Examining Accused Murderer Joseph Oberhansley’s Troubled Past

Brenda Self said her son, alleged murder Joseph Oberhansley, is not a violent man. 

Yet he’s been accused of violence before, and the latest accusation against him has drawn national attention.

Oberhansley, 33, was charged last week in the gruesome murder of his 46-year-old girlfriend, Tammy Jo Blanton. Authorities allege he removed, cooked and ate some of her organs, according to The Courier-Journal.

Now, a fuller portrait is beginning to emerge of the man allegedly behind the shocking murder.

His mother told WFPL that her son’s most recent arrest is the latest in a continuing string of trouble that started with the 1997 death of his half-brother and father, each who died just weeks apart.

Self said since then Oberhansley has struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues.

“He has a bullet in his own head, wouldn’t you have some mental health issues?” she said.

History of Arrests

A top county prosecutor told The Courier-Journal this week that Oberhansley should’ve still been in custody, in jail, at the time of Blanton’s killing.

Records show Oberhansley was on parole until this summer for a manslaughter conviction in Utah—before the parole expired, he’d had four run-ins with Indiana police. He also had his bond reduced in a July 2014 court hearing on charges of criminal recklessness and resisting law enforcement, according to court records.

A trail of run-ins and court filings date back to 1998.

Oberhansley, reportedly under the influence of drugs and intense emotional stress after the recent deaths of his brother and father, turned a gun on himself in what would be a failed suicide attempt, according to a 1999 Deseret News report.  Before he pulled the trigger and sent a bullet into his own frontal lobe, 18-year-old Oberhansley killed his 17-year-old girlfriend and shot his mother, Brenda Self, in his grandmother’s Utah home.

His girlfriend, Sabrina Elder, had given birth to a child just days before Oberhansley shot her multiple times, according to a 1999 Deseret News report.

At the time, his attorney, Ronald Yengich argued that the damage Oberhansley had inflicted on his own brain was a “beneficial” injury that could result in him becoming a calmer person, according to a January 2000 report by the Deseret News. Oberhansley accepted a plea agreement that reduced his charges from murder to manslaughter.

On Tuesday, Yengich told WFPL that doctors had indicated that Oberhansley’s injuries and subsequent surgery would lead to less aggressive behavior.

“I know that I felt very sorry for him,” Yengich said. “It was one of those cases where you couldn’t either read the reports or deal with the people in that case without feeling a great deal of sorrow.”

Oberhansley spent nearly 12 years in a Utah prison.  He was released on parole in July 2012, according to Greg Johnson, of the Utah Board of Pardon and Parole.

Oberhansley received an Interstate Compact parole agreement, meaning he could relocate to Southern Indiana to live with family during his parole, Johnson said.   

He was to be under the supervision of local authorities in Indiana until his parole ended in July 2014.

Johnson said Indiana authorities had the responsibility of alerting the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole of any interaction Oberhansley had with police.

According to Indiana court records:

In March 2013, authorities charged Oberhansley with strangulation and resisting law enforcement. He was released from Clark County Jail on a $1,000 bond.

In May 2013, he was convicted of speeding.

In May 2014, authorities charged Oberhansley with driving a vehicle with a suspended license.  The charge was dismissed.

In July 2014, Oberhansley was charged with criminal recklessness committed with a deadly weapon and resisting law enforcement.  He was arrested but then released from custody after posting a $500 cash bond.

None of these encounters with police were reported to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, Johnson said.

“We had no reports of violations so we didn’t even consider a warrant or extradition,” Johnson said.  “The information we had was that there was no violations and he was doing well.”

Had the parole board received this information, it would have likely prompted a review and, potentially, Oberhansley’s extradition, Johnson said.

Ryan Harrison, parole supervisor for Indiana’s 9th Parole District, which includes Clark County, said the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole was sent all information regarding each of Oberhansley’s interactions with police.

“Everything was sent to them.  I’ve read it myself,” he said.

Harrison said it is “not uncommon” for states to fail to follow up with issuing warrants for out-of-state offenders with parole violations. 

Since he’s an offender in Utah, a warrant from Utah would have been the only law enforcement order that could have kept him in custody following his March 2013 strangulation arrest, Harrison said.

Following his July 2014 arrest, Oberhansley had yet another speedy release from custody after prosecutors agreed to reduce bond from $25,000 cash to $5,000 court cash—which means Oberhansley only had to post 10 percent of the $5,000 amount.

Clark County 3rd Superior Court Judge Joseph P. Weber, who has presided over a majority of Oberhansley’s cases since March 2013, set the initial cash bond for Oberhansley at $25,000 on July 30, 2014.  One day later he approved an agreement between the prosecuting attorney and defense attorney to lower the bond to $5,000 in court cash.

“There was no dispute, they had simply tendered an agreement,” Judge Weber said.  “Basically, it short-circuited me out of the process.”

He added that substantial decreases in bonds are “not that unusual.”

Jeremy Todd Mull, the Clark County chief deputy prosecutor, had initially requested Oberhansley’s bond set at $25,000, according to a report from The Courier-Journal.

Mull could not be immediately reached for comment, but told The Courier-Journal on Monday that another deputy prosecutor agreed to lower the bond “without my knowledge or approval.” The deputy prosecutor who agreed to the bond reduction has since resigned.

‘They Could Have Took Him In’

Brenda Self would not say who supplied the $500 that fulfilled the $5,000 court cash bond.

“It’s between me, her and him,” Self said, referencing her son and his now-deceased girlfriend.

Self said local police could have “prevented” the recent death of Tammy Jo Blanton. She noted that police responded to a call for service at the home just hours before Blanton’s body was found.

“They could have took him in,” she said.  “I am kind of disgusted in them.”

Self said the recent arrest of her son and death of Blanton is huge loss for two close families that had “regular outings” together.

“Nobody won out of this deal,” she said.  “I wish to God I could take everything back.”

Self said she introduced Blanton to her son. She noted that Blanton knew of her son’s many run-ins with the law, and in fact had picked him up from jail just months ago.

She characterized their pairing as a “real good relationship” leading up to the night Blanton died.

“Something just went haywire,” she added.

Jacob Ryan

Jacob Ryan is the Urban Affairs reporter for WFPL.