Following the very public execution of her mother at a Morgantown, W.Va., Wal-Mart parking lot, three-year-old Faith Mitchell is nowhere to be found. Her father and grandmother fled their Harrison County home months ago, taking the toddler with them. They did this not long after Shannon Stafford’s foster family fought and gained visitation rights with Faith, who is Shannon’s daughter.
I confirmed this recently, when I spoke with neighbors of the Mitchell family. In the meantime, Shannon’s friends and family have been waiting for justice for more than a year, sick with worry over what would become of the toddler who even at such a young age bears an uncanny resemblance to her mother.
I blame the authorities for letting this happen. How is it that police, prosecutors and even Child Protective Services have done nothing, all this time? They had enough evidence the day of Shannon’s murder to remove Faith from her father’s custody. To place her with good people, people like Shannon’s family.
They had more reason to do so when they found further evidence that implicated Nathan Mitchell, when he told the world he hoped Shannon, his then soon-to-be ex-wife, would die. Which, of course, she did—at the hands of Mitchell’s father, Larry, who murdered Shannon on April 21, 2012. In December, the elder Mitchell pled guilty to first-degree murder in Monongalia County Circuit Court.
That Mitchell gunned down Stafford, 29, as she sat waiting in a truck to see her daughter for what was going to be the estranged mother’s first unsupervised visit following a contentious divorce and custody battle. At the time, Stafford was doing nothing—had done nothing—that could even be remotely construed as dangerous to her daughter or anyone else in the Mitchell family.
And yet, it’s amazing how many people I’ve run into whose eyebrows go up when they comment about the murder. People who automatically assume Shannon was a bad mother, simply by virtue of the fact that she was not allowed to see Faith without supervision. Or who have heard rumors that Shannon abused her daughter, and therefore believe the supervised visits were warranted.
Except they weren’t. They were just that: unconfirmed rumors and, more important, a manipulative tactic used by the Mitchell family in a long line of abuse directed at Stafford.
I conducted weeks of interviews and tracked down numerous documents last year, and I’m convinced Stafford wasn’t just a sitting duck the day she was killed: She was an easy target the entire time Nathan forced her into battle, using their daughter as a pawn, and then manipulating the court to give him custody by falsely accusing a woman who never did anything wrong in the first place.
In fact, Judy A. Sawyer, the guardian ad litem appointed for Faith, says just that in her Nov. 23, 2011, report to Family Court Judge Cornelia Reep. “Other than documentation from his PI (private investigator), he has provided nothing . . . that has been independently corroborated. What hurts his position even more is that on two occasions he alleges Faith was returned (from a supervised visit with her mother) in a condition that directly contradicted the findings of the nurse practitioner and this guardian ad litem,” Sawyer said in the brief she filed with the court, entitled, “Supplemental Report and Recommendation of Guardian Ad Litem.”
What Sawyer’s report doesn’t say is that Nathan should be the parent the state denies custody to, and forces to have supervised visits with Faith—if he gets custody at all.
That’s because in addition to the evidence I refer to above, that of Nathan’s Facebook posts, people who have known him for years say he’s dangerous. One person, who would only speak under condition of guaranteed anonymity, says Mitchell is “a very bad person (who is at first) very funny, charming, and (easygoing). Then you get to know the real Nathan. He is very unstable, controlling, and abusive.”
Four former friends who know him well say Nathan is a drug user who has taken intravenous anabolic steroids to build muscle and enhance performance for years. These drugs are believed to cause increased aggression and bipolar mood swings in the users. A 2008 study found a connection between their use and violent acts—such as the ones Nathan is well known for.
These four people, all who request anonymity out of extreme fear of what Nathan might do in retaliation, say the same thing as the one person who would go on record said about Mitchell.
“He was very much into lifting weights and getting bigger and stronger. He also obsessed (and) followed a very tight schedule of meals,” this person said. “He had to eat a full meal every two hours, because of using steroids and trying to bulk up.”
