God, Family, Bluegrass, & Murder: Inside the Life of the Stockdale Family Band


As soon as the news began to trickle out of northeast Ohio on Thursday evening, June 15th, about a double murder and attempted suicide by a member of a home schooled bluegrass family band against his own family members in a staunchly religious home where TV, video games, and other elements of the outside world were forbidden, the immediate speculation by many was that it was the repressive environment that led to the incident, or that the squeaky clean household was hiding a much more sinister story.

25-year-old Jacob Stockdale—the next to youngest son of the Stockdale Family and the Stockdale Family Band—took what is believed to be a 20-gauge shotgun from the family gun cache, and shot both his 54-year-old mother Kathryn Stockdale, and his 21-year-old brother James Stockdale, before turning the gun on himself just as the police arrived, inflicting a gunshot wound that currently has Jacob in critical condition at the MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, OH. Jacob Stockdale’s two older brothers were not at home at the time of the murder, and no longer live in the area. The father and leader of the Stockdale Family Band, Timothy Stockdale, was also not home at the time of the killings.

But at the moment, we don’t have any motive, or any solid information on why Jacob Stockdale would decide to gun down two of his family members before attempting to take his own life. Though the public can surmise about repressed anger and other assumptions, according to Sheriff George T. Maier of the Stark County Sheriff’s Department, no prior calls had ever been made to or from the home. There was no criminal past for Jacob Stockdale or any of the family members, and no prior knowledge of mental issues with Jacob or any members of the family.

“It’s hard to, you know, kind of surmise what the motive may have been,” Sheriff Maier said in a press conference on Friday, June 16th. “There’s some speculation. Don’t really want to get into that part of it. But we will continue to investigate this case and try to determine if there is a motive. [We] just do not know at this time.”

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The Stockdale Family lives on a small, homestead-style family farm off a county road roughly 17 miles south and east of Canton, OH. When growing up, the four Stockdale sons were expected to do chores around the house. The family had an elaborate system where chores were rewarded by “tokens,” and had to be marked off of a chart. Once the boys earned enough tokens, they could turn them in for recreational privileges. 20 tokens would allow you to be able to listen to a family friendly-approved radio show, for example.

stockdale-family-band“[The chart also] addresses attitudes,” mother Kathryn Stockdale said in 2008. “Just because the job is done doesn’t necessarily mean it’s done in the right way … We don’t allow any cussing. I think that dating has physical dangers like pregnancy. It’s not worth it. It’s important we have control over their character and their education.”

The reason we have such deep insight into the family life of the otherwise walled-off Stockdale Family home was due to cameras being allowed into the home as part of the ABC series Wife Swap, which visited the Stockdale Farm in 2008 to tape an episode.

“It’s important that we instill in our children that you need to work and not expect a handout,” said father Timothy Stockdale in 2008. “We raise a lot of our own vegetables. We raise all of the meat that we eat.”

Though starring on a reality TV show—especially one with such a salacious-sounding name like Wife Swap—may seem like something completely opposite to the type of lifestyle the Stockdale Family lived, this is exactly what ABC producers were looking for when they contacted The Stockdales. They were searching for a bluegrass family band specifically, and one that held strong faith-based traditional values to contrast with the other family to swap with.

Despite mother Kathy, and father Tim being reluctant to want to participate in the show initially, the four boys were eager for the experience, and eventually the family decided it could be an interesting family adventure.

“Being a farm, homeschooling, bluegrass band family, we enjoy a lot of common experiences, but we have to chalk the ‘Wife Swap’ adventure as the grand family bonding experience for the Stockdales for which we will never be the same,” Kathy Stockdale told Bluegrass Today in 2008. “We relate differently in that we have even more and deeper collective experiences where we overcame obstacles and accomplished a giant task together. No one else will understand the ‘Wife Swap’ journey like we do and that is one of the things that will make our family unit different and special forever.”

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The Stockdale Family Band was not just a bluegrass family band in name. The family regularly competed in regional competitions and performed at bluegrass gatherings. They also used their music as ministry, and often told stories and utilized skits in their stage show.

stockdale-family-band-earlyThe Stockdale Family Band began performing publicly around 2006, after regularly playing music inside the home during the early years of the family. James, the youngest son, played upright bass. Jacob, the second youngest, played the fiddle. Charles, the next to oldest, played mandolin, and the oldest brother Calvin played the banjo. Along with father Tim on guitar, they won four 1st place awards in regional bluegrass contests over the years, and also placed second in “Single Mic Championship” and “Youth in Bluegrass” competitions. The band released four albums on CD, and worked for a while as the house band for Amish Country Theater Comedy Shows in Walnut Creek, OH.

As the two eldest sons came of age and moved away from the Stockdale homestead, they left the band officially, though continued to play music with the family regularly while home. Oldest brother Calvin works at Hillsdale College in Michigan—a liberal arts school in the south central portion of the state. Second oldest brother Calvin is studying to be a doctor in Philadelphia. Joe Steiner, a banjo and harmonica player from Findlay, Ohio, recently began playing with the band for professional gigs in the absence of the two older brothers.

“Our dad was always the big inspiration behind us getting into this old-time acoustic music. We’d have great music nights where dad would play rhythm guitar and sometimes we’d pull out pots and pans and keep the rhythm,” Jacob Stockdale told the Canton Rep in November of 2016.

