When someone violates the law in the worst possible way, we expect our justice system to hold that person accountable and protect society from the evil that lives inside some human beings. When that expectation is not met, our entire society suffers, and no one is safe. While the topic of capital punishment remains highly debated, it is impossible not to hear this case and wonder if the death penalty has a place in modern society. This is the case of The Indiana Cannibal.
Joseph Oberhansley was born March 29th, 1981 to Steven Oberhansley and his mother Brenda. He also had a half-brother Justin, who was about six years older, and a younger sister Alesha. His family described him as a loving non-violent person who suffered greatly during the year of 1997. According to Joseph’s grandmother Norma Dodge, he was never a violent person until he suffered emotional trauma because of the deaths of his father and brother Justin. (Swensen, 1999).
On June 1st, 1997, Justin Oberhansley committed suicide. The death was traumatic for Joseph, and he started to suffer mentally. He attempted to numb the pain with drug use. Another tragedy would compound his trauma in July 1997 when Joseph’s father Steven Oberhansley died in what is described as traumatic circumstances. According to the Desert News, the death of Steven Oberhansley was “suspicious” (Swensen, 1999), and Joseph blamed himself for not being there to protect his father. Another source claimed Steven Oberhansley died of a “suspicious overdose” (Galofaro & Pulliam, 2014).
During this time, Joseph’s mental state became more and more troubling according to family and he began to abuse drugs frequently. Sometime during 1997, Joseph met Sabrina Elder. “I tried to run him out of the yard the first time I (saw) him” Afred Irmer stated (Jensen, 2000) in regard to meeting Joseph Oberhansley when we started dating his granddaughter Sabrina. In early 1998 Sabrina became pregnant by Joseph Oberhansley, but their relationship would not withstand the year.
Sabrina, no longer his girlfriend, moved in with Joseph’s grandmother and prepared for the arrival of her and Joseph’s child. Multiple sources stated that Joseph had doubt, however, about the child’s paternity. According to Joseph’s new girlfriend, he frequently complained about Sabrina living with his family, felt the baby was not his, and even made comments about wanting to kill Sabrina (Swensen, 1999).
On December 4th, 1998, Sabrina gave birth to a son whom she named Joseph, presumably after the father of her child. She continued to live with Joseph’s grandmother and Joseph’s mother Brenda and sister Alecha rallied around Sabrina to help her in the first few days of baby Joseph’s life. Sabrina, only seventeen, was a new mother without the support of the baby’s father. Just five days after the birth of her baby, Sabrina’s life would end violently.
On December 9th, 1998, Joseph went to his grandmother Norma’s home where his grandmother, mother, sister, ex-girlfriend Sabrina, and newborn son were gathered in the living room. He paced the hallway for a few minutes, then entered the living room and began shooting. According to his mother, she was holding the infant and rushed to put the baby down when she was shot in the back. His then thirteen-year-old sister Alecha grabbed the baby and tried to get to safety. Joseph shot Sabrina Elder in the head five times, killing her. He then turned the gun on himself, shooting himself under the chin in a suicide attempt (Swensen, 1999).
Sabrina Elder died at seventeen years old on December 9th, 1998. She was survived by her five-day old son Joseph. Brenda Self survived her gunshot wound. Norma and Alecha were unharmed as was the baby. Joseph was rushed to the hospital where he survived his injuries. He would soon face murder charges in the death of Sabrina and attempted murder charges for the shooting of his mother.
After recovering from the gunshot wound to his head, Joseph was arrested for murder in January 1999. His bail was originally set at one million dollars, but his defense attorney urged the judge to reduce it to just $5,000 (Moran, 1999). “He has a place to go, he has people who support him” his defense attorney told the judge (Moran, 1999). In fact, his grandmother Norma and mother Brenda both supported Joseph despite being traumatized by his actions. In fact, his grandparents paid for his defense.
