The Husband Did It: Michelle Witherell

Michelle died from injuries sustained from either a purposeful beating or an accidental fall. Her husband was acquitted of her murder.

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This writing is part of a continuing series on cold cases linked to domestic violence. Cases are taken from Unsolved Mysteries.

The case of Michelle Witherell is on season 11, episode 3 of Unsolved Mysteries.

For legal purposes, the husband in this case was charged with crimes against his spouse, although he was eventually acquitted. I have no physical evidence, only circumstantial evidence, the narrative given to us by those involved, and extensive knowledge on the dynamics of domestic and sexual violence. I have tried to make it clear when giving my opinion versus stating objective facts of the case.

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The narrative according to Robert Stack:

24-year-old Michelle Witherell was a newlywed, only married for three months when police found her lying on the concrete below her apartment balcony. She was alive, but bleeding heavily from severe head injuries.

She and her husband Jeremy had been living in Pittsburgh since their wedding three months earlier. Jeremy told police that Michelle had fallen from their new balcony, three flights up. He says he was playing solitaire in the living room when he heard a sound. When he went to investigate, he saw his wife on the ground below, bleeding heavily. She was rushed to the hospital.

Jeremy’s mother called Cathy Mellema, Michelle’s mother, to break the bad news.

She told me that there had been a terrible accident and that Michelle had been out on the balcony at their apartment, and that she had been putting up Christmas lights, and that the balcony had collapsed — causing her to fall. — Cathy, Michelle’s mother

The left side of Michelle’s head was fractured, and she was in a coma. Her jaw was broken, but strangely her nose and teeth were uninjured.

At that very moment, I think questions were beginning to come into our thoughts. How did she get her eye busted open and her jaw broken with no damage in between? — Cathy

On December 20, 1992, Michelle succumbed to her injuries at the hospital and died. Moments later, Jeremy came up with a third version of how she fell. He claims that when he was in the living room playing solitaire, he looked over and saw that Michelle was hanging off of the balcony and was clinging to the edge, but that he did not make it to her in time before she lost her grip and fell.

Jeremy declined to be interviewed by UM, but stated to producers that he had only ever given one explanation for Michelle’s fall: that he only discovered she had fallen when he looked over the edge of the balcony and saw her body below. Michelle’s family still insists that they were given three different stories.

According to detectives, the Witheralls were having trouble in their marriage. They claim that Jeremy admitted to arguing with Michelle on the drive home from a restaurant that evening. Neighbors corroborated that statement and claimed that the Witheralls fought so frequently, and so loudly, that they had complained repeatedly to the landlord.

Violence is what [one neighbor] called it — physically throwing each other around the apartment. And somewhere in the area of one to three weeks before Michelle’s death, she came into my office and said in no uncertain terms — she said someone’s going to get killed out there. — Tim McMackin, Apartment Building Manager

Michelle’s family was becoming more and more suspicious, and began questioning the police investigation.

When the detectives would start out by saying, “Well, Jeremy says…” our thought was, well, you guys are homicide detectives. You were called into this, evidently, for a reason. Now, if all you’re telling us is what Jeremy says, what’s the point? — Cathy

Michelle’s family found many inconsistencies in Jeremy’s accounts.

If this man is a suspect in a homicide, and by his own admission he said he was the only one there, then why would you take his word? — Evert Mellema, Michelle’s father

One, Michelle’s wrists were broken, but her palms were completely unscratched. If the fractures happened when she fell, her palms should have been marked as well. Two, one of her shoes was discovered 26 feet away from her body, and the other shoe was never found. And three, Jeremy took the time to double lock his apartment doors before racing to his wife’s side after she fell.

Police had Jeremy take two polygraph tests and he passed them both. The county coroner officially labeled Michelle’s cause of death as “undetermined.” Michelle’s family insists that she did not die from suicide.

Michelle had so many goals in life, and when she had made this statement to me about separating from Jeremy, she had dealt with these situations in her marriage that she was not pleased with. And she had also made her plan on how to remedy those situations, and that was to separate and ask that Jeremy get professional help. — Cathy

Michelle’s family also believes that the “accident” theory is factually impossible. The balcony was 48 inches, chest high for Michelle. Cathy claims that the wall was too high for anybody to fall and lose their balance, and that the balcony was not poorly constructed. Another suspicious fact: Michelle’s body was found more than nine feet away from the apartment building.

Her family sent her hospital records to three certified forensic pathologists and all three came back with the same verdict: Michelle was murdered, not by a fall, but from “direct impacts,” aka physical blows to her skull. One of the pathologists also claims that her injuries indicated an assault.

