Pen in Hand, I Begin 2015 By Looking Back at 2014

I do so because I believe Pearl Buck’s words: “To understand today, you have to search yesterday.”

Searching yesterday, as in all of 2014, I found that I’d forgotten about some celebrity deaths, undoubtedly because I’ve been more concerned about the ones here at home. Still, they lived, they entertained and inspired us, and in 2014 Maya Angelou, Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mickey Rooney, Lauren Bacall, Shirley Temple, and many others all died. Some of them, like Hoffman and Williams, died far too young.

I’m starting 2015 by looking through all these scraps of paper, sorting and filing what I need and tossing the rest.

Personally, I was touched more by Maya Angelou and Robin Williams’s deaths than the rest, because their own work touched my life profoundly. In their collective body of work, they speak to the human condition—a topic Angelou always talked about, and something Williams taught me with his many roles.

As we start 2015, the world is a hot mess. Here in the U.S. black male deaths by the men in blue have led to riots over race, privilege, police, deadly force and justice. Or, some say, the lack thereof. Then there was the University of Virginia gang rape that was—and then wasn’t. Or was it? From kindergarten to college (43 in Mexico, 276 in Nigeria, and 132 in Pakistan) at least 451 students were kidnapped and/or murdered. U.S. and U.K. journalists were beheaded. And three Malaysian airliners have crashed: one simply vanished; another was blown from the sky by a drone, and the most recent one appears to have been downed by a bad storm.

Those were some of the more sobering headlines that found their way onto the 27/7 news cycle, and which caused not a few people to give up reading or watching the news completely. Then there was less important news, which quickly turned quite serious. For instance, there was the parody about a plot to murder North Korea’s leader. That seems to have led to a cyber-attack on Sony (the debate continues as to who was responsible), one of the largest movie studios out there, which resulted in dozens of embarrassed celebrities. Not to mention studio execs, after the hackers shared email correspondence and other private information with a voyeur public.

Along the way, free speech was taken hostage—until President Obama reminded his people that the United States does not cower before cowards, resulting in said speech being released, to the tune of almost $20 million in earnings for Sony after just one week.

Another disturbing 2014 news story involves the rise of the dangerous group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), not to be confused with that other Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess of health, marriage and wisdom who surely must have been much more benevolent than this modern ISIS. On top of that danger, there was the equally deadly Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 7,000 people in West Africa, and made even me worry about boarding my next flight.

The Ray Rice elevator incident, and the two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance the NFL took in response—all of which has served as the best campaign against domestic violence in decades—made for a fascinating 2014 news story. By punching out his then-fiancée (now wife) the former Baltimore Ravens running back has provided a new level of awareness to the behind-closed-doors war zone that many women and children have remained captive to for far too long. If Twitter is anything to judge by, (#WhyIStayed) the clumsy Rice-NFL mambo has helped other men learn that women aren’t punching bags. Or footballs, to be kicked around. But there is a price to pay for doing so—which can include losing your job as a breadwinner.

Then, most recently, a bit of good news: U.S.-Cuba relations saw a thaw, which means it’s only a matter of time before the island and its archipelagos become yet another pit stop for cruising tourists. Oh yes, the thaw also means that authentic Cuban fare should be much more accessible to people like me, who find their rich blend of exotic spices a culinary delight to the palate.

One of the best feel-good stories of 2014, perhaps by now forgotten in view of the overwhelmingly bad news, is the one about Pakistan teenager Malala Yousafzai, who in 2014 was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” At 17, she is the youngest person to ever receive the distinguished prize. This and Malal’s own bravery at age 15—when she single-handedly stood up to the Taliban—reminds us that while courage often comes in the face of a child, it can flee by the time we become adults. (Then again, all those nurses and doctors caring for Ebola patients give us faith that even adults can be courageous when they are called to do so.)

Here in West Virginia we were happy to see a corrupt coal baron indicted in 2014 for his part in the Massey Energy deaths of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine four years ago. Yes, Don Blankenship will have his day in court, for putting insanely rich profits before the safety of his employees. I’m just happy that the winds of change seem to be blowing in our direction over here in Appalachia, hopefully bringing down the Dark Lord of Coal Country with them.

I’d like to think this constitutes a happy change here in Almost Heaven, since the ongoing fallout for company execs at Freedom Industries includes similar federal charges. That firm, you might recall, contaminated drinking water for 300,000 residents one year ago January 9 when MCHM, a toxic chemical, leaked into the Elk River, leaving many people without a way to even take a bath—much less a drink.

And even closer to home, here in Morgantown, W.Va., the Skylar Neese murder case came away as one of the top five biggest news stories in 2014, according to WDTV. It was a real downer, and I should know, because I covered the story on my blog while simultaneously writing two books about the case and its related legal proceedings. (But make no mistake, although some of the details from my blog were used in the book, less than one percent made it into Pretty Little Killers.) If you aren’t familiar with the tragedy, it will air January 3 on ABC’s 20/20—just two days away. The adorable Ryan Smith asks some great questions during his interview with my coauthor and me.

