Analysis of some excerpts from an interview released by Linda Stermer to correspondent Erin Moriarty

Linda Kay Stermer

In February 2010, a jury convicted Linda Kay Stermer of felony murder and the trial court sentenced her to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

According with the prosecutor, on January 7, 2007, Linda Stermer either sedated her husband of 14 years, Todd Stermer or knocked him unconscious before dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire. She then drove over her husband in the driveway after he escaped the fire.

The night before the murder, Todd discovered that his wife Linda was having an extramarital affair with a co-worker and he informed her that he wanted a divorce.

Linda purchased a container of gasoline on the morning of the murder and later denied.

The night of the murder Linda gave her three teen aged sons money and sent them to the movies telling them she was leaving Todd and didn’t want them to see her pack.

Around 3:30 p.m., neighbors saw smoke billowing from the Stermer house and they drove over to assist. These neighbors witnessed defendant drive her van in reverse down the driveway, but then change gears and drive forward behind the house. When the neighbors exited their vehicle to speak to defendant, they discovered Todd’s body lying alongside the driveway. They also noticed blood on the bumper of defendant’s van.

The medical examiner eventually determined that Todd had died from burns and smoke inhalation. Todd also had cranial lacerations consistent with blunt force trauma, various bodily injuries consistent with being run over by a vehicle, and a small amount of an opioid, Vicodine, in his urine.

Kate Fox, a friend of Linda and co-worker, also offered a damaging account of Linda’s pre-offense conduct. For approximately four months, she had been discussing how she could get rid of her husband, including shooting him and running him over with a car. Fox had previously sent police to the Stermer house when Linda threatened to shoot Todd.

Following the murder, Linda told her friend Kate that she wanted to sneak into her now burnt-out home to retrieve a coffee mug that might contain traces of a sedative that she had planned to give to Todd. Linda was also betrayed by a fellow prisoner who indicated that she admitted to drugging Todd, hitting him over the head, and then using gasoline to light him on fire.

Linda purchased a container of gasoline on the morning of the murder and later denied it. 

In December 2018, a federal judge granted a conditional writ of habeas corpus, an order that places burden of proof on those detaining a person to justify the detention. The ruling was in Detroit at the Eastern District of Michigan U.S. District Court.

Linda Stermer was released on a $10,000 bond. 

Todd Stermer

In Statement Analysis we assume that the speaker is “de facto innocent” and that he speaks to be understood. Therefore, from a “de facto innocent” we expect a reliable denial and we don’t expect to find in his language characteristic indicators of the statements of those who do not speak the truth. Basically we analyze the words that we don’t expect to hear or read (The Expected Versus The Unexpected).

What we look for in this interviews is for Linda Kay Stermer to issue a reliable denial, to say “I didn’t kill my husband Todd”, not simply parroting back the interviewer’s words, but in the free editing process and we look for him to show the protection of the “wall of truth”.

The “wall of truth” is an impenetrable psychological barrier that often leads innocent people to few words, as they have no need to persuade anyone of anything.

A reliable denial is found in the free editing process, not in the parroted language and has 3 components:

1. the pronoun “I”

2. past tense verb “did not” or “didn’t”

3. accusation answered

A deceptive person will alter his denial to avoid a direct lie.

“I didn’t kill my husband Todd, I didn’t set the house on fire”, followed by “I told the truth” or by “I’m telling the truth” while addressing the denial “I didn’t kill my husband Todd, I didn’t set the house on fire”, it is more than 99% likely to be true. Also “I didn’t kill my husband Todd, I didn’t set the house on fire, I told the truth, I’m innocent” is to be considered a reliable denial.

We begin every analysis expecting truth, and it is the unexpected that confronts us with possibly deception. The context is the key to understand if behind one or more sensitivity indicators there is guilty knowledge.

ANALYSIS

Erin Moriarty: Did you love Todd?

This is a “Yes” or “No” question. If a subject avoids using “Yes” or “No” in it, the question is considered sensitive to him/her.

Linda Stermer: Oh… (…) like don’t even think I ever didn’t love Todd. I think I felt in love with him so quickly and I know that he loved me.

Expected: “Yes”.

“Oh” is a verbal pause to think. It indicates that the question is sensitive. Linda takes time to build her answer carefully while avoiding telling the truth. 

Please note that in this sentence “like don’t even think” the pronoun “I” is missing. Linda is unable to take ownership of what she says. Who “like don’t even think I ever didn’t love Todd”? 

Moreover “like” also weakens “don’t even think”.

Note that Linda knows how to use past tense verbs.

Erin Moriarty: And it did ever occurred to you that you would be a suspect in your husband death?

This is a “Yes” or “No” question.

A question that allows Linda Stermer to issue a reliable denial.