Somebody can dive in a suicidal attempt and leap several feet away from the building, or you can be thrown and wind up several feet from the building. You do not accidentally fall and wind up nine feet [sic], the body doesn’t bounce. — Forensic pathologist

After the three forensic pathologist reports, the county opened the first official inquiry into the case: “We will amend the original from undetermined to homicide.” The official coroner report did not specify how Michelle died, but her family says they know how, and they do not think that Michelle fell from the balcony at all.

I think that night, she made the mistake of telling Jeremy she was going to leave him. We think she ran from the apartment, fleeing for her life at that point, and the assault — you know, she was then found and assaulted outside of the apartment. — Cathy

Michelle’s family thinks the “balcony accident” explanation was a quickly improvised cover up that Jeremy came up with in order to explain the severe injuries on Michelle.

We told Jeremy, from the day Michelle died, that we want to find out and we plan to find out everything there is to find out about what happened to Michelle. And we will pursue justice in this case, no matter where it takes us. — Cathy

Police charged Jeremy Witherell with third-degree murder. Two weeks after the trial began, Witherell was acquitted of any criminal wrongdoing. Jurors said conflicting testimony about the cause of injuries influenced their verdict. The manner of death was ruled suicide/accident and the case has been closed.

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Since 1992, and the airing of the episode, new information has come to light. Here’s what I found:

Sometime before her death, Michelle told her mother, “I don’t think it is God’s will that anyone live in an abusive situation.”

The night that Michelle died, the couple had been drinking and they had gotten into a drunken argument, according to neighbors. Jeremy told police that they had gone out to dinner earlier and that they had fought about comments he made regarding a woman wearing a “Hooters” t-shirt.

On the 911 call, Jeremy claimed that Michelle had climbed to the roof of their building and jumped: “Oh God, send an ambulance. She jumped off the roof. Oh God, hold on!”

In 1997, Michelle’s family asked the original coroner on the case to reexamine her records with the new evidence gathered by the three forensic pathologist and he agreed. He officially reversed his position and agreed that Michelle had been beaten, and that her body had been placed beneath the balcony.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Witherell marriage was an extremely unhappy one.

[Michelle] was unhappy with the hours and extensive entertaining that Jeremy did in connection with his work at The City Paper, a free entertainment tabloid owned in part by his brother, Brad. On the night of Michelle Witherell’s death, [a neighbor, Mary] Herr told police she heard a “loud, thumping argument” that “shook her chandelier” around 11 pm.

Jeremy claimed that they did not pay and leave the restaurant that night until around midnight, but credit card receipts show that they paid and headed home around 10:15 pm, making Mary’s story entirely plausible.

In court, the prosecution claimed that Jeremy was “a man who had beaten, tormented and publicly berated his wife almost from the start of their year-long courtship and four-month marriage.”

The family hired Pittsburgh private investigator Robert Meinert who got statements from several relatives, friends and neighbors of the Witherells who said they had seen the couple argue, had heard Jeremy Witherell berating his wife, or said they had seen bruises from his beating her (Source: Jim McKinnon, Husband is found not guilty in the 1992 death of his wife).

During the trial, Dr. Donald W. Marion, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and director of the UPMC Brain Trauma Research Center, testified that at the time of her death, Michelle had a depressed fracture on the left side of her head that was “most likely from an assault with a blunt instrument” and was not consistent from a fall from the balcony.

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It took a jury only two hours to clear Jeremy of all wrongdoing in his wife’s death. They found the inconsistencies in the claims around Michelle’s injuries to be too varied.

Domestic Violence

Women are killed by intimate partners — husbands, lovers, ex-husbands, or ex-lovers — more often than any other category of killer… Intimate partner homicides make up 40 to 50 percent of all murders of women in the United States (Source: National Institute of Justice, NIJ Journal).

“The husband did it” is a popular phrase for a reason.

We’ve known for decades that domestic violence is strongly linked to homicide, however we didn’t identify the concrete steps leading up to intimate partner homicide until 2019. In her study, Intimate Partner Femicide: Using Foucauldian Analysis to Track an Eight Stage Progression to Homicide, Dr. Jane Monckton Smith established the eight stage process that most male abusers take before murdering their female partners.

The stages are not necessarily followed chronologically and sometimes couples loop back to earlier stages, for instance if an abuser is able to reestablish control. However, if the relationship culminated in homicide, all eight stages were likely involved.

For a full breakdown on the stages, read the article below.

