Murder repeats itself

Murder repeats itself June 1, 2012

This weekend marks the anniversary of the murder of Karly Sheehan. Had she not been killed by her mother’s boyfriend, Karly Sheehan would be celebrating the end of yet another year of elementary school.

It’s easy to imagine Karly lugging around a backpack, chatting with classmates about her summer plans, which surely would include yet another trip to Ireland to visit with her Grandpa and Grandma Sheehan.  The thought of going to school thrilled Karly. She was a curious child, enamored with creepy-crawlies, especially those with wings, and four-legged critters of all sizes.

Karly was a peace-maker, often stepping in to offer a word of diversion whenever the other kids at Rugrats Daycare got crosshairs with one another. Karly didn’t like conflict. She wanted people to play together nicely.


Her killer exploited that quality in Karly.


But he wasn’t the only one.


Her mother, Sarah Sheehan, did as well.


Sarah & Uma Thurman at Glamour Magazine awards

Of the 20,000 children that have been murdered by abuse over the past 10 years here on US soil, the majority of them have had mothers who have played some part in their deaths.

The Department of Human Services which keeps the stats on all this labels it neglect. Neglect is the leading cause of child abuse fatalities in the U.S.

What do you think of when you think of neglect? The drug-addled mother who fails to feed her child? The Farmville-obsessed mom who forgets she left her eighteen-month old in the bathtub? The absent-minded mother who falls asleep and rolls over to suffocate her nursing infant?


Not me.


When I think of neglect, I think of Karly’s mother.



I think of Becky Heupel, Koralynn Fister’s mother. The Centralia, Wa., toddler died last week after sustaining prolonged, severe abuse, medical authorities said. The two-year old was raped, repeatedly, reportedly by her mother’s 25-year-old boyfriend, James Reeder.

An aunt became suspicious after noticing an injury on Koralynn:


The day before the toddler’s death, one of Koralynn’s maternal aunts noticed an injury on the child’s bottom and told Koralynn’s mother about it, according to court documents. Koralynn’s mother discussed the injury with Reeder who convinced her that the toddler did not need medical care and that the injuries were “simple, childhood injuries.”

The general public might be able to dismiss Ms. Heupel’s complicity in that. Perhaps that the injury must have been so slight a mother could easily be convinced otherwise.

I can’t do that.

I’ve studied first-hand the photos of the injuries Karly Sheehan sustained in the months leading into her murder. I know that the only way Sarah Sheehan didn’t know that Shawn Field was torturing her daughter is because she didn’t want to know. The same way the general public doesn’t want to hear about Karly or Koralynn’s deaths, because knowing about it would require us to change our response to it.


How does a mother dismiss the injury caused by the raping of a two-year-old child? The child would be traumatized both emotionally and physically.

According to reports from the court documents, James Reeder repeatedly raped Koralynn and hurt her so badly that palm-sized patches of skin were missing from her buttocks. “I won’t go into graphic detail, but suffice it to say that in my entire legal career, this is the worst case of child abuse and neglect I have seen,” said Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer.

We’d simply rather not consider all the ways in which mothers are complicit in the rapes, torture and killing of their children.


Neighbors said they had often heard the girl crying loudly at disturbing levels. “I was tempted, so tempted to call the sheriff’s office and tell them about it because it was awful,” said neighbor Ella Morgan. “I’m so sorry I didn’t call somebody. A kid don’t cry all the time, and this kid cried all the time. I mean, (she) cried into a big scream.”


Child abuse ought to outrage a nation. But it doesn’t. The nation is too busy finding new lows of entertainment to pay attention to some nameless, faceless dead two-year old. Child after child suffers the way Karly did, the way Koralynn did, and yet, our courts and our communities fail to hold these mothers accountable for their “neglect.”

This isn’t a matter of morality, but it is a fact:

The more partners a parent of a young child introduces to that young child, the more likely that child is to be a victim of sexual abuse, neglect, torture or murder.

Or all of the aforementioned, the way Koralynn was. Yet, as in the case of Koralynn, and of Karly Sheehan, mothers are rarely charged with criminal neglect, or complicity in the murder.



I spent five years documenting all the ways in which Sarah Sheehan repeatedly and knowingly placed Karly in the care of her killer. It is clear that I believe Benton County Prosecutor Scott Heiser’s biggest failure was his reluctance to charge Sarah Sheehan for her part in the torture and murder of her daughter.


Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer says that Reeder is not eligible for the death penalty because the child’s death wasn’t premeditated. I am tempted to send a copy of A Silence of Mockingbirds to him. This line of legal reasoning was used in Karly’s case as well.


Isn’t it high time we started doing more than holding a candlelight vigil when a child like Karly, like Koralynn ends up murdered? And isn’t it well past time our courts started holding mothers like Sarah Sheehan and Becky Heupel accountable with criminal neglect for the torture their babies endure?

Abused children don’t need our pity-party vigils or our crocodile tears — they need us to be a voice for them. Childhood obesity garners more public and media attention than the appalling epidemic of child abuse in this nation. And it will continue to be that way.

Until voices cry out from pulpits, platforms and the political podiums across this nation, children will continue to suffer at the hands of killers like Shawn Field,  and James Reeder and the women who partner with them.

Karen Spears Zacharias will be sharing Karly’s story at Orca Books in Olympia, Wa. at 7 pm on Saturday, June 2.

