The minute I walked out the door of Benton-County Courthouse in Corvallis, Oregon in 2007, my cell phone rang. I didn't recognize the number, but it didn't take me long to figure out who the angry woman yelling at me was. I knew Sarah Brill Sheehan like I know my own daughters. For a season in life, Sarah was like a daughter to me. She lived in my home, ate at my table, laughed with my children, and swapped stories with me.
But this Sarah, the one ranting at the other end of the phone, was a stranger to me in many ways. She was right when she declared "You don't know me anymore." I sometimes wonder now if I ever really did know Sarah. I wonder if anyone has ever really known her.
I'm not denying that Sarah had a right to be upset with me. I had debated numerous times about whether I should tell her that I was working on a book about the murder of her daughter, Karly Sheehan. I was torn over it.
"Don't you think you owed me a phone call?" she implored.
It was the question I'd asked myself a gazillion times. I intended to tell Sarah at some point, but first I wanted time to sort through the court's documentation and to get in as many preliminary interviews as I could. I was doing my best to approach the story as a journalist, gathering the facts the way I had done hundreds of other times during my tenure as a reporter.
Two years had passed since Sarah made that desperate 911 call on June 3, 2005.
"What's your emergency?' asked Dispatcher Andy Thompson. Sarah was so distraught it took nearly a minute before she was able to say, "My daughter is not breathing."
I didn't learn that by reading the newspapers. I obtained a copy of the 911 call and heard for myself the hysteria that detectives would later describe as just too intense. I don't know how law enforcement makes such a determination, but there was something in Sarah's demeanor that made them uncomfortable, made them wonder what role, if any, she played in her own daughter's murder.
My husband was the first to tell me that Karly had been murdered. I knew in that very moment that I would write A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder (Macadam/Cage, $25, pub date April 1st), although I have always referred to it simply as Karly's story. I also knew doing so would enrage Sarah, and maybe others, and that's why I'd put off telling her. I'd been at work on the book for a couple of months when she got wind of it.
The reporter at the Corvallis Gazette-Times who had covered the trial called and told Sarah I was at the courthouse that day. The two had become friends during the course of the newspaper's coverage. I don't fault the reporter for that. It happens. Try as we might to remain objective, journalists are human. It would be unnatural for a reporter to not feel empathy for the mother of a murdered child.
But despite my history with Sarah, or perhaps because of it, my empathies weren't with her. They were with David Sheehan, Karly's father. I knew David adored Karly. It was the thing I had said to Sarah when she called me in 2003 to tell me she was leaving David.
Even then, I was panicked at the thought of what that would mean for Karly. I knew Sarah well enough to know that if she had custody of their daughter, Karly would be neglected. But I never in my most neurotic worrisome ways ever imagined that Karly would be tortured to death.
David was the first person I called after I learned of Karly's death. He was the only person I asked permission from to write this story. I felt strongly then, and feel even more strongly now that David was the other victim. As an immigrant to this country from Kenmare, County Kerry, Ireland, David was an outsider. Due in part to Sarah's carefully-constructed lies, David became the state's primary suspect in the murder of the daughter he was trying so desperately to save.
It wasn't the nightmare that Karly endured that propelled me to write this story. Nor did I write it because of any feelings of ill-will toward Sarah. Most often when I think of Sarah, I feel nothing but an overwhelming emptiness. Sarah's pursuit of a life of reckless abandon cost Karly her life. In Karly the world lost a precious person who was all things bright and beautiful, and Sarah lost herself.
It was David's love for Karly that compelled me to continue writing A Silence of Mockingbirds. I had witnessed the depths of David Sheehan's love for his daughter. I knew him to be the better parent. But during my tenure as a court reporter, I'd also witnessed the biases our courts have towards women. I'd seen time again children placed in the hands of a reckless mother over a responsible father. I knew how reticent many district attorneys are to charge mothers with crimes, and when they do, how reluctant juries and judges are to hold mothers accountable.
Too often divorced fathers are portrayed in court and in media as deadbeats or parents-in-absentee. David was neither. He was, in fact, the best of fathers, which makes Karly's death all that more inexplicable, troubling and tragic.
The United States has the highest rate of child abuse and neglect of any industrialized nation in the world. Over five children a day die in this country as a result of child abuse or neglect. Eighty percent of those children are, like Karly, ages four and under, too young and/or too frightened to cry for help. Child abuse fatalities nearly doubled in Oregon between 2009 and 2010, proving once more that no matter how many times the state's Children Protective Services says it's going to do better by its children, they don't, and they never will until the public demands it of them.
There were times during the writing of A Silence of Mockingbirds that I questioned my abilities to tell this story, honestly, rightly. There was plenty to despair over, not only the cruelty of the man convicted of murdering Karly, but the broad-reaching incompetency of many that practically ensured Karly would not escape her killer's hands.
Stuart Roberts, a police chief that I worked with during my reporting years, sent me the following message after reading the book:
I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for you to tell Karly's story given the relationship you shared with Sarah. It is my sincere hope that by living/telling Karly's story, you are able to find peace. I have never been one to accept those things I cannot change. I am more of the mindset to change those things I cannot accept. I think we are a lot alike in that respect. I applaud your courage, perseverance and keen sense of right v. wrong.
Author Flannery O'Connor once said that "Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."
Indeed. The child abuse epidemic in this nation will continue unabated until we face the truth of it, and determine that we are going to change that which we cannot accept.
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