Linda Stermer: It didn’t even occurred to me that it could even be ruled arson, all I’m thinking was how this happened.

Expected: “No” or “No. I didn’t kill my husband. It didn’t occurred to me that I would be a suspect in his death”.

Instead Linda Stermer’s answer is evasive. Please note that she takes herself off the table, she didn’t mention that she was the one who was charged with “Arson”, this is distancing language.

Note that Linda knows how to use past tense verbs.

Linda Stermer: He is watching hunting shows upstairs, he is not … doing much of anything, I’m doing laundry. I heard a scream like no other scream I ever heard from him and I just … rushed upstairs to see what in the world happened and as soon as I got around the corner I can see… a fire… across the living room, he looked like he was fighting the fire.

When someone is speaking of an event in the past, it is expected the subject to use past tense language. In Statement Analysis, present tense language is deemed unreliable.

The use of present here “He is watching hunting shows upstairs, he is not … doing much of anything, I’m doing laundry” and “I can see… a fire across the living room” is critical. 

Deceptive people often use the present counting on us to interpret and assume that they are speaking of the past event.

When Linda says “I heard a scream like no other scream I ever heard from him“ I believe her. Did Linda hear “a scream like no other scream” she ever heard from Todd when she hit him on the head with a blunt object?

Please note that “he looked like” weakens “he was fighting the fire”.

Note “and I just … rushed upstairs”. “just” is a dependent word used in comparison. Its communication is found in dependence upon another thought within the speaker’s mind. What was she comparing here?

She is deceptive.

Linda Stermer: There just seem to be fire all over in the living room. I could not have gotten over to Todd because there was fire between the two of us. I just rushed out of the house.

Note again the presence of “just” here “There just seem to be fire all over in the living room” and here “I just rushed out of the house”. “just” is a dependent word used in comparison. Its communication is found in dependence upon another thought within the speaker’s mind. What was she comparing here? 

Please note that when Linda says “I could not have gotten over to Todd because there was fire between the two of us”, she explains “the reason why” without being asked because she feels the need to pre-empt the question “Why could you not…?”, this is something “very sensitive” in Statement Analysis. 

She is deceptive.

Erin Moriarty: But the house is in fire you didn’t think about calling 911? 

Linda Stermer: That wasn’t my first thought. 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. I go.. got to get help. I get in the van and I started to back up and all of the sudden he is there and I’m screaming at him: “Get in the van, get in the van” and he won’t get in the van. He’s jumping around and he’s patting himself. His … his skin is burnt terribly.

“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”. What was she thinking? Was she thinking that Todd could follow her and still react?

In Statement Analysis we consider “all of the sudden” a temporal lacuna. The context is key, in this case it could be also related to Linda’s state of alert. Wasn’t she expecting Todd to get out the house on fire? Why? 

We know that Linda can speak of the event in the past tense. Please note that in this answer Linda moves from the past tense into the present tense, which reduces reliability, “I get in van”, “he is there and I’m screaming at him” and “He’s jumping around and he’s patting himself. His … his skin is burnt terribly”. 

She is deceptive.

Linda Stermer: And then I’m yelling at him to lay down to do anything. I can’t touch him and so I get back in the van and I lost sight of him … I don’t know where he went to but was so muddy and the tires were just spinning so I couldn’t get any traction. So, I just put it in gear and I’m trying to let it creep until it gets some purchase.

Please note “And “. When “And” is used as the first word of a sentence is an indicator that Linda has more information that she has not revealed.  

“then” is a temporal lacuna, a signal of missing information too.

Note the word “so”. For three times she has to pre-empt the question explaining “the reason why”. This is something “very sensitive” in Statement Analysis. 

Linda uses again the present tense “And then I’m yelling at him to lay down to do anything. I can’t touch him and so I get back in the van”, “I don’t know where he went to”, “I’m trying” and “It gets”. Unreliable.

Note also the word “but” that is used to refute or minimize by comparison. 

Please note that she says “but was so muddy and the tires were just spinning so I couldn’t get any traction” after “I don’t know where he went to” to pre-empt being asked “How could you have run over Todd?”. 

Note also the use of the word “just” twice. “just” is a dependent word used in comparison. Its communication is found in dependence upon another thought within the speaker’s mind. What was she comparing here?

She is deceptive.

Linda Stermer: Then saw the neighbors. I saw them coming up the driveway at some point. Mike, he is yelling at me: “Where’s the kids? Where’s Todd?”. And I’m screaming at him. He said I was incoherent, couldn’t understand me because I’m hysterical. And I’m trying to tell him the kids aren’t here. Todd’s up there.

Note that in this sentence “Then saw the neighbors” the pronoun “I” is missing. Linda is unable to take ownership of what she says.

