July-August 2013

A story of domestic violence unlike any you’ve ever heard

Brandon Grunewald

Assistant District ­Attorney in Travis ­County

Anna Lee McNelis

Assistant District ­Attorney in Travis ­County

Prosecutors say that when they read this offense report (it involved plastic wrap, zip ties, and a billy club), they couldn’t wait to tell the story to a jury.

Jason Witt and Andria Stanley met through an online dating service in August 2005. Jason was a Connecticut native who attended graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin and was working in the information technology (IT) field. Andria was a single mother to an elementary-school-age daughter. She was working as a respiratory technician in a neo-natal intensive care unit in a hospital in Palestine, Texas.

    Early on, Andria shared with Jason that her daughter was the product of a rape and that the rapist was in prison. Andria presented as a devoted single mother, determined to persevere despite her own traumatic background of rape and child abuse.

    In early 2007, Jason and Andria decided to get married and settle in Austin, and later that year their first son was born. After giving birth, she began a blog detailing the day-to-day trials and joys of motherhood. She wrote in a witty, engaging, self-deprecating style that cultivated a regular readership. By the fall of 2009, after the birth of their second son, their relationship became strained, if not unglued. Andria blogged that Jason physically and emotionally abused her and her daughter. She even went as far to post pictures on Facebook of bruises she claimed Jason inflicted on her.

Arguments ensued between the couple. Andria would break things and the police would be called, though no arrests were ever made. Jason filed for divorce in September 2009, and Andria took their two boys and moved to Elkhart, a town very near to where her parents live in Anderson County.

    Around this time Jason learned that many of the things Andria had told him were lies. During  a conversation with Andria’s mother, Tina, Jason made reference to Andria’s rape when she was a teenager. Tina seemed confused and told Jason that Andria’s daughter, Alaine, was not the product of a rape but that Andria had been married to the little girl’s father for a short time when the two were teenagers. (Jason confronted Andria about this, and she admitted she had lied to him.) Also, Andria had claimed that her own father had been physically abusive.  Tina said that while her husband was not a perfect father, he was never physically abusive. In addition to these lies, Andria blogged that Jason hit her, went on cocaine binges, abused her daughter, was cruel to her during her pregnancies, would leave home for days or a week at a time, and on and on. She admitted to him in e-mails and in therapy that she was wrong to spread these lies about him. 

     What was more, between September 2009 and January 2012, Andria initiated six investigations with Child Protective Services (CPS) and three with police, and she applied for three protective orders against Jason. She alleged that he abused her and the children, burglarized her home, and even planted recording devices in the house. Jason was put under a microscope and questioned by CPS investigators and police officers. Each and every time, he had to prove his innocence through witnesses, such as parenting coaches, or through photographs. In the end, all of the CPS cases were ruled out and all of the cases with law enforcement were closed as unsubstantiated, but going through these interviews was always incredibly stressful for him.

    Andria, on the other hand, began violating court orders by denying him visitation with the children. The breaking point for Jason was when Andria drove the boys into Austin from Elkhart for Thanksgiving, then refused to turn them over to him when he declined to give them back to her a day early. In all, Andria denied Jason 24 days of possession in a two-month period. Finally, on January 4, 2012, Judge John McMaster held Andria in contempt and ordered her to turn over the two boys immediately. The following week, the same judge learned that Andria once again violated the court’s orders: She left with the boys, did not turn them over to Jason that day, and drove them back to East Texas. On January 9, Andria filed a report with CPS claiming that Jason had molested the oldest boy—an outright lie.

    Two days later, Andria and Jason were back in front of Judge McMaster. He read Andria the riot act and told her that on February 13, he would decide who would get custody of the two boys and whether Andria went to county jail for contempt. It was clear that the family court proceedings were not going her way and that she was backed into a corner.

    When the parties did return to court on February 13, the landscape had changed radically: Jason had a bullet hole in his face, the three children were in foster care, and Andria was in custody for trying to murder her ex-husband.

What happened next

The few weeks between January 11 and February 5 were eerily quiet, with almost no communication between Jason and Andria. Jason was hopeful that his ex-wife finally realized the severity of her actions in defying the court’s orders, but little did he know that Andria’s ultimate act of defiance had yet to come.

