After a 30-year search and a brief three-day trial, an Ohio murder suspect who was living in Payson under an assumed name, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter Wednesday, prosecutors said.
Ronald E. Stahlman, 56, was sentenced to one to 10 years after changing his plea to guilty three days into a jury trial in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court.
Stahlman pleaded guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter relating to the night 18-year-old Bernard Williamson of Warren, Ohio was stabbed back in April 1979, said Chris Becker, chief trial counsel for the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office.
“We are very happy we have a 30-year-old homicide solved,” Becker said. “Although justice was delayed, it was not denied.”
Back on Dec. 8, U.S. Marshals, Payson Police and the Gila County Narcotics Task Force apprehended Stahlman on a murder warrant at his Payson home in the 400 block of South Ash Street — 30 years after a warrant was issued.
Authorities believe Stahlman fled Ohio shortly after the warrant was issued and fled to Arizona to start a new life under a new name — Jim O’Neil — with his wife and two daughters.
On the day of the stabbing, April 29, 1979, Stahlman and a friend friend, Roger Collins, were driving down a street in Warren, Ohio when Collins hit Williamson’s car. Collins reportedly continued driving until stopping a short time later, at which time Williamson got out and confronted Collins, Becker said.
Two people in the area reported witnessing the fight, but never saw a knife. A day after the stabbing, police issued warrants for Collins’ and Stahlman’s arrest, but both had fled the state.
Collins turned himself in to police May 6, 1969 and served six months for aggravated assault and obstruction of justice. In 1980, Collins took a polygraph test to prove he was not the man who stabbed Williamson — he passed that test, Becker said.
While Collins turned himself in, police had no idea where Stahlman had gone. He virtually vanished for three decades until investigators stumbled upon paperwork from his daughters’ name changes.
“They (investigators) started looking at the daughters and tracked down their Social Security numbers,” Becker said. “They realized they had changed their names on the Social Security cards back in 1993.”
Investigators continued to follow the trail until they located the family in Payson. Stahlman had hid out in Arizona for 30 years before being located in Payson.
“They knew he (Stahlman) had two daughters and a wife, Pamela, but when they came out there on Dec. 8 they were not sure if it was him or another husband at the house.”
Stahlman was arrested at his home in Payson without incident and reportedly admitted his identity to U.S. Marshals.
After he was arrested, Stahlman awaited transportation back to Ohio in the Maricopa County Jail until Jan. 21 when he waived extradition. Stahlman arrived in Ohio in late January, Becker said.
The week-long trial began on Monday and was to include testimony from both of Stahlman’s daughters, witnesses at the scene and officers.
Stahlman’s wife evoked her fifth amendment right and refused to take the stand, Becker said.
Stahlman’s daughter Rhonda Doss told the Roundup in January that her parents married in 1976 and when she was 2 and her sister 4, they moved to Arizona.
When Doss was 12, she and her sister changed their names, but her mother, Pamela, had always worked under the same name. Doss said she did not know why she and her sister changed their names at the time.
After three days of testimony, Stahlman decided to plead guilt to involuntary manslaughter.
Becker said after the defense “realized there were problems with the case,” they asked to take the plea deal.
The fact that Stahlman left Ohio, started a new life and never contacted any family in Ohio sealed the case, Becker said.
“Why else would you leave Ohio?” he said.
Becker said the case was especially difficult to try because all of the physical evidence was lost after a private crime lab in Cleveland went out of business and most of the officers and witnesses died.
The hard work of the PPD, Gila County Attorney’s Office and Judge Peter Cahill were instrumental in serving state subpoenas to Stahlman’s daughters and wife, Becker said.
“I really want to thank the legal system in Gila County,” he said. “To expediently and correctly have these subpoenas served in a short time period for a jurisdiction located 2,000 miles away is a credit to the dedication, professionalism and leadership of your county government.”