COCHRANTON, Pa. -- Authorities say two lesbian lovers tortured and murdered 20-year-old Brandy Stevens-Rosine, an Ohio college student who was beaten and buried alive in a shallow grave behind the women's secluded home.
Details of the May killing were revealed for the first time at a preliminary hearing this week for Ashley Marie Barber, 20, and Nichole "Jade" Olmstead, 18, who a judge ordered to stand trial on charges of homicide and conspiracy.
Krysti Horvat, a close friend of Stevens-Rosine, was in court to hear police and prosecutors present the gruesome evidence. "The night before the detectives told us some of the details so we would not be so terribly surprised, but even after that it was still shocking to hear what Brandy went through," Horvat told The Huffington Post. "She was like the little sister that everyone would want to have, and for her to be brutally murdered is unfathomable."
Stevens-Rosine, a popular sociology student at Youngstown State University, left her home in Beaver Township, Ohio, on the morning of May 17 for an impromptu meeting with Olmstead, whom she had once dated. Despite the breakup, the two remained in regular contact.
"Brandy had been in love with Jade, and they were together about a year before they broke up," Horvat said. "Jade then started going with Ashley, but anytime Jade needed anything Brandy was there. She had even recently driven to Baltimore to give Jade a ride to where she wanted to go."
The reason for Stevens-Rosine's get-together with her old flame remains unclear. Stevens-Rosine drove 75 miles northeast, across the state line and into Pennsylvania. Her destination was a home on Drake Hill Road in Wayne Township, Crawford County, east of Cochranton, owned by Barber's parents. Barber and Olmstead had been living together at the address.
PHOTOS FROM THE CASE: (Article Continues Below)
After winding her way through a maze of roads that led her deep into the woods of Crawford County, Stevens-Rosine began the final leg of her journey. It took her through acres of isolated back hills, indiscriminately sliced into rudimentary sections by dusty dirt roads. Thick canopies of trees envelop portions of the road, and it’s not uncommon for the piercing sun to cast spooky shadows onto the landscape. As she neared her Drake Hill Road destination, Stevens-Rosine sent a text message to a friend, saying she had a "funny feeling."
Two days later, Stevens-Rosine's family reported her missing to the Beaver Township police. Authorities said they were concerned because the young woman was diabetic and did not have her medication, but they did not immediately suspect foul play.
"These are always tough cases because obviously a 20-year-old girl has the ability to leave and not have people hound her, looking for her," Beaver Township Police Chief Carl Frost later told Youngstown's WYTV.
Before she'd left home, Stevens-Rosine told her grandmother she was going to visit a friend, but did not say where. Horvat had never been to Barber's home before and didn't know where Stevens-Rosine went. But she had the address Stevens-Rosine had texted the day she went missing. On May 20, she travelled to Pennsylvania to search for her friend.
"I drove to Drake Hill Road, but it was at nighttime and it looked like a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. I couldn't see her car and I couldn't see tire tracks, so I left," Horvat said.
The following day, Stevens-Rosine's cellphone pinged a tower in Meadville, Pa., right outside of Cochranton. On May 22, Horvat returned to the area with Stevens-Rosine's mother and grandparents to go door-to-door on Drake Hill Road. As it turned out, one of the homes they visited belonged to the Barber family.
"We spoke to Ashley and Jade in the front yard and they claimed they hadn't seen her, so we went home with more questions than answers," Horvat said.
Later that day, Pennsylvania state troopers went to the Barber residence and located Stevens-Rosine's 2002 Kia Rio in the driveway. According to Horvat, the vehicle had not been parked in the driveway earlier that day. Troopers sized the car, but found no sign of Stevens-Rosine.
The next day, Stevens-Rosine's mother, Carrie Rosine, posted a message about her daughter's disappearance to the Facebook page of radio station Majic 99.3 and 104.5. It read, in part:
"The PA State police have found her car last night ... [Barber and Olmstead] had been questioned the night before and told the police that Brandy never made it there ... Then last night they stated that Brandy came there and got a ride from another friend. They [said they] never saw the car, they never saw the person that picked her up; that she walked down the dirt road to get picked up."
