Bad Business

Montgomery County Sheriff's Deputy T. Ward caught the call: deceased person at a residence on Many Oaks Drive, a modest two-story in a quiet subdivision in Spring.

According to his affidavit, Ward arrived at the home shortly before 2 p.m. on February 21, 2011. He was met by Jill Sumstad, who said that she had found her sister-in-law Christie Sumstad's nude body on the bedroom floor. Standing at the door with her was her brother Ryan Sumstad, Christie's husband.

Jill explained that her brother had contacted her earlier that day because he was worried Christie, 34, was suicidal. They had a nasty argument the night before, and Ryan split, leaving Christie home with their three children. The next morning, Christie didn't answer her phone or respond to e-mails, so Ryan asked Jill, who lived nearby, to check on Christie. He had to know if she was okay.

A West Point graduate who played offensive guard on the academy's football team, Ryan Sumstad stood more than six feet tall and weighed around 250 pounds. He had minor scratches on his forehead and an open sore on one hand, which, he told Deputy Ward, he got from punching a wall during his argument with Christie.

The argument had awakened the couple's son in the middle of the night; he'd heard the sound of "yelling and things breaking." The bedroom was "in disarray, with a broken mirror," according to Ward's affidavit.

According to Christie's friends, Ryan Sumstad later told everyone that Christie must have overdosed on sleeping pills chased with wine. Her friends were in shock: After nearly 14 years together, the couple had been considering a divorce, but Christie hadn't appeared despondent.

The day after Christie's body was discovered, Ryan Sumstad, an IT consultant, created a Web site in her memory. He asked that, in lieu of flowers, friends and family donate to his children's college funds. Or, if it was easier, people could just make their checks out directly to him.

Christie's body first went to the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office for an autopsy, then to a funeral home in Magnolia for visitation.

Several friends who attended found it strange that Sumstad had chosen to dress Christie in a large blue turtleneck sweater, something she'd never have worn. A few were also puzzled by Sumstad's decision to have his wife cremated. But in the face of overwhelming grief, these were insignificant concerns.

Then, on June 20, four months after Christie's death, friends and family received some disturbing news: The Montgomery County District Attorney's Office charged Sumstad with murder. A warrant was issued, and he turned himself in to the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office the following day.

As of mid-August, Sumstad was unable to post a $50,000 bond. Neither his family nor Christie's would help. Nor had the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office presented its case to a grand jury, although prosecutor Joanne Linzer told the Houston Press that they would present their case within the 90 days allowed by statute.

According to a memo written by Montgomery County Attorney David Walker, the justice of the peace for the county's third precinct did not receive a copy of the autopsy report until June 13. Because the investigation is still active, Linzer said she could not discuss the case. So it remains unclear why Montgomery County officials had to wait four months for the autopsy report. It's also unclear when Sumstad became a suspect, or, if he was immediately suspected, why authorities released Christie's body into his custody.

For Christie's friends, the shock of her death was compounded by the possibility that her husband had killed her. And when word leaked out about how the medical examiner's office believed she died, a few of Christie's friends flashed back to that turtleneck Sumstad had dressed her in. According to the arrest warrant, Christie Sumstad had been strangled.

Ryan Sumstad always had grandiose plans, always had a big deal right around the corner, but it wasn't until after he was charged with murder that a few of Christie's friends looked online to see what they could find out about him. And what they found out was that people across the country had accused him of cheating them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, on sites like Ripoffreport.com.

A closer look by the Houston Press revealed that, over the past four years, Sumstad worked hard to build an impressive online persona, promoting himself as a major venture capitalist, creating phantom companies in order to separate people from their money.

Now Christie's friends and family are waiting to find out from authorities if Sumstad is a simple con man, a cold-blooded killer or both.

Ryan Sumstad and Christie Mercer met at the military wedding of one of Sumstad's friends at the Woodlands Conference Center. Sum­stad looked resplendent in his dress blues. He caught the eye of one of the waitresses: Christie Mercer, a preacher's daughter and single mom with one daughter. She was a woman who always seemed to put everyone else's needs ahead of hers. She thought Sumstad was brilliant.

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow