TV Shoots: All in a Day’s Work

Television shoots aren’t what you think. I enjoy doing them, because they’re about books—and anything to do with reading is sexy, right? But they are far from glamorous.

I can’t recall how many I’ve done now—for Dateline, 48 Hours, 20/20, Dr. Phil, CrimeWatch, ID Discovery—but they are all remarkably similar. Behind the scenes I sit, cell phone off, waiting for the cameraman (so far, they have all been men) to adjust the lighting, the background, and me. My mic, clipped to my shirt collar or jacket lapel, my hair, and my glasses, which usually come off, due to the glare on my lenses.

In short, TV shoots consist of long moments of conversation punctuated by short bursts of touch-up sessions, to powder my shiny nose. Or fix my flyaway, baby-fine hair. When this happens, the producer sitting across from me (so far, all women save one) will ask for clarification about a question I’ve answered, or I will provide a detail about the story that she hasn’t yet asked me. Just in case she doesn’t.

I do my homework so I’ll be prepared, having reviewed dates and timelines for that particular story, because when you’ve written several books, you can’t risk confusing a salient detail from one book with another. This is crucial, because sometimes the producer or show’s writer isn’t prepared.

That happened in Colorado in September 2015, forcing me to repeatedly correct the TV crew. These weren’t small errors, either; they had the potential to create a liability for the network. Thank goodness that was the only time I had such a dreadful experience, and worried that my book might be misrepresented on national television. Trust me, no author wants that.

The most recent TV shoot took place in Annapolis, Maryland, near the harbor, which was filled with sailboats and larger craft. I had sat on the deck at Pusser’s Caribbean Grille the night before, eating dinner and watching the sunset. The next morning, I walked around town, sightseeing, then dressed and did my makeup. More made up than usual, since the bright lights from TV cameras would wash me out if I didn’t.

Alex Haley and family in bronze

They sent a limousine service to collect me, which was one of the highlights of my day. Not because I didn’t have to drive myself, although that was certainly nice, but because it was interesting. As I chatted with the driver, I learned that he was in Boca Raton, Florida, last year while I was working a few miles away in Pompano Beach. I also learned about his business, and why his 18-year-old son will soon triple his father’s income.

By and large, it’s the people I meet who make these TV shoots most enjoyable. A cameraman named Brian, who knew my book as well as I did. Now that’s impressive! A freelance producer who changed her career track from attorney to TV, because practicing law can be downright depressing these days. Oh, and then there’s the nonprofit she runs for disadvantaged youth, which is her first love.

U.S. Naval Academy

One of the most colorful producers I met, bruised and battered from her long days behind the scenes, worked in Los Angeles, California. There, she prepped guests and helped them ward off potential meltdowns, panic attacks or, worse yet, physical fights with each another. I later heard she gave it all up for the love of her horses, and the love of a man. Now that’s romance worthy of a TV show.

I forgot to take along a jacket for this last shoot, so while the temperatures outside hovered in the high 80s, we felt like we were inside a meat locker. The room was so frigid we stopped periodically, just to go outside and warm up. That and hot coffee kept my teeth from chattering, something that would have given the sound guy grey hair, I’m sure.

Speaking of sound, when the Dateline producers, two elegant, intelligent New York City women, came to town, they turned a vacant storefront in the Mountaineer Mall into a TV studio. But during the on-camera interview, loud pounding next door forced us to stop repeatedly, causing the producer to repeat entire questions. Every time we began speaking, so did the pounding, like a metronome in perfect time to our interview. After several minutes, the producer had to ask management to quiet things down. Otherwise, we would never have wrapped up.

The same thing happened in Annapolis. Except this time, the noise was from a hotel cart rolling by, right outside our door. And then there was the family with several boisterous children. They exited the pool to wait for the rest of their group, before leaving. Finally, we had a quiet space to continue the interview.


Being on set is fun, and can be exciting, but those times are far and few between. Most of the time, like today, I’m cleaning house, replying to emails, running errands, and tending my flower garden.

Tomorrow I renew my search for my missing daughter, and continue working to settle my late husband’s estate—the little things that highlight most of my days.

* * * * *


Dear Readers,

My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

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

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.”

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.”

Shelia Eddy Sentenced to Life With Mercy


I can’t say how many expressions passed across Shelia Eddy’s face from the time she walked into Judge Russell Clawges’ courtroom until she took her seat and began sobbing, but I can tell you she’s one of the most difficult people to read I’ve ever seen during the 25 years I’ve been covering criminal trials.

What does one say when a girl of 18 pleads guilty to first-degree, premeditated murder? Yes, it means the victim’s family doesn’t have to suffer the agony of a long and drawn-out trial. I’m not sure it gives us much else to cheer about, though.

Shelia Eddy and her defense attorney, Michael Benninger, appeared in court Friday when Eddy pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.

What about the fact that, in this country, a juvenile cannot receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole? If that juvenile has taken another human life, then shouldn’t the law dictate her life be spent behind bars—without any hope of freedom?

Today Eddy did what it’s been rumored she would do for some time: she pled guilty to intentionally killing Skylar Neese. Eddy didn’t so much tell the court—Eddy didn’t speak at all about what she and co-conspirator Rachel Shoaf did—she simply pled guilty to all of the charges Clawges read from his bench. Eddy said she understood what the charges meant. She said no one had pressured her to plead guilty. She said her legal representation was good.

She “said” all that in the form of “Yes, Sir,” and “No, Sir,” when the Judge asked her.

The most troubling part of today’s plea hearing, for me and many in attendance, was in what Eddy didn’t say: She didn’t say “I’m sorry.”

That left most of us wondering why. You plead guilty to first-degree murder, to planning to kill your best friend, but when you’re given a chance to prove your remorse—if you have any—you remain silent.