The judge in this case said, “There’s nothing that strikes me as being inappropriate about having a material witness finance the defense” (Moran, 1999). However, he declined to reduce the bail amount. He further said, “This is a heinous murder” and “If I were a citizen, I would be concerned about the freedom of the alleged perpetrator” (Moran, 1999). However, by June 1999, Joseph was released without bail (Desert News, 1999). He was released to the care of his family on home confinement pending the trial.
His mother, sister, and grandmother testified at his pre-trial hearings, but a jury trial would never happen. In January of 2000, Joseph Oberhansley plead guilty to lesser charges of manslaughter for killing Sabrina and attempted murder for shooting his mother, both second-degree felonies (Jensen, 2000). Prosecutor Paul Parker felt that the state would have a hard time getting a conviction for the first-degree murder charges given Joseph’s “severe emotional distress” (Jensen, 2000).
His defense attorney said “This was not an intentional act, all of the stressors involved in Joseph’s life at the time led up to this. It is likely that outside of those factors, this never would have happened” (Jensen, January 2000). Furthermore, his defense attorney claimed, “The injury he sustained actually has had a beneficial affect because of the portion of the brain that was injured” (Jensen, January 2000). Basically, he was given a plea bargain under the theory that severe emotional distress led him to commit murder and attempt suicide, and that his brain injuries from the suicide attempt mellowed him out.
In March 2000, Joseph was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for the manslaughter charge and fifteen years for the attempted murder charge to run concurrently (Jensen, March 2000). The sentencing was a tough blow to the family of Sabrina and her grandfather said, “He’s going to get out in five to seven years and do it again” (Jensen, March 2000). At the sentencing hearing Joseph Oberhansley said, “I’d give my life for hers. I will take responsibility for my acts, not only today but every day until I die” (Jensen, March 2000).
This part of the story by itself is disturbing and tragic, but it’s only the beginning of our story. In July of 2012, twelve years into his sentence, the Utah Parole Board gathered to determine if Joseph Oberhansley should be granted a second chance. Joseph’s mother Brenda advocated for her son’s release, despite the fact that she was one of his shooting victims. She said, “I think drugs had a lot to do with it” (Wave3News, 2014). Sabrina’s family advocated for her justice and asked that Joseph Oberhansley serve the entire fifteen-year sentence. Joseph, claiming the bullet he put in his own head had mellowed him out, argued he was a changed man (Wave3News, 2014). He was granted parole.
Upon release from prison, Joseph moved to Southern Indiana where his mother lived under an interstate parole program. Within a year, Joseph would find himself in trouble again. Police were called in March 2013 for a fight at an apartment above a bar. Upon arrival, a woman claimed a man was killing her boyfriend. Joseph Oberhansley, fully nude, was in the bathroom choking a barely conscious man. Police were forced to tase Oberhansley twice. Apparently, Joseph was having sex with the woman, whom he met at a bar, and her boyfriend came home and hit him in the head with a baseball bat. Joseph did have a wound to the back of his head lending truth to his claim. He also claimed to be robbed by the couple, and there was some evidence to support this claim as well. Oberhansley was taken to Clark County jail, however, and charged with aggravated battery, strangulation, and resisting law enforcement. (Galofaro & Pulliam, 2014) His parole should have been revoked. It wasn’t.
Joseph Oberhansley was bailed out by his grandfather with one thousand dollars. Somehow, he fell through the cracks in the system and was not returned to prison. Oberhansley was being supervised by an Indiana parole officer who should have reported this incident to the Utah Board of Parole (Galofaro & Pulliam, 2014). In May 2013, Oberhansley was charged with a speeding infraction (Rickert & DePompei, 2019).