The first book about the case, an ebook titled The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese, contributed to my becoming a New York Times best-selling author–which was definitely the most unexpected good news I personally got in 2014. Having this title added to my résumé was not something I aspired to–because I never sought recognition for my work. My work involves shining the light on other people, so journalism used to mean working behind the scenes. Not being the story. But I do believe that when you work hard, and you do good work, recognition comes whether you seek it or not.

Being a reporter, or a journalist, aren’t always one and the same—especially nowadays. Reporters report; journalists dig and dig, unearthing facts some people would rather keep buried. That being said, I have wonderful colleagues who refuse to be called “journalists” because they believe the title has become synonymous with reporters who feel entitled.

I don’t as a rule make New Year’s resolutions. I resolve every day when I get up to try and make that day better than the last. Some days I succeed. Other days I fail. In an epic way—but I never give up trying.

So for today, be it January 1 or not, I have concluded the following while looking back at the last year: I will post more about my work to social media, and I will blog once a week. I might blog here or at Huffington Post, depending on what news stories are making the rounds that week.

I would like to take in a professional journalism conference this year, to help me hone my writing, editing and cognitive skills. I also need to be kinder to myself, as I continue trying to find a good work-home-personal life balance.

I resolve to go through scraps, one at a time, and toss or file, and I’ll do the same with clothes I’ve outgrown or those which are heaped up in a mending pile, and with the books I’m never going to read. I’m also going to worry less, and to remember more, including this key point: “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

Oh yes, and I will finish my sequel, To Shatter the Silence–sooner rather than later. Come downed aircraft, pestilence and disease, or other tragic world events that are sure to happen this year. All the while hoping that only good things light up our lives in 2015.

* * *

I have four books. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella BooksNellie Bly BooksAmazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and Sister of Silence placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

Two Years Later: What I Hope Teens Learn From Skylar

I’ve been away since last Wednesday, and I’m kicking myself for not writing this sooner. Just because I didn’t, though, does not mean that today’s date–the two-year anniversary of Skylar Neese’s disappearance–has not loomed large on my mind. How could it not, given that the book about her murder comes out in two days?

Like most of you, I wasn’t fortunate enough to meet Skylar. Many of us weren’t, and yet, through everything that’s been written about her, we wish we had. She was one of those teenagers who makes an indelible mark on you, I’ve learned. All her friends say so. And, if nothing else, Skylar’s effervescent smile and her zest for life (as seen in her photos) captivated us all. Made us long to know her, even though that could never be, not long after midnight on July 6, 2012.

I’d like to say I’ve gleaned some amazingly profound bits of wisdom from working on this book, but I haven’t. What I’ve come to realize is this: Skylar had true friends who warned her about hanging out with one of her killers. So did Skylar’s other killer. Both girls had true friends who cared enough about them to speak up. It’s tragic that neither girl listened to that counsel. If they had, there wouldn’t be a book. And that would be just fine by me.

When it comes to heeding advice from well meaning friends, adolescents aren’t much different from adults. It can be very difficult to take counsel, even when it’s accompanied by the best of intentions. We like to think we’re smart enough to know best, that our decisions are well reasoned and based on good judgement–but when even mature adults don’t listen to friends or family who try to warn them about some impending danger, how much harder it must be for unsuspecting teens.

Even if such sage advice comes from parents, as it did from Skylar’s–who warned her against sneaking out her window to hang out with friends late at night–it can be difficult for an independence-seeking teen to listen. Especially if that teen, like Skylar, is very bright, and thinks she knows best.

It’s a teenage trait, this pattern of thinking, and if it carries over into adult life, the price we pay becomes much higher. I had a friend like that. Because he didn’t heed the warning his parents gave him, in a split second his life was forever altered. Which is why the last time I talked to him was in 1979. He ignored the parents who loved him dearly and because he craved living on the edge, it cost him his life.

It really has been an honor to tell Skylar’s story. I hope Mary and Dave, Skylar’s parents, know this. Because, in the telling, we have the chance to help other teens, who may just learn from Skylar’s mistake. Who, by reading about her, long to become all she can’t be.

Hopefully these teens will understand that the people who love you the most won’t encourage you to break the law, or violate your personal or family values, or to simply have fun for the sake of having fun, regardless of the consequences. True friends won’t ever make you feel bad for following the rules, or staying safe. They will, instead, applaud you for it.

That’s what I’m thinking about today, two years after Skylar snuck out her bedroom window for the last time.

* * *

I have four books. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is being used in colleges and some high schools; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), is due out July 8, 2014.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella BooksNellie Bly BooksAmazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

 

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and Sister of Silence placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

A Very Long Year Winds Down With 31 Days of March Madness


In less than a year, I wrote two books. In the midst of that, my sister died, my husband contracted a bone infection, and another loved one had a meltdown of sorts.

Then, after meeting an extremely stressful deadline, I found I couldn’t write. It’s been a month now and my fingers have finally found their way back to the keyboard for more than a random email, tweet, Instagram photo, or Facebook post.

What this April 14 photo doesn’t show: the all-day vomiting and being admitted to the hospital again two hours later.

