AKRON, Ohio (Court TV) — Ohio mother Erica Stefanko was sentenced to life in prison after a jury found her guilty in the death of Ashley Biggs for a second time.
Under Ohio law, Stefanko was sentenced on just one offense of the prosecution’s choosing. Judge Jennifer Towell sentenced Stefanko to a term of life without the possibility of parole until after serving 30 years. During the reading of the sentence, Biggs’ mother could be heard screaming in reaction to the sentence.
Biggs, 25, went to work as a pizza delivery driver in Akron on June 20, 2012, and never returned home. Summit County prosecutors claimed Stefanko placed a bogus pizza order that lured Biggs to a parking lot where Biggs was beaten and strangled to death by Chad Cobb, her ex-boyfriend and the father of her child. At the time, Biggs and Cobb were locked in a bitter custody dispute over their daughter, and Cobb was married to Stefanko.
Cobb pleaded guilty to Biggs’ murder in 2013. He later implicated Stefanko and became a critical state witness. But it was Cobb’s pandemic-era testimony via Zoom that overturned Stefanko’s first conviction. In the first trial, he tried to distance himself from Biggs’ murder and denied killing her.
Cobb wasn’t the only person to implicate Stefanko in her first trial in 2020. The jury also heard from the teenage daughter of Biggs and Cobb, who testified that she overheard Stefanko place the pizza order using a false name. Cobb’s mother testified that she secretly recorded a conversation in which Stefanko admitted to placing the order and said that Cobb wanted Biggs’ skull as a trophy.
Cobb’s friend, Mary Brinkman, testified Stefanko made no secret of her dislike for Biggs. Stefanko said she drove Cobb to the ambush location, Brinkman testified, and later defecated on Biggs’ grave “for all the (expletive) she put us through.”
Stefanko’s defense argued that her contempt for Biggs was not evidence of involvement in a murder conspiracy. The defense tried to portray Cobb as a spiteful ex who implicated Stefanko after she divorced him and married Cobb’s best friend.
A PIZZA DELIVERY ENDS IN DEATH
According to trial testimony, Cobb and Biggs had a child together in July 2005. By 2012, they were leading separate lives except for a fiercely contested custody battle.
“I think things would have gone better if it were two parties instead of four,” Cobb’s mother, Cynthia Cobb, testified, referring to Chad and Ashley’s significant others. “I just think they both added fuel to the fire.”
Cobb met Stefanko — known then as Erica Lyon — on MySpace in 2006 and married her in 2010. The couple lived in Akron with their four children: two children they had together, Stefanko’s child from another relationship, and Cobb’s daughter with Biggs.
Biggs was working as a Domino’s Pizza delivery driver for extra money for the custody battle, her supervisor testified. On the night of June 20, 2012, someone called in an order to 647 W. Turkeyfoot Lake Rd. Biggs left shortly before midnight and never returned. Her supervisor called the police when Biggs failed to answer her phone.. Police arrived at Turkeyfoot Lake Rd. around 12:45 a.m. and found blood, drag marks, Taser parts and cash. Biggs and her car were missing.
Biggs’ fiancée, Brittany Dunson, was the first person to tell investigators about the tumultuous custody battle. The information led police to Cobb’s grandparent’s property around 4:30 a.m., where they found Stefanko and the four children in a car behind a barn. Police found Cobb hiding in the nearby woods covered in blood.
Later that morning, a passerby noticed Biggs’ car in a cornfield next and called police. Biggs’ body was found in the car with her arms, legs and neck bound with industrial-sized zip ties.
Stefanko allegedly told police that her husband returned home around 1 a.m. and told her to pack up the kids because they had to leave. They drove to Cobb’s grandparents’ home, Cobb got out of the car and said he would be back, Stefanko said.
CHAD COBB’S TESTIMONY
Prosecutors claimed Cobb beat and strangled Biggs to death, then used Biggs’ car to transport her body to the cornfield, where Stefanko picked him up. Cobb told a slightly different story on the witness stand in 2020.
Cobb testified that he overheard Stefanko place the call from their car, then left him alone in the parking lot. Cobb did not explain why Stefanko made the call, if she did so at his behest, or why they were in the parking lot. He also denied killing Biggs.
“Is it fair to say that Ashley did not leave that parking lot alive that night?” Assistant Summit County Prosecutor Brian LoPrinzi asked him.
“Yes sir, that is accurate,” Cobb responded.
Cobb said he placed Biggs’ body in the backseat of her car, then called Stefanko, who followed him as he drove Biggs’ car to a cornfield.
Cobb pleaded guilty in February 2013 to 10 charges, including aggravated murder, kidnapping and robbery. In exchange, prosecutors dropped the death penalty. Cobb said his children also factored into his decision. If he lost parental rights, he feared his parents and grandparents would have no claim to his children either, exposing them to the possibility of entering the foster care system.
