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.”

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.”

Shannon Stafford’s Story Airs Tonight on Discovery ID “Evil In-Law” Episode


Three days from now, many of you will sit at a kitchen table enjoying fellowship and food. Or you will gather around a Christmas tree shredding wrapping paper, hoping to see what gifts await. But somewhere, the stress will be too much, and a weapon will be pulled out–one man’s fists, another man’s pistol–turning holiday cheer into deadly fear.

Crime increases during the holidays, especially family violence. On average, 24 people–mostly women–are murdered in West Virginia every year. Some of those deaths occur near major holidays. At two deaths a month, that number has remained steady since the 1970s, thanks to domestic violence. I’ve lived it, as have all of my siblings and my children. So have many of you. Whether you grew up in West Virginia or elsewhere, you have been at the receiving end of a pattern of abuse that was designed to keep you quiet.

Shannon Stafford knew what that cycle of abuse was like, and she stayed silent throughout the last few torturous years of her young life. Shannon grew up in Preston County, W.Va., where she attended school with my daughters. She was killed in cold blood April 21, 2012, when her father-in-law, Larry Mitchell, gunned her down in a local Wal-Mart parking lot. Equally tragic is that some people say her toddler daughter, Faith, was nearby when Shannon was killed, execution-style.

Tonight the world will finally have a chance to see Shannon’s story on national television. When a Discovery ID producer emailed me in May to see if I would agree to be interviewed, I was ecstatic. I had blogged extensively about her, but even those pieces failed to capture the attention of the media big wigs. It was a story that seemed to die a natural death, like these stories do, in spite of having all of the elements that capture and hold people’s attention long after they stop reading. Or watching.

But that’s all changed now–because producer Colleen Waltner resurrected the tragic story. People will finally learn about Shannon’s short life–and the disturbing events involving her daughter–when Shannon’s story receives the media coverage it deserves. I hope you’ll watch “Evil In-Law” with me when it airs at 9 p.m. ET tonight.

I also hope Shannon’s story stays with you as you partake in the week’s upcoming festivities. Maybe tonight’s show will even cause you call to mind someone in your life who might need your help. Who might not be experiencing the joy you are, because they live in constant fear—like Shannon did. If that does happen, I hope you’ll use this time to give tat person the gift they most need: your spoken support and ongoing, active encouragement.

* * * *

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.

The Wait is Over: Shelia Eddy to be Tried as Adult in Skylar Neese Murder

The most difficult part of covering the Skylar Neese story is deciding which hat to wear: journalist or author. But that’s nothing compared to the challenge of being Skylar’s parents, on days like this one.

News media acros the country breathed a collective sigh of relief Wednesday, since Shelia Eddy can now be named publicly in all articles about Skylar Neese.
Yesterday I tweeted that “she who has been named” had finally, after months of silence from the authorities, been officially named. Let the record show that Shelia Eddy, who will soon turn 18, was publicly named by officials in “matters pending against [her].”

Monongalia County Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown didn’t say it, but everyone knows Eddy’s change from juvenile to adult status has to do with the murder of Skylar Neese. The murder of Eddy’s best friend, from as far back as second grade. Eddy is the second girl in recent months to face this distinction, of being viewed by the State of West Virginia as an adult, fully accountable for her actions, in Skylar’s death. The first girl was Rachel Shoaf, who back in May pleaded guilty to stabbing Skylar. According to court records that we can now discuss on the record, Eddy was the other teen named in Shoaf’s confession.

Shoaf also said Skylar’s murder had been planned. Evidence we’ve gathered indicates that planning was long underway before it actually took place. “We” is another Morgantown author, Geoff Fuller, and me. We’ve been investigating the details surrounding Skylar’s murder for several months. Along the way, we’ve spent considerable time in the company of Skylar’s parents.

So when I tweeted yesterday that I think a celebration is in order, that Sept. 4, 2012, is a great day, a day to celebrate, I meant that only half-heartedly. It is a reason to celebrate, in a sense, when justice occurs. Seeing someone who has been implicated in Skylar’s death finally be named publicly gives us all cause to celebrate. That’s what justice is all about, isn’t it? Finding, then naming, the people responsible for heinous crimes like this one.

