Accident Or Murder? Man Fleeing House Fire Dies After His Wife Strikes Him With Vehicle
“I don’t know why he didn’t survive,” Linda Stermer says of her husband Todd’s grisly 2007 death in Michigan.
A Michigan man died after a fire broke out and his wife was arrested for killing him — but was his death the result of arson and murder or an accident?
On January 7, 2007, the Lawrence home of Todd and Linda Stermer went up in flames. Adam Beck, a former deputy with the Van Buren Sheriff’s Department, responded to the scene and found Todd so badly burned outside the home that his ears, eyelashes and hair were completely gone.
“I noticed that there was a pool of blood back behind his head,” Beck says about Todd, recalling Linda was walking around screaming her husband’s name “numerous times.”
“She was very hysterical,” Beck says. “She’d go over to Todd and lay on top of him while the deputies were trying to do CPR. She was trying to cover his mouth, like he was trying to say something or she thought he was going to say something if they did bring him back.”
Todd died at the scene.
According to the couple’s son, Cory Pierce, he and his two brothers were not at home at the time. Cory says that on the morning of the fire, Linda told him she and his dad were getting divorced and she wanted him to take his brothers to a movie. “Then she told me that she wanted us to sneak out of the house so that our dad didn’t know we were leaving,” Cory says. “Her reasoning for that was that if he thought we were still in the basement, the divorce would go smoother.”
On the way out of the house, Cory claims his mother told him not to say goodbye to his father. “You could see him sitting in the chair a little bit, his arm hanging over the arm of the chair, just limp,” he says.
After the children were gone, Stephen Willison, an insurance attorney who worked on the claim, says Linda was doing laundry when she heard her husband screaming. Willison says Linda ran upstairs and found both Todd and the room he was in on fire.
“She runs out of the building; she runs to the car to get help,” Willison says, explaining that Todd, in flames, also ran outside “and he’s tearing his clothes off when she hits him with the car.”
Beck, the former deputy, explains Todd “got out of the house and she either didn’t see him and ran him over, or she intentionally ran him over.”
He adds, “Things just didn’t add up.”
The ensuing investigation also raised multiple questions about what happened. A gasoline can, for example, was found outside the family’s home. While some first responders reported not smelling the odor of gasoline, a fire investigator wrote in a report that he determined “there was a noticeable odor of some sort of petroleum liquid accelerant.”
A canine had no alerts for accelerant at the scene. But tests on rags later found in the washing machine as well as Todd’s burnt socks, sweatpants and underwear indicated the presence of gasoline.
A report states that Linda’s clothing, however, “did not show the presence of any identifiable liquid petroleum products.”
According to the report, the origin of the fire could have been near a fireplace. Linda also told investigators that in the area of the fireplace “there was fire from our bedroom to [Todd’s] recliner, and he was on fire.”
Still, no ignition source was ever identified at the time.
Amid the lack of solid answers and confusing details in the case, Linda maintained the fire and Todd’s death was the result of a series of unfortunate events.
Willison, the insurance attorney, counters Todd’s widow painted her husband to insurance investigators as a “really nice guy” at times, but at others she made him out to be “an absolute raving monster.” The day of Todd’s death, Willison continues, “she sends her children away.”
“She was talking about how she couldn’t’ wait to get out of there. She had finally made this decision that she was going to leave, and what do we find out? She’s making him breakfast; she’s building him a fire in the fireplace,” Willison says. “The plan seems to be much more consistent with someone who’s waiting for something to happen.”
Cory and his brother, Trenton Stermer, both now say their mother became increasingly manipulative over the years. Linda, Cory claims, “would cheat on our dad,” sparking arguments between the couple. She has denied the allegations.
“I remember her giving me a bloody nose… just from asking what happened to my dad,” Trenton claims, alleging, “We might not know all the details, but I don’t think there’s any doubt in our hearts or minds that she killed our dad.”
In a report, the couple’s insurance company concluded that “this was an intentionally set arson fire” and formally denied Linda’s insurance claim.
Prosecutors charged Linda with first-degree murder and arson, and her trial began in January 2010.
Linda’s current defense attorney, Wolfgang Mueller, points out that Todd had been involved with two previous house fires in which claims were made for fire loss insurance payouts.
He also notes the state was unable to rule out the possibility Todd was responsible for starting the fire that contributed to his death. The defense lawyer also claims Todd and Linda’s home wasn’t thoroughly and properly searched and examined by fire investigators.
Still, after just hours of deliberation, jurors found Linda guilty of murdering her husband and she was handed a mandatory life sentence.
In January 2013, independent fire expert Robert Trenkle reinvestigated the case and concluded the blaze was an accident caused by a fire that came through the roof because of an issue in the chimney.
Armed with Trenkle’s findings, in 2016, Linda was granted an evidentiary hearing. Her new defense team argued she wasn’t presented a fair trial six years earlier. In December 2018, after more than eight years in prison, a federal judge ordered Linda be released from custody.
Linda vehemently continues to deny she started the fire or was involved in Todd’s death. “I did not do this,” she says. “I don’t know why he didn’t survive, why he didn’t come out sooner. But when I went to his funeral, I just wanted to climb in that hole with him, because it just didn’t feel like anything would ever be right again.”
She admits the case has “decimated” her family.
Cory maintains his mother has changed her story about the fire “way too many times” and the alleged inconsistencies, in his mind, “prove that she did it.”
Linda is currently awaiting a retrial in the case.
For more on this case, stream Crime Scene Confidential: “Feud on Fire” on Max.
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