Part of the problem is having my husband in the hospital since February. Not continually, but in and out since then, beginning with a 10-hour visit to the emergency department. We’ve been to the hospital so many times since then I’m thinking of reserving a room there. (In fact, I’ve got a length of soft blue fabric that matches his eyes, from which I could fashion a lovely window dressing in no time.)

The last year has roared by at warp speed, while simultaneously seeming like it would never end. I felt like Princess Buttercup meets Scheherazade, where events conspired to tangle me up in one mess after another, all while writing two books in what turned out to be about six months. Looking back that feels like an exaggeration, but in reality much of the research to write Skylar’s book took three or four months. Only then could the writing process begin. (To be fair, I have a coauthor, but today’s blog is about how the last year affected me.)

Along the way, one emergency after another kept cropping up, among them a family member’s brush with the law, which led me to seek psychiatric care—for them, not me. (Although truth be told, by now I could probably benefit from such care myself.)

If I wasn’t talking to shrinks or orthopedic doctors or police detectives or undertakers in my professional time, I was doing so on my personal dime. It’s amazing how so many events in my real life ran parallel to those in the book I was writing. There were police investigations, mental illness and drug use to worry about, both on and off the clock. They say art imitates life, but in this case my life mimicked art.

That art was true-crime, and The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese was released as an ebook in February. It was designed to allow people to follow Shelia Eddy’s murder trial. Then Eddy pleaded guilty, leaving no trial—and little time to unearth anything else for the print book, Pretty Little Killers, which will be out in July. (Amazingly, quite we unearthed quite a bit, in the form of at least 100 more pages that makes this book finally feel finished.)

Then somehow, sandwiched between my day job and my home life, I had to board a plane and fly 3,000 miles to Los Angeles to appear on the Dr. Phil show. That episode contains enough memories to create at least a short story. One of them involves my 3 a.m. airport run where, after flashing my high beams at a driver who was blocking the passing lane, I found myself being chased up I-79. Though the interstate was fairly deserted, every time I passed another vehicle, the enraged driver kept creeping closer to my bumper. I watched my speedometer climb higher and higher, until the gauge read 90 m.p.h. I tried to call 911.

Only nothing happened when I used my car’s hands-free device. Instead, an automated female voice kept repeating: “Phone is not in range.” Eyes glued to the road, my free hand fumbled around inside my purse, feeling for a phone that wasn’t there. In the haste to make my flight, I forgot it.

The egomaniac was still tailing me when I reached Washington, Pennsylvania, so I took the first exit. When I returned to the highway he was gone. I managed to make it to the airport and through security but as I hurried to my gate I heard myself being paged over the intercom. I was the last passenger to board, but I made my flight.

After landing in Los Angeles and being driven to my hotel, I ate a quick dinner and fell asleep. In the morning, I rode to Paramount Studios with Mary and Dave Neese. As I sat in the audience at the show, I realized everyone on stage looked fuzzy, including Dr. Phil. That’s because the crew had me remove my glasses for the camera. In hindsight, I should have left them on because it felt really weird not being able to see. Still, I was a bit dazzled when Dr. Phil held up a copy of our book.

Yes, that really is Dr. Phil holding our book!

Forty-eight hours later my fifteen minutes of fame was behind me and I was back home, writing again. Somewhere between rewriting chapter thirty and nailing down a new ending there were other media appearances and time needed to care for publicity matters, all of the extras you never think about when you sit down to pen a book.

It was a daunting task, to say the least, but not an impossible one. Essentially, I had to take the rumors we knew, add the facts revealed at the sentencing hearings for Shelia Eddy and Rachel Shoaf, and see if everything when added together equaled a motive for murder.

At the last minute, the deadline looming, I created a makeshift workspace outside of my husband’s hospital room where he was being treated for osteomyelitis. There, for one solid week, I wrote and rewrote and conducted at least four more interviews—one inside my new, temporary office, the rest away from the hospital—leaving various friends to babysit my husband while I drove to see the people who promised to reveal new details about Skylar’s murder.

After publication, seeing our “baby” find its way to publication and then land at number 12 on the New York Times best-seller list was just the icing on the cake. In the end, like Scherazade, I overcame the turmoil and rescued myself—but not without a little help from my friends, who dropped off food and coffee and provided emotional support and editorial encouragement and never stopped asking: “What can I do to help?”

Throughout this entire time the most important lesson I have learned, in the words of one of the dearest of them, is that writing a book isn’t unlike rearing a child: it takes a village.

* * *
Editor’s note: Berry and Geoff Fuller teamed up in 2013 to write the authorized version of this story. BenBella Books released The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese February 18. You can also find it on iTunes and Barnes and Noble. Amazon readers have given it 4.6 stars.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of silence, watch Berry’s TEDx talk, given April 13 at Connecticut College, live. Berry is the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read an excerpt, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

Rachel Shoaf Sentenced to 30 Years for Killing Skylar Neese


While I’m traveling to and from the hospital taking care of a family member, my coauthor Geoff Fuller wrote this guest blog about Rachel Shoaf’s sentencing yesterday. Rachel, still 17, was sentenced as an adult to 30 years in prison. At the press conference held by Prosecutor Ashdown yesterday, I asked when she will be eligible for parole. Ashdown said 10 years, regardless of how long Rachel’s sentence was. In January, Rachel’s co-conspirator, Shelia Eddy, was sentenced to life with mercy, and will be eligible for parole in 15 years. ~Daleen

* * *

Rachel Shoaf is sorry. Or so she said in court yesterday.