Cobb denied that his testimony was motivated by anger toward Stefanko for marrying his best friend, Christopher Michael Stefanko. Cobb claimed to have turned on Stefanko in 2017 when he was no longer able to see his children in prison.
ZOOM TESTIMONY REVERSES CONVICTION
Stefanko’s first trial took place in Summit County Court of Common Pleas in November 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing. Some witnesses testified behind plastic partitions while others appeared remotely via Zoom — including Cobb, who testified from state prison wearing a mask over strenuous defense objections.
Both the prosecution and the defense objected to the trial going forward under those conditions, especially to witnesses testifying remotely.
The jury of six men and six women deliberated for three days before convicting Stefanko on Thanksgiving Eve of aggravated murder and murder. With their guilty verdicts, the jury found that Stefanko caused Biggs’ death “purposely, and with prior calculation and design.” The jury acquitted Stefanko of additional charges of murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery, suggesting they rejected the prosecution’s argument that Stefanko caused Biggs’ death while committing or attempting to commit kidnapping, aggravated robbery, or felonious assault.
DAY 7 – 1/31/24
- The jury deliberated for approximately eight hours over two days before finding Stefanko guilty as charged of murder and aggravated murder.
- The jury asked three questions that were resolved in chambers:
- Is there a copy of the transcript of the recording? We told them to use their collective knowledge and recollections.
- What does post-conviction relief/release mean? We told them they had all the information they needed to resolve the case.
- Can we Google a term like above? No.
- WATCH: Pizza Delivery Murder Retrial: Watch the Verdict
- The jury asked three questions that were resolved in chambers:
- Stefanko’s attorney, Jeff Laybourne, said they stood by their decision to have her take the stand.
- A spokesperson for the prosecution thanked the New Franklin police for their ‘relentless’ pursuit of Stefanko over 12 years.
- Kimberly Biggs, the victim’s mother, said her daughter can finally rest and that she (mom) can move on with her life.
DAY 6 – 1/30/24
- The Prosecution delivered closing arguments, arguing that whether the jury believed that she was an accomplice or a principal actor, she was guilty. Prosecutor Felicia Easter said that a plot to plant drugs makes no sense when you listen to her recorded statements.
- Defense attorney Jeff Laybourne said there was no evidence that Stefanko was involved in a plan to commit murder in his closing argument.
- Laybourne said that none of the witnesses, including Chad Cobb, described a plan to commit murder. He said the plot to plant drugs was the more “logical” plan because they had done it before, and a plan to kill would result in them getting caught.
- WATCH: Stefanko Defense Explains ‘Logical Doubt’ in Closing Argument
- Erica Stefanco’s mother and uncle sat in the gallery during closing arguments. Victim Ashley Biggs’ mother, Kimberly Biggs, was also present for closing arguments.
- The 12-person jury deliberated for three hours before going home for the evening.
DAY 5 – 1/29/24
- Erica Stefanko testified in her defense and revealed for the first time what she claims is the only plan she agreed to: A plan to plant meth in Ashley Biggs’ car and call police so that Chad Cobb could wield the incident against Biggs in their child custody battle.
- Stefanko said she did her part by calling in a pizza order to the vacant business where Cobb was supposed to sneak into her car and plant the drugs, but she never got around to calling police because Cobb killed Biggs.
- It was to be their second attempt at planting drugs in Biggs’ car after their first attempt with marijuana failed (Brittany Dunson testified about it). In that instance, Stefanko placed the bogus call to police.
- Stefanko was not present for Biggs’ murder and did not see it, but later found out about it from Cobb.
- Stefanko disputed Grace Cobb’s memory of Stefanko feeding her dog poop. Stefanko said it was meatloaf that Grace complained tasted like dog poop. In a moment of “bad parenting,” Stefanko said she told Grace that it was dog poop and ordered her to eat it, anyway.
- On cross, prosecutor Brian LoPrinzi incredulously challenged the logic of the alleged plan by putting it in the context of Stefanko’s conversation with Chad Cobb’s mother where Stefanko said she’d be in prison if the full story was known; that if they went through with it there was “no turning back”; and that Cobb talked about getting Biggs’ skull as a trophy.
- Stefanko agreed that either way she was complicit in a crime, although she could no longer face punishment for the offenses she’s admitting to because of expired statutes of limitations.
- She also agreed that she had lied so many times that it might be hard for the jury to believe her now. She also agreed that the stakes for her were the same as they are now, losing her children and her freedom, but she insisted she was finally telling the truth.
- The defendant’s husband, Mike Stefanko, said he procured pot for Chad Cobb in the first attempt to frame Biggs for drug possession, though he didn’t know what Cobb intended to use it for.
