Man Accused of Wheeling Island Murder Appears for Evidentiary Hearing

WHEELING — The man charged with murdering a Wheeling Island woman in March last year appeared Wednesday in Ohio County Circuit Court for a hearing about whether interviews he had with police should be allowed at trial.

Branden Ensminger, 28, of Wellsburg, was present for the hearing on the admissibility of statements he made and other evidence for his upcoming trial, which has been postponed multiple times in the past year. A pretrial for the case is now set for Aug. 16.

At the hearing, attorneys discussed whether video interviews conducted with Ensminger by Wheeling Police Department detectives are admissible in the case.

Ensminger stands accused of murder, robbery, gross child neglect and fraud after allegedly killing a woman whom he had been in a relationship with, Rayna Vaughan, in March 2018. Vaughan was found dead in her Wheeling Island apartment with a blunt force injury to her head, and police said she had apparently been left dead for several days.

Wheeling Police Detectives Rob Safreed and Ryan Ferrell were separately called to the stand as witnesses and were questioned by Ohio County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Gail Kahle and Esmail’s defense lawyer, Zach Stewart, about two interviews they conducted with Ensminger in March and May of 2018. Video of the beginning of both interviews were played in court to demonstrate how the Miranda Rights were read to Ensminger before detectives engaged in conversation with him.

The first interview was conducted on March 23 at the Weirton Police Department after Ensminger was arrested. Safreed read Ensminger his Miranda Rights orally and from memory, he said, because he didn’t have an official form with him.

After about no more than two hours, Ensminger decided to stop the interview and asked for an attorney. Stewart asked Ferrell, who was the lead investigator in the case, why he didn’t provide Ensminger with a written Miranda Warning given that the offense of murder was involved.

“I don’t know why we didn’t get a written one from Weirton, we just went in to interview him,” Ferrell said.

During a second interview on May 17, the detectives provided Ensminger with an affidavit, and Ferrell read him his Miranda Rights in order to “engage me in conversation,” Ferrell said in the video.

“You were essentially rolling out the red carpet for him to talk to start talking to you about this?” Stewart asked, to which Ferrell said: “I was giving him the opportunity to.”

Stewart further asked Ferrell why he read Ensminger the full affidavit, and Ferrell said it was part of a strategy to show him the evidence against him. Stewart also questioned the use of a video camera in the interview and whether it was apparent the camera was recording.

Kahle then asked whether the video interview was the only interaction Ferrell had with Ensminger on that day, and Ferrell said yes. Kahle further noted that the device was obviously a camera and was visible on the table in the room.

During the investigation into Vaugahn’s murder, police reportedly found messages between Vaughan and Ensminger that escalated into what police described as Ensminger making physical threats against Vaughan on March 16, 2018.

Additionally, DNA taken from under Vaughan’s fingernails was consistent with Ensminger or someone in his family, police said, and DNA taken from blood stains found on several items in Ensminger’s possession was consistent with Vaughan’s.

During the hearing Wednesday, Ohio County Circuit Judge David Sims said that Ensminger was found to be competent to stand trial based on a psychiatric evaluation report. It was not known when Sims would make a ruling on whether the interviews should be heard during trial.

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