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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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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.
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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.”