Although Jeremy was ultimately acquitted of all charges in connection with the death of his wife Michelle, I think we can reasonably conclude he did it by using an analysis of Dr. Smith’s eight stage progression to homicide. Just because his actions did not meet the legal “burden of proof” standard does not mean that he is factually innocent.

Stage 1: Pre-relationship

A pre-relationship history of stalking or abuse by the perpetrator. Unfortunately we have no information on Jeremy’s relationships prior to Michelle.

Stage 2: Early Relationship

The romance developing quickly into a serious relationship. We can see evidence of this from reports that the couple had gotten married within a year of meeting each other.

Stage 3: Relationship

The relationship becoming dominated by coercive control. This is where most of the variation of abuse occurs among abusers.

Coercive control is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim. This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour… Experts like Evan Stark liken coercive control to being taken hostage.

In Michelle’s case we have multiple accounts of physical abuse throughout her entire relationship with Jeremy. Additionally, the facts show that the couple fought often, and violently, another indication of abuse.

Stage 4: Trigger/s

A trigger to threaten the perpetrator’s control — for example, the relationship ends or the perpetrator gets into financial difficulty.

The reasons given for men killing their partners overwhelmingly revolved around withdrawal of commitment, or separation (Source: Jane Monckton Smith, Intimate Partner Femicide: Using Foucauldian Analysis to Track an Eight Stage Progression to Homicide).

Cathy repeatedly stated that Michelle talked about leaving Jeremy, and that before Michelle was murdered she was planning to tell him she was leaving him. Cathy’s suspicions are that on the night Michelle was killed, she told Jeremy she wanted a divorce, and in response he beat her into unconsciousness and covered it up to make it look like an accident.

Leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for the victim. This is because DV is about power and control. When an abuser realizes he has lost all control of his victim, he will do anything to “gain” that power back, even if it means ending her life. Abusers often resort to an “If I can’t have her, then no one can” mentality.

Leaving can be fatal: In 45% of the homicides in which a man killed a woman, an immediate precipitating factor of the fatal incident was the woman leaving or trying to end the relationship. For clinic/hospital women who were abused on followup, 69% of those who had left or tried to leave an abuser in the previous year but whose abuse continued despite their attempted departure experienced severe incidents compared to 44% of women who had not left or tried to leave (Source: Carolyn Rebecca Block, Risk Factors for Death or Life-Threatening Injury for Abused Women in Chicago).

Stage 5: Escalation

An increase in the intensity or frequency of the partner’s control tactics, such as by stalking or threatening suicide. This is pure conjecture, but I think at some point Jeremy increased the intensity of the physical attacks against Michelle. She was increasingly trying to justify to her mother why divorce might be necessary, making me think that the abuse was worsening and she was becoming desperate. If Jeremy knew of her plans to leave him, it is very likely that the physical violence got worse in an attempt to get her to stay.

Stage 6: A Change in Thinking/Decision

The perpetrator has a change in thinking — choosing to move on, either through revenge or by homicide. It is unclear what the actual events were that might have made Jeremy decide to murder Michelle (or at least seriously injure her and endanger her life), but I think Cathy’s explanation is extremely plausible: he thought Michelle was leaving him and became enraged.

Stage 7: Planning

The perpetrator might buy weapons or seek opportunities to get the victim alone. I think we can see evidence of planning in regards to what Jeremy did after the murder occurred, not necessarily before. I think it is possible that Jeremy decided to murder Michelle, but I also think it is just as equally possible that he accidentally killed her by seriously injuring her in reckless disregard for her life. Either way, the planning occurred when Jeremy came up with the alternate explanation for Michelle’s injuries, and also when he lied about what time they left the restaurant.

Stage 8: Homicide

The perpetrator kills his partner, and possibly hurts others such as the victim’s children. Because of what the reports said, I think we can safely assume that Jeremy murdered Michelle that night by beating her with his fists and some other blunt object. He broke her jaw and both of her wrists, and also caved in her skull, before finally dragging her underneath the balcony to make it look like she had fallen. After slipping into a coma, Michelle eventually succumbed to her injuries.

Based on these markers for domestic violence, as well as the evidence provided by witnesses and court documents, I think that Jeremy Witherell murdered his wife, Michelle Witherell, on the morning of December 20, 1992, after following the eight stage progression to domestic violence related homicide.

In other words, the husband did it.

A discussion on how and why I use the term domestic violence.

For other information on DV, The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great place to start.

an advocate for victims of violence | ~on a mental health break, publishing only They Matter articles for the time being~

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