Ohio woman pleads guilty to exercising husband to death

Saturday, February 14, 2009 | 7:18 p.m. CST; updated 1:48 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 17, 2009

CHARDON, Ohio — A woman has pleaded guilty to reckless homicide for exercising her 73-year-old husband to death in a swimming pool, repeatedly refusing to let him leave the water.

Surveillance video showed Christine Newton-John, 41, pulling James Mason around the pool by his arms and legs, said Middlefield police Chief Joseph Stehlik.

Stehlik said he counted 43 times in which Newton-John prevented her husband from leaving the water, and Mason rested his head on the side of the pool several times while gasping for breath.

"The video is bone-chilling," Stehlik said. "The whole case is very sinister."

Mason had a heart attack on June 2 after the extended swim session. An officer who had investigated previous complaints that Mason was being abused pursued the case because he suspected there was more to the death, Stehlik said.

Newton-John pleaded guilty Thursday and faces up to five years in prison. No sentencing date was set.

Police did not immediately respond to a call Saturday seeking comment on a motive.

The video would have had a profound effect on a jury, Geauga County Prosecutor David Joyce said. But that wouldn't have been enough for a conviction if Newton-John had been charged with murder.

"You can see the man struggling for his life on the tape, but there is no audio, so we couldn't hear what he was saying," he said.

Geauga County Chief Public Defender Robert Umholtz, who represented Newton-John, declined to comment.

Mason was a longtime friend of his wife's family. He knew her as John Vallandingham before she had gender reassignment surgery in 1993 and changed her name in honor of the singer and star of the hit movie version of the musical "Grease."

The couple were wed in 2006 in Kentucky, where people can change their gender on their birth certificate.

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Ray Shapiro February 14, 2009 | 9:13 p.m.

I wouldn't touch this one with a ten foot pole....

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr February 15, 2009 | 3:50 a.m.

That is really weird.

(Report Comment)
Danielle Koonce February 16, 2009 | 3:26 p.m.

And how is her being trans at all relevant to this story?

(Report Comment)
Anton Berkovich February 16, 2009 | 3:50 p.m.

It isn't, but since when do people expect the Missourian to be competent?

(Report Comment)
Rob Weir February 16, 2009 | 3:50 p.m.

@Danielle: Here's an excerpt from the "night note" the editor in question sent out. Every night, the Missourian editors get an overnight report of how the night went, and we often use them for internal discussions of stories. Anyhow, here's what the responsible adult in charge had to say:
Leading off the oddities is the story from Chardon, Ohio (where I used to run the paper) about the woman who swam her husband to death. She wouldn't let him get out of the pool and being much younger than he was, she was able
to keep him in. There's another layer to the story. She's had a sex change. And another layer, changed her name to Something Newton-John in tribute to Olivia. The old man knew her when she was a he, being an old family friend, etc.

OK, the head online and in print leads with the point that she's a transsexual who has pleaded guilty to exercising her husband to death.

Sarah Palmer e-mailed me and asked me to change it or at least have a conversation about it since having the sex change had nothing to do with the case and was mentioned low in the story. It was indeed mentioned low in the
story, but I did think about it and I talked about it with the crew. We thought it had a lot to do with this very strange story. I understand other points of view and I would understand if I am overruled, but please know we
didn't do this lightly.
Rob Weir
Director of Digital Development
The Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Rebecca Delaney February 16, 2009 | 4:15 p.m.

I'm with Danielle on this one. With all the legitimately bizarre, attention-grabbing elements in this story, why is it necessary for Newton-John's transsexual identity to be the first word in the headline?

Would it be okay to say have a headline that read "Gay/Black/Muslim/Republican/Etc. woman pleads guilty to exercising husband to death"? I definitely don't think so, and I don't see why transsexuality is any different.

I'm glad so much discussion went into this but am disappointed with the outcome.

(Report Comment)
Rebecca Delaney February 16, 2009 | 5:01 p.m.

Fair enough. My problem's that the headline implies her transsexuality has anything to do with the fact that she pled guilty to killing a man. Our culture marginalizes the trans population without even realizing it.

Trans people have to battle tremendous stigma to begin with. Headlines like this on first glance might seem fairly innocuous, but they make the struggle for acceptance β€” or at least tolerance β€” even harder.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro February 16, 2009 | 6:41 p.m.

I found a 10 foot ugly stick....

