Prolific, award-winning, and bestselling author Gregg Olsen published his first true-crime book, “Abandoned Prayers”, (April 1, 2002, St. Martin’s), about the suspicious death and heartbreaking abandonment of the body of 10-year-old Danny Stutzman by his father, shunned and banished former Amishman Ira Stutzman. Stutzman’s life of mental disturbance, obsessive unprotected homosexuality, child abuse, conviction for the murder of a housemate and other probable murders, were described in chilling and awesome detail. The book was hailed by booksellers, professional book reviewers and true-crime authors alike as a superior and riveting account of the tragedy.
This month, some 20 years and 30 books later, Olsen has published another book about Stutzman, this time focusing on his almost certain murder of Danny’s mother, his 26-year-old pregnant Amish wife, Ida. “The AMISH WIFE: Unraveling the lies, Secrets, and Conspiracy That Let a Killer Go Free”, (January 1, 2024, Thomas and Mercer), is not simply a prequel or sequel to Stutzman’s saga, although it certainly details his release from prison, AIDS diagnosis and ultimate suicide. It is an exceptionally well-proven analysis, by way of scrupulous research and a multitude of meticulously planned interviews, of Ida’s murder.
In many ways, the new book reads like a police procedural- with the added emotional overlay of Olsen’s candidly obvious desire to prove the case and get justice for Ida. Indeed, JusticeforIda.com is the website Olsen used (and uses still) to attract any witnesses that may still exist, to gather and share information from those whose memories are filled with misgivings. Many of the people alive at the time have shared their doubts about the way the matter was handled with Olsen, who is still determined to bring a level of closure to the awful story. Even now, after the second book, it’s clear the author isn’t satisfied; he believes there was a conspiracy to cover up an obvious murder. In fact, the book’s recent release has served as a catalyst for Olsen’s movement to obtain whatever justice can be done in 2024 for a crime that took place in 1977; a petition calling for the same is even now being circulated and the most likely candidate for sheriff-elect in Wayne County, Ohio, has been prevailed upon to reopen the matter in some manner.
Ida died the night of a barn fire. Was she killed by her husband? Eli Stutzman’s motive, opportunity, plan and design are clearly demonstrated. Was there a conspiracy to cover it up? Virtually no forensic or law enforcement investigation took place; the medical examiner conducted no autopsy and didn’t examine the body without clothing or headscarf. The medical report, based on sketchy and refuted reports of her medical condition, was later altered. The body was initially sent to a local funeral parlor but was sent back intact to the family. There is certainly a paucity of actual evidence and yet the circumstantial and testimonial evidence is hard to refute. The Sheriff at the time had ample reasons not to have Eli’s conduct in the barn scrutinized: it seems he and some of his deputies- among others- had a history of sexual encounters there-and elsewhere- with Eli, who had also helped entrap some locals on a drug bust.
While Olsen’s extensive written character analysis is built with avid descriptors of human characteristics and quirks, fed by a black oddball sense of humor, his work is also imbued with great compassion- for human foibles, human loves and losses, and even for those who take human life. Indeed, the tracing of Eli’s libidinous/ murderous rampage initially established in the first book is followed up and fulfilled in the second book. In The AMISH WIFE Olsen takes us on a psychological autopsy through the course and disintegration of Eli’s personality, crafted by paternal cruelty, foiled mental-health treatment, a stunting religious regime, sexual repression and shame, hiding and fear developing into full-blown madness, depravity and rage. In a phone interview the week The AMISH WIFE launched, Olsen reflected, “Eli did not kill his wife because he was gay-but he was enabled in doing so because the Amish looked the other way as to his sexuality and aberrant behavior”.
Interviewing the author was a rare treat- he is instantly emotionally reachable and so affable that it’s easy to see why he can connect with witnesses, regardless of differences in age, outlook, lifestyle. He has had so much life experience researching all aspects of murder cases- particularly those within bizarre family environments-that he is unfazed at the gritty details; he relishes the macabre yet exudes an air of authority and sincerity. Why focus a writing career on killing and killers? “I have been interested in real-life murders since I was young. When I’m writing true-crime books, I don’t have to make up characters. Even my novels are inspired by real events, which I have borrowed and reshaped”, he says.
Yet, Olsen is not in this simply to parse the gory details, to exploit cheap sentiment, or to offer immediate impressions or solutions to society’s worst scenarios. For this man, what Joyce Carol Oates calls “the phantasmagoria of human personality” is endlessly intriguing and can lead from explication to revelation. “We can never really know why people do such terrible things, but every person on that path leaves behind clues to the crimes themselves and to their identity and motivation”, he mused.
Yet why another book-why this particular case? The answer lies in the author’s fascination with those who burst the bonds of religious/societal boundaries, his hard-won status as an adept in his genre, and his interpersonal charity. Robin Lassen, his creative collaborator, auteur, and tireless researcher pinpoints the contact from Ida’s brother to Olsen in mid-2022 asking for help “solving” the case: that launched the project. “I reviewed Gregg’s 300 pages of initial sources, from which he had originally interviewed 300 people. Then we compiled a 75 page list of sources for the new book, dozens of whom Gregg and I interviewed- or reinterviewed,” Lassen revealed.
Will there be another book? “I am continuing to seek justice for Ida; there are more trees to shake, and more apples will fall down. If there is a 3rd book, it will focus on the 2 other unsolved murders of men who knew Eli in Colorado in later life”, avers Olsen.
What shape could legal redress take almost 50 years later? The immediate family- victims alike- and the possible co-conspirators are all dead. And one must also ask: what about justice for Eli?
“The average citizen is overly prone to stereotype the violent criminal as a cold-blooded fiend and to abdicate his own responsibility for attempting to understand the inner dynamics of deviant behavior and the depths of personal tragedy such behavior manifests”, Thomas M. Gannon, S.J.
The AMISH WIFE is an absorbing and praiseworthy contribution to the understanding of murder: get it, read it, enjoy it!