    On February 5, about a week before the family-court date, the boys were supposed to be with Jason, but he agreed to extend Andria’s weekend visitation. February 5th was Super Bowl Sunday, and Jason watched the big game with friends at a bar. He admittedly become intoxicated at the party, drove home, and went to bed, accidentally leaving the front door unlocked.

    At 2:39 a.m., he received a work-related phone call from India that lasted only one or two minutes. He heard a faint rustling on the side of the house but assumed it was the neighbor’s cat. Before he could fall back asleep, the sound of footsteps in his bedroom roused him. Within moments, he experienced a blinding pain across the front of his head. It was pitch dark and Jason had no idea who was attacking him. He stood up to defend himself as blood ran down his face. Terror and confusion took hold and the searing pain set in. POW! A blast ignited the room. He flipped on his bedside lamp and saw his ex-wife, Andria Stanley, standing in his bedroom, holding a revolver. She was wearing all black and her long, dark hair was pulled back.

    Jason lunged for his cell phone. Andria screamed, ”Don’t even think about it!” and ordered him to lay face-down on his bed and put his hands behind him. She bound his hands and ankles together with long zip ties. When he struggled, she bashed him over the head with a wooden police baton. She ordered, “Give me your password!” She then laid out her plan to e-mail Jason’s attorney to tell him that Jason was giving up the custody battle. Jason went along with it, just to appease her. Andria then wrapped his body, head to toe, by rolling Jason in his mattress cover and comforter. She then took industrial plastic wrap and began sealing Jason up head first. Jason struggled to breathe and told her, “You’ll never get away with this.” She taunted him in a sweet voice, saying, “I’m not going to kill you, Jason—I love you,” as Jason slowly began to suffocate. Jason screamed at her, “Think about the children!” but Andria continued her work unfazed.

    His oxygen diminishing rapidly and feeling death approach, Jason unleashed a surge of adrenaline. He managed to loosen the zip ties and launched himself off the bed. He clawed a hole in the plastic wrap and gasped for a breath of air. Andria, momentarily stunned, began to beat Jason with the baton. As Jason rose to his feet, she pulled out the revolver, and the fight for the gun was on. Before Jason could get it, he was shot point-blank in the face. The bullet entered his cheek, traveled through his jaw, and exited below his ear. Jason heard the gun go off and saw the flash but did not know he had been hit. His ear felt numb, and he thought that maybe the bullet grazed him. He managed to overpower Andria and seize the gun. Jason beat Andria over the head with the butt of the gun, cutting her, and bending the cheap .22 Magnum revolver. He shoved her out of his bedroom, but she grabbed a nearby broom and wedged it in the bedroom door. Jason finally got his bedroom door locked and located his cell phone. He tried to escape out the window but couldn’t, so he retreated into the bathroom and called 911 at around 3:40 a.m.

    During the 911 call, Jason’s panic and terror were palpable. He described what just happened to him as well as what his injuries were. He was too afraid to leave his bathroom and told the 911 call-taker to have police break down his door. The Austin Police Department arrived, entered through the unlocked front door, and found Jason bleeding and terrified in his bathroom. Andria was nowhere to be found. Hours later, she appeared at the Palestine Regional Medical Center, claiming that her ex-husband had beaten her. Her mother, Tina, who had cared for the children that night, had driven her to the hospital.

Investigating the case

I am currently assigned to the Intake Unit in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, so I don’t try very many cases anymore, but for the 15 years prior, I had tried many felony jury trials involving family violence. I was also in charge of preparing and presenting to the grand jury all of the office’s cases involving aggravated assault (family violence). I can say that never in my time reviewing or prosecuting cases had I seen anything quite like this.

    When this case came to me, it was charged as an aggravated assault (family violence) with serious bodily injury and a deadly weapon. I decided to add aggravated kidnapping and burglary of a habitation with the commission of a felony because I did not feel the aggravated assault charges encompassed what Andria Stanley did to Jason Witt.

