LOGAN, Ohio — Two teens who last year pushed a 74-pound log off a cliff at an Ohio park, killing a photographer shooting senior portraits below, were sentenced Friday, while a third teen has been charged with obstruction in the case.
Jordan Buckley and Jaden Churchheus, both 17, pleaded guilty last month to involuntary manslaughter in the death of Victoria Keup Schafer, 44, of Chillicothe, who was killed Sept. 2, 2019, on the steps at Old Man’s Cave, a popular spot in Hocking Hills State Park in Logan. Originally scheduled to be tried as adults, both boys entered into plea agreements that put the case back into juvenile court for sentencing.
A judge on Friday sentenced each to three years in a youth detention facility. If they do not serve those sentences successfully, they could each face more than four years in adult prison.
According to the Chillicothe Gazette, a third person, Miranda Spencer, now 20, was indicted Sept. 25 by a Hocking County grand jury. It is unclear what brought about the felony obstruction charge.
Buckley’s and Churchheus’ sentencing hearings were streamed live by local TV news stations. Present in the courtroom was Schafer’s family, as well as three of the high school seniors the beloved photographer was taking pictures of the day she was slain.
According to Schafer’s husband, Fritz Schafer, the teens have since befriended his four children.
The students who witnessed Schafer’s death were among the people who offered victim impact statements. They described a nightmare scenario in which the sound of breaking tree branches from above was the only warning of the tragedy about to happen steps away from where they stood.
They also described seeing a lifeless Schafer, who, according to her husband, suffered catastrophic injuries. Her injuries included a spine broken in two places, a crushed chest that included six broken ribs and a gash on the top of her head that measured 12 inches long and three inches wide.
“As I bent down, the horrifying visions in my head are something that I have nightmares about every night,” one of the girls said, pausing multiple times to take deep breaths. She described being unable to sleep for months and how, after that day in the park, she no longer takes hikes in the woods.
“Your nightmare might end, but ours never do,” the teen said.
“I never thought my heart could break that much that day,” another of the girls said as she described the screaming and crying in the aftermath of the killing, as well as having to watch as the Schafer family eventually learned that Victoria Schafer’s death was not an accident.
Fritz Schafer told the court that he and the couple’s four children agreed to a plea deal because it’s what his wife would have wanted.
“Mom would want to give these kids a chance,” Schafer said. “As for my forgiveness, I don’t know.”
Buckley and Churchheus initially faced murder or reckless homicide charges. In exchange for their pleas, those charges were dismissed, WHIO in Dayton reported.
Both teens apologized in court Friday. Churchheus also apologized for his actions during his Sept. 16 plea hearing.
“That day at Old Man’s Cave, I never would have imagined that my actions would result in this,” the teen said, according to WBNS in Columbus. "I have thought about the fact that I caused someone’s death every day since it happened, and I will carry that with me for the rest of my life.
“I appreciate the kindness of Ms. Schafer’s family, the attorney general’s office and the prosecutor’s office in giving me a second chance. I realize that nothing I say can bring Ms. Schafer back, but I am truly sorry.”
Buckley expressed similar regrets at his plea hearing Sept. 25, the news station reported.
“I know that nothing I can say right now will change what happened that day, and I know that no words that I speak can bring back your beloved wife, mother, daughter and sister,” an emotional Buckley told Schafer’s family. “I understand that my actions that day has caused your family’s life to change, and my hope from all of this is to use this trauma to learn and live the rest of my life in a way that will honor Ms. Schafer’s.”
Schafer and her husband were married for 21 years. In court Friday, Fritz Schafer told how the night before she was killed, his wife lay in bed with him and told him her happiest place was in his arms. It was a memory the widower also shared on Facebook in April, on what would have been his 22nd wedding anniversary.
She had never told him that before, Fritz Schafer said.
“She told me she loved me and couldn’t wait to spend the rest of her life with me. I loved her more at that moment than ever before," Schafer said. "The next night, she was gone.”
Fritz Schafer’s April Facebook post included a photo of a “hug coupon” he’d given his wife the day they met. After her death, he found the worn and tattered memento in Victoria Schafer’s purse.
According to her obituary, she was known for her “underwater photography, wedding photos, family photos, baby photos, high school seniors and candid photos” of local fire and police officers. Through her business, Victoria Schafer Photography, she also volunteered for “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” taking photos for parents who have suffered the stillof a baby.
“I’m a no-frills, less is more kind of photographer,” Schafer wrote on her business website. “My style is informal, fun and relaxed as I work to create images that cannot be created in a studio alone. I take the time to take the best candid-lifestyle portraits, the kind that can be cherished for years to come.”
The Gazette reported that Spencer testified at a November 2019 hearing to determine whether Buckley and Churchheus would be tried as adults. Spencer and another girl were with the teens on Labor Day 2019 at Hocking Hills.
Spencer testified that Buckley was the one who removed the 6-foot-long log from a pile more than 40 feet from the ledge at Old Man’s Cave, while Churchheus was the one who rolled it off the cliff. Buckley had said there was no one down below after Spencer warned them not to roll the log off the cliff, she testified.
Schafer was below, shooting senior portraits of a half-dozen high school seniors. She was killed almost immediately.
Investigators with the Hocking County Sheriff’s Office and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources figured out that the incident was no accident when they found the indentation in the ground where the log that killed Schafer had rested before it was moved.
They also found that if the log had fallen on its own, it would likely have fallen in a straight drop onto a ledge below. To strike Schafer, it had to clear both that ledge and a second ledge below the first.
That required forward momentum, according to the Gazette.
The teens failed to admit what they had done, and in the weeks that followed, a $10,000 reward was offered for information about Schafer’s death. A tip to law enforcement led to Buckley and Churchheus.
Spencer told the court last fall that the boys “did it to be funny” but did not mean to hurt anyone.
“I know Jaden. I don’t believe that he would ever intentionally hurt someone,” Spencer testified, according to the newspaper.
Prosecutors argued that the teens should be tried as adults because they were aware that the park was crowded that day. Churchheus' defense lawyer countered that knowing the park was crowded was not the same as “knowingly” killing the victim.
Schafer’s sister tearfully told Buckley and Churchheus on Friday of the loss her family had suffered. She called them cowards for not admitting what they had done until investigators tracked them down.
Judge Jonah Saving urged the teens to do what they have to do while in custody to make a future for themselves. During Churchheus' sentencing, he told the 17-year-old to listen well to the statements made by the victim’s loved ones.
“You need to soak that in because that’s more than what I could ever say. The pain that you heard from them is indescribable. I get angry listening to it, so I don’t know if I could be as forgiving as they are,” Saving said. “Do you understand that you took a mother? Of children your age, your same age … that you took their mother, do you understand that? A wife? A sister?
“That’s a void that could never be filled for them.”
Cox Media Group