(Report Comment)
Amber Hanneken February 16, 2009 | 9:09 p.m.

Definitely agree with Rebecca ad Danielle. When I first read this story, I thought maybe I was missing something like an earlier story and that was why the decision was made to include transsexual in the headline.
That night note doesn't seem to back up the decision very well at all other than saying they talked about it. What exactly was discussed to come to that decision? The point is correct that it was probably the least touched-upon point in the story and was not worth mentioning in the headline.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro February 16, 2009 | 10:46 p.m.

Photographs the Missourian did not want you to see...

(Report Comment)
Danielle Koonce February 17, 2009 | 8:33 a.m.

So, all that you are saying is that it was mentioned in a meeting... that it is one of the layers to the story. I still don't see how it is at all relevant to the bizarre murder.

This is just adding to stigmatization of the trans community.

Also, in my opinion, and I'm sure in Christine Newton-John's opinion, she was never really a he. Just because someone else views you as something, doesn't mean that is was you are.

(Report Comment)
Lane Wilson February 17, 2009 | 12:21 p.m.

I agree with Danielle, Rebecca, and Amber.

(Report Comment)
Rebecca Delaney February 17, 2009 | 2:02 p.m.

You said it, Danielle. Look in Friday's Maneater. I wrote a column about this because I was so frustrated β€” not necessarily with the Missourian, but with the way the rest of the press has handled this story, too. It's pretty astounding how many Web sites used the transsexual aspect in the first few words of headlines.

(Report Comment)
Rebecca Delaney February 17, 2009 | 2:10 p.m.

P.S.: Happy to see it changed on this site :).

(Report Comment)
Matt Y February 17, 2009 | 3:24 p.m.

For that matter, why identify individuals by their familial status if it has no bearing on the story? I can't tell you the number of times I've read stories which identify someone as a "father of two" or "grandmother". Any reason for that?

(Report Comment)
george mcconnall February 17, 2009 | 7:25 p.m.

the transsexual aspect is important, and people on here need to stop being apologists for that lifestyle...the fact that the woman used to be a man shows that it was basically a man that was able to keep the murder victim in the pool...i highly doubt a woman would have the natural strength to keep a man in a pool until he died...i mean a man that is fighting for his life will have a large jolt of adrenaline that would allow him to get out of the pool...unless hes fighting a another bigger, stronger man dressed up as woman...being gay, lesbian fine, but transsexual really doesnt have a valid explanation

(Report Comment)
george mcconnall February 17, 2009 | 7:27 p.m.

and matt, if you dont identify them by grandfather or mother or man or woman, how would you differentiate between anyone, everyone would just be person #1 and person #2? person #1 fought to get out of a pool, but person #2 wouldnt let them out, person #1 died...who cares about that story? arent newspapers dying? shouldnt thye be doing and trying just about anything to get readership up?

(Report Comment)
Matt Y February 17, 2009 | 8:59 p.m.

That was the point I was trying to make, George. Where do you draw the line? I think it's a difficult decision for an editor to determine what's pertinent and what's not - especially for the varied readership that major newspapers have. Blogs typically have a specific, targeted audience and it's easy to cater your writing style to suit that. With a newspaper, you want to avoid a story reading like a police report, but you also want to make sure not to exacerbate stereotypes or include pointless or misleading information. On a side note, I agree with you. We'll stop seeing all but a few major print newspapers within the next ten years. It's a dying medium.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro February 17, 2009 | 9:18 p.m.

"[Mason was a longtime friend of his wife's family. He knew her as John Vallandingham before she had gender reassignment surgery in 1993 and changed her name in honor of the singer and star of the hit movie version of the musical "Grease."]"

How odd! A 73 year old man so fatigued that he couldn't find the adrenaline to overcome his TRANSEXUAL lover.
The reason 41 year old John Olivia Newton refused to keep his husband in the pool may have been for insurance money. Either way, he was not behaving very lady-like.
{For all of you "politically correct buffs," I am of course referring to the chromosonal "he")
I also wonder how this article would have read, if John had chosen to name himself after the Grease star Dinah Manoff who played Marly Maraschino, ("like the cherry.")

(Report Comment)
Amber Hanneken February 18, 2009 | 2:36 p.m.

I don't think anyone is contesting its validity in the story itself but in the headline it was fairly absurd.

(Report Comment)

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