    My co-counsel, Brandon Grunewald, and I met with Jason a few months after the attack. Jason appeared to be mild-mannered, articulate, analytical, and very open. He showed us his small scars from the entry and exit wounds of the bullet; he told us that his left ear had sustained nerve damage and that he had lingering pain to the back of his head from where Andria beat him with a baton. He answered any question we asked and pointed us toward finding additional information. He absolutely denied that he had ever laid hands on Andria or the children, and he told us that Andria lies without compunction. He also told us that she would become irrationally angry at the slightest provocation or perceived slight and would damage property in her outbursts. He said that he would turn over to us everything he and his attorney had acquired during the course of the divorce case: her blogs, their e-mail correspondence, and court filings.  He also suggested that we talk to two therapists, one of whom had provided couples’ counseling and one who conducted psychological evaluations on both Andria and Jason. He told us that Andria had admitted to lying about her allegations of domestic violence during couples’ counseling and in e-mails and that the psychological evaluation said that she was a pathological liar. He also told us about her former boyfriend, Jeff Cantu, and that he had suffered similar treatment from Andria.

    Andria had also accused Jason of horrific abuse, but Jason had denied it and said he had proof that her allegations were false. We knew we needed to get to the bottom of these conflicting stories. As a result, I began a lengthy process of gathering any and all information possible to find out the truth about the CPS cases and police investigations.

    CPS sent me about 2,000 pages of records from investigations that were launched against Jason by the defendant in Travis, Williamson, and Anderson Counties. The narratives and reports corroborated the ac-count that Jason gave us. The only report that was substantiated was one that Jason called in on Andria. In the summer of 2011, the Georgetown Police Department arrived at Andria’s home on a call for a welfare check. When they arrived, the house was littered with old food, dog feces, dirty diapers, and dirty laundry. They also found a very overwhelmed Alaine, who had been left to care for her infant brother Clark all day long while her mother partied on a boat at Lake Travis. As a result, law enforcement contacted CPS, which conducted an investigation. As part of the investigation, the CPS supervisor spoke with Andria and found her to be utterly unconcerned with the child neglect CPS was alleging and to be completely focused on her anger against Jason. CPS issued a ruling of “reason to believe” for engaging in neglectful supervision. The case was referred to the Family Based Safety Services Unit and the entire family was court-ordered to engage in remedial services. For the next two years, that CPS supervisor kept Andria Stanley’s casework folder on the desktop of her computer at work. She told me that she knew that even if the CPS case was closed at some later date, she had not heard the last of Andria Stanley.

    While going through the paperwork, any time I saw the name of a doctor or a hospital, I subpoenaed those records as well. They were important because, far from substantiating Andria’s claims that Jason was committing child abuse, they showed an absolute lack of physical abuse. When I received the nearly 2,000 pages of Andria’s blogs and e-mails between Jason and her, I saw that she had admitted to lying, and I saw the way her mind worked, how she had no hesitation about slandering her husband. I also found a blog entry from 2007 in which she said that she couldn’t spend the rest of her life tied to Jason and that she was having horrible thoughts that she was trying to banish.

    I contacted Jason’s family-law attorney and obtained all pleadings, including transcripts from various proceedings and information surrounding protective orders filed by the defendant. I spent months reading this material and talking with anyone who had significant contact with Jason and his ex-wife in the three years leading up to the attack on February 6. After hours on the phone and poring over papers and files, a consistent pattern emerged: The defendant, Andria Stanley, was unhinged and absolutely obsessed with destroying Jason Witt. She was a pathological liar.

    This case was becoming stranger the more I learned about it. This was a shocking act of premeditated violence, and it was committed by a woman with no criminal history and with no diagnosis of mental illness. To the contrary, she was attractive, had a soft Southern accent, and seemed to be very charming and well-educated. She was petite, about 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds, and her ex-husband is a pretty big guy, over 6 feet tall and probably 200 pounds. What’s more, she was claiming a pattern of mental, physical, and emotional abuse against her and the kids. She even took her children for forensic interviews.

    In my own experience, I have only rarely reviewed and prosecuted cases for domestic violence where the woman is the perpetrator. It certainly happens, but the overwhelming majority of cases I have seen involve a male perpetrator. And I have certainly never seen a case where a woman launched such a concerted campaign of slander and personal destruction against her former husband and then ambushed and assaulted him in such dramatic fashion.