According to her attorney, John Angotti, she accepted “full and complete responsibility” for her part in killing Skylar Neese.

But Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown didn’t think that was true. If Rachel had actually accepted responsibility, Ashdown said, “she would not be asking for a lighter sentence.”

And she might have a point.

Rachel’s sentencing hearing on second degree murder began just after ten yesterday in the Monongalia County Courthouse in downtown Morgantown. The hearing was presided over by Judge Russell Clawges, as was Rachel’s May 1, 2013, plea hearing, and the several hearings for her co-conspirator, Shelia Eddy.

The courtroom gallery was packed nearly as full as it had been for Shelia Eddy’s plea and sentencing just over a month ago—at least in the center section, where supporters of Skylar and her family sat.

But the left side of the gallery, which held the supporters of Rachel Shoaf, was not nearly so full. Of course, her parents, Rusty and Patricia, were there, looking exhausted. As were other adults, presumably a mix of friends and relatives. But when Rachel’s UHS pals heard of her admission to guilt, most wanted nothing more to do with her. Many felt angry and betrayed because they had been defending the talented singer and actress for months. It appeared that only a few students showed up for the sentencing.

* * *

Rachel’s sentencing hearing differed notably from Shelia’s in one key way: the primary “vibe” was exhaustion rather than tension. At Eddy’s hearing, people seemed tense, as if something unexpected would happen any second. The bailiffs acted edgy, each one continuously scanning the gallery. Before Rachel’s hearing, the bailiffs seemed more relaxed. There was some banter. Even smiles.

Maybe it’s because Shelia received death threats before her hearing. That’s what I heard in the days before the hearing: “threats,” as in more than one. And on January 24, it looked as if the bailiffs believed someone in the crowd might attack Shelia any second.

But Rachel apparently had not been threatened.

The difference could be that Shelia has come to be viewed widely as the mastermind, the instigator. She has been called a psychopath, a sociopath, a “frenemy” of Skylar’s who wanted her out of the way—permanently—and somehow talked Rachel into joining her murderous scheme.

Rachel, on the other hand, has come to be widely considered a weak individual, a follower who couldn’t resist Shelia’s manipulative will. People often point to escalating troubles in Rachel’s life the fall of 2012 as proof of her instability. Some people even considered her confession evidence of her wanting to set things right. Take responsibility. Accept her well deserved fate.

Psychopaths are okay to threaten; weak individuals, not so much.

* * *

But, of course, nothing’s that simple.

When it came time for Rachel to speak in court yesterday, she turned to face the Neeses. She began with the words they—and many, many other people—most wanted to hear: “I’m so sorry,” she said, her voice low and broken.

She went on: “I don’t know if there’s a proper way to make this apology, because there are not even words to describe the guilt and remorse I feel each day for what I’ve done. The person that did that was not the real me. I became scared and caught up in something I did not want to do.”

Rachel emphasized her remorse and listed all the people she’d let down, from her family to her friends to her community and ended by saying she had let down her “Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”

In her apology, Rachel covered all the bases. She reported feeling guilt and remorse, and acknowledged all the people she had let down. She touched all the right bases. Which you would do if you were being sincere, right?

Well, yes, but you also might do it if you were creating a character for, say, a short story—or a play.

* * *

I have a psychologist friend who spends much of his professional life counseling people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He has a long-standing reputation and has been called to testify in cases where people are suspected of falsely claiming to have PTSD in order to secure cash and subsidy benefits.

When I heard about this aspect of his work, I asked, “How can you possibly identify someone who falsely claims to have PTSD?”

“Easy,” he said. “PTSD manifests with particular, very specific symptoms. Any time a person claims to have every single one (italics added) of the common symptoms, you should automatically be suspicious.”

* * *

I’m not saying Rachel was lying when she apologized in open court. I’m saying that I am still suspicious, because her apology touched all the right bases—and that’s the problem. Of course, she also might have received help in crafting that apology, so it’s hard to tell.

One thing sticks out most for me, though. Look back at the first words of her apology. She starts by saying how much guilt and remorse she has for what she did, but then immediately distances herself from the act: I did a terrible thing, but it wasn’t me who did it. I didn’t want to do it anyway.

Sounds awfully close to denying responsibility.

* * *
Maybe that explains why Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown questioned Rachel’s motives for the confession—and by extension, it is presumed, for the apology—when Ashdown spoke in court today.

The prosecutor said that on November 30, after months of stonewalling, Rachel “changed her lie a little bit. She added something.” Ashdown contended Rachel had come to understand how she could come away from this with the best deal.

“She who squeals gets the deal,” as it’s often phrased. Ashdown believed Rachel’s confession was calculated and purposeful.

Maybe her apology was, too.

* * * *

My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

When Silence Interferes With Healing


Silence can be golden—unless its presence is so loud, so abrasive, that it drowns out everything else in the room.