In Spring of 2014, Oberhansley was introduced to a pretty woman in her forties with a big heart named Tammy Jo Blanton. The two began dating, and according to Tammy’s family, she was trying to help Joseph get his life together after his troubled past. It’s unclear if Tammy knew the whole truth about Joseph’s violent past, but she did know he was in prison. A friend of Tammy’s described meeting Joseph for the first time and said she “got a terrible gut feeling” (Helmer, 2019). She said Tammy was a very independent person, but within weeks of dating Joseph red flags began to pop up. Friends and family of Tammy described Joseph as very controlling and claim he tried to isolate Tammy.
On July 21st, 2014, Joseph led police on a slow speed chase that started in Jeffersonville, Indiana and ended in Kentucky. He was charged on July 23rd with criminal recklessness and resisting arrest (Rickert & Pompei, 2014). Still, he was not sent back to prison and the Utah Parole Board denies being notified of this arrest.
In early September, Tammy Jo and Joseph’s relationship quickly deteriorated. Joseph was controlling, possessive, and jealous. Tammy was losing patience despite her kindhearted nature. Tammy claimed that after a company picnic, Joseph Oberhansley raped her in her home (Kamper, 2020). Tammy did not press charges but was done with Joseph. She changed the locks on her home and ended her relationship with Oberhansley.
On September 11th, 2014 at 3 am, police received a 911 call from Tammy’s home. Tammy claimed Joseph was trying to break into her home and she wanted him to leave. Police found Joseph outside her home. They asked him to leave and he agreed to leave at that time (Kachmar, 2019). Joseph allegedly went to his mother’s home and complained to her about Tammy changing the locks and how police often take the woman’s side in such cases. Soon after, he left his mother’s home again.
Later that morning, Tammy did not show up for work. This was very unusual for her, so her co-workers notified police after attempting to reach her. When police arrived at her home in Jeffersonville at 10 am, a man identifying himself as Joe answered the door. Different officers were now on duty, and they were unaware of the previous call at 3 am. The officers noted signs of forced entry to the back door and Joseph Oberhansley, “Joe”, had blood on his hands and cuts to his knuckles. The police were suspicious and insisted on coming inside.
Inside the home, police found blood. Lots of blood. Police described the scene as worse than a horror movie (Chilling Crimes, 2021). Police noted that bathroom door appeared to have been kicked in. Inside the bathroom they found a bloody tent in the tub and when they lifted the tent, they found Tammy. Tammy was found in the bathtub of her home deceased on September 11th, 2014.
The injuries to Tammy’s body were shocking and included large, deep wounds to her head, face, chest, and neck (Chilling Crimes, 2021). Her neck had been slashed and the front portion of her skull was crushed. There were large pieces of her skull that had been cut out and parts of her brain were missing. Part of her removed skull and some brain tissue was found in the tub with the body. The large lacerations to her chest revealed her internal organs and her heart and some lung tissue was missing.
In the kitchen, investigators found some of Tammy’s missing body parts. A portion of her skull bone was found on a plate with blood. Additionally, a skillet on the stove and a pair of kitchen tongs contained her blood. This evidence led authorities to believe that someone had eaten parts of Tammy’s missing brain, heart, and lungs (Chilling Crimes, 2021). Joseph Oberhansley was taken into police custody.
Oberhansley initially denied knowing what happened to Tammy, but he would eventually confess. He told authorities that he came back later that morning, parking away from Tammy’s house to avoid detection. He said he broke into the home and broke down the bathroom door where Tammy was hiding from him. He admitted to stabbing her to death and then using a jigsaw to cut open her skull. Joseph confirmed investigators’ suspicions by admitting he ate part of Tammy’s brain raw first, but then cooked another portion and consumed it (Chilling Crimes, 2021). He also confessed to eating her heart and a portion of her lungs. A knife in his pocket contained Tammy’s blood and hair (Kachmar, 2019).
Joseph Oberhansley was officially charged with the murder of Tammy Jo Blanton on September 16th, 2014 and was held without bond (Rickert & DePompei, 2019). Tammy Jo, aged forty-six, was forever taken from her family and friends. They celebrated her life with a memorial service on September 17th, 2014. Their hearts will be forever broken.