Rosine said her daughter's vehicle had been "completely cleaned out." She also said Ashley Barber had been taken to the hospital for an injury.
"Barber coincidentally went to the emergency room from falling down the basement stairs right around the time Brandy went missing," she posted on the Facebook page.
Rosine did not elaborate and told HuffPost on Thursday, "They advised us not to talk to the press."
Not long after Rosine's May 23 Facebook post, police notified her that they had found a shallow grave a few hundred yards from the Barber residence. An examination of the makeshift plot revealed the partially decomposed body of Brandy Stevens-Rosine.
Crawford County Coroner Scott Schell pronounced Stevens-Rosine dead. Investigators took three hours to exhume the remains.
Following an autopsy, Schell told The Meadville Tribune that Stevens-Rosine had "multiple injuries from multiple different objects ... to a large percentage of her body."
On May 24, state police sent out a press release that said, "Barber and Olmstead both admitted to their role in killing [Stevens-Rosine] and the burying of her body."
Barber and Olmstead were arraigned on charges of criminal homicide, conspiracy and tampering with physical evidence.
Horvat attended the funeral for Stevens-Rosine and read from a eulogy she penned.
"All Brandy wanted was to be herself in a world without prejudice, and I believe Brandy achieved that goal the best she could. Brandy was an inspiration to others. She taught others not to fear who you are, but to embrace his or her self. ... She shared 20 years with us, and now it is time to cherish those years."
The two defendants were jailed without bond and appeared in court for their preliminary hearing on Wednesday.
State Trooper Eric Mallory told Magisterial District Judge Michael Rossi that Olmstead and Barber had invited Stevens-Rosine to their home on May 17. They lured her into the woods behind the home, under the pretense of seeing a fort the couple was building, and savagely attacked her.
Mallory said the two women admitted punching and kicking Stevens-Rosine and placed a "Saw" hat in her mouth to quiet her screams. "Saw" is a horror movie series about a fictional diabolical psychotic called "Jigsaw" who psychologically tortures.
"She was screaming for her life," Mallory testified.
They knocked Stevens-Rosine to the ground, the trooper said. Barber put a rope around her neck and strangled her while Olmstead hit Stevens-Rosine in the head with a shovel, Mallory said.
According to the trooper, Olmstead said she hit Stevens-Rosine four or five times in the head and could see Stevens-Rosine's brains protrude from the gaping wounds. Mallory said Barber hurt herself head-butting Stevens-Rosine, then repeatedly pounded the victim's head against a stump.
"She was on the victim's back with her knee in her spine, pulling her head back with the rope ... and letting it hit the stump," Mallory said.
When the fight was drained from Stevens-Rosine, the two girls rolled her into a shallow grave they had dug prior to the assault, Mallory said. When the women found Stevens-Rosine still breathing, they smashed her face with a large rock and poured water into her nose and mouth to drown her, the trooper said.
Barber "said that her worst fear was being buried alive," Mallory said. "She was trying to kill her."
According to the autopsy report, Stevens-Rosine suffered blunt force trauma, a skull fracture and 15 lacerations to the scalp. Her death, according to Erie County forensic pathologist Eric Vey, was caused by suffocation from dirt in her airway. Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz said Stevens-Rosine had been buried alive.
Mallory explained the evidence-tampering charge during the hearing, saying the defendants buried the "Saw" hat, a blood-soaked sweatshirt and the bloody rock used to smash Stevens-Rosine in the face. The hat, Mallory said, had been used, "to pick up what [Barber] referred to as meat or brains."
Barber initially told police her father had committed the murder because he was not tolerant of homosexuals, Mallory said. The women later admitted to killing Stevens-Rosine, police said.
The defense hasn't commented on the case. Schultz, the D.A., declined to comment on a possible motive. Horvat said she thinks her friend was killed out of jealousy.
The accused killers are being held without bail at the Crawford County Correctional Facility and are scheduled to be arraigned on Aug. 24. Schultz said he will decide whether his office will pursue the death penalty prior to that hearing.
"Brandy didn't deserve this at all," Horvat said. "She was a great person and I think about her every day, because she was that kind of friend."