It was a given that there were lessons to be learned in “Wife Swap” that could have validated or changed the lives of the families involved. Nobody would have guessed, however, that the story of one family, regarded as idyllic by some, would end in tragedy. People who watched the Stockdale and Tonkovic wife-swapping episode aired in 2008, were shocked by the news that Jacob Stockdale murdered his mother and younger brother and then turned the gun on himself in 2017. Many weighed in on what happened, and on what could have triggered Jacob to commit such a crime.
- 1 “Wife Swap”
- 2 The double murder and attempted suicide by Jacob
The reality television series, “Wife Swap,” originated in the United Kingdom, created by RDF media; it premiered in 2003 and became a phenomenal hit with the British audience. The ABC network wanted to replicate its success in the US, and ordered 20 episodes for its first season. The American audience was intrigued by the concept of swapping wives of families with beliefs and lifestyles that were polar opposites. Not to be confused with the swinging lifestyle, the couples who appeared in the series would not engage in an open relationship, and share a bed with the ‘swapped wives.’
The premise was that the wives of two American families would trade places for two weeks. During the first week, the ‘new’ wife would live by the rules of the host family, and for the second week, the family would live by her rules. After that, the reunited couples would all meet for the first time to share their experience. It didn’t always end well, because in the process of discussing what each one went through, it would come across as criticizing the way the children were raised or how the family was run, and was bound to hurt their pride and feelings. The production would come back to each household after weeks had passed, to see if things had changed as they perhaps adopted something good from the whole experience.
The TV series aired from 2004 to 2010, and the reboot premiered on Paramount Network in 2019, but was canceled as the network shifted to airing made-for-TV movies.
The Stockdale-Tonkovic wife swap
Because of what happened to Jacob’s family, many looked back to the Stockdale and Tonkovic “Wife Swap” episode in season four, which aired on 23 April 2008.
The Stockdale family
It was comprised of Kathy, her husband Tim, and their four sons James (11), Jacob (15), Charles (16), and Calvin (19). They moved from the city to live in relative seclusion on a homestead-style farm in rural Ohio, to protect the kids from whatever they perceived was bad or not adherent to wholesome values. On the day the family relocated, gunshots were heard in the neighborhood, and they were glad that they were leaving all this chaos behind.
The children were homeschooled, and their parents were strict and in full control of every aspect of their lives, including what they watched or listened to on media. James said that listening to pop music was something that his parents wouldn’t approve of; they were banned from playing video games, using foul language wasn’t allowed, and dating was out of the question, as they believed it could lead to what Kathy referred to as ‘physical dangers like pregnancy.’ The family had an elaborate system for doing chores, and this was how they earned tokens that they could use to enjoy certain recreational privileges, such as listening to a radio show. The parents wanted to instill the value of hard work.
The Stockdale Family Band
It seemed that the only form of entertainment that they could freely indulge in was playing bluegrass music in the family band; formed in 2004, the father said that being part of it taught his kids how to work together, and earn money at the same time. Two years later, they began performing in public, such as in theatres and churches, at county fairs, not just in Ohio but in the surrounding states as well. Tim was on guitar, James on the upright bass, Calvin on banjo, Charles on mandolin, and Jacob on the fiddle. Their dad was the reason they were interested in the 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 said in an interview in November 2016.
Jacob had been playing the stringed instrument since he was seven, and joined fiddle contests several times a year; he won the Ohio State Grand Champion Fiddle Contest in 2012. He said that competing gave him something to work for. His family band also joined regional bluegrass competitions, and won first place numerous times. Their mother served as the manager and was in charge of selling their albums released on CD format such as “Bluegrass in the Backwoods,” “Grassfed,” and “Hello Everybody.” Later on, Calvin and Charles, the two older brothers, left the band as the former worked at Hillsdale College in Michigan while the latter moved to Philadelphia to go to medical school and become a doctor. Joe Steiner was a family friend who later joined the band to play the harmonica and the banjo for their professional gigs.
— StockdaleFamilyBand (@StockFamBand) March 17, 2017
The Tonkovic family from Illinois
They were liberal-minded and laidback. John and Laurie had no set rules in their house, so their kids Paul – also known by his rap name T-Vic – and Meghan were free to do whatever they wanted, and given spending money. They weren’t obligated by their parents to do house chores or to pick up after themselves, so the house was a mess. Paul’s girlfriend lived with them, and he shared that they were sexually active. Meghan’s boyfriend lived in their basement, Laurie saying that it would be a disservice to her kids to stop them from experiencing life. Tim wanted to be more of a friend to his kids than a father; their mindset was to seize the moment and enjoy each day as it came because one never knew when their time would be up.
The wife swap experience
When the wives were swapped, they were given time to explore their new house without the family, and read the manual for how it was run, so they would have an idea of what to expect. Each wife had no choice but to follow the rules of her new family during the first week. The trouble began on the second week of stay, as it would be the time when she would be the one setting the rules.
At the Tonkovic house
Kathy Stockdale assigned chores to the Tonkovic kids, and even had them work on the farm to let them learn firsthand what hard-earned money was. What upset the father most was how insulting Kathy had been to his kids and their significant others, as she talked about the latter as mooching off the family. She didn’t mince words when discussing how wrong it was to live together outside of marriage, as well as how the risk of getting pregnant was high and how it would change their lives should it happen. She changed the sleeping arrangement in the house, and made sure the boys would sleep separately from the girls. Even Paul’s rapping wasn’t spared, as she described it as having shameful lyrics and peppered with foul words; she encouraged him to write rap verses without using curse words. She discussed with John that being a father was not just about being supportive, as he should also guide and discipline his children.
At the Stockdale house
Meanwhile, in Ohio, Laurie could not believe how sheltered the Stockdale kids had been, and felt sorry for them. She believed they were treated as slaves, because every move they made was dictated by their parents, and they had to work constantly on schedule, just so they would then have the means to do what they wanted. Laurie encouraged the Tonkovic boys to write their own music, and they were keen on the idea. She hit a snag when she talked about wanting the older boys to experience dating; she said she was not asking them to have sex, but just to socialize and have fun with girls. Tim tried to put a stop to it, as he didn’t want others to dictate how he raised his kids. Calvin was strongly against it because it had certain connotations, and even told Laurie not to involve his parents in this, as it was his decision. However, as they signed up to do whatever was required of them in the show, they had to comply with the ‘rule change.’ The boys ended up having fun, which was what Laurie had hoped to achieve.
With the Stockdale and Tonkovic parents too set in their ways, it was natural that they were shocked and horrified by what they learned from swapping wives. The meeting of the couples was disastrous, as each felt insulted when talking about what they believed was wrong in the way things were done in each house.
A few weeks later, the production visited the two families to see if things changed. At the Tonkovics, the kids learned the value of working to earn money, and pulled their weight and did house chores. At the Stockdales, the boys began working on their own music, and playing video games became part of the reward in their token system. As for dating, Kathy and Tim believed that their kids were still too young for that, so there was no second date.
One could only wonder why the Stockdales agreed to be part of the reality TV series, as it exposed the children to another way of life or parenting style when the new wife implemented her rules. Kathy and Tim admitted they were hesitant to do it at first when they were contacted by ABC in their search for a bluegrass family band that they could feature in the show. Eventually, they decided it would be like some kind of adventure for the family, and the kids were excited about that. ‘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,’ Kathy shared in an interview in 2008.
The double murder and attempted suicide by Jacob
Based on the report of the Stark County Sheriff’s deputies, a 911 call came through on 15 June 2017 at 4:36 pm, but the caller hung up. Since the landline was used, they traced it back to the Stockdale residence, and as per their standard operating procedure, the police went there to check on them. When they arrived, a gunshot was heard, and they called for backup. Inside the house, they found 25-year-old Jacob bleeding from a gunshot wound to the head, and believed it to be self-inflicted. They also found the bodies of 21-year-old James and his 51-year-old mom, Kathryn. A 20-gauge shotgun owned by the family was believed to be the one used in the crime. The police surmised that this was a case of double murder and attempted suicide by Jacob, the perpetrator, who was then rushed to a medical center in Cleveland.
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At the time of the shooting, his older siblings and father were not at home. The eldest brother asked for prayers as Jacob was in critical condition, and the family was in the process of making funeral plans. In his statement, he also talked about James and his innate capacity to love people, and whom he described as the catalyst of family fun.
Tim’s statement about Kathy, his wife of 32 years: ‘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.’
Jacob’s arrest and sentence
In 2018, he was arrested but pleaded not guilty to the charges by reason of insanity. He was admitted to a mental health facility for treatment from which he attempted to escape twice. He was ruled competent to stand trial in February 2020, and was declared sane when he committed those murders. In 2021, Jacob pleaded guilty to killing his younger brother and mother. His father asked for leniency for his son from the court, but Jacob was sentenced to 30 years in prison for two counts of murder, and would only be eligible for parole in 2048.
Why did Jacob commit such a heinous act?
Many were shocked when they heard about the tragic event that took place at the Stockdale home. Neither Jacob nor any other family member had a criminal record, and the police couldn’t pinpoint the motive for the crime. The only thing they were sure of at that time was that it was Jacob who was responsible for it. It was never divulged to the public if there was a family problem, or if Jacob struggled with mental health issues. There was a lot of speculation going around, as some tried to make sense of why it happened. They only had the “Wife Swap” episode as a reference in understanding the family, but it was so long ago that the dynamics and their way of life could have changed.
One of the most common theories that people had was that Jacob had finally snapped from the pressure of living under the repressive or restrictive rules of his parents. Laurie Tonkovic offered an insight into what Jacob was like when she stayed in their house, recalling an incident in which Jacob was so freaked out that he cried when he was allowed to play video games and watch TV. This reaction was not something one would expect coming from a teen who was about to have some fun. Apparently, he was scared that he would burn in hell if he did this, and it clearly illustrated the manner in which the parents taught their children.
When Kathy was interviewed in the past, she said that all she ever wanted was to provide a safe and wholesome environment for her growing children. It was important for her that they remained untainted by modern culture. Some believed that her intention to teach the right values might have been good, but her way was too extreme, and it could have caused the son to develop mental health problems.
Others wondered if there was something sinister going on in the family, such as abuse and what kind of punishment the parents or just the mother meted out for any transgression. The children were pretty much isolated and everything they did was monitored to ensure that they wouldn’t be corrupted by outside influences. Not having the freedom to choose what he wanted out of life, or to pursue other interests might have taken a toll on him.
It wasn’t clear who Jacob killed first, and if he really intended to shoot both of them or if the other one just happened to be there; Kathy’s body was found upstairs while James’ was near the front door. Some thought that perhaps the mother was killed first and the brother was shot next as he was trying to escape and call for help. The story was still incomplete, but no one outside the family perhaps knew what transpired that fateful day that drove Jacob to kill his loved ones.