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'Accident, Suicide, or Murder': How Deborah Hollermann's accident was a planned murder to cover up an affair

Mrs Hollermann's death seemed like an open-and-shut case, until Minnesota state trooper Tony Snyder had a creeping feeling
UPDATED JUN 23, 2020
Deborah Hollermann (Oxygen)
Deborah Hollermann (Oxygen)

Spoilers for 'Accident, Suicide, or Murder'

The grueling twists in the Hollermanns' case of death and lies were fodder for national headlines through 2014. Now, the real-crime events are the subject of an episode on Oxygen's 'Accident, Suicide or Murder,' which airs on the network on Saturdays at 6/5c.

The story goes: When Deborah Hollermann died in a car accident that occurred on a rural highway in the late hours of March 2002, the reaction was that it was undoubtedly tragic, but there was little else that could be done than mourn her passing.

She and her husband, Steve, had been driving home on a stretch of highway in Isanti County, Minnesota, when he lost control of the car and plowed it into the back of a vehicle that had been parked on the shoulder.

Witnesses who saw the horror unfold had described a tragic scene: that of Steve desperately pulling his wife out of the wreckage and cradling her in his arms until emergency responders tore her away and rushed her to the hospital. Steve, who had been wearing a seatbelt, had walked away uninjured. His wife, who wasn't, did not survive the crash.

It seemed like an open and shut case. Such accidents happened all the time, especially on lonely highways so late into the night. But Minnesota state trooper Tony Snyder had the creeping feeling that he was not seeing the entire story and that there was more to it than met the eye.

Convinced he was missing something, Snyder went to the impound lot to take pictures of the Hollermanns' vehicle, only to learn that Steve had already called multiple times asking for the car to be released. It immediately raised suspicion. Why would a husband who is still grieving the very recent death of his wife be so interested in the vessel that caused the tragedy? 

The reason became apparent when Snyder examined the car, a Jeep, and found blood not only on the front, but also the back, the ceiling, and "literally everywhere." He told Oxygen there was "more blood than I had ever seen in any accident" even though the car itself was still very much "driveable". Snyder opined there was too much blood for the crash to bear sole responsibility. "It wasn't possible for there to be that much blood on the passenger's side when there had been little to no damage to the passenger compartment itself," Snyder suggested.

But even that early into a possible investigation, Snyder was already working against time. He shared his insight with some colleagues and the county attorney, all of whom agreed that the crash had to be looked into further, but it proved too late.

Deborah had suffered multiple skull fractures and bruising to her brain, and the medical examiner determined she died as a result of blunt force trauma from injuries she sustained during a car crash. Her death was ruled an accident. While Snyder wanted a second, more intensive autopsy, her body had already been cremated.

But the state trooper did not give up. Recalling how Steve had said he and his wife had gone shopping at several stores in Cambridge before the accident, investigators accessed the couple's receipts and store surveillance footage to retrace their steps from that fateful night and found something peculiar: there was a two-and-a-half-hour gap between them leaving the last store and the accident, even though the drive home was just a 20-minutes distance.

Snyder also learned that the Hollermanns' vacation cabin was halfway between Cambridge and their home, leading the investigators to theorize that the couple might have visited it on the day of the crash. Their suspicions proved correct. Having obtained a search warrant for the home, as well as the Jeep, they found evidence to suggest Deborah had actually been murdered.

The small knob used to adjust the mirrors on the passenger's side was bloodied and covered with pieces of flesh and hair. There was also a crack in the windshield on the same side with a bloody sweater print, which all but confirmed she was bleeding and injured before the accident.

The findings convinced the medical examiner's office to change the manner of death from an accident to homicide, and in a subsequent interview, Steve confirmed the investigators' worst suspicions: that he had "murdered his wife of 14 years in cold blood".

Having initially claimed they had been arguing over how to remodel the cabin, he eventually admitted he assaulted her. He said he grabbed her by the hair and slammed her head into the corner of the vehicle. He said she attempted to flee at one point, but that he brought her back to the car by telling her he would take her to the hospital.

While a motive for the argument and violent outburst was initially unclear, they learned that Steve had been having an affair with a co-worker at the hospital where he was employed and that on the day of his wife's murder, he had sex with her multiple times at the cabin. Deborah was reportedly planning to confront him about the affair the same day.

Steve was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder and sentenced to 17-and-a-half years in prison. He was released in 2014 after serving 11 years and moved back in with the same woman he was having an affair with.