There’s still more to this story   

I knew from the police that hours after the attack, the defendant sought medical treatment at the Palestine Regional Medical Center, which is 180 miles east of Austin. Sgt. Joe Rodriguez (we call him Joe Rod), my court investigator, suggested we drive out to Palestine and take a stab at getting statements from the defendant’s parents and boyfriend. We had no notion if we would be able to locate them or whether they would even talk to us. Undaunted, in the early morning of December 27, Sgt. Rodriguez, Brandon Grunewald, and I piled into Sgt. Rodriguez’s county Buick and ventured off to the pine curtain with low expectations and high spirits.

    We rolled into Palestine and stopped by the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office to ask for help locating the defendant’s mother, Tina Stanley, and Rick Farris, who was dating the defendant at the time of the attack. We met with Sgt. Ronnie Foster and told him we were on the Andria Stanley case and asked him if he heard about that crime. At that point, he stunned us when he told us that not only had he heard of it, but that he and another deputy had executed the Austin Police Department’s arrest warrant for her attack on Jason months before. They had found her at the hospital in Palestine; photographed her injuries; collected her clothing as evidence; and located, searched, photographed, and processed her car, a Nissan Armada. All of this information came tripping off his tongue as if it had all happened yesterday. When I asked how he had such a clear memory, he said that this had been big news in their small town and that everyone knew Andria’s boyfriend, Rick. Rick was the son of a long-time reserve deputy sheriff in Anderson County, and he owned a café on Main Street.

    We came expecting nothing and left the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office with a bag of the defendant’s bloody clothing, a disk of photos, and DNA swabs. There had been only a notation in our offense report that a trooper from the Department of Public Safety had located Andria’s Nissan Armada on February 6 but that no further action was taken. The photos of the Armada showed something significant: All the blood was on the driver’s seat and on the center console, indicating that she had acted alone.

    Sgt. Foster then told us where we could find the defendant’s boyfriend, Rick Farris. Apparently Farris is always at the Old Magnolia Café at “sandwich time.” As Sgt. Foster predicted, Rick was there having lunch with some friends. We approached him, told him our names and where we were from, and asked if we could talk. After he got over his initial shock at our arrival, Rick explained to us that he was at a Super Bowl party with Andria Stanley the night of February 5. Andria acted completely normal and never mentioned that she was going to be driving to Austin that night. He and Andria had been dating only a few months at the time of the attack and that they had a good relationship. He seemed to buy into Andria’s lies about Jason’s abuse of her and the kids, so he was very confused about what to believe once we told him why we were in town. However, he was very polite and said he would come to court if subpoenaed and that he would tell what he knew.

    Next, we set out to find the home of the defendant’s parents. It was in an unincorporated area on the county line between Angelina and Anderson Counties. We put the address into our GPS and promptly lost our way. Sgt. Foster, expecting our imminent predicament, led us to the property. We caught the Stanleys a little off-guard. We sat outside on lawn chairs, surrounded by roosters, chickens, and a herd of Pomeranian puppies, and took recorded statements over the occasional ear-piercing ca-caw of the birds. Mr. Stanley told us the gun the defendant used was his and that his daughter knew where he kept it. Mrs. Stanley told us her daughter arrived at her home a little before 7 o’clock on the morning of February 6. Mrs. Stanley was feeding breakfast to Jason and Andria’s children when her daughter appeared at the door, looking like a bloody mess. Andria told her mother that she had been in a confrontation with Jason. Tina Stanley did not ask many follow-up questions because the children were present. She put the two boys in the car and drove Andria to the hospital. On the way, she urged Andria to turn herself in to the police. Mrs. Stanley told us that it was a surprise to her that the defendant had driven to Austin the previous night.

    We arrived back in Austin with a huge puzzle piece: Andria’s actions, statements, and movements in the hours preceding and following the crime. We had learned how Andria got to the hospital, what she had done the night before, who owned the gun, and that she had acted alone and in secret. We also had a bag of bloody clothes, swabs, and photographs of Andria and her car.

    In December 2012, as trial was approaching, I made an offer on the record of 40 years. She rejected it and made no counter-offer. In the letters she wrote from jail to friends and family, she was confident that she would be acquitted and was making plans to get the boys back from Jason and pursue a career in marketing.

