TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — The paramedics who looked at Robert Breininger’s lifeless body in his twin bed suspected right away that whatever happened didn’t match the story being told by his 10-year-old son.
There was no way, they thought, his father was awake when the boy told them the gun accidentally went off. And it certainly appeared it was fired inches away from his head, not from the other side of the room.
Still, the shooting in rural northwestern Ohio was ruled an accident and stayed that way for nearly a decade until the boy told a former teacher, and then investigators, that Breininger’s wife, who had adopted the boy, persuaded him to kill his father because he was dying and to make it look like an accident. A jury convicted her of aggravated murder and insurance fraud in 2013.
Now, a court ruling is raising questions once again about what took place, ordering a new trial for Judith Hawkey, who’s serving a life sentence in a shooting that has been surrounded by mystery from almost from the moment it happened.
State appeals court judges decided the second trial is warranted because testimony shouldn’t have been allowed from three witnesses: a child abuse pediatrician, a clinical psychologist and the teacher in whom the boy confided years after the shooting.
While the ruling in late March said there was enough evidence for a conviction, it also called the case against Hawkey not overwhelming — saying everything originated from her adopted son, Corey Breininger.
“All of the conclusions reached by the professionals and the authorities were based upon what Corey told them,” the ruling said.
Prosecutors, who have asked the appeals court to reconsider its decision, called the ruling contradictory and confusing. They also criticized the court for how it interpreted testimony in the case and making a decision “that appears to substitute its own opinion for that of the jury.”
What isn’t in dispute is that Corey, now 23, came home from school in autumn 2003 and fired the shot that killed his father after Hawkey had left their house outside Defiance, near the Indiana state line.
Corey told first responders he was talking with his dad when the gun went off. He said he tried CPR, but paramedics saw no blood on him.
One of the first responders said he remembered the boy, who was inconsolable, saying, “It feels like it’s my fault.”
Investigators didn’t question his story despite what they saw, one said according to a court document, because of how devastated Corey appeared to be afterward.
Nine years later, Corey, told the same investigator a new story.
Hawkey had told him, he said, that his 34-year-old father had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and wanted to be killed so the family would have money. Corey said she told him where to find the gun and how to call 911 when it was over.
Corey also told the investigator that Hawkey had beaten him for years, that she had tried to kill him several times and that she was trying to poison the man she married after Breininger’s death.
Authorities concluded that Hawkey used the boy to kill her husband and collect a $500,000 insurance payout, noting later that she had started the paperwork the day after the shooting.
By the time Corey accused Hawkey of orchestrating the shooting, he already had moved out of the house and was estranged from his family. He testified he didn’t say anything earlier because he was afraid she would kill him.
Friends and neighbors gave conflicting accounts of the relationship between Corey and Hawkey. One neighbor said she rarely showed affection toward the boy, while another said she had been excited to adopt her new husband’s son.
Prosecutors described Hawkey as controlling and abusive. The judge said at sentencing that how she manipulated Corey was “evil beyond description.”
Hawkey’s defense attorney, Clayton Crates, said that a social worker who visited the house before the shooting saw no signs of abuse and that medical records did not back up those claims.
“I don’t know if it’s Corey lying, or if living with the guilt of shooting his father transformed his mind and caused him to shift some blame,” Crates said.
Repeated calls to a listing for Corey Breininger were not answered over the past few days.
Before Hawkey was sentenced, she said Corey shot his father because they had decided to send him to a military school and he didn’t want to go.
“He made up the whole story,” she said at the hearing. “I will be back for another time because I did not do this.”