This is the Eddy we’ve come to know, the girl we’ve heard so much about from people closest to the case. As we’ve worked on this book for the last seven months, we’ve heard one person and then another say that Eddy has not once indicated she killed Skylar. Instead, she has maintained her innocence throughout—until today.

Which is, or was, fine, given that the U.S. justice system treats all defendants as innocent until proven guilty. But here’s the thing: As a reporter, when you dig into cases like this one, you come to learn more than you anticipated. You’re in possession not just of bits and pieces of information, but of specific details that lead you to your own impression about a defendant’s innocence or guilt.

Such turned out to be the case two weeks ago, when I read Eddy’s criminal case file. (It’s a matter of public record, so you can do the same.) At that time, I knew why the prosecution seemed to think they had an airtight case—they did. All their ducks in a row, so to speak. Upon leaving the Monongalia County Circuit Clerk’s office, I wasn’t sure how her defense attorney could defend her.

In the end, he couldn’t. Attorney Michael Benninger told the court as much today. “I have found negligible if any basis . . . to develop a defense,” Benninger said. After digging through West Virginia and even United States case law, Benninger said he found nothing that would allow him to mount a reasonable defense for his client.

He tried to do so, after looking through “every piece of paper, video and audio,” he received about the case, after extensive meetings with or talking to his client or her family about 30 times. In the end, though, he realized “there was little more that I or anyone else could do for this young lady.”

There didn’t seem much to say after that. Clawges accepted Eddy’s plea. And in a case that has sometimes seemed to drag on and on and on, today’s hearing continued at warp speed. After the court heard from Skylar’s father, Dave Neese, and her aunt, Carol Michaud, Eddy was sentenced. (She waived her right to a pre-sentencing investigation.)

Dave Neese holds hands with his wife Mary Neese during the proceedings. Mrs. Neese’s sister, Carol Michaud sits by Mr. Neese. FBI victim’s advocate, Tessa Cooper, sits by Mary. (Photo credit: Ron Rittenhouse of the Dominion Post.)

If the hearing wasn’t serious enough before, the family’s statements certainly brought home the gravity of what Eddy’s actions led to: “My life and my wife’s life has been drastically altered. We are no longer a family.” Those were the words Dave Neese spoke, heartbreaking ones for many in the courtroom to hear.

Carol’s words were equally sad, and serve as a solemn reminder that the loss of a child equals the loss of the next generation, as well. Carol said “she’s taken hopes and dreams from my sister” because Mary Neese was cheated out of seeing Skylar go to prom, graduate high school, or get married. With Skylar’s murder, Mary also lost any chance of becoming a grandmother, Carol said.

Many people in the courtroom openly wept at Carol’s words.

No doubt Clawges was touched by what amounted to a victim’s impact statement, but in the end, his hands were tied. The prosecution asked for life with mercy for Eddy. Citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Alabama, which says sentencing juveniles to life without mercy is unconstitutional, Clawges issued his sentence.

When he told the courtroom that meant Eddy would be eligible for parole in 15 years, Clawges stressed that the law allows for nothing less. In short, everyone’s hands are tied.

He was equally quick to inform Eddy that while she will be eligible for parole then—that does not mean she will find herself on the road to freedom that soon. That is a decision for the parole board.

As we’ve worked on this book, one of the constant questions was whether a lesbian element was involved. Or if that could possibly be the motive for murder. Many teens of both sexes today experiment with same-sex relationships. But if Shelia and Eddy did, it hardly seems a reason for them to kill Skylar.

Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown didn’t discuss this, but she alluded to there being more involved. The murder occurred, she said, after Eddy and Shoaf began to distance themselves from Skylar. They feared their friendship would dissolve and, if that happened, they were “worried that Skylar would divulge their secrets. The kind of secrets girls have and (Ashdown paused here) other things.”

Ashdown also confirmed a rumor we’ve heard for awhile now, that sometimes in June, Eddy and Shoaf finalized their plan to kill Skylar. They put that plan into action on July 6, by concealing kitchen knives beneath their clothing, taking along a shovel to help bury their intended victim, and clean clothes to change into afterward.

They lured Skylar into Eddy’s vehicle, drove to the Blacksville, W.Va., area, and crossed the state line into Pennsylvania. They went to an area familiar to all three girls, where they then counted down, and then “both stabbed Skylar multiple times,” Ashdown said.

“Skylar fought back and tried to run but she was overcome by her attackers,” she added.

Skylar Neese

Because of the nature of “this horrific and vile crime,” the prosecution said it had one other request: “We are asking you here, today, to sentence this defendant to adult prison, for her very adult crime.” Ashdown said Eddy should not be returned to a juvenile facility, especially since she’s now 18.

Judge Clawges agreed with the request, and said that as soon as a bed becomes available—be it tomorrow or a month from tomorrow—Eddy is to be placed in an adult prison.

Because Skylar was lured from her home, Eddy was charged with kidnapping, which is a federal crime. The same thing is true for crossing state lines, since Skylar was taken from West Virginia but killed in Pennsylvania. In return for Eddy’s plea today, Pennsylvania and federal court systems both agreed to dismiss any pending charges they have against her.

There are so many, many more details that I could go into here—but time and space limit me. The best I can do is offer a thorough and extensive examination of all of today’s court proceedings and more in our upcoming book. This includes the motive for Skylar’s murder, and whether a lesbian relationship was at the heart of it.

BenBella Books, our publisher, has selected the title. The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese will be available as an ebook in late February. In addition to the above, we hope it also provides a look at problems within today’s families, the average teen’s use of social media, and why a savage crime like this happened at all.

* * * *

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.