One week later, Shelia Eddy’s guilty plea is still on our minds. Some people say they have cried for hours, others for days. Still others wake up from nightmares about the case, the crime, and last week’s disturbing hearing.

The memory is a hard one to let go of, and I doubt it matters whether you were an observer in the courtroom, a member of the media watching on closed-circuit television, or you followed online, through the live streaming feed.

Teenager Shelia Eddy is led from the courtroom following her January 24 guilty plea to first degree murder. (Photo credit: Ron Rittenhouse of the Dominion Post.)

The trial of the decade didn’t happen. Instead we watched Shelia plead guilty on January 24 to the first-degree murder of Skylar Neese. Those were almost the only words she spoke.

Shelia’s own silence drowned out the words of her defense attorney. When asked if she wanted to speak to the court before her sentencing, Shelia chose to remain silent.

I can’t imagine being Shelia’s parents. Or Rachel Shoaf’s parents. I especially cannot conceive of being Skylar’s parents. We just wish them peace and an end to their suffering, for all of the parents in this case have suffered. Continue to suffer, even now.

It’s clear from last week’s hearing that I’m not the only one thinking of these teenage girls’ parents. No doubt most people in our community were thinking about them. Some people have blamed them—the Shoafs and the Eddys—while others have felt pity for them.

Although defense attorney Mike Benninger’s words were overshadowed by his client’s silence, they bear repeating. Not just for the hope they express for the futures of these three families, but because of his reminder about why criminal cases like these should be surrounded by silence.

Benninger said he spoke in behalf of his client, when he said “the silence which has surrounded these proceedings and our work in them should not be construed by the Neese family or any member of our community as a sign or expression of disrespect or as a sign of lack of remorse by Shelia Eddy and any of her family.”

Of course, he’s right. Even while the newshound in me clamors for the facts, I know that high-profile cases like this one can easily be derailed if an appropriate level of silence isn’t maintained throughout. That in order for justice to be served, sometimes silence is necessary.

Benninger elaborated on this, explaining that the “silence which has surrounded these proceedings was caused and insisted upon by me so that the work we needed to do on the defense was to preserve the integrity of the defense to protect the rights of Shelia Eddy, the rights of Rachel Shoaf, and most importantly, the rights of Skylar Neese and her family, so they could be protected without interference . . .”

Shelia’s attorney said the silence from the defense shouldn’t be interpreted as a “sign of any lack of concern, worry, or caring by Shelia Eddy and any member of her family resulting from Skylar’s death.”

Still speaking on the teenager’s behalf, Benninger said, “I can state without hesitation or reservation that all concerned must know and understand that Shelia Eddy, my client, and her family recognize that the Neese family is in a constant state of despair, loneliness, and sadness.”

Then came the only apology the court heard. “For that, Shelia Eddy and her family are and will be eternally sorry. These proceedings are now coming to a close. With this conclusion, we hope that all families, the Neese family most importantly, the Eddy family, and the Shoaf family, all tragically affected by the actions of Shelia and Rachel, resulting in Skylar’s death, can move forward in a more peaceful and hopeful way.”

Benninger’s sentiments on behalf of Shelia and her family were certainly important. No doubt the Eddy family needed the Neeses to know they are sorry for what’s happened, for the loss of their daughter.

But what a shame those words didn’t come from Shelia Eddy’s own lips. Instead, she chose to continue her deafening silence.

* * * *

My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

If You Talk the Talk, You Should Walk the Walk

Many years ago as a young news reporter, I learned what happens when a government agency attempts to violate their employees’ right to free speech. They live to regret it. Almost without exception, it pays to be painfully honest when faced with a sensitive situation—such as the death of a student.

In particular, the murder of Skylar Neese. She’s the Star City, W.Va., girl whose two best friends have been charged with killing her.

One girl has already pled guilty to second-degree murder; the other one faces criminal court come February. Since Free Speech Week ends tomorrow, it seems the perfect time to discuss why University High School officials have issued an edict requiring everyone to stay silent about Skylar’s murder. Apparently because victim, admitted murderer, and accused murderer attended the problem-plagued school together. (In addition to relocating students to the new high school after the school year began, there has been a body found on the site, an indoor flood that closed the new building, and a gas leak, among other problems.)

I had to laugh after reading reporter Jim Bissett’s article in yesterday’s Dominion Post. Speaking specifically about UHS, he says classrooms in Monongalia County “aren’t shy about launching intellectual exploration of freedom of speech and other liberties many citizens take for granted—and other societies don’t have.”

“Intellectual exploration of freedom of speech”? What a joke! Exploration is more than talking the talk; true exploration requires walking the walk. It means understanding a person’s right to exercise free speech—and giving them the opportunity to do so.

And what “other societies” is he referring to? He must have been talking about places where the government and those in power restrict speech. You know, “other societies.” Unfortunately, from what I’ve been told, speech isn’t really free at University High School. Many, many students have said talking about Skylar’s murder is forbidden on school property, and at least three adults have said teachers are afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they do talk. That’s because, they say, Principal Shari Burgess has decreed as much. (I tried to contact Burgess before posting, but she did not respond.) But UHS staffers also say Burgess told them county board of education officials created the mandate.

