Esther “EJ” Stephen emerges from the elevator on the first floor of Jay County Courthouse shortly after a Jay Circuit Court jury found her guilty of the Jan. 12, 2020, murder of Shea Briar, 31, Portland. Sentencing for Stephen, 30, Portland, is scheduled for May 4. In Indiana, murder carries a sentence of 45 to 65 years, with an advisory sentence of 55 years. (The Commercial Review/Ray Cooney)
Esther “EJ” Stephen emerges from the elevator on the first floor of Jay County Courthouse shortly after a Jay Circuit Court jury found her guilty of the Jan. 12, 2020, murder of Shea Briar, 31, Portland. Sentencing for Stephen, 30, Portland, is scheduled for May 4. In Indiana, murder carries a sentence of 45 to 65 years, with an advisory sentence of 55 years. (The Commercial Review/Ray Cooney)
A Portland woman has been convicted of murder.

Esther J. Stephen, 30, was found guilty by a Jay Circuit Court jury Thursday afternoon on a charge of murder for the Jan. 12, 2020, shooting death of 31-year-old Shea Briar of Portland.

The verdict came after the jury — eight women and four men — deliberated for nearly two and a half hours.

“I’m happy that the jury came back with the verdict that they did,” Jay County prosecutor Wes Schemenaur said. “It brings some sense of justice for Shea and his family, which is really important.

“At the same time … I’ve been doing this long enough to know that nobody really won today. As the family just told me, nothing is going to bring their son, grandson, nephew, back. The real loser in all this is their child. Their child lost a mother and a father.”

Stephen, with whom Briar shared a child, buried her head in her elbow and cried upon hearing the verdict.

In Indiana, murder carries a sentence of 45 to 65 years, with an advisory sentence of 55 years. A sentencing hearing is slated for 2 p.m. May 4.

Stephen is the one of three women charged in connection with Briar’s death. Shelby Hiestand, Portland, and Hannah Knapke, Fort Recovery, both 19, are have also been charged with murder. Hiestand’s trial is scheduled for August, while Knapke is set to stand trial in September.

Stephen took the witness stand Thursday morning in her own defense. On questioning from her attorney, Jill Gonzalez, she testified to the details of the night of Briar’s death. Her testimony did not sway the jurors.

According to court documents, the three women picked Briar up at his Portland home with plans to “hang out” and proceeded to drive in Knapke’s vehicle to the county road 125 West bridge over Loblolly Creek, just south of county road 850 North. There, Stephen distracted Briar to allow Hiestand to retrieve a gun from the vehicle. Hiestand then shot Briar once in the back.

Knapke was standing next to Hiestand at the time of the shooting.

Briar was found on the bridge about 2 a.m. Jan. 12 and died later the same day at Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne.

In his closing statement Thursday, Schemenaur urged jurors to consider Stephen’s actions before, during and after the incident when determining whether or not she was “aiding, inducing or causing” Hiestand to commit murder.

Kristi Sibray, a rural Portland resident who babysat the child Stephen and Briar shared on the night of Briar’s death, testified Tuesday that Stephen and Hiestand had previously met with her a half dozen times and discussed ways they could “get rid of” Briar.

Schemenaur added that Hiestand knew where to stop on the bridge that night because Stephen admitted during interrogation that they had earlier scouted the location. And while Hiestand retrieved the gun from the back of Knapke’s vehicle, Stephen was to get him away from it so he would not notice.

“She’s the bait to get him in the van and away from the van so Shelby can go to work,” he said.

Stephen told police during questioning — video of the hour-and-a-half interrogation was played during Wednesday’s proceedings — that following the shooting she tossed Briar’s phone into the creek so he couldn’t call for help. But she testified Thursday that it was because she was unable to unlock it to call 911.

“She made dang sure she left him to die,” Schemenaur said.

Stephen testified Briar, who was not present during her pregnancy nor the birth of her daughter, had filed paperwork to obtain visitation and change the child’s surname to his. The proceedings upset Stephen, who later told police, “Things would be easier without him.”

Gonzalez argued such a statement didn’t mean Stephen wanted Briar dead. Rather, she said it indicated that she did not want Briar in the child’s life because she agreed with Schwartz’s statement during questioning that having him around for the child’s birthdays, graduation and a potential wedding would upset her.

“If they had just let the court process play out … those things get settled in a room like this,” Schemenaur argued in his closing statement. “They don’t get settled … with a bullet to the back.

“That’s not how we settle custody disputes. We go to court.”

Stephen will be held in Jay County Jail until her sentencing hearing.

Hiestand and Knapke are also in Jay County Jail pending their trials.