    In preparing for trial, Brandon and I tried to figure out what possible legal justification for her actions she might propose. Andria’s attorney, Joe James Sawyer, had defended other women who had killed their men and then claimed Battered Woman’s Syndrome as a defense. Because we possessed hard evidence that she was lying about the abuse, I didn’t see how she could make that stick, not to mention that she and Jason had been divorced for two years and that she had driven 180 miles in the middle of the night to ambush her ex-husband in his sleep. Similarly, we did not see how a self-defense claim could fly. She could not get the benefit of a self-defense claim when she broke into Jason’s house with a firearm and assaulted him. Further, Jason did not have a duty to retreat inside his own home.

    Finally, we considered defense of others, that she might claim she was acting to protect the children from his abuse—after all, she had only recently alleged he was molesting one of their children. That defense also broke down because there was no evidence that her use of force was immediately necessary to protect the children from Jason’s unlawful use of deadly force.

Voir dire

Brandon and I realized that we needed to address the defendant’s appearance and gender, first and foremost. We asked jurors if they thought that petite, attractive women were capable of committing violent crimes. One young man actually approached the bench and said that the defendant was so attractive that he could not be fair to the State.

    We also asked if a woman could commit a violent crime even when there was no evidence she had ever been the victim of domestic violence. We asked if women and men should be treated equally in punishment. By discussing these issues, we aimed to inoculate our jury from giving the defendant more favorable treatment because she was an attractive, young woman. We asked whether anyone on the panel knew someone who had been falsely accused of a crime or of child abuse and about the situations where people will make false allegations. Like in the movie Inception, we planted the false allegation seed in case Andria Stanley was allowed to air the accusations of child and domestic abuse she had launched against her ex-husband in front of the jury—that way, they would already have a skeptical frame of mind. Finally, we asked if anyone on the panel had experience with child or domestic abuse. We did not want anyone on the jury who might believe the defendant’s false portrayal of herself as a victim. 

    We were hoping for a glimpse of the defense’s strategy during voir dire, but unfortunately for us, Mr. Sawyer did not offer even a glimmer of it. Instead he conducted a voir dire that explored general issues that might come up in any criminal case.

The trial

In our opening statement, we tailored the defendant’s motive narrowly: Our evidence would show the defendant and Jason were involved in a custody dispute and that Andria Stanley stood to lose that battle at their court date on February 13. She took matters into her own hands to ensure her victory in court and set out to ambush and murder Jason Witt one week before, on February 6.

    The defense’s opening statement contained quite a surprise. The defense theory was that Jason voluntarily opened the door to his ex-wife, they argued, Jason took the gun from her, and he beat her with it. The gun discharged, striking him in the face. He then staged the crime scene, injured himself, and called the police. The centerpiece of the defense team’s opening was that the roll of plastic wrap—which Andria had used to bind and nearly suffocate her ex-husband—actually belonged to Jason, that the contractor who had recently built his deck had left it behind after the job. (We knew we had to find that contractor, but Jason had only his first name and a disconnected phone number for him. We asked our new investigator, Joe Nichols, for a miracle in tracking down this man.)

    We started the trial by laying out the motive. We called Jason’s family-law attorney to tell the jury that the defendant stood to lose custody of her children on February 13. The jury heard from Andria’s boyfriend, Rick, to establish that her trip to Austin was made in secret and that the defendant’s behavior appeared to be totally normal the night before the attack. Next, we called the responding officers and introduced all photographs and physical evidence, which included the gun (whose handle was broken), zip ties, plastic wrap, and the shattered billy club. All of these items had blood on them. DNA evidence revealed a mixture of the defendant’s and Jason’s DNA on almost every piece of physical evidence, including the clothing collected from Andria at the hospital in Palestine.

    We called Jason as our last witness on the first day of trial. He did well on the stand on both cross and direct. Keeping to our strategy of narrowing the focus of the trial, we did not ask him about any of Andria’s past allegations. We asked him brief details about his marriage to Andria, such as when they got married, how many kids they had, the kids’ birthdates, when they got divorced, whether there was an ongoing custody dispute, and whether he felt the litigation was going his way. We then turned to the crime. The defense attacked his version of events but never tried to paint him as an abusive husband. Brandon and I felt sure that the character attack on Jason would be attempted later in the trial through Andria’s testimony.