Which it may or may not be true. A couple of people who work for the school system have told me it isn’t. So I went to the Mon County Board of Education office on Sept. 23, where I spoke to a redhead named Beth in Superintendent of Schools Frank Devono’s office. Citing FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), the federal law that prevents educators from discussing matters (specifically pertaining to a student’s educational records—a right that can be waived if student safety is in question or if legal authorities request certain information) that could violate a student’s right to privacy, Beth said school officials probably can’t talk until after the trial.

And when I asked her if it’s true the directive to remain silent came from someone at the board level, Beth had no knowledge of it. I told her I would like to find out for sure, and in addition, I wanted to talk to Devono about events that occurred at UHS before Skylar’s murder. Beth said she would inquire and get back to me. To date, I haven’t received a return phone call.

While digging for details about what led to Skylar’s murder, about the social factors and friendships that affect today’s teens, and about how this tragedy has affected not just our teens but their parents, I’ve learned not to take a refusal to talk personally. What I do object to is learning that an educator is in fear of losing his or her job for no good reason.

What’s wrong with saying how Skylar’s death affected you or your students? Where’s the harm in speaking up about how it’s changed the way you teach or why you think we as a society need to pay more attention to our adolescents? Or that we’re missing the mark completely, when it comes to what our values are?

Then there’s the well known fact that UHS has lost several students through violent means in recent years: Skylar was the third murder victim that I’m aware of. There has also been at least one suicide, another student who died in a car accident, and several suicidal students who may or may not have gotten the help they needed. If an entire student body is being silenced about Skylar, then what else might they be silent about? And what dangerous undertow is all of this silence creating?

One parent I interviewed said something profound: If students and teachers are not allowed to talk about what happened, or what led up to it, it stands to reason the police investigation was also affected—because facts about the case could have come to light much sooner, had people been allowed to talk about what they knew or suspected.

This directive also makes me concerned that some students might be loathe to talk, for fear of any educational retribution they believe they might face. Or actually have been told they would. If so, that’s alarming.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case because, by far, the Morgantown-area teens who are close to this case have been more open and willing to talk than almost any adult. Or it could be a teenager’s natural state of fearlessness that’s enabling them to be more honest than their elders.

Ironically, it would seem that UHS teachers agree that free speech can help prevent things like a student’s death. Take teacher Donovan Riggleman, who was quoted in the DP piece: “The free-speech tragedies, he said, are the cases of students who have committed suicide because of such bullying,” Bissett wrote when paraphrasing Riggleman, who was actually talking about cyberbullying. (Unless someone out there can shed some light on it, Skylar’s death doesn’t appear to have as much of a connection to bullying as once thought.)

But do UHS teachers really agree with Riggleman? Do they really believe free speech can help prevent a student’s death? Maybe he’s in the minority. Or maybe it’s only held to be true in cases of cyberbullying. And what about after a student’s death? Should teachers talk about it then—or should they keep quiet, like they’ve been instructed to do? Does anyone really still believe restricting free speech to preserve silence is a good idea?

I don’t think they do.

Editor’s note: Award-winning editor Geoff Fuller (author of Full Bone Moon) and I are writing the book about Skylar Neese’s murder, which will be published by BenBella Books in Fall 2014. If you have information about the case, please contact us using the form below.

Murder Trial for Accused Teen Set for 2014

No one saw a single smile from Shelia Eddy in court today. What we did see was a bespectacled teenager wearing an updo who looked much younger than when she last appeared in court.

My own guess is that Eddy, who turned 18 on Sept. 28, got a quick lesson in appropriate courtroom body language from her defense attorney when she pled not guilty on Sept. 17 to killing Skylar Neese in July 2012. Whether from nervousness or a simple lack of awareness of how she appeared to onlookers, in the first hearing Eddy didn’t appear to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Later, numerous photos of her smiling mug splashed the front pages of newspapers and online news media sites, and I imagine attorney Mike Benninger had a chat with his client about public perception. Today was different: one news photographer told me he didn’t see Eddy’s pearly whites even once.

Eddy, who told the judge she had given up her right to a speedy trial, was at the pretrial motions hearing this morning at 9:00 AM. As a result of today’s hearing, she will be back in court in early February 2014. Judge Russell Clawges set the date for the week of Feb. 11, but for that to happen, several other pre-trial motions filed by the defense must be heard first.

And Eddy must stay in jail as those motions play out, until she goes to trial. Benninger asked if, because of her age, Eddy might be shown some leniency and given home confinement instead. But the seriousness of the crime with which Eddy is charged trumps age and any other factor, according to Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown.

Clawges didn’t waste any time deciding whether to set bail, either: “No,” he ruled swiftly, before moving onto Benninger’s next motion. Among the numerous motions Benninger filed with the court on Oct. 1 was to have the trial moved to another county because of “substantial publicity and prejudice”; to bring in jurors from another area; to have Rachel Shoaf’s testimony suppressed, due to her supposed mental instability; and to have all the charges dropped due to prosecutorial misconduct.

Ashdown responded to the motions later that week, saying no misconduct occurred and disagreeing that Eddy’s chance at a fair trial has been hampered by excessive media reports. She said she didn’t object to the trial being delayed.

