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.”

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.

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.”

Skylar Neese: The Struggle to Find Closure Almost One Year Later

It’s been said there’s nothing more powerful than the elements: sun, moon, wind, or rain. But there is something stronger than the force of nature. It’s a mother’s love.

So it was that Mary Neese braved today’s scorching heat and high humidity to dedicate a bench to her daughter, Skylar, at a little piece of paradise along a narrow country road behind Blacksville. With the temperature hovering above 90-degrees, Mary and Dave Neese led the group of more than forty people in a solemn procession—not unlike that of a funeral—from Clay-Battelle High School.

The handmade bench donated by Susan Gibson and Jessie Gibson reads: “In Loving Memory
Skylar A. Neese, 1996-2012.”

Friends, family, and strangers who have become both to the Neeses in the 11 months and 13 days since Skylar was murdered July 6, 2012, gathered around the 15-year-old girl’s final resting place. They placed a hand-made bench at the site they have turned into a tribute to the former University High School student.

Some of the people in attendance got to meet Mary and Dave for the first time. Others have made the trek before, clearing away debris, planting flowers, and placing mementoes.

Tears were shed, hugs and laughter was shared. Not even the heat could mar the small ceremony. The only thing that could do that was the knowledge that a Greene County coroner—who apparently does have more power than the elements—refuses to let the Neeses spend just ten minutes alone with Skylar’s remains.

When I spoke with him yesterday afternoon, Gregory Rohanna, an elected official, told me his office isn’t “releasing any information because we’re still in an investigation phase.”

When I said the Attorney General’s office in Pennsylvania told me that officials there are not pursuing charges in this case, Rohanna said, “I don’t care who’s prosecuting, the coroner’s office would be in charge of the deceased’s remains. Until we conclude everything we need, we would not release those remains.”

When I pointed out that the Neeses have been unable to have a measure of closure in their daughter’s murder, Rohanna said that’s because the FBI kept her body for so long. “We just received some of the remains back from the FBI within the last couple of days. I have not had the remains. The FBI has had them. But we’re still investigating because we need to do the things we need to do,” he said.

I then asked if his office has tried to work with the Neeses at all, in this regard. “I had a request in January not to contact them. We went along with that request,” Rohanna said, adding that his first contact with them occurred Friday night. He refused to say who had directed him not to talk to the Neeses.

Even though Monongalia County Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown has said Skylar was stabbed to death, I asked Rohanna if the FBI has done an autopsy or determined the cause of death. Rohanna said he couldn’t comment about that. But he did say this: “There has been no official cause of death issued,” and that since Skylar’s body was discovered in Greene County, he is the person who must issue the official cause of her death.

Rohanna wouldn’t say how much more time he needs to complete his investigation.

Life continues to be filled with one surreal day after another for the Neeses, as Mary grieves for the daughter she hasn’t seen since Skylar kissed her goodnight last July 5. Hoping to see the fulfillment of the promise they say federal agents made them, to sit and grieve with a closed package containing Skylar’s remains, Dave says he plans to picket the coroner’s office Monday and says he doesn’t care if he is arrested for doing so.

A call to the FBI’s Pittsburgh field office about the matter was directed to the agency’s media line, but a recording said no one is available until Monday.

* * * *

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.”

Not Your Normal Day Job: Writing the Skylar Neese Story

If you google “Skylar Neese,” you’ll find the once-missing teenager’s name appears about 150,000 times online. Articles can be seen in publications like the UK’s Guardian, or the Huffington Post. Her case has been mentioned on TV shows like CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, CBS News and, very soon, NBC’s Dateline.

Alabama resident Rachele Paige has created dozens of photos showing Skylar Neese since the West Virginia teen disappeared July 6, 2012.

I know this because I googled Skylar’s name last week, when sending off queries to literary agents in hopes of finding a publisher for Skylar’s story. The story is my current work in progress. But it isn’t a job. It isn’t even work. It’s simply a gift. I’m glad Geoff Fuller thought of me and suggested we write this nonfiction book together. We’re both honored the Neese family has given us the green light and their blessing.
 
Skylar, who lived across town from me, snuck out her bedroom window July 6, 2012. After getting into an unknown vehicle, she simply vanished. By the time her parents, Dave and Mary Neese, realized their daughter was missing, it was too late. Although they begged local police to issue an AMBER Alert (The U.S. Department of Justice program transmits an urgent bulletin, instantly alerts communities that a child is in danger. It’s used in cases of suspected child abduction, but typically is not used for runaways.), law enforcement refused, saying all the evidence pointed to Skylar being a runaway. So while doing everything they could to try to find their missing daughter, the Neeses also worked to help other parents.
 

They helped write “Skylar’s Law,” a bill that would make it mandatory for police to issue an AMBER Alert in cases like those of Skylar’s. They believe every missing child is in danger, runaway or not. Unfortunately they’re right. Statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children bear this out.
 

You know what? I know this because of my connection with Ken Lanning. A retired FBI supervisory special agent who is also considered one of the country’s top profilers, Lanning wrote the foreword for my memoir, Sister of Silence. But more important when it comes to this case, he wrote the training manuals used by the NCMEC. Lanning says Skylar’s case is particularly interesting. He also thinks there’s much more we’re going to learn about it.
 

While the Neeses pushed the bill through the West Virginia Legislature, the FBI and other police agencies were doing some work of their own. In January, some remains were discovered about an hour away, just on the other side of the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border. Morgantown residents held their collective breath, hoping the remains were not those of the missing brunette whose beautiful blue eyes and contagious smile captivated everyone who saw the MISSING posters her parents put up all over the area.
 

It took authorities another two months to announce that the remains were indeed those of Skylar. The residents of this small city exhaled long and hard. But that wasn’t the only heart-stopping moment. An even more poignant one occurred in May, when another teen, Rachel Shoaf, 16, confessed to killing Skylar. Rachel and another girl (whom mainstream media hasn’t named publicly because she’s a minor) were charged in connection with Skylar’s death. In return for leading police to Skylar, she was allowed to plead guilty—as an adult—to second-degree murder rather than first. Rachel awaits sentencing while she undergoes a court-ordered evaluation. The other teen remains in juvenile custody.
 

The resounding shockwaves haven’t yet receded, especially since we learned in mid-May the two girls—believed to have been among Skylar’s closest friends—planned her murder. This makes them seem like cold-blooded killers. I say “seem” because it’s always hard to say in cases like this one, which is why we’re asking for your help. As Geoff and I work together to uncover all the important facts about Skylar’s murder, we’ll interview many, many people who might not realize what they really know, details that can help shed light on this story. This has value not only for the Neeses, but also for other parents, other teens.
 

That’s one thing we know for sure: Skylar’s death has some powerful lessons to be learned. Among them, the importance of knowing who your child or teenager is, and what demons may drive her to commit murder. Or, in the case of other potential victims like Skylar, who your teens are spending large chunks of time with. It also can teach us the value of monitoring your son or daughter’s online activity, and not giving up caring—even when your teen makes you want to do just that.
 

These are some of the lessons Geoff and I think this story can teach other parents. Skylar’s dad, Dave, has already said as much in his TV interviews. If you have anything to share with us that can help the world understand Skylar’s story, please drop us a line or find us on Twitter @GeoCamFuller, @DaleenBerry, Geoff’s Facebook page or mine. We’d love to hear from you.
 

Editor’s note: 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.”