked later that morning on a preliminary murder charge. She spent most of the next week in jail, but was released the following Thursday — one day prior to the grand jury’s decision — after friends and family pooled together enough funds to meet the 10% minimum payment for her $250,000 bond.
Packing up memories
Stephanie has since left St. Marys, hoping to leave the bad memories behind her.
“I loved him so much,” she said, “so this is just something that is difficult to even say because I don’t want people to think that I didn’t care, because I do. I always will.”
She and her two children — one daughter from a previous relationship, and one son with Wesley — are already in counseling, with a long recovery ahead of them.
“This is going to be a long process,” said CarolAnn Peterson, Ph.D., an adjunct associate professor with the University of Southern California School of Social Work, where she specializes in domestic violence and rehabilitation for abuse victims.
Peterson said recovery in cases like Stephanie’s is often slow, with lots of counseling and family support required to prevent a prolonged depression.
“There are feelings of guilt because you’ve taken somebody’s life,” she said. “I think it’s just human nature, when you’ve done that — taken someone’s life — that there’s feelings of guilt.”
Wesley’s family will have a long recovery too.
His father, Wayne Sweigart, declined to comment but said the family is extremely brokenhearted.
Stephanie still holds fond memories of Wesley, despite their fatal encounter. He was smart and funny, someone who on his best days “was the best person that anybody could be around.”
The couple were introduced through a mutual friend about five or six years ago. They eventually eloped and later held a church wedding at St. John’s Catholic Church in Delphos.
Stephanie says she hid the problems in her marriage from friends, “but that was a lot of him telling me that I had to put on a happy face and move forward.” She now worries about her friends in volatile relationships, hoping they can look to her as an example of what can happen when problems are ignored.
“I want people to see these things,” she said. “I want people to understand you have every right to step away from someone. It’s better to do it now when things are calm or when things are in an area where you can look at each other and say this isn’t working, instead of fearing for everything.”
Reach Mackenzi Klemann at 567-242-0456.