In support of those motions, Benninger told the court today that he’s just recently received the FBI’s report, which contains numerous “technical lab studies and photos.” In addition, he has “thousands of pages of documentation” that he says support his request to move the case out of Mon County.

Interestingly, Clawges also ruled against Benninger’s motion on behalf of his client to use jury questionnaires. Such questionnaires have become quite common in high-profile cases. (Think George Zimmerman or Casey Anthony.) They are also very time-consuming and seem, to me at least, to be a duplication of efforts. Any potential jurors are questioned to see if they might be prejudiced in some way—either for or against a defendant. Or if they can hear the case while knowing certain facts about it and still keep an open mind when ruling on a defendant’s innocence or guilt. This process is called voir dire, and it usually works very well.

Lawyers need to do their best to select jurors who can be impartial, and I believe twelve such jurors can be found right here in Mon County. Some days I meet people who know all about this case; other days the folks I run into haven’t even heard of it. (The other day I met someone who has followed it quite closely from the beginning; she said she would love to be a juror because it’s not clear to her who murdered Skylar.)

And the prosecution has gone to great lengths to prevent the media from revealing anything other than the absolute essential details that are only a matter of public record, anyway. Ashdown has held no press conferences, and there’s been no grandiose posturing about teen killers or the plight of today’s families. It’s all been very hush-hush and quiet, save for the online “gossip” sites some people seem to frequent these days. (Sites I wasn’t even aware existed until I started working on this story.) Oh, and mainstream social media have been a source of gossip, too, but as far as I can tell, that’s all rumor and speculation—nothing that reasonable people put much faith in.

With thorough voir dire, a jury can be impaneled that will ensure Eddy gets a fair trial—and this thing doesn’t drag on any longer than it must, adding to the pain so many people close to this case already feel.

Shoaf, who pled guilty to second-degree murder, is in a juvenile facility awaiting sentencing. Eddy is currently an inmate in a different juvenile facility.

UPDATE: Also of great interest today was Ashdown’s statement about Eddy facing additional charges in other jurisdictions. (The prosecutor looked directly at Eddy and her legal counsel when she said this, an action that was open to interpretation on many levels.)

Editor’s note: Berry and award-winning editor Geoff Fuller (author of Full Bone Moon), have recently teamed up to write the authorized version of the book about Skylar Neese’s murder, which won’t be published until after the trial ends. If you have information about the case, please contact them using the contact form below.

Shelia Eddy Pleads Not Guilty

The contrast between defense attorney and client couldn’t have been more stark: His voice boomed. It was by far the loudest in the courtroom. Distinct and certain, everyone seated inside the wood-paneled room could hear him without the need to lean forward, fearful of missing a single syllable.

Hers was soft and uncertain, almost childlike in its tone. I know I had to strain to hear her words. I’m not sure if it was by design or genetics, since today was the first time I heard her speak in person. Honestly, she didn’t have much to say—except “not guilty.”

Four times in a row. To the charge of first-degree murder. To the charge of kidnapping. To two charges of conspiracy to commit murder.

The murder of Skylar Neese. Her best friend.

Morgantown residents have been waiting since 2012 to hear someone speak in public about Skylar’s death. Since then, people around the world have joined us, as they waited along with us, hoping to hear someone explain what happened to Skylar the night of July 6, 2012. Hoping to have someone take responsibility for her death. They’ve been eagerly awaiting this since May 1, 2013, when Rachel Shoaf, another “best friend” of Skylar’s pleaded guilty to Skylar’s murder.

Shoaf pleaded guilty to second-degree murder right away. But her other “best friend,” the girl who appeared in Mon County Circuit Court today, did nothing of the kind—one of the reasons this case has moved along with such slow deliberation.

And until last week, even though everyone knew who she was, no one who is anyone in the media would name her. That changed last Wednesday, when she was finally transferred from juvenile to adult status. If no one heard her name Wednesday, they couldn’t have missed it Friday, when the September term of the grand jury indicted her in Skylar’s murder.

Shelia Rae Eddy is a small-boned teen of 17, and prettier in person than her pictures depict. Deprived of makeup and hair products, wearing wrist and ankle shackles and an orange prison jumpsuit, she looks much younger than she is. More fragile. As I watched her being led into the courtroom today, in her inmate-issued white socks and sandals, I couldn’t help but notice her long, blond hair.

What surprised me most was her lack of emotion today. A flat affect, psychologists call it. I didn’t know if she felt no emotion or if she was simply blank with the enormity of the moment.

There were at least a dozen other inmates whose names, whose crimes, were first brought before Circuit Judge Russell Clawges. They all seemed to be pretty standard procedure—save for the one inmate, Jerod Alan Green , accused of the third-offense DUI that killed Mon County Deputy Michael Todd May on Feb. 18 last year.

Maybe that’s why Eddy went last. After all, it’s not every day that a pretty teenage girl is accused with planning to kill her best friend. But her being last made it that much more dramatic. Especially since she was the only female inmate in the courtroom.

Eddy and her attorney are also opposite in physicality. He is as tall, broad, and dark as she is petite, fair, and tiny. But it was their voices that commandeered our attention. Especially when Mike Benninger answered Judge Clawgess’s questions.