- Mike Stefanko said he’s not proud that his relationship with the defendant began while she was married to his best friend, Chad Cobb, but he insisted Stefanko is his “soulmate.”
- WATCH: Expert Breaks Down Erica Stefanko’s Body Language
DAY 5 – 1/26/24
- The state rested after calling its 13th and last witness, lead investigator Det. Michael Hitchings.
- Hitchings said he suspected Stefanko from the “get-go” but did not have enough evidence to seek an indictment until Chad Cobb, his mother, and Mary Brinkman came forward with new information – especially Cynthia Cobb’s secretly recorded conversation of Stefanko admitting her alleged involvement.
- After the state rested, Judge Jennifer Towell denied the defense’s motion for a judgment of acquittal.
- Defense lawyer Jeff Laybourne argued the state presented lots of evidence about Chad Cobb’s guilt but not much about Erica Stefanko to sustain a guilty verdict against her.
- Prosecutor Felicia Easter argued that the testimony of Grace Cobb, Chad Cobb, Cynthia Cobb, Mary Brinkman, and the recording was enough for the jury to consider.
- WATCH: Pizza Delivery Murder Retrial: Day 5 Recap
DAY 4 – 1/25/24
- Cynthia Cobb, Chad’s mother, continued her testimony off-camera.
- Cobb’s testimony included a three-hour secret recording she made of a wide-ranging conversation with Stefanko in March 2014. She did not give the recording to police until 2018, because she said she had a lot going on in her life and didn’t realize the extent of what was on the recording. On the recording, Stefanko agrees with Cobb that she placed the fake pizza order and said she did what Chad had told her to do and that she would be in prison if authorities knew the extent of her involvement.
- Dr. Lisa Kohler, the medical examiner who performed Biggs’ autopsy, detailed evidence that Ashley was beaten, strangled and possibly tased by a stun gun.
- Biggs’ mother, who was in the gallery, fainted during the testimony when her daughter’s autopsy photos were shown.
- Mary Brinkman, a friend of Chad Cobb, testified about the defendant’s relationship with Cobb and said that at a dinner two weeks after the murder, Stefanko acted like she knew who made the pizza delivery call and said she dropped Chad off at the location where they knew Ashley would be. Stefanko also allegedly admitted to defecating on Biggs’ grave.
- During cross-examination, Stefanko’s attorney noted Brinkman’s close relationship with Chad and Cynthia Cobb, and said that Brinkman had visited Cobb in prison.
- Brinkman did not tell police about the alleged dinner conversation for seven years.
- WATCH: Pizza Delivery Murder Retrial: Day 4 Recap
DAY 3 – 1/24/24
- Two police witnesses testified on camera, while Grace Cobb and Cindee Cobb testified off-camera.
- Stefanko could be seen tearing up during Grace Cobb’s testimony.
- Grace, now 18, is victim Ashley Biggs’ daughter and once considered Stefanko her mother.
- Grace testified that she overheard Stefanko place the fake pizza order that lured Biggs to her death.
- Grace said she stays in touch with her father, who pleaded guilty to Biggs’ murder, and said she hopes he leaves prison one day, even though “he did have a part” in her mother’s murder.
- During cross-examination, the defense suggested that Grace’s memories and impressions of Biggs’ murder were colored by her upbringing in the Cobb family.
- Cindee Cobb, Grace’s grandmother and Chad Cobb’s mother, testified to the custody battle between her son and the victim, as well as Chad’s relationships with Biggs and Stefanko.
- Glenn Harget, a patrolman with the New Franklin Police Department, testified to the crime scene, and finding Chad Cobb hiding behind a tree in the woods on his grandparents’ property.
- The jury saw pictures of the bruised victim’s body bound with zip ties, with stun gun probes and wires wrapped around her body.
- BCI agents testified to the crime scene photos and the stun gun believed to have been used on Biggs.
DAY 2 – 1/23/24
- Chad Cobb, returning for a second day of testimony, refused to admit that he actually killed victim Ashley Biggs, despite pleading guilty to murder and other charges for her death.
- Biggs’ friend and Domino’s supervisor, Matthew Travis, teared up as he recalled trying to find Biggs when she failed to return from a delivery.
- The search led him to a pool of blood outside the delivery address.
- The Wayne County deputy who found Biggs’ bruised body in her car deep in a cornfield testified.
- Biggs’ mother was seen in the gallery wiping away tears during the deputy’s testimony.
- WATCH: Pizza Delivery Murder Retrial: Day 2 Recap
DAY 1 – 1/22/24
- The jury hears opening statements
- Ashley Biggs’ partner describes the tension that rose from the custody battle Biggs was having with the father of her child, Chad Cobb.
- Chad Cobb tells the jury about the fake pizza order defendant placed to lure Biggs to the parking lot where she was murdered.
- Pizza Delivery Murder Retrial: Day 1 Recap