Linda is still speaking at the present tense “he is yelling at me”, “I’m screaming” and “I’m hysterical”. The use of the present tense is deemed unreliable in Statement Analysis.

Linda Stermer: We found Todd laying right here, closer to the house.

Erin Moriarty: Somehow he went from over here to here.

Linda Stermer: Yes. And he was laying on his back with his head closest to the house.

Linda Stermer: He was so badly burnt. And … he was alive. He was looking at me, but he … couldn’t talk. And I laid there just begging him not to leave me.

In Statement Analysis, when something is offered in the negative in the free editing process is to be elevated in importance. Please note “but he … couldn’t talk”. Why does Linda refers something in the negative? Why she focuses on this? Was she afraid Todd could say the truth to his rescuers? Was she afraid he could say “She tried to kill me”?

Note “just” here. “just” is a dependent word used in comparison. Its communication is found in dependence upon another thought within the speaker’s mind. What was she comparing here?

Linda Stermer: And they said they couldn’t hook up a defibrillator to him …  ‘cause he was … too badly burned … When they stopped working on him, I was so … so angry at them. Why didn’t they get him in the ambulance? Why did they waste so much time trying there? [crying] Can we take a break please?

Erin Moriarty: Of course.

Erin Moriarty: Did you know you had run over your husband,?

Linda Stermer: … No. 

Linda waits more than usual to answer. It indicates that she needs to take time to answer because the question is sensitive to her.

Erin Moriarty: You must know, Linda, that it’s very difficult for people to believe that your husband is burned in a fire, he escapes, he’s still alive, badly burned and then you hit him with a car. You just happened to have that kind of bad luck?

This question allows Linda to issue a reliable denial.

Linda Stermer: [laugh] Bad luck doesn’t even describe it.

Linda is unable to issue a reliable denial. Her answer is evasive.

She is also unable to control herself, she has a reason to laugh.

Erin Moriarty: Do you have anything to do with this death?

Linda Stermer: Nothing whatsoever.

Expected “No“. Instead she shows a need to persuade that people that “didn’t do it” don’t have. The “wall of truth” is not within her. 

Erin Moriarty: Were you ever unfaithful to Todd?

Linda Stermer: No. Todd was an extremely jealous and possessive person.

Linda weakens her “No” with 8 words she uses to blame the victim.

Linda Stermer: Todd owned his own business. He sold gloves and occasionally sold hunting suits but he didn’t like to work … often. And… I learned about him borrowing money from his mother. And I said, “Why would you do that? Why aren’t you just going to work?” I was working in a dialysis facility. I had to be to work at 5:00 a.m.

Note that Linda blames the victim. People who feel guilt, often mitigate it blaming their victims and putting them on trial.

Linda also feels the need to represent herself as a “good person” because she is not. This is an The Ingratiating Factor an indication of manipulation as well as a sensitivity indicator for possible guilt.

Erin Moriarty: How much in debt was he?

Linda Stermer: At the time of his death, $75,000 … He hadn’t paid our mortgage in several months. And he just blew money, just blew money.

She is blaming the victim. What is she looking for? Is she trying to justify her actions? Is she trying to say that she killed Todd in self defense?

Linda Stermer: It wasn’t a regular thing. He would get extremely fired up and extremely frustrated. And he hit … hit me one time and left a bruise on my cheek. … But he sent me flowers. He told me how sorry he was. And then you believe that it’s never going to happen again, until it does.

Please note that Linda says that Todd hit her only once.

Linda is unable to say “And then I believed that it was never going to happen again, until it did”, instead, not to lie, she says “And then you believe that it’s never going to happen again, until it does” counting on us to assume he hit her more than once.

Deceptive people often use “you” instead of “I”. The use of “you” is distancing language. It indicates that the subject desire to make a statement but cannot do so without lying. In avoiding the internal stress of a direct lie, the subject takes the distance from the reality with the pronoun “you”. 

Erin Moriarty: Kate Fox also testified that Linda had discussed ways of getting rid of her husband, including running him over with a car. Did you?

Linda Stermer: No. Kate really hated me at that point. My lawyer asked her why she was so angry at me. And she says “She lied to me. She lied to me. She changed shifts … without me.”

Linda answers with a “No” then weakens her answer with more words in an attempt to ridicule her friend.

Kate Fox also told investigator that Linda was having an affair with a co-worker named Chris Williams. Williams himself confirmed that he and Linda had a romantic relationship while she was still married.

Erin Moriarty: Were you …

Linda Stermer: No.

Erin Moriarty: … having an affair with Chris Williams?

Linda Stermer: Uhm … I started seeing Chris Williams romantically, but it wasn’t until after … I lost my husband.

“Uhm” is a pause to think. 

Each of us has a personal internal and subjective dictionary. A specific word may have a different meaning for different subjects. The goal of a journalist should be to decode the subjective internal dictionary of the subject who is releasing the interview. 