“Have you discussed the charges with your client?” Clawgess asked.

“I have, your Honor. Carefully,” Benninger replied.

“Does she understand the charges against her?” the Judge asked.

“She absolutely does,” the defense attorney said.

I was sitting one row back in the gallery where the media and other audience sits. Behind me sat two rows of people—including Skylar’s father, Dave, and her aunt, Carol Michaud—and before Eddy could finish her first “not guilty,” I heard sobs coming from their direction.

I’m told people who came to observe, who didn’t even know Skylar or her family, began to cry at the sounds of grief and pain coming from the Neese contingent.

The most surreal thing to me was looking at Eddy’s face as she turned and walked down the aisle, right past me. I didn’t see a single tear. A colleague said her eyes appeared to be rimmed in red, as if she had been crying while answering the Judge’s questions.

I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that with those eight words, the “not guilty,” repeated once as each criminal count against her was read, it became clear that the search for answers to what happened to Skylar Neese is going to be long and painful.

And anything but simple.

 

Editor’s note: Berry and award-winning editor Geoff Fuller (author of Full Bone Moon), have recently teamed up to write the authorized version of the Skylar Neese murder. Berry’s TEDx talk, given April 13 at Connecticut College, is now live. Berry’s memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read an excerpt, please go to the Sister of Silence site.

 

Shelia Eddy: How Will She Plead?

A walk near dusk in my nearly deserted neighborhood reinforced why I choose to live here: a mailbox with the hand-painted words “Mountaineer fans live here”; a set of clay hands, cast in a gesture of prayer; a lawn mover left unattended on a well-manicured lawn; a few friendly people walking their dogs who weren’t too busy to stop and greet each other; and children together outside, playing safely.

Pink clouds in soft blue inspire thoughts of guilt and innocence.

These are the things I thought about, as I pondered tomorrow’s arraignments in Monongalia County Circuit Court. It’s now known that major media folks are in town to cover the story of the decade: Shelia Eddy, who turns 18 on Sept. 28, will make an appearance, and possibly a plea, tomorrow. She’s the Morgantown teen who has been charged, along with Rachel Shoaf, for killing her best friend, Skylar Neese, in July 2012. Shoaf has already pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. It’s not known how Eddy will plead, but last week a Monongalia County grand jury indicted her on first-degree murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy charges.

Eddy’s appearance explains why Inside Edition was here last week, and why Dateline and 20/20 will hold court tomorrow with the local media. So far, the big guns have done a good job of not depicting us as yokels with missing teeth and minimal education. Which is really nice, considering that there are people here like that.

Just as there are everywhere. Especially in rural areas where poverty is rampant. That’s as apt to be true in northern California as it is here, in Morgantown, West Virginia. But there are also a great percentage of college-educated people here, in addition to people with wealth and status and power and prestige. People who run universities and pharmaceutical companies; award-winning authors like Sarah Pritchard and thoughtful movie producers, like Robert Tinnell.

That’s where Geoff Fuller and I come into the picture: we’re determined to write an accurate, factual account of Skylar’s life and death. Hopefully our book will be so well written and exhaustive it will become the definitive book when it comes to people wanting to learn how and why Skylar was killed. How one girl could admit to stabbing her former best friend, while another one has apparently maintained her innocence throughout the last fourteen months.

The reason tomorrow’s hearing is drawing such attention is because it’s safe to say that popular, pretty teen girls in our little corner of the world don’t kill each other. (And let’s not forget, honors students, at that.) At least, we’d sure like to believe they don’t.

Maybe, for all we know, they didn’t. Maybe only one of them did, and she doesn’t want to take the fall alone. Stranger things have happened. And even though we’ve gleaned a great deal from conducting interviews, Geoff and I certainly don’t pretend to know all the facts. Yet. But we will, one day very soon. After the police and prosecution show their hand, and Eddy has had a chance to have her day in court.

Perhaps that day will be tomorrow. For months now, the community has waited for her legal status to be changed from juvenile to adult. Now, that’s behind her and all that awaits us is a plea. So tomorrow’s million-dollar question is will she plead not guilty? Or guilty?

Even though it may anger some of you, because we live in the United States of America, the justice system guarantees Eddy a legal standard held out by the Fifth Amendment: Eddy is innocent until proven guilty. So it doesn’t really matter what you or I say, does it?

That’s something that many people today have forgotten. It’s easy to do, when everyday citizens hear rumors about evidence long before, say, a grand jury learns about actual evidence. (A grand jury being different than a jury of 12 men and women, who deliberate over a person’s innocence or guilt.)

Last week, a grand jury indicted Eddy. Tomorrow the wheels of justice will continue to move forward, providing Eddy with an arraignment hearing. We’ll watch and see what she pleads, or if she pleads, at the same time.

That may be our biggest clue to whether this case is coming to a close—or just beginning.

 

Editor’s note: Berry and award-winning editor Geoff Fuller (author of Full Bone Moon), have recently teamed up to write the authorized version of the Skylar Neese murder. Berry’s TEDx talk, given April 13 at Connecticut College, is now live. Berry’s memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read an excerpt, please go to the Sister of Silence site.