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Bahl pleads guilty to secretly burying mom

by: COLUMBIA COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE - Stephen BahlA Columbia City man facing charges in connection with his father’s death and his mother’s disappearance will not serve any jail time, although a prison sentence hangs over his head if he violates his probation.

After spending the last five months in the Columbia County Jail, 59-year-old Stephen Vincent Bahl was released Dec. 19 after he pleaded guilty to abuse of a corpse — instead of reporting his mother Frieda Bahl’s death he buried her body in a shallow grave on a logging road near Columbia City.

He also pleaded no contest to a charge of criminal mistreatment regarding his father James Bahl who died in 2009, and guilty to two counts of first-degree theft, one count of unsworn falsification and one count of unlawfully using food stamps.

He was sentenced to five years probation for each of the charges.

He was allowed to return to the house on James Street in Columbia City where he had lived as his parents’ caretaker only long enough gather his belongings.

“We would rather that he just remove himself as soon as possible,” said Columbia City Mayor Cheryl Young. “It would be better for him and for us.”

Young can recall 20 years worth of neighborhood concerns about Bahl, who has a history of drug use, including questionable actions and people constantly coming and going.

The recent investigation into the deaths of his parents, who were both in their 90s, bed-ridden and suffering from severe dementia before they died, only heightened the unease the community felt about Bahl.

While Young is not pleased to see Bahl walk free, Columbia County District Attorney Steve Atchison explained the medical evidence could not prove Bahl took an active part in either of his parents’ deaths and that a trial would likely not produce the outcome the state desired.

The Dec. 19 plea deal ensures Bahl could serve up to one-and-a-half years in prison if he violates his probation, he said.

Initially, Atchison hoped Frieda Bahl’s body would provide enough information to push for a trial. But, by the time Stephen Bahl led investigators to her body in September, there wasn’t much left for medical examiners to probe.

“The bones were fine,” Atchison said. “There were no breaks, no bullet marks, no knife marks. There’s absolutely nothing physical to prove she died of what we call ‘suspicious circumstances.’ So I was stuck with that.”

Frieda Bahl was nearly 92 years old and very ill. State medical examiners said it was likely she died of a heart attack.

Investigators believe Frieda Bahl died about one year ago. She had not been seen since July 2010 and was not reported missing until May 2012. In the meantime, her son continued to draw on her Social Security checks.

Bahl was nearly silent at his hearing Dec. 19, but his attorney, Paul Aubry, said he had cared for his parents for most of his life and has no record of consistent employment other than acting as their caretaker.

“That’s the only job he’s known how to do,” Aubry said.

Hospice situations, even under the best conditions, are difficult, he added, but admitted Bahl made “some poor decisions” when it came to the care of his parents in their final years.

“He’s in a world of hurt,” Atchison said in his office after the hearing. At nearly 60 years old with no prior job experience to fall back on, it is not clear what Bahl will do next.

Asbury said Bahl plans to sell the house and live temporarily with a friend in Washington.

It was one of the most complex cases Columbia City Police Chief Michael McGlothlin has seen since he joined the Columbia City Police Department in 2009, and it taxed the small agency’s resources.

Columbia City boasts a population of just under 2,000 people and is guarded by a police department whose chief is the only full-time employee. Three part-time officers and two reserves fill in the gaps.

“It would have been a major case for any municipality, any jurisdiction,” McGlothlin said, adding that the case would have been even harder to handle without the help of the county’s Major Crimes Team, which includes officers from agencies across the county.

While there was no fear that Bahl posed a physical threat, the police chief said the case rocked the small community.

“The lack of regard was shocking,” McGlothlin said. “You’d hope that in your last years you’d receive adequate care and that at the time of death, you’d be treated with more respect than Mrs. Bahl was.”