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"I had a very bad feeling,' wife says
It seemed like a normal day.
Stephen Austin had come home around 7 a.m. Thursday after working his 24-hour paramedic shift, or so his wife, Jennifer, thought.
Later that day, after he'd made the long drive from their Birdsboro home to Upper Mount Bethel to help his ill mother, the couple piled their three young boys in her white Volvo station wagon to run errands. They dropped off a few videos at Hollywood Video and picked up some candles and a tablecloth at Wal-Mart.
But something told Jennifer -- call it intuition, call it the deep knowledge of nuances that forms between a husband and wife over years -- that Stephen had done something bad, she said. Later that night sitting in the state trooper barracks, she would find out just how bad things were.
Stephen Austin, 26, was arrested early Friday morning. He was charged with killing his brother, Jonathan, 22, severing his head and hands and burying the body parts. He faces charges of criminal homicide, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence.
When he was arrested police found a shovel, ax and blood-soaked items in his Jeep -- along with the severed head and hands. They say he was in the process of disposing of body parts throughout Berks County when he was caught.
In a telephone interview Sunday, Jennifer described the relationship between the brothers and the events leading up to Stephen's arrest.
Jennifer thought her husband seemed a little more tired and upset than usual when he came home early Thursday morning. But that was understandable, she reasoned, with his work hours and the constant stress and strife over his ne'er-do-well younger brother's handling, or mishandling, of their bipolar mother, Katherine.
It seemed to eat away at Stephen, "the caretaker," the responsible brother who organized his mother's pills, consulted doctors and tried to find her care, Jennifer said. Relations with Jonathan only seemed to be getting worse, especially when Stephen and Jennifer started the legal process to be Katherine's guardians, despite Jonathan's intermittently sharing Katherine's home.
Stephen wasn't home long Thursday morning before he told Jennifer he needed to make the long drive up to Upper Mount Bethel Township.
"I don't want you to go up there by yourself because you don't know what Jonathan is going to do," Jennifer argued.
Jennifer recalls: "He basically said, "I thought long and hard about this. I need to get something done today."'
Jennifer told Stephen to take their baby, Ian, 8 months, with him because she had to take their other two sons to end-of-year parties at preschool.
Worried about the "instability" at Katherine Austin's home, where Jonathan had recently returned. Jennifer told him to drop Ian off with a friend who lives near his mother.
They spoke several times by phone that day, Jennifer said. He told her he helped organize his mother's medications, which were in disarray.
"At that point he mentioned his mom hadn't seen Jonathan," she said. Jennifer wasn't too concerned because Jonathan often would disappear.
By 2:30 p.m. Stephen returned to their Birdsboro home and the couple ran errands together. Jennifer decided to drive her car because Stephen was too tired.
Jennifer's cell phone rang when they were in the car. It was Katherine, who spoke to Stephen: She still hadn't heard from Jonathan.
It was at that moment that Jennifer had a gut feeling.
"Did you do something to your brother?" she asked.
"He was unable to answer me. He kind of looked at me. I could tell by his facial expression there was something wrong," she said.
"It just felt like it needed to be asked," Jennifer said. "It's just sometimes you just get a feeling."
When they got home, Stephen said he was leaving because "there were things he needed to do," Jennifer said.
"At that point I got pretty scared because it's very unlike him to ever not be direct with me about anything," she said. "We have a pretty open relationship and for him to say "I need to go somewhere' and not give me any indication about where or why -- that's extremely out of character."
Jennifer took the children outside on the porch. She could see Stephen's red Jeep parked along Pine Street.
"I could see there was something in there," she said. "I saw black plastic. It's not normally something I would see in back of his Jeep."
Stephen soon left about 7 p.m.
"I had a very bad feeling at that point," she said.
The feeling grew until she had to act on it. Several hours later she put the children in her car and drove to the Exeter Township police department. While en route, she dialed 911 and said "that possibly Stephen may have killed his brother and may be disposing of his body."