“I started playing the fiddle when I was 7,” Jacob continued. “I’ve probably had four fiddle teachers for short periods of time and spent a lot of time on my own practicing and figuring things out myself. I started out playing a lot of fiddle contests, at least seven a year, and that was a big inspiration for me. I’d have something to work for and learn new songs for. In 2012, I won the Ohio State Grand Champion Fiddle Contest for old-time fiddling at the Parade of the Hills Festival in Nelsonville, Ohio. Then I went out to Idaho for the national competition, and I got 12th in my age category.”

The Stockdale Family Band continued to be an active ensemble, even as the two remaining younger sons grew into their 20’s.

“We play all over, mostly in Ohio, but we also play in the surrounding states: Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Pennsylvania,” youngest son James told the Canton Rep in November 2016. “We play a lot of community concert series, churches, theaters, county fairs. We’ve had a great time as the house band at the Amish Country Theater in Walnut Creek. They mix us in with the comedy acts they have down there. Jacob and I also are singing as part of the Straight Tie A Capella Group at the theater this Christmas, and we’re throwing in some fiddle and bass and trick guitar work. It’s a fun, new experience for us.”

As can be expected, the producers of ABC’s Wife Swap played up the rigidity and traditional nature of the Stockdale Family home to create contrast and conflict with the other family participating in the swap. This is partly what has led many in the public and media to surmise that major repression of Jacob Stockdale was the reason for the killings. Yet in Ohio, many saw the story of The Stockdale Family as idyllic, and even inspirational before the tragedy. As the Canton Rep points out, “The boys were polite, funny, musically talented and visibly content with the simple life that didn’t involve the internet, television or cellphones.”

But this is in stark contrast to the scene the Stark County Sheriff’s deputes found Thursday (6-15-17) at the Stockdale family residence.

Jacob Stockwell
Jacob Stockwell

“At about 4:36 p.m., our office received a 911 call from the residence. It was a land line call, not a cell phone call. It was a hang up call,”  Sheriff George T. Maier explained at a press conference. “At that time, after we receive the hang up call, which we do on a number of cases on a daily basis, we responded deputies to the residence. Upon arrival at the residence, the deputies noticed that the front door was open. As they approached the house, they [saw] what they believe to be someone laying on the floor. They gave verbal commands. There was no response. And at that time, there was a gun shot that went off. After the gun shot went off, they tactically approached the house. When some backup arrived, [they] discovered that the suspect, Jacob Stockdale, had attempted suicide, and shot himself when they arrived. They also discovered two victims in the home. Both were deceased as the result of a gun shot wound.”

Fueling speculation that the restrictive nature of the Stockdale household is what led to the double murder and suicide is Laurie Tonkovic—the Illinois wife that swapped swapped with Kathryn Stockdale for the 2008 Wife Swap episode.

“When I switched the rules, and I was going to let them have fun, and have television and video games and experience life a little bit, [Jacob] ran outside crying,” Tonkovic told TMZ after the killings. “And when I went out after him, I asked what was wrong, and he said that his mom and dad tell him that basically he would burn in hell. He lived in a very controlled environment … really wasn’t allowed to do anything. He worked, he worked, he worked, home schooled him, wouldn’t let him go out amongst society. They’re very religious … They weren’t allowed to make choices. I just think that it caught up to them.”

The incident with the Stockdale Family Band, including the reality TV tie-in, is also being connected with the issues with The Willis Clan—another devout Christian music performing family, whose father was arrested on child molestation charges in 2016. Both incidents are causing some to question just how wholesome the family band experience actually is, or speculating for the Stockdale Family held a secret.

However the legacy of the family bands in bluegrass and other genres when looking at the long history is one of not just excellent music and inspiring stories, it’s often one of raising model citizens. Though religion and home schooling sometimes come with the family band environment, it is not always the case.

The father, Timothy Stockdale, said in a statement after the killings, “Kathy has been my beloved wife of 32 years and a wonderful mother to our four sons. She loved nothing more than being a mother and grandmother. She had a strong love of learning and was passionate about her Christian faith, natural health, and organic farming.”

Eldest brother Calvin Stockdale also released a statement, saying, “James, our youngest brother, has always been a catalyst of family fun. Aside from being a gifted musician, James enjoyed dancing and had an innate love of people. James was working on a business degree and hoped to go into the business side of entertainment. He leaves behind many friends and a family that love him dearly. My brother, Jacob, is still in critical condition and we are praying for his physical recovery as our family makes funeral plans and begins the healing process.”

Soon, as all of the details surface and a motive comes together for the killings, we will know much more about what inspired Jacob Stockdale to perform such a heinous act that few of us can even fathom. But the lesson shouldn’t be that family bands or home schooling stimulates individuals to kill their families. There’s just too many examples of upright citizens and inspiring performers who were raised in bluegrass family bands to come to that conclusion. The conclusion should be that tragedy and mental illness can strike anywhere, at any time, and where you least suspect it, even in the most idyllic of environments.

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The service for Kathy Stockdale and James Stockdale will be held Saturday (6-24) at NewPointe Community Church in Dover,OH. A Go Fund Me page has been set up for the family.

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