Tyra Nestor, one of Shannon’s foster sisters and the friend whose house Shannon fled to when Nathan forced her to leave shortly after becoming pregnant with Faith, Nestor said the needles were addressed to Nathan at Nestor’s home address.
People familiar with him also say Mitchell, who receives disability income for several medical conditions, including near-blindness, drives a vehicle and works earning money under the table at various odd jobs. His Facebook page once said he was employed as a foreman at Mitchell Construction. But now that he’s on the run, it’s anybody’s guess what he’s doing for work.
“He’s legally blind but yet he doesn’t appear to be blind at all. He goes wherever he wants to go and he drives, but collects disability,” Gwenda Adkins said. “Nathan drives after dark, too.”
Adkins spent almost every Saturday with Shannon and Faith for a year, since she was the person elected to provide supervision during the visits between mother and daughter. She is also Shannon’s foster sister-in-law.
“How could he take Faith to the doctor, when she needed to go, if he’s blind?” Adkins asked. “How does he even have a driver’s license?”
Adkins adds weight to the claims about the steroids, saying that before Shannon’s death, she told Adkins that Nathan used them.
It’s possible such steroid use led to the violent behavior many people say is part and parcel of Nathan’s personality. That violence is so bad even grown men are afraid of him—just as Shannon was. That’s why she never spoke about her ex-husband’s abuse. Not at first. But her friends and family suspected she was—because Nathan was so controlling.
Many people related how Nathan kept Shannon from seeing or talking to her friends. And Shannon’s foster family said Nathan wouldn’t even let Shannon bring Faith for visits, while the couple was still married. The biggest red flag, though, was Shannon’s unwillingness to fight harder for Faith, when she first left Nathan.
“Not that she was malicious in any way, but for Shannon not to be fighting with fists for her daughter, it was because she was scared,” Tabitha Jeffries said.
Jeffries grew up next door to Shannon, and the two girls were best friends for many years. “She was scared to death of Nathan. His mom was at the top of the list, though . . . I know that Shannon made Nick (Helms) promise that if anything happened, that he would fight for Faith. In my heart of hearts, I think Shannon knew this was coming. I don’t think she expected it that day, but I think she knew,” Jeffries said.
That just about sums up Stafford’s only sin in this entire tragedy: she failed to speak up about the abuse she was suffering herself, at the hands of the entire Mitchell family. So no one knew what she was going through, until it was too late.
The most damning evidence to date about what many people are calling a Mitchell family conspiracy to kill Stafford comes from Nathan’s own Facebook page. Using an application called Status Shuffle, which allows a user to choose from among thousands of status updates and then post it as his own, Nathan posted the following comments before Stafford was killed.
“What do you do if you see your ex wife crawling on the road with a broken arm and leg in your rear view mirror? Put it in reverse and aim better.”
“Sometimes you need a divorce attorney. Sometimes you need a hitman.”
Many people would dismiss such updates as dumb jokes made by an angry husband who’s going through a divorce—until you stop and realize Shannon died just such a violent death as depicted by those disturbing updates. Then you realize Nathan’s Facebook updates must be taken very seriously. As evidence. Did the police, the prosecutor or the people charged with protecting children do that? Apparently not—or Nathan and Sandra would never have been allowed to keep Faith, after this evidence came to light.
Last year, Shannon Stafford was a woman who never even wanted a custody battle, and who was prepared to willingly share custody with Faith’s father—even in spite of his violent habits. Today, her family continues Shannon’s fight for Faith, although it doesn’t look like much is happening. (A call to their attorney, Cranston and Edwards, was not returned.)
I can only wonder what Shannon would think now, if she knew Nathan accomplished what he set out to do—he has total control over Faith, the little girl who will soon look exactly like the woman he once talked of running over with a truck.
How safe will Faith be then?
* * * *
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.
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!
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.”