All the little tragedies climax in either an operating room, a courtroom or a morgue. The little tragedy of one-time Outlaws Motorcycle Club member Ronald Stahlman has found its moment in an old, stone courthouse in Warren, Ohio.
On April 28, 1979, Stahlman went out drinking in Warren with friends. One of the friends, Roger Collins, was driving Stahlman home in his pickup truck when he rear-ended a car driven by 18-year-old Bernard Williamson. It was 3:30 on the morning of the 29th.
Williamson jumped out of his car and wanted to fight. Williamson’s passenger, a woman named Debbie Bush went to a phone booth to call police. Two witnesses, Glen Ellison and Patricia Strickland, remember that 29 years ago in the middle of the night Williamson was beating Collins and Stahlman got out of the truck to help him.
When the police arrived they found that Williamson had been stabbed nine times. He died in the street.
There is no physical evidence in the case. There is no murder weapon. The police who investigated the killing are dead or unable to testify. Some of the crime scene photographs have disappeared. All that is left is the tragedy.
According to prosecutors, after the fight Collins and Stahlman went to Collins’ house in Lordstown, Ohio. Then they went to Franklin, Pennsylvania for a week. Then Stahlman went home and together with his wife Pam and his two small daughters Tina and Rhonda, Stahlman left town.
He Did It
About the time Stahlman was moving out Collins turned himself in and confessed. He confessed that Stahlman had stabbed Williamson. He pled guilty to assault and obstruction of justice and he paid his debt to society with a six month stretch in the Trumbull County jail.
Yesterday Collins testified that he was not even awake when Williamson was stabbed. “I got knocked down pretty quick. I think I was out, too, for a moment.” The next thing Collins knew, he had a cut on his arm and Williamson was “sitting there, leaning on the car, so I ran past him and got into the (truck) cab.”
Then according to Collins, Stahlman confessed what he had done. “We were going down the road. Ron was kind of upset. He says, ‘I think I might have stabbed that guy,'” Collins told the court.
A New Life
Stahlman changed his name to Jim O’Neil. His wife went by her maiden name Pam Liebal. They started a new, good life in a little town named Payson, off the beaten track, in the high pine country halfway between Mesa and Winslow, Arizona. The little girls grew up. The case went cold. The tragic past became a bad dream.
In 1993, before anybody paid much attention to the internet, Jim O’Neil and Pam Liebal had the names on their daughters’ social security cards legally changed to O’Neil. And, fifteen years later that is how tragedy found them.
The Warren police had so little crime in 2005 that a detective named Brian Holmes was told to work cold cases. He reopened the Williamson case and convinced a U.S. Marshall with Warren ties, named Bill Bolden, to work the case with him. Still another police force, this one called the Northern Ohio Violent Fugitive Task Force, was enlisted in the search for Stahlman.
A snitch told the cold case cops that Stahlman had moved to Phoenix so Holmes and Bolden began to look for him on the internet. Late last year the two discovered that Tina and Rhonda Stahlman residing in Payson, Arizona had legally changed their names to Tina and Rhonda O’Neil. After that it was easy.
Ron Stahlman was quickly arrested, extradited back to Ohio and he has been a prisoner ever since. He was been locked up in the same jail for almost as long as his old friend Roger Collins who is now the chief witness against him.
The prosecution is expected to conclude its case tomorrow. Arguments may be heard as early as Friday. The jury may return a verdict as early as then. And then this particular little tragedy may conclude or maybe it will not.
Maybe Jim O’Neil can return to his life up on the Mogollon Rim or maybe the man he used to be, Ron Stahlman, will never spend another night with his wife again. Maybe it will finally be finished or maybe it is over.
Yesterday the court made Ron Stahlman watch as the prosecution put his wife and his daughters and his mother on the stand. Stahlman had to watch while the man who was once his best friend tried to put him in prison.
And for all of this, Bernard Williamson, who died in a street in Warren, Ohio 29 years ago, is still dead.