JEFFERSONVILLE — Six years to the day after 46-year-old Tammy Jo Blanton was found mutilated in her Jeffersonville home, a jury heard the first testimony of details surrounding her death.
Sabrina Hall, Blanton’s best friend, was the first state’s witness to take the stand around 1:30 p.m. Friday in the murder trial of 39-year-old Joseph Oberhansley, accused of breaking into the victim’s home Sept. 11, 2014, raping, killing and mutilating her.
Hall said when her friend failed to arrive at work that morning, she and others became concerned. When she called Blanton’s phone, a man she believed to be Oberhansley answered, saying he was her brother and that Blanton was at her father’s house.
The witness said she didn’t believe him and called Jeffersonville police to do a welfare check. She said when she called her friend’s phone a second time — this time saying “Joe, where’s Tammy?” — Hall said Oberhansley gave a different name, said he didn’t know what she was talking about and had the wrong number.
“At that point I just hung up because I already knew what that meant and what had happened,” Hall testified.
Shortly after 9 a.m. Sept. 11, 2014, police went to the house on Locust Street in Jeffersonville, where Oberhansley answered the door. Blanton’s body was found in the bathroom, covered with a tarp and partially mutilated. The defendant first said two male intruders had killed her, but later told police he did it. He has since told media multiple times before and after court hearings that it was two men who killed Blanton.
In opening statements, Clark County Prosecutor Jeremy Mull briefed the jury on Blanton and Oberhansley’s short relationship. He said they had met four or five months before and started dating, “but by September 2014, she was done,” Mull said.
The weekend before her death, Mull said the defendant had held Blanton at her home on Locust Street, where he raped her. When she went to work on Monday, she sneaked some extra clothes into her work bag and stayed the next few nights with friends.
But Blanton didn’t want to let this situation control her life. Two days later, against the advice of her friends, she went back to her home. Just before 3 a.m. the following day, she called 911 to report Oberhansley trying to kick in her back door.
“He can’t stay here; he’s made me very, very afraid,” Blanton can be heard saying in the 911 recording played for the jury on Friday. She also said he was beating at the back door and was going to bust it open.
Police responded and asked Oberhansley to leave, but he didn’t stay gone, Mull said; he returned later, successfully kicked in the back door and the bathroom door where she was hiding, raped, stabbed and killed her, then ate part of her remains.
Mull told the jury Tammy had been brave in her last moments, quoting what Oberhansley had told police her reaction had been when he reached where she was hiding in the bathroom.
“’She really wasn’t all that scared, surprisingly, like she knew,’” Mull said Oberhansley had told police.
Two of the five officers who responded to the initial domestic call also testified, one was then-patrolman Brandon McGhee. First on the scene, McGhee said he saw Oberhansley walking from the back of the house. Upon questioning, Oberhansley said he owned the house and the boat and when he had gotten off work, found the locks had been changed.
McGhee said Oberhansley kept pacing and then sitting during their conversation, and eventually agreed to leave when police told him there probably wasn’t much that could be solved at 3 a.m. between the two.
“He was frustrated, but he agreed,” McGhee said.
On cross-examination, defense attorneys Bart Betteau and Nick Karaffa established with the two officers that they hadn’t felt it a situation necessary to continue patrolling the house overnight, or that Oberhansley was dangerous enough to them to draw a weapon.
Betteau said that characterization, along with two witnesses — an officer and Hall, her friend — saying Blanton had not disclosed to them any information about a rape the previous week, shows their client’s innocence.
“We’re very optimistic,” Betteau said after court adjourned for the day. “We feel like great things happened today. We were finally able to give an opening statement and question four witnesses. I think we got some good evidence out there for our side.”
The case previously went to trial in August 2019, but a mistrial was called on the first day of testimony when a witness misspoke.
In opening statements Friday, Mull had told the jury to expect to be presented with gruesome images and details at times, and said he would be as efficient as possible with the evidence.
“Photos, horrendous,” he said. “It’s worse than anything you would see in a horror movie.”
Betteau said in his opening that the statements Mull made — that it’s a horrible case, that Tammy had been afraid and was brave in her last moments — don’t prove a case; he called it “emotional evidence.”
“Whether she was afraid doesn’t make it more likely that [Oberhansley did this],” Betteau said. “The fact that it’s horribly gruesome doesn’t mean he’s guilty.”
The defense attorney told the jury that while opening statements provide a synopsis of what the coming evidence will be, it is the state’s burden to present evidence that proves its case.
“What we’re going to ask you to do is look at it from all sides,” Betteau said. “When the evidence says this, I want you to step over here and look at it this way.”
The jury, which includes 12 members and four alternates (10 women and six men), was selected Tuesday and Wednesday in Allen County from a pool of 640 prospective jurors.
Due to safety concerns around COVID-19, there are no members of the public or media allowed inside the courtroom; it is being live streamed via the Indiana Supreme Court website at https://public.courts.in.gov/incs#/.
Safety precautions are in place for those present inside the courtroom. The jury members are spread out among the audience seats and have individual binders to collect copies of exhibits to prevent them from being handled by multiple people.
Clear partitions are in front of both attorney tables, and all in the room wear masks. Witnesses may remove the masks while testifying, and jurors may when they are safely distanced in the courtroom, if they choose.
The jury and defendant are not visible within the camera angle of the live stream, but defense attorney Betteau said they “have been fantastic.
“They are watching everything — as they should — and they have been very attentive. I think they recognize the importance of this case.”
Defense attorney Karaffa said Oberhansley has been cooperative with the team.
“He’s just trying to help us any time we need it in terms [of] with the witnesses,” Karaffa said. “And as Bart [Betteau] said, he’s optimistic.”
Mull declined to comment after the hearing.
Court broke early for the day, just before 3 p.m. Proceedings are expected to resume Monday morning.