Last Updated Nov 22, 2020 2:49 AM EST
Linda Stermer, a Michigan woman accused of setting a fire to her family home and murdering her husband, speaks out for the first time in a interview with "48 Hours" correspondent, in the airing Saturday, November 21 at 9/8c on CBS.
On January 7, 2007, Linda Stermer says she was doing laundry in the basement of her family's home when she heard her husband Todd let out a chilling scream and ran upstairs to find their living room engulfed in flames. Todd, says Linda, was in the middle of the room attempting to fight the fire. Unable to get to him, she says she fled the burning house with no shoes, jacket or cellphone.
In an interview for "48 Hours," Erin Moriarty asked Linda Stermer, "You didn't think about calling 911?" "That wasn't my first thought," answered Linda. "My first thought was to get out. Todd's gonna get out … As long as he knows I'm out … he's gonna get out."
The Stermer home was in a rural area outside Kalamazoo, Michigan, with an electrified fence surrounding the large property to help keep the couple's 31 horses safe. Without a cellphone, Linda says the only way for her to get help that day was to jump into her husband's van, which always had the keys inside, and drive to the nearest neighbor. But just as she was about to take off in the van, Linda says she saw that her husband Todd had escaped the burning house, and that she got out of the van to help him. "He's jumping around and he's patting himself. His skin is burnt terribly … I'm screaming at him, get in the van ... And he won't get in the van … I can't touch him … And, so, I get back in the van … And I lost sight of him."
According to weather reports for that day, there was some light rain and snow in the area. Linda says their driveway was so wet and muddy that it was hard for her to get the van moving. "The tires were just spinning … so I couldn't get any traction," she says — but what happened next is something she still cannot explain. "Did you know you had run over your husband," asked Erin Moriarty. "No," says Linda Stermer. Investigators would later find Todd's blood on the van's front bumper and undercarriage. Linda had hit her husband with his own van.
Emergency workers tried to save Todd Stermer, but he died on the scene from his burn injuries. Van Buren County Sheriff's detectives investigated the fire and Todd's death for a little over two years. Then, on June 5, 2009, the prosecutor's office felt it had enough evidence to arrest Linda Stermer and charge her with arson and the murder of her husband. Linda maintains she is innocent, but the couple's sons say that over time they came to feel that their mother was guilty.
"What do you believe happened," Moriarty asked 28-year-old Trevor Stermer.
"Our mother murdered our father," he answered. "She set the house on fire, doused him in gasoline, then after the fact when he managed to get out of the house, she ran him over with her van."
The evidence presented at trial was mainly circumstantial. Among other things, a gas station clerk testified that she saw Linda on the morning of the fire seemingly pumping gas into a gas can at the back of her SUV. Her sons testified that when Linda got home from the gas station, she woke them and gave them money to go to the movies. A formerly close friend testified that Linda had talked about wanting to kill Todd by running him over, and accused Linda of having an affair with a coworker.
Linda's defense countered with testimony from the brother of that former friend, who told the jury that his sister has a history of psychiatric illness and cannot be trusted. As for pumping gas into a can that morning, Linda says it was cold out and she went to the back of her SUV to get gloves to pump gas into her car. Nothing more. She also insists that the reason she sent her sons to the movies that day is that she and Todd were in the throes of a heated argument. She was planning on leaving Todd that day, says Linda, and did not want her sons there to see it.
On January 13, 2010, the jury convicted Linda Stermer. A month later, Linda was sentenced to life in prison without parole — but after serving nearly 9 years, she was once again free, at least temporarily.
Erin Moriarty and I first met Linda Stermer and her new attorney Wolfgang Mueller at the 2019 Innocence Network Conference. A federal judge had overturned Linda's conviction in December of 2018 and set her free. Judge Arthur J. Tarnow declared that Linda did not get a fair trial and said he found prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel.
The State of Michigan immediately filed an appeal to reinstate Linda's conviction and put her back behind bars. Prosecutors declared that if they lost, they would retry her.
On May 15, 2020, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Linda Stermer and upheld Judge Tarnow's decision to overturn her conviction. The Van Buren County Prosecutor's office have since refiled murder charges against Stermer. Her new trial is scheduled to begin on March 9, 2021.
In a family divided, Linda's sons say they will testify against her and vow they will never speak to her again. Their half-sisters — Linda's daughters from a previous marriage, Ashley and Brittany — believe their mother is innocent and say they are praying that she remains free.
Judy Rybak is a producer for "48 Hours" | @JudyRybak