Teens charged in woman's death at Hocking Hills State Park will be tried as adults

Courtesy: Gunner Barnes

HOCKING COUNTY, Ohio – A judge in Hocking County Juvenile Court ruled two teenagers charged in the death of a woman at Hocking Hills State Park will be tried as adults.

Judge Jonah Saving made the ruling in the cases against 16-year-olds Jaden Churchheus and Jordan Buckley on Tuesday.

Both are charged with murder, felonious assault and involuntary manslaughter in the death of Victoria Schafer.

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Schafer, who was taking photos with a group of students, was struck and killed by a 74-pound, 6-foot-long log while sitting on the stairs at Old Man’s Cave on Sept. 2. She was killed instantly.

According to authorities, a caller told authorities on Oct. 8 that one of the teens sent a text message to a classmate stating that he had done something serious at the park.

“This was not an accident, this was not something that, oh, just happened,” Hocking County Prosecuting Attorney Benjamin Fickel said Tuesday. “There was a lot more to it than that, and that’s why we are prosecuting this case, these juveniles, because we don’t think it was an accident at all.”

During Tuesday’s hearing for Churchheus, Ohio Department of Natural Resources investigator Troy Newman testified he also knew right away that the incident was not an accident. He said that was partly because the log did not fall straight down from the edge of the cliff. He said it had forward momentum.

However, Ryan Shepler, the defense attorney for Churchheus, then questioned whether that momentum could have been caused by the log ricocheting or bouncing off a lower ledge. Newman admitted that was possible.

The log was part of a pile of three, in an area that has illegal trails and is off-limits to visitors. Hocking County Sheriff’s Lt. Dustin Robinson testified that two fallen trees were in between the logs and the edge of the cliff, so the log could not have rolled off the cliff on its own.

Robinson also testified about his interview with Churchheus. He said the teen admitted that if something was thrown off the top of the cliff someone could have “passed.” When asked to clarify, Churchheus admitted that he meant death.

The defense played the video of the interview between the sheriff’s office and Churchheus. In the video, the teen admitted touching the log but said Buckley was the one who kicked it.

The video interview also shows Churchheus being asked if he knew what was below the cliff where they were. He says “No.’’ Then, after further questioning, he says “People, I guess.”

Shepler later argued that part of the testimony proved Churchheus did not know people were below the cliff, only answering when led by detectives.

The defense also argued that, during a section of the video that was hard to hear, Churchheus said he and Buckley individually flipped and kicked the log to see "what noise it would make" that day.

“The prosecution cannot prove murder, which is the most serious of the charges, unless they can prove that this log was pushed over the edge by Mr. Churchheus, knowing that it would kill somebody, and I do not think they can do that,” Shepler said.

During the Churchheus hearing, Miranda Spencer, 19, who was with Churchheus and Buckley on Labor Day, testified was granted immunity by the prosecution. The fourth teen who was with the group that day invoked her 5th Amendment right and declined to testify.

Spencer told the court that one of the boys looked over the edge to check if anyone was below and said no one was below the cliff. She said one boy pushed the log, and the other was the lookout. She said she did not recall which one pushed the log.

However, during the later hearing for Jordan Buckley, she changed her story, testifying that Jordan was the lookout, and Jaden pushed the log off the cliff. That version was backed up by the transcript from her interview with investigators.

And that story was echoed by Jordan’s attorney, Bob Toy.

“My client says Jaden threw the log off the cliff, that he begged, pleaded, to take a lie detector test on at least ten different occasions, and the police refused to do it,” Toy said.

Toy also said Jaden at one point said to his client, “I caught a body at the age of 16.”

But not all of the evidence presented supported that story.

Newman testified that Buckley texted his girlfriend that he was just trying to be “cool” and that he admitted to her that he and Jaden threw the log off the cliff.

It also was mentioned at the hearing that Buckley was wearing a soft cast. His attorney says his hand was injured to the point of requiring surgery prior to the Labor Day incident and, therefore, Buckley would not have been able to lift the log that day.

However, Lt. Robinson points out that, during a videotaped interview at the crime scene, Buckley demonstrated how he used his other hand and foot to move the log.

Also in this hearing, the detective mentioned that both boys had taken a “selfie” after the crime had happened. He also said the group of teens then went searching for the area where Schafer had been killed.

“What we know so far is that they both participated, they both had the same level of knowledge and intent, if that’s the word we want to use, so which one actually pushed it over, I don’t know if that really matters,” Fickel said.

At the conclusion of each hearing, Judge Saving ordered the cases to be bound over to adult court. He also set cash surety bonds of $100,000 for both Churchheus and Buckley. Both were ordered to return to the juvenile detention center.

If they post bond and are released, they will be required to wear ankle monitors.

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