However, this day is also interminably sad and tragic. Why do I say that? Well, put yourself in Skylar’s parent’s–Dave and Mary Neese’s–shoes. In the 427 days since Skylar went missing, can you imagine how many times they have cried? How a passing news headline or a question from a well-meaning stranger, upon recognizing them in public, must make them mourn their only child?

I can’t say with certainty, but my maternal instincts tell me that every day like this one merely serves to rip open a wound that had barely begun to scab over. To cause the pain to rise to the surface like the bile you struggle so hard to keep down when you’ve come nose-to-nose with a noxious odor that threatens to gag you. For I imagine they’d rather their daughter was facing murder charges alive than that she be dead.

Because anything–anything–would be better than death, for any parents. But especially for the parents of an only child.

So while the rest of us get out our noisemakers and champagne, the Neeses continue to grieve. For the baby they brought home from the hospital, for the little girl who ran around naked in her family home, for the teenager who became a confidante to so many of her peers. For Skylar Annette, who is lost to them forever.

As I sat in the waiting room on the third floor of the Mon County Courthouse yesterday, surrounded by media folks like me, these are the thoughts that ran through my mind. After a two-hour wait, when a court bailiff appeared to render the court’s verdict about Eddy’s status, my initial reaction was to cheer. I didn’t, of course. That would be inappropriate. In a criminal matter that has been filled with inappropriate behavior from all quarters. But I wanted to, much like I imagine most of Morgantown wanted to, when they heard the news tonight.

Then I learned something, something that gave me reason to pause. And I realized how fortunate the Shoaf and Eddy families are, that the Neeses are named in this criminal matter. For if it was any other family whose daughter was killed in cold blood, I doubt the Shoaf and the Eddy families would see such gracious consideration.

For all his “I hope they rot in hell” rhetoric, Dave Neese is, at his core, a sweetheart. Mary, his wife, is an older, more mature version of the daughter they lost. While most of Morgantown seems to have forgotten, and most of the country never really knew, the Neeses have not: just as Skylar was friends with Shelia and Rachel, they remember that Tara (Eddy) Clendennin and Patricia Shoaf were their friends. Women they welcomed into their home, and trusted to take care of their daughter.

So yes, Sept. 4, 2013, is, in a way, a day to celebrate. But it’s also a day for sorrow. For this case isn’t just about parental or teen friendships, it’s about what happens when the judicial system says that two teen girls must be treated as adults, in the matter of murder.

In the end, it appears there is nothing worth celebrating after all.

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. 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.”

One Year Later: Moving Forward on Skylar’s Story

It was one year ago today when Skylar Neese left home, fully expecting to return. Sadly, she never got the chance.

Looking back over the last year, I found hundreds of thousands of news articles, blog entries, posts, comments, tweets and retweets about Skylar Neese. Some reported on her disappearance, others lamented about it and the state of today’s teens. Early on, when it was thought Skylar was just another runaway, most people who said anything in public simply urged the 16-year-old Star City teen to return home. To the loving arms of her parents, Dave and Mary Neese, who were beside themselves with worry.

Dave and Mary Neese meet some of the strangers who have become their friends in the last year. They say the support of such people have given them strength to keep going.

Flash forward to January 2013, when police found what was left of Skylar, just across the state line in Pennsylvania. Although they couldn’t publicly verify it then, most of us suspected it was the beautiful girl from the Missing posters–while we hoped and prayed it wasn’t.

I’ve never lost a child. I’ve come close. Really close, a few times. Once in the mall, another time in a creek behind our house and once to a teen friend of my daughter’s who sounds like one of the two teens now in custody in this case. Because I found my children–alive and relatively unscathed–I never had to experience what the Neeses did. So I don’t know how they do it.

But as Geoff Fuller and I spend hours with them, conducting interview upon interview, we’re learning how they’ve done it up until now. As well as how they’ll probably continue surviving the loss of their only child. This last week alone, we’ve spent a combined total of more than 120 hours on the upcoming book about Skylar’s murder. Because this project goes far beyond just her death, and looks at the various social aspects involved, there will be dozens of lessons for parents. Those lessons will highlight the common mistakes most of today’s parents make, but they will also paint a picture of the wonderful way Dave and Mary’s love for Skylar kept their small family of three intact in spite of all the stresses of daily life.

That is a very valuable lesson indeed–one which every parent needs to know.

Editor’s note: Berry and another West Virginia author, Geoff Fuller (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 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.”