In 2017, Oberhansley was found “unfit to stand trial” and was sent to Logansport State Hospital. Three state psychiatrists reported he was not competent (Kachmar, 2019). He was treated there for more than a year before being deemed fit to stand trial in 2018. However, his defense attorneys continued to profess that his mental illness was debilitating and the cause of his horrendous actions. They urged him to claim not guilty due to insanity, but Oberhansley withdrew this plea in 2019 as he felt “using this defense would admit guilt and is unlikely to work” (Kachmar, 2019). In exchange for withdrawing the insanity plea, the prosecution took the death penalty off the table (Rickert, 2019). The prosecution felt that given the psychiatric evidence, a death penalty was unlikely to be upheld.
Oberhansley’s murder trial began in 2019. On the fourth day of testimony, a friend of Tammy’s was providing testimony regarding the abuse Tammy suffered during her relationship with Joseph. Her friend explained that Tammy did not call the police on Joseph because she did not want him to go back to prison (Kachmar, 2019). She also mentioned Joseph’s drug use. These statements were considered improper as evidence regarding Oberhansley’s prior criminal record were not allowed to be presented as evidence. This testimony caused the judge to declare a mistrial.
Six years after Tammy’s brutal murder, September 11th, 2020, the second trial of Joseph Oberhansley began after his defense attorneys failed to get him deemed incompetent for trial a second time. This time, however, the trial began in Allen County Indiana to mitigate the enormous media coverage of this crime in southern Indiana. Opening statements included the prosecution comparing the death to a horror movie scene and the defense asking the jury to look at the case from all sides (Wise & Pace, 2020).
A friend and co-worker of Tammy testified on day one of the trial that Joseph answered Tammy’s phone the morning of her death. Jurors heard about the 911 calls from the home earlier that morning. Jurors were shown graphic images that surely disturbed them. Over the next few days, evidence of cannibalism was presented in addition to the confession Oberhansley gave. DNA evidence on the dishes, cookware, knife, and saw were confirmed to be Tammy’s. Tammy’s DNA was found on Joseph’s hands. Joseph’s DNA was found inside Tammy’s vagina, but there were no signs of vaginal trauma (13WTHR, 2020). Tammy’s friends testified about the rape and sexual abuse she told them about. This evidence included the following text messages from Tammy to Joseph.
“You can choose to be in denial about what happened Saturday into Sunday. I won’t be in denial. No one, and I mean no one, gets to terrify me like you did on Sunday. I will never forget it as long as I live.”
“I don’t want to involve the police but if you leave me no choice, that is what I will have to do”
“At the end of the day, I’m taking my life back. I worked too hard to get here. NO ONE WILL TAKE ME DOWN”
(Chilling Crimes, 2021)
The defense only called Joseph to the stand. He testified that he was coerced by police to give his confession and that he was not responsible for Tammy’s death. He explained he had a brain injury. He admitted to returning to Tammy’s house around 4 am but claimed “two black guys” were at the home (Chilling Crimes, 2021). The jury did not buy this story. After five days of testimony, the jury found Joseph Oberhansley guilty of first-degree murder and burglary. They found him not guilty of rape. (13WTHR, 2020). On October 13th, 2020, Joseph Oberhansley was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (Mulraney, 2020).
As shocking as a case of cannibalism is, it’s not the most shocking part of this crime. The most shocking fact is how the justice system failed to prevent the murder of Tammy Jo Blanton. The justice system failed to ensure appropriate justice for Sabrina Elder. Sabrina’s grandfather correctly predicted that Joseph Oberhansley would kill again after being released. If only he hadn’t been given such a light sentence for his first murder, or if he had been sent back to prison for the 2013 assault or 2014 police chase, or if he had been arrested at 3am on the morning of September 11th, 2014, maybe Tammy Jo Blanton would still be alive.
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