Arrest made in March murder in Wheeling

WHEELING — A Wellsburg man has been arrested in connection with the death of Wheeling Island resident Rayna Shae Vaughan.

Branden Justen Ensminger, 27, was arraigned on a murder charge shortly after his arrest Thursday. Based on forensic evidence and multiple interviews, detectives believe Ensminger is responsible for the death of 21-year-old Vaughan, whose body was discovered in an apartment at 309 S. Wabash St. on March 21.

“We believe it’s a really strong case,” Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger said Thursday.

Ensminger remains in the Northern Regional Jail, where he has been held since March 23 on an unrelated charge.

Ohio County Magistrate Patty Murphy conducted a video arraignment of Ensminger at 3:30 p.m. Thursday. The magistrate said she could not set bond because the felony charge carries a possible life sentence. Only a circuit judge can set bond in such cases.

Schwertfeger said Ensminger was an acquaintance of Vaughan and was “a person of interest” in the case since early in the investigation.

“They (Ensminger and Vaughan) resided together at the time and they were acquainted,” the chief said.

However, he said Ensminger isn’t the father of Vaughan’s young child.

The West Virginia Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Vaughan’s death as a homicide by blunt force trauma to the head.

Police allege she had been dead for some time when she was discovered by officers.

Ensminger was arrested by the Brooke-Hancock-Weirton Drug Task Force on an outstanding capias warrant from Weirton on March 23 and was placed in the Northern Regional Jail.

His incarceratation provided detectives “with an opportunity to be extremely methodic in this investigation,” Schwertfeger said. He also said that 10 to 15 search warrants were executed.

According to a criminal complaint filed by Wheeling Police Detective Ryan Ferrell, Vaughan was dating Ensminger and allegedly “there was a history of domestic violence between Vaughan and Ensminger.”

Regarding forensic evidence, Ferrell stated analysis of DNA in scrapings taken from under Vaughan’s fingernails “was consistent with Branden Ensminger or any other male in his family.” In addition, the detective said blood stains were found on three items of clothing seized from Ensminger’s possession, and “the DNA profile is consistent with that of Rayna Vaughan.”

Ferrell obtained a search warrant for the contents of Ensminger’s Facebook account. The detective said he reviewed a March 16 conversation in which an argument between Ensminger and Vaughan “then escalated to Branden making physical threats toward Rayna.”

At the time of his arrest, Ensminger allegedly had Vaughan’s driver’s license and her Mountain State EBT card in his possession, Ferrell stated. The criminal complaint also alleged that video surveillance showed Ensminger making purchases with Vaughan’s EBT card in Wheeling on March 18 and March 20 and in Weirton on March 22.

Schwertfeger commended Ferrell, Detective Rob Safreed and Detective Sgt. Gregg McKenzie for their work on the case.

The police chief said the multi-agency investigation involved an investigator from the Ohio County prosecutor’s office and the Brooke-Hancock-Weirton Drug Task Force, Brooke County Sheriff’s Department, Steubenville Police Department, Parkersburg Police Department and the Jefferson County Drug Task Force.

Vaughan’s child, who was found crying and alone in the apartment on March 21, now is safe and is in placement through West Virginia Child Protective Services, Schwertfeger said.

Ensminger did not make any statements from the jail during the video arraignment. He indicated that he wanted court-appointed legal counsel.

Murphy said a preliminary hearing will be scheduled in Ohio County Magistrate Court within 10 days if Ensminger remains incarcerated or within 20 days if he gets out of jail.