Nearly two years after a former Northwood woman died unexpectedly in her sleep, her husband admitted in court Friday that he gave her a lethal dose of the methadone he took to relieve back pain.
Jason Risenburg, 38, of Fremont pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter before Sandusky County Common Pleas Judge John Dewey. He faces up to 11 years in prison when he is sentenced for causing the April 2, 2012, death of Beth Spaulding Risenburg, 31.
Risenburg had been scheduled to go to trial Monday on charges that also included murder and corrupting another with drugs.
The victim’s mother, Maureen Spaulding of Northwood, said she reluctantly consented to the plea agreement Friday just hours after learning her husband James’ cancer had recurred.
“Our hearts wanted to go to trial. Our hearts wanted him to get the maximum time for what he did,” she said of her former son-in-law. “I have a hard time accepting getting 11 years for taking her life.
“I can’t see that as fair. I can’t see that as OK, but at the same time the part of me that knows my daughter knows she would want me focused on her Dad’s health right now. I’m choosing to think it was her influence that made it go this way to make us focus on him. She was always daddy’s little girl.”
The day Ms. Risenburg died, Risenburg called 911 to say his wife wouldn’t wake up. She had a history of health problems, so her death was not immediately suspicious to police and emergency responders.
Mrs. Spaulding said she felt otherwise.“I knew what it was immediately,” she said, explaining that three weeks before she died, Ms. Risenburg was hospitalized after Risenburg said he’d accidentally given her one of his methadone pills.
“He claimed it was an accident — that he had mixed up their two medications and accidentally gave her methadone,” Mrs. Spaulding said. “She had a horrible reaction to it.”
The incident didn’t sit right with the Spauldings, but their daughter “loved him to death and wanted to believe with all her heart” that it had been an accident, her mother said. The two had married in 1999 when Ms. Risenburg was just 18.
“Something had changed in him in the last year. We all saw it. We all knew it,” Mrs. Spaulding said. “… It was hard for Beth to accept, and I think she had finally come to the conclusion that maybe it wasn’t an accident.”
Several weeks after Ms. Risenburg died, the Spauldings took their suspicions to Fremont Police Detective Jason Kiddey. He agreed to look into their claims.
“The family was upset, and my goal was to help them find closure,” Detective Kiddey said. “That’s what I truly meant to do, but I didn’t know what I was going to find.”
Not long after he began investigating, toxicology testing performed as part of an autopsy by the Lucas County Coroner’s Office revealed startling levels of methadone in Ms. Risenburg's system.
The investigation was bolstered, Detective Kiddey said, by a 5½-hour interview he conducted with Risenburg, who moved to North Carolina after his wife’s death but agreed to meet with him during a visit to Ohio. “It was a gamble,” he said. “Everything on my case hinged on that interview.”
While declining to be specific, Detective Kiddey said Risenburg “confessed to several different things” during the lengthy interview.
Ultimately, Sandusky County Coroner Dr. John Wukie ruled Ms. Risenburg’s death a homicide, and a Sandusky County grand jury indicted Risenburg on the three charges last January.
Risenburg has been held in the Sandusky County jail on $1 million bond since he was extradited here from North Carolina last year. His attorney, Jon Ickes, did not return calls.
“It’s very difficult because I see the son [in law] I loved for 15 years, but I also see the man who murdered my daughter,” Mrs. Spaulding said. “It’s incomprehensible. I’m stunned. I’m still stunned.”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.