On January 7, 2007, after 3 p.m, a fire broke out at the rural Lawrence, Michigan, home of Todd and Linda Stermer, killing 42-year old father and husband, Todd Stermer. "48 Hours" follows the case of Linda Stermer, Todd's wife, who was arrested and convicted for arson and murder.
Stopping for Gas
Earlier that morning, Linda Stermer stopped at a nearby gas station to buy groceries and says she topped off the tank in her car.
Sending Her Sons Away
Linda Stermer says she then went home, woke her sons, and sent them to the movies. She says she was leaving Todd that day and didn't want their sons to watch her pack.
Pictured from left are sons Cory Pierce and Trevor and Trenton Stermer.
A Couple Argues
Linda and Todd Stermer had been arguing since the previous day, but that afternoon she says things quieted down. Todd was in the living room watching television and she was in the basement doing laundry.
The Stinky Towel
According to Linda Stermer, there was a towel that smelled like fuel oil, so she washed it. She says Todd had used it to clean up earlier when he fixed their furnace. But an expert would later say the towel tested positive for gasoline.
Fire Breaks Out
Linda Stermer says she was still in the basement when she heard Todd scream, and she ran upstairs to find their living room engulfed in flames. She says she thought her husband was fighting the fire and she panicked, running out of the home with no shoes, coat, or cell phone.
No Neighbors Close By
Because the Stermers lived on a large, rural property, Linda says her only option was to get into Todd's van and drive to the nearest neighbors for help.
Linda Stermer Drives
Linda Stermer says she had a hard time driving because it was so muddy. As she was pulling out of the driveway, she says she saw that Todd had made it out and was near the front of the house, badly burned. She says she tried to help him, but he wouldn't get in the van. Then she says she lost sight of him and drove around the side of the house toward a sandy area where she could get traction.
Blood on the Bumper
Investigators would later find blood on the van's front bumper and undercarriage. They concluded that Linda Stermer had hit her husband with the van. But Linda insists she did not hit Todd intentionally; she says she was in a panic and does not know how or where that happened.
Neighbor Mike Matheny saw the flames and smoke and rushed to the scene. He searched the property with Linda Stermer and found Todd at the side of the house, where Linda had driven the van. Matheny covered Todd with some of his work clothes.
Todd Stermer Dies
Emergency medical technicians showed up but could not save Todd. He died on the scene from smoke inhalation and thermal [burn] injuries.
Van Buren County Sheriff's detectives took two years to put together their case. In 2009, Linda Stermer was charged with murder and arson. She was accused of setting fire to her family home in order to kill Todd. When Todd escaped the flames, authorities say Linda ran him over with the family's van.
The Gas Can
Investigators found this gas can in the Stermer's front yard. A gas station clerk who saw Linda on the morning of the fire told police that she thought she saw Linda at the back of her car, seemingly pumping gas not into her vehicle, but into a gas can.
Gas Cans on the Property
Todd and Linda' Stermer's sons say they believe Linda doused their father with gasoline and set the fire. But their half-sisters -- Linda's daughters -- say that there were always gas cans around the property, like these which investigators found in the shed.
Authorities tested the clothing found on Todd Stermer. His socks, sweatpants and underwear tested positive for gasoline. A shirt that the neighbor had placed on Todd also tested positive. But Linda's defense says that neighbor worked for a salvage yard so there could have been cross-contamination.
Linda's Clothes Tested
No gasoline was found on Linda Stermer's clothing.
Fire investigators concluded one of the reasons the fire looked like arson was because the house burned so quickly. But Linda Stermer's defense says at the time of the fire, the Stermer house was still under construction. They say Todd was in debt and believe that he may have set the fire. Todd had been suspected of arson before but was never charged, when two other properties he owned burned to the ground.
A Family Divided
The couple's sons say that Todd Stermer would never set the house that he was building on fire – he loved the family home. Linda's daughters, Brittany and Ashley, believe their mother is innocent. The young women don't talk to their brothers anymore.
Linda Stermer was convicted of arson and of murdering Todd Stermer. In 2010, she was sentenced to life without parole. But in 2018, nearly 12 years after the fire, a federal judge decided she didn't get a fair trial. He vacated her conviction and Linda was released from prison.
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