Transition, Rejection, and Murder: A Miami Valley Murder Mystery

One of the most bizarre murder mysteries in modern Miami Valley history just wrapped up after a six-year investigation. It began with a young man’s search for his sexual identity, and ended in transition, rejection, and murder. The I-Team sat down with investigators — who never gave up — and for the first time are sharing vivid details of how they were able to solve this mystery.

The mystery began on January 3, 2016, when a woman walking her dog near Grand Lake St. Marys made this call to the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office.

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“I may be totally off my rocker, but I was just out walking my dog and I came across some bones that look to me to be human.”

The remains were indeed human, said Mercer County Det. Sgt. Megan Baker, but were only part of a body.

“We had a majority of the torso area, but we didn’t have from the elbows or knees down and we also didn’t have the skull.”

Baker said it was apparent foul play was involved. “There were apparent saw marks that you could tell this individual had been dismembered.”

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State investigators joined deputies at the site, searching for clues, while a forensic anthropologist examined the bones and soon determined the victim was a man between 20 and 35 years old. The next challenge was to identify the victim, so the bones were taken to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, where the Forensic Biology Lab began the work of extracting a DNA sample. The effort was successful, but scientists found no match to give the victim a name.

Four years went by until Criminal Intelligence Analyst Jennifer Lester, while reviewing Columbus Missing Persons cases, noticed that of a 22-year old man missing since 2015 whose family’s DNA had never been collected.

Once DNA was obtained from the man’s parents in Corbin, Kentucky, Ryan Zimmerman was positively identified in June of 2020. But to determine who killed him, detectives first needed to learn who Ryan was.

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“He loved video games. He loved the computer. He loved cartoons and he loved playing with his brother, Ray.”

But Mercer County Sheriff’s Detective Carla Baucher said there was another side of Ryan he kept hidden from his family.

“He had made a post on Craigslist Personals,” she said, “and he was looking more into the route of him being seen as the submissive female of a relationship. He started looking into (transitioning to female), such as the hormone therapy, and he was looking into some of the voice training in order to get that way. He also would go shopping for different female clothing.”

Many of these details came from the BCI’s Lester, who analyzed Ryan’s google searches, phone records, and social media activity.

“It was very important in this case,” said Lester, “because it helped build his timeline, who he was speaking with, the reason he came here, where he went. All that data would have been lost if we didn’t have the cyber evidence to back it up.”

The data revealed Ryan met someone online who used the screen name, Laurel Emerson, but was really a married man named Corey Buzzard.

In early August 2015, Ryan moved from Corbin to Columbus and into an apartment with Corey and his wife, Sarah Buzzard, and a third person, Naira Whitaker, a transgender woman.

Det. Baucher said Ryan was nervous about the move.

“Corey had warned him that Naira did not like other people to basically be out exploiting their sexualities. She felt that if you wanted to be a female, you needed to portray yourself as a female and not let anyone else know otherwise.”

For the first few weeks, Ryan had a relationship with Corey Buzzard, while Sarah Buzzard was having a relationship with Naira Whitaker. But by late September, Corey no longer wanted Ryan around and told him to pack up his things and leave. Corey left the apartment for the weekend, so Ryan appealed to Sarah to let him stay.

Det. Baucher said, “Sarah told us that she told him no. Corey wants you gone, you’re here for Corey’s purpose, not mine, so you need to leave. She then told Naira how she and Ryan’s conversation had gone, and that’s when the plan was developed.”

The women’s plan was to kill Ryan, according to Sgt. Baker.

“Naira was allegedly the planner of the whole situation and Sarah kind of got brought into that plan, but they both followed through with killing Ryan.”

Baker said Sarah Buzzard strangled Ryan in the Columbus apartment’s hallway and both women dismembered him in the bathtub.

“And then they dispersed Ryan’s dismembered body throughout the state of Ohio,” said Det. Baucher. " They had come back home to find Corey home and they left it under the ruse that Ryan had just left ... and Corey believed them.”

In January 2016, the same month Ryan Zimmerman’s remains were found in Mercer County, Corey and Sarah Buzzard’s divorce was finalized and Sarah married Naira Whitaker.

By July 2021, investigators were closing in. They searched the Columbus apartment where the four had lived in 2015, as well as the Toyota Corolla Sarah Buzzard had sold — and found traces of human blood in both.

On August 25th, detectives went to Marion, Indiana to arrest Sarah Buzzard, while other detectives stayed behind to question Naira Whitaker at the couple’s home. At the Marion police department, Sarah confessed to killing Ryan Zimmerman, and told Sgt. Baker the motive was love.

“Miss Buzzard, during an interview, explained that she loved Naira so much and it was kind of a plan of theirs, that if she didn’t follow through with doing what they did, she was going to lose Naira.”

With Sarah in jail, officers returned to the house to arrest Naira Whitaker, who had been denying any involvement in Ryan’s murder.

“When he went to place her under arrest,” said Baker, “she ended up pulling a firearm from her purse and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

Sarah Buzzard pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and was sentenced in January to 30 years to life in prison for killing Ryan Zimmerman.

“He didn’t deserve to go through what he did,” said Sgt. Baker, “He was only an individual who was trying to find himself basically and his place in the world.”

The BCI’s Lester said it was rewarding to bring closure to Ryan’s family.

“At least he gets to be home with his family. They know what happened. That person will stay in jail for a long time.”