The log seemed to fall from nowhere, plummeting from the sky to the exact spot where Victoria Schafer was at work with her camera, shooting pictures.
Sitting on the stairs beneath a sandstone cliff, the photographer had positioned a group of six high school seniors last month for Labor Day portraits near a waterfall at Old Man’s Cave, one of the most breathtaking locations of Hocking Hills State Park in Logan, Ohio.
And then, almost as quickly as she could snap a photo, the 74-pound, six-foot-long log came hurtling over the ledge. It fell more than 75 feet off the cliff, striking Schafer as she was engrossed in her work. The 44-year-old mother of four died at the scene.
At first, the Chillicothe, Ohio, photographer’s death appeared to be a tragic freak accident, but it didn’t take authorities long to realize that the log didn’t fall on its own. And it was not an accident. The log, somehow, was thrown or pushed.
Now, authorities say they know who did it: two teenage boys.
The two 16-year-old boys were arrested and charged with reckless homicide in Schafer’s death last week after detectives received a tip about their involvement, the Hocking County Sheriff’s Office said in a Thursday statement. The teenagers, who are not being identified because of their ages, admitted their involvement in “forcing the log over the cliff” once questioned by authorities, Hocking County assistant prosecutor Jorden Meadows said.
The arrests come after weeks of authorities pleading with the perpetrators to come forward and witnesses to assist in the investigation. Announcing a $10,000 reward for information leading to conviction, Schafer’s family begged for answers in her puzzling death.
“It is shocking,” Terressa Reep, a close friend and neighbor of Schafer’s, told WYSX. “You don’t expect a healthy, vivacious 44-year-old to not come home from a day at the park.”
Schafer, who also worked as a human resources professional at a pet store operator, had started her own photography business several years ago, capturing everything from underwater photos to sports and school portraits. She and her husband of 21 years, Fritz, were raising four teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19 at the time of her death. Maddie, 16, had learned of her mother’s fatal injury from classmates who called to tell her what happened at the park, Schafer’s sister, Catherine Muth, told reporters at a news conference last month. The oldest, 19-year-old John, received the call from his father.
“I was like, ‘Is she OK?’ And he was like, ‘No, she’s dead,’” John recounted in an interview with the Dayton Daily News. “After that, I didn’t really say anything or think at all. I just figured maybe I heard the wrong name on the call, or maybe I was just hearing it wrong.”
On Sept. 3, the day after the tragedy, investigators with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources informed the family that the log did not fall organically from the cliff at Old Man’s Cave. It had somehow been “dislodged,” as John Schafer recounted to the Daily News.
At the top of the ledge, investigators discovered the imprint of where the 74-pound log had been, realizing that there was no way the chunk of wood simply could have rolled out of place. Plus, witnesses at the state park that day could recall having seen a group of kids up there.
But for a while, no one came forward to identify them.
“I don’t really need anything, just some answers,” Fritz Schafer, the photographer’s husband, told WLWT at the time. “I just can’t stop thinking about her.”
Finally, the essential tip came through.
Meadows told the Parkersburg News and Sentinel in West Virginia on Saturday that a mother of a local high school student called the tip line to report that one of the teenage suspects sent a text message saying that “he had done something serious at the park with another kid.” Shortly thereafter, the boys confessed, she said.
The Hocking County coroner, Dave Cumin, told the Logan Daily News that the teenagers are accused of attempting to “cause panic or other harm” in pushing the log off the cliff like “a projectile.”
Schafer’s death is one of numerous incidents in which teenagers have allegedly thrown rocks or other objects over a ledge and killed or seriously injured a person. In October 2017, in a case that’s still ongoing, five Michigan teens were accused of throwing a rock off an Interstate 75 overpass, striking a 32-year-old man as the rock crashed through his windshield on his way home from work. One teen, Kyle Anger, has already pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is awaiting sentencing.
People have thrown concrete, bricks and paint and even a tripod over bridges, but in some of those cases, such as in the March case of a 33-year-old Texas mom killed by a rock dropped onto her car, the perpetrators were not found.
In Schafer’s case, her sister, Muth, said that if there were one thing Schafer would have wanted, it would be to raise awareness, ensuring this could never happen to someone else’s loved one again.
“One thing I know to be true is this: Victoria would simply want the result of all this to be increased safety and awareness at all parks; she’d never have wanted to put these kids’ lives — or any other person’s life — in danger,” her friends and family wrote on the page “Friends of Victoria Schafer,” which garnered more than 3,000 supporters since her death last month.
On Friday, John Schafer told the Daily News that if his mother’s death was the result of a bad decision by two teenagers, he would attend their court hearings to urge the judge not to levy a punishment that would ruin their lives.
“If there’s anybody that understands teenagers making mistakes, it’s my mom and me,” he said. “If it was truly just some kids that didn’t know any better or were just being stupid kids, and not anything more than that, I think my mom would understand.”