Erin Moriarty should have asked Linda: “What do you mean for “romantically”?

Erin Moriarty: Why would a man you went out with turn around and lie at trial?

Linda Stermer: Unless he was manipulated by someone, I don’t know.

ANALYSIS CONCLUSION

Deception Indicated.

Linda Stermer never issued a reliable denial.

She was evasive and manipulative.

She has guilty knowledge of what happened to her husband Todd.

After her interview to 48 Hours correspondent Erin Moriarty went on air, Linda Stermer wrote the following statement on Facebook:

Screen Shot 2020-02-03 at 16.46.00

“I’ve participated in a dozen hours, give or take, with 48 Hour’s. I watched my daughter’s heart’s break again as they told their lives to the world, afraid of the backlash, but confident that they were doing the right thing. I learned things that I wasn’t aware of. I watched the program as my son’s told their story. Listening as they told things that I knew were distorted. I spent countless time reading and hearing about the posts on Facebook 48 Hour’s. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know. No matter what the pain of others is, there will always be people who judge without all the facts. Not one person asked to see the actual evidence. Some cited evidence shown to contradict what others were saying. Some reached out to me. Kindly giving me words of encouragement and support. Some posted to knowing myself or my family that either never met or never were close to. But they still had their “first hand knowledge” to share. One claimed to be a former cell mate who I’ve never met. One imparted information that was completely to the contrary of what his testimony was. I won’t use the word lie again because I’ve been judged for claiming anyone did. I wish 48 Hour’s could have addressed ALL the questions everyone has ever had. But that is not a feasible nor practical undertaking. People seem to think I withheld information from my son’s, the police and the court. They’ve pointed out why did I conveniently avoid this or that. The thing is, my boys were young, 13, 15, 17 when they lost their Dad. I didn’t know how to deal with that loss, I was leaving him, but I wasn’t over him. I was over the life we had. Not him. More importantly, I didn’t know how to talk to the boys about it. Now, years later, I’m described as acting the victim because of the way I cried then. Now, 12 year’s later I’m being criticized for not shedding enough tears. For looking this way or that. It’s been 12 years, 9 spent in prison, learning to cope with and control what feelings I’ve had each time I’ve had to open these wounds for an appeal, procedure, lawyer, or Court. I cannot say I was guiltless in the problems of our marriage. I can say I was a good mother and wife. I was loved by my children, all of them, and even my in-laws, until a prosecutor decided to use his office to manipulate two families into pointing the finger at the opposite, making people believe there was a crime when no evidence exists to prove any crime ever existed. The State used perjury and manipulation of circumstantial evidence to destroy many lives. But this is the world we live in. For all the world to see, to judge and to punish. This is the world I wish we could fix, but again, not feasible. For anyone who wants to know the facts that were used to convict me, they are public record. What I would like people to think about, it is easy to say what you would do as an outsider looking in. It is easy to say what you think when you don’t have all of the information. It wasn’t an easy process to prove my Conviction was wrongfully obtained. What it did though was to give me evidence of fraud that will be used in the future if I do lose in my current appeal. I have become a better person and a more appreciative person since going through this. I’ve learned that judging others can make us a fool. And I’ve learned that I needed God more than I once thought. It was Him that cleared my mind and prepared me for the legal battles I’ve fought. Him that gave me the support and love that I’m blessed with. And Him that has brought me to this day in this place. Many are taking sides again, judging that either my daughter’s, mother and I are liars or our son’s are. Those who make the rude comments about the way we did or didn’t cry, looked fake and the opinions on guilt, you’re the pipeline for pain of the innocent victims in my case. My case is far from over, but I can say that those who have been so kind, those who’ve loved and supported us have given me more strength than the ugliness has taken. People who fight for other’s freedom, do it each day, against the public opinion, against the presented evidence and against other’s judgement, because they have a strong sense of justice and do all they can to see it served. And I am grateful for the ones who have chosen to fight for me”.

Instead of issuing a reliable denial of fews words, instead of writing “I didn’t kill my husband Todd, I didn’t set the house on fire, I’m telling the truth”, Linda Stermer:

  1. chose to write 796 words. The “wall of truth” is not within her;
  2. seasoned her statement with embedded admissions: “I withheld information from my son’s, the police and the court”, “I conveniently avoid this or that” and “either my daughter’s, mother and I are liars”;
  3. showed ownership of her conviction writing “my Conviction”; note also her use of the capital letter “C” that shows respect for her conviction;
  4. showed a need to ingratiate herself with the audience “I have become a better person and a more appreciative person since going through this”;
  5. brought “God” as a witness to persuade her audience of something she is unable or unwilling to deny.

Statement Analysis get to the truth.

Ursula Franco, MD and Criminologist