    Somehow, Investigator Joe Nichols found the contractor who built the deck at Jason’s house. We showed the contractor the roll of plastic wrap, and he testified that the plastic wrap did not belong to him, that he was the only worker on that job, and that he does not use such plastic in his construction work. That testimony established that Andria had in fact brought the plastic wrap with her to suffocate Jason and to wrap up his body. It also established that the defense’s theory, argued to the jury in opening statement, in which Jason had staged the crime scene by using plastic wrap already present at his home, was pure fiction.

    Now, we were ready for the defendant’s testimony, sure that she had to take the stand to tell her side of the story. I had a binder that contained information on all of her prior allegations of abuse. I even had a transcript in which she admitted to being a “proficient liar.” It was all arranged chronologically and tabbed. Imagine our utter disappointment when the defense rested without calling her or any other witness to the stand.

    The jury found the defendant guilty on all counts in a little over two hours.

The punishment case

Andria Stanley had no prior criminal history, so we relied on information we discovered through reading the CPS records and locating people from her past. By far the most important person we located was Jeff Cantu.

    Mr. Cantu dated the defendant in 2005. Even though he now lived out of state, he eagerly cooperated with us. When Jason had told us about Cantu at our first meeting, we thought he could be helpful, but until we talked to him, we had no idea how eerily similar his story was to Jason’s:  He related that the defendant had a violent temper and made false allegations against him to both the police department and to his friends and coworkers. To protect himself, he started recording their phone calls.

    In one particularly chilling call, the defendant threatened to claim that Jeff Cantu had sexually abused her daughter. Andria could be heard toying with Jeff, telling him that she would be happy to see him in jail with a record. Not long after that phone call, the defendant drove from her home in Palestine to Jeff’s home in Abilene in the middle of the night and tried to break into his house. The Abilene Police Department responded to his 911 call and found her there with a screwdriver and a hammer. What had she planned to do that night? When the Abilene Police Department asked Cantu if he wanted to press charges for criminal trespass, he said no and simply requested that they issue Andria a warning—hence, why she had no criminal record. Cantu helped us track down the original officer who had issued that warning; he had since retired from the force, but he corroborated Cantu’s account.

    Finally, we called Dr. Matthew Ferrara, an Austin psychologist. Dr. Ferrara had administered a psychological examination of Andria Stanley in October 2011 on the order of the family court judge overseeing the CPS case. Dr. Ferrara reviewed voluminous amounts of material on her before conducting the evaluation; he also graciously remained in the courtroom during our punishment case and used what he heard to further support his ultimate opinion, which rang the death knell for the defense’s punishment case: The defendant was a very poor candidate for therapeutic treatment or rehabilitation because of her lack of self-insight and her pathological tendency to lie.

    The defense called witnesses to testify that the defendant could follow court-ordered probation re-quirements. To counter these claims, we admitted a certified copy of a court order finding the defendant in contempt of family court orders just one month before the attack.

    The jury deliberated for about three hours before assessing the defendant’s punishment at 50 years in prison. Brandon and I were elated by the verdict. Since then, Andria and Jason’s two boys are living with their dad, and Alaine, Andria’s daughter by her first marriage, is living with her paternal grandparents. All the kids are doing very well.

Just do it

We learned so much in preparing and trying this case. For one thing, if you have a hunch that there is more to the story, keep digging. We had so many unanswered questions when we began our work on this case. Because it was so unusual for a woman to claim such a pattern of abuse and then strike out in a calculated, violent attack, we wanted to get every piece of hard evidence we could to get at the truth. That is why we pored over reams of CPS records, medical records, blogs, transcripts, and pleadings.

    We also knew we were missing a huge part of the story of how this crime happened and its aftermath, which is why we took a chance and drove to Palestine to see what we could find there. We learned that if the local police department does not have the resources to keep digging, we don’t have to accept the unanswered questions but could find the answers ourselves. Don’t take “no” for an answer, in other words.

    Brandon, Joe Rod, Joe Nichols, and I didn’t let “no” stop us, and as a result, Andria Stanley will be behind bars for a very long time. When the punishment verdict came down, Jason looked like a huge weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. He said that his overriding emotion was one of relief that his nightmare with Andria was over. He can now focus on arranging play dates, baking birthday cakes, and planning for kindergarten. He can now just be a dad to those two precious little boys. His time of looking over his shoulder is over.