Crystal Straus stood, soft pink dress rippling in the wind, exchanging vows with the man once convicted of killing her brother. His defense attorney officiated and the lawyer’s daughters were flower girls.
She wore a wedding gown; he wore an ankle monitor.
In 1989, John Tiedjen was found guilty of killing Brian McGary, a close friend who had lived with his family since he was 15, court records say. Straus was around 12 when her brother died and had known Tiedjen almost her whole life.
The Ohio man’s conviction was overturned in June, and he’s now on house arrest, awaiting a new trial. Straus said she wrote Tiedjen a letter forgiving him a few years ago, beginning what Tiedjen called “something magical.”
Straus visited Tiedjen at the prison. She was struck by his kindness, and he felt a flicker of something. Tiedjen encouraged her to look into the evidence from the case. She became convinced he wasn’t her brother’s killer.
They were on the phone on New Year’s Eve as 2019 became 2020 when Straus told Tiedjen she loved him. He said it back – and asked her to marry him. The couple didn’t know whether Tiedjen, who had been sentenced to life in prison, would ever get out.
“I prayed about it and I put it in God’s hands,” he said.
McGary and Straus had grown up together, she said, though they had different fathers. She was a tomboy as a child and enjoyed hanging out with her siblings. Their home life was complicated. She said relatives physically punished McGary, who left when he was still a young teen to live with Tiedjen’s family.
“I honestly begged him not to move out,” she said.
A few years later, McGary was found dead at 18 with a stab wound to his chest and a bullet hole between his eyes. Prosecutors said that one of Tiedjen’s fingerprints was found on the gun. He was sentenced to life in prison for the slaying.
Straus said she decided to write Tiedjen a letter as she drove to Lake Erie on a particularly tough day around 2016. She didn’t know why he crossed her mind, but he did, and she searched his name online when she got to the lake.
When she saw he was still in prison, she resolved to send the letter to let him know she forgave him. At the time, she still thought he killed her brother, but felt he’d been locked up long enough.
Tiedjen spending the rest of his days behind bars would just mean two people lost their lives when McGary died, she thought.
After that first letter, the two kept in contact.
“We both had something in common, the loss of Brian,” Tiedjen said. “We started talking, and it just sparked.”
Earlier this year, Tiedjen’s conviction was tossed out and he was granted a new trial after a judge found pertinent crime scene photos and police reports had not been disclosed to the defense prior to the original trial. Cuyahoga County Judge Dick Ambrose said the missing evidence could have changed the outcome.
Tiedjen, Straus and his attorney say the evidence points to suicide, though prosecutors argue McGary’s fingerprints were not on the gun. No gunshot residue was found on his hands, according to the prosecution. He had been going through a difficult time and had a familial history of suicide, the defense says.
The prosecutor’s office has continued to argue that Tiedjen is guilty and confessed to murdering McGary, though Tiedjen says he was coerced into the confession. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office spokesperson Tyler Sinclair said the prosecution is appealing the judge’s retrial decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.
“The trial judge’s decision to grant a new trial contains numerous critical factual errors,” Sinclair said in a statement.
Even while Tiedjen’s fate in court remains uncertain, there has been one constant: Tiedjen and Straus always said they would get married the day he got out, Kendall Corral said.
“It’s definitely not a fairy tale,” she said. “But it’s so genuine.”
The couple’s wedding plans were complicated by the stipulations of Tiedjen’s house arrest, which he said have also made it difficult to get medical care, but they married within a few weeks of his release. The ceremony was held in the yard outside Straus’s home.
As Straus ran errands on the wedding day, Tiedjen searched for ways to make himself useful. He wasn’t going to wallow about all the things he couldn’t do, he said. It was time to focus on what he could do.
So Tiedjen wrangled a group of friends, paralegals and other people he met through the courts to help ready him for the big day. He needed flowers, so he made a call asking someone to pick up a bouquet. He needed dress shoes, so another friend went off to find some. He needed a dress shirt but didn’t know how to take the measurements for it, so he called up a men’s store and asked an employee – and then sent someone off to find a measuring tape.
One by one, he ticked items off the to-do list. Life felt like a dream, he said, just as it had in all of the days since his release.
As he recited the vows he had written, Tiedjen told Straus they were meant to be, and they would always protect one another.
“From the very beginning of time, God chose us to be together,” he recalled saying.
The newlyweds had a quick first dance to Neil Diamond’s “Forever in Blue Jeans,” and Tiedjen smashed a piece of Costco cake – yellow with chocolate mousse – in Straus’s face.
As he prepares for his second trial, Tiedjen is relying on his faith to get through, saying he’s placing his fate in God’s hands once more.
While John Tiedjen fights to maintain his near-freedom, the newlywed Tiedjens have big plans. They intend to have three more wedding ceremonies this year, one every three months, chalking up to four anniversaries each time the earth orbits the sun.
“To make up for the 32 years that are gone,” John Tiedjen said.