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  • Ann Hite

    Karen, I’ve always stood against child abuse, but what is that really? After reading A Silence of Mockingbirds, I realized how close to home this crime hits. Anger is not the proper word, enraged. I have a three year old granddaughter who I treasure. Keep the dialogue open. It’s voices like yours that bring change.

  • Jill Wagner

    This is just horrible. You hear too often of a woman’s boyfriend being abusive to their child and getting away with it. Who are these crazy women that value a man more than protecting their children? It makes me so angry.

  • bscarb

    While we are still horrified when we hear about a mother’s involvement in their child’s murder, the stats are even worse. For children under 5 who are murdered, the murderer is most likely to be the mother. Over age 5, the murderer is most likely a boyfriend or stepfather.

  • Rose70

    Well said Karin, after reading your book things have not changed, our society is sic,sic,sic
    the papers are full of child abuse everywhere.I’m glad you keep us informed.

  • Sharon O

    wow… so so sad. I can’t even imagine the pain of that little one. Can’t even imagine the brutality and the evil she lived in day in and day out.
    I will always call in error rather than wonder if I should have…children have no voices.
    It is so sad.

  • Tim

    “What do you think of when you think of neglect?”

    I think of the cases that come through my courtroom. I think of the children on the witness stand who have to testify about the abuse they’ve suffered, and then point out the person in the courtrrom who did it to them, a person they were supposed to be able to trust. I think of the detailed medical testimony about examinations of these children. I think of the mothers and fathers and step mothers and step fathers and boyfriends and girlfriends and coaches and baby sitters who sit there in jail jumpsuits.

    I think of the dead children who are unable to tesify for themselves, and the police investigations into horrific crimesboth of neglect and purposeful abuse. I think of photos of dead babies and dead toddlers shown to jurors who have to use every ounce of strength they have to keep from looking away.

    And I think of how I still repeatedly read articles saying that “our courts fail to hold these [people] accountable” for these crimes. Most people in this world can’t do my job. Judges deal with horrible horrible things every day, and have to provide neutral courtrooms where the rule of law is followed in order to pursue justice. It’s a job God has equipped me for and, like most judges, I do the best I can yet still not every child is protected from every harm.

    So do we fail? Yeah, just like everyone else does.


    P.S. I met your friend Ken Wytsma and his family at a human trafficking conference this weekend. Wonderful folks.

    P.P.S. Keri Wyatt Kent just posted a guest piece I did on another failure I suffered.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Tim: You have insights most of us never will. And the system has failed those children long before they end up in your courtroom. I have only been privvy to a few of these case compared to what you have borne witness to. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. I’d love to have a guest post from you about what you believe are some fixes we need to put in place long before those children arrive in your courtroom.

  • Nonexistent Justice

    Thank you for being a voice. I want to be one too – no matter how unpopular it makes me. That’s where we all have to get – over ourselves and about helping the defenseless among us.

  • Momofthree

    I have said from day one the mother should be accountable! Thank you for posting this!

  • Rhonacarr50

    my heart goes out to Koralyn’s father and family… I have six grandchildren 5 yrs and younger, I would do any thing to keep them safe and I would do any thing to any one that would hurt them, and I mean any thing!!!!!!!!! I just dont under stand parents that keep their eyes shut to their childern being hurt!!! excuse my words but” WAKE THE HELL UP” RIP KORALYN YOUR IN MY PRAYERS!!!!!!!<3

  • guest

    I am so glad to read this, though it made me cry and very angry too. SEEING abuse or signs of it are one thing, but I truly believe that we also must be careful about “policing” each other. This could very easily become mob-mentality.
    Some kids cry a lot, but at the same time if you hear it often enough you can distinguish pain from cry-babying. If my neighbors called 911 every time they heard me yell across our big yard, or heard a hard tone on me, the police would feel like the village people of the boy that cried wolf, and might just arrest an innocent me just to appease the old people that don’t want to hear the kids cry. Inside we don’t yell, and no where do we cuse, but I have heard other people that do – do I call the police because their parenting is different than mine?
    Or my friend, whose five -year old ran out in a parking lot, and my friend grabbed him and swatted him hard on the tush – a passerby saw and threatened to call 911 for abuse, yet had the boy gotten hit by a car the same mom would have been in trouble for neglect. Oh, and the boy learned not to do that again by his mom’s quick hand.
    In New England, all it takes is a simple phone call about “some suspected abuse” – not even named – for the police to take children out of a home for at least two weeks. It could be a fussy grandparent that doesn’t like the daughter-in-law, or homeschooling, time-out, or felt snubbed at the last birthday – or any silly little thing. And there doesn’t have to be PROOF, just a word! So for the two weeks while the children are in foster care, the parents are working like crazy to get their kids back, and grandma sits back and waits to see if the kids skip their next holiday with her.
    In Washington State, it seemed that there was at least one family a year for the past ten years that made it into the news. The mom (or parent) was chemically addicted to something, CPS had been “monitoring” the children, and the kids all wind up starved to death, and the neighbors call about bad smells a week later.
    I also know of situations where abuse is evident, but reporters were told that they must see the abuse in action before the police will respond – I would hope for better but I don’t want to see the pendulum swing from neglect to abuse of power.
    So while I do believe that the mother should be held accountable as much as the abuser, I also don’t think that we should start calling 911 because the kids next door are crying.