Shannon Stafford: She Never Lost Faith, and Yet She Did

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Just three miles from where Shannon Stafford rested in her white casket Friday morning, there’s a huge billboard you can’t miss, just as you leave Masontown, W.Va. It urges Prestonians to help prevent child abuse, saying: “It’s your turn to make a difference.” Everyone who drives by is encouraged to “reach out” and “speak up.”

That’s what the people of Preston County (along with a handful of others in Harrison, Marion and Mon counties) are trying to do: stop a child from being abused. The problem is, though, the wheels of justice move ever so slowly. And it has only been a week since Shannon was gunned down in a Walmart parking lot.

But that’s yet one more week Faith—the two-year-old child at the center of the custody battle that ensued between Shannon and her estranged husband, Nathan Mitchell—spent in a home many people are calling toxic.

Given that Shannon’s boyfriend, Nick Helms, has been telling anyone who will listen that Faith was not far from Shannon’s body after she was killed, people are justifiably upset. “He was parading her back and forth, not right up beside her but probably 10-15 yards away,” Helms said.

Authorities have said they have no proof the toddler was abused, when the proof has been staring them in the face for the last seven days: Shannon’s estranged father-in-law, Larry Mitchell, murdered Shannon in front of her daughter.

By “in front of,” I mean she was—we hope and pray and, at the very least—in her father’s truck, a few spaces away from where Shannon was parked. (And at the very worst, it’s possible 28-year-old Nathan Mitchell intentionally took the little girl out of his truck for the purpose of showing her the scene, making the abuse even greater.)

When I say abuse, I’m speaking about the abuse the elder Mitchell perpetuated against Shannon—because experts know that any violence directed at a parent also damages the child. In fact, it’s been said that one of the most important things you can do for your child, is to love your spouse.
Experts aren’t the only ones who know this, which is why laws based on this premise are now in place all over the country.

We don’t know that Faith actually saw her grandfather kill her mother, but eyewitnesses say Nathan stood nearby laughing afterward, his toddler in tow. Nor do we know she even saw her mother’s body or, at age two, whether she could comprehend what she was seeing.

But the study of child development has come a very long way, and considering that they now know an unborn fetus is dramatically affected by everything that happens to and around the mother, why would a two-year-old not be affected by the stress level of such a crime scene, at the very least?

If, though, Nathan did place his daughter in a position so she would see her mother, or hear comments about her in the ensuing chaos of the shooting, he is guilty of intentionally abusing Faith. I’m not a mind reader, so I certainly don’t know. And I wasn’t at the scene. But I’ve interviewed enough people in the last week that it sounds in keeping with his abusive character.

Helms said he doesn’t know, either. But in his mind—and many other people’s—the child should not have been near the crime scene. That she was, constitutes abuse—in their minds, and in my own.
Friday at Shannon’s funeral, one woman who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “If she was shown her mother’s dead body by her laughing father, that’s abuse.”

Which is why, regardless of what the police did or did not do at the crime scene—by covering Shannon’s body with a plastic tarp and during their own interrogation of Nathan—I believe the authorities should have erred on the side of caution, and taken Faith from him immediately.

I say this because that’s what the state law demands. There, under the procedural rules for abuse and neglect hearings (W.Va. Code § 49-1-3), an abused child is defined as one “whose health or welfare is harmed or threatened by . . . domestic violence.” While child abuse and neglect is defined as “physical injury, mental or emotional injury,” among other things.

After attending Shannon’s funeral Friday, I sat down with Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston. Quite a stickler for rules, Preston said his department follows those laid out by the Governor’s Committee on Crime, Delinquency and Correction, when it comes to handling domestic violence incidents such as this one. I haven’t had time to do more than briefly review this updated version, but it’s quite comprehensive and Chief Preston says his department follows it to the letter. Check it out for yourself and let me know.

That being said, from professional and personal experience, I do know any family member who believes a child’s health and welfare are in danger can file a motion with family court, requesting an emergency hearing be held about the perceived dangers. Free templates can be found online, if a family member wants to go “pro se,” instead of hiring an attorney.

Other than addressing general procedural issues involved in criminal cases like this one, the MPD is not talking.

But that hasn’t stopped the public from doing so. And in the court of public opinion, something is very wrong with this picture. Nearly 1,500 people have joined Harrison County resident Kristin Thompson’s “Justice for Shannon Stafford” Facebook page. Kristin, who became good friends with Shannon after she left Nathan, set up the page for the murdered mother, as a way of not having been able to do more for her friend before she died.

Many of the posts indicate more is involved than an ugly custody battle. The more I’m speaking of is Faith, the toddler who Shannon lived, breathed and, ultimately, died for.

When asked if Faith saw her mother laying there, Helms said there was no way the child could have done otherwise.

Helms and Shannon shared a home, after she was forced her in-laws’ home, which she shared with her estranged husband. Helms was inside the store when he saw people scrambling, and heard news of a shooting. He knew instantly Shannon was the victim. That’s because she had forewarned him.

“Shannon made me promise if anything ever happened to her that I would fight for her and Faith,” Helms told WDTV, a local television station.

****

In spite of everything she endured, Shannon Stafford never lost faith. And yet she did. She lost custody of her daughter, Faith, as a battle waged within the family court system became as contentious and deadly as the one Shannon had been fighting outside the courthouse steps, with her estranged husband and his parents.

For the last few months, Shannon had chronic stomach pain, brought on from the stress of having her daughter taken from her, she underwent a thyroidectomy, and she suffered a miscarriage.

These are things you haven’t seen in any newspaper article, but they are just as important as all of the other facts about this case, because they speak to what her psyche was facing, as she quietly waged her own war against the Mitchell family.

My daughter Courtney went to school with Shannon, and she sent me screenshots of Shannon’s Facebook page, which showed the young mother’s concern over the then-pending surgery, her happiness over becoming a mother again (prior to the miscarriage), and posts in which Shannon referred to life being harder than usual.

Shannon’s FB posts were not adversarial toward the Mitchell family, Courtney said, but “she was always writing how she needed to be strong.”

Shannon’s family and closest friends knew the details of her ordeal, but other people might not have. For instance, Courtney said Shannon posted once that Mitchell “wouldn’t let her take Faith when she left.”

Shannon never spoke about the abuse in public—and rarely discussed it in private. “She didn’t post that he was abusive. But there were some issues there, you could read between the lines and know there were problems there. She didn’t badmouth him,” Courtney told me.

Nor did Shannon speak badly about her estranged mother-in-law, Sandra, with whom she worked at Madonna Day Care in Shinnston—before she lost her job there when she left Nathan. And yet, parents who take their children to the daycare center have said they and their children were all told Shannon ran off.
Posts on the ‘Justice for Shannon Stafford’ FB page during the last week include those from parents who say they simply didn’t believe that when Sandra told them, and their children, that. Over and over—online and in person—people keep saying that Shannon loved children, that she was someone children were drawn to, like a magnet, and that she would not abandon any child in her care.

None of these things, though, caused Shannon to utter a single complaint. That’s because, according to the people who have known both Shannon and the Mitchell family for years, Shannon was like a quiet little lamb.

“Shannon was very kind-hearted and careful not to speak ill of people,” one family member told me recently. Looking back, people close to her said they can now see that “Shannon avoided confrontation with (the Mitchells) at every step, which makes us think that she knew they were capable of generating distress.”

****

The Mitchell family allegedly set out to destroy Shannon’s good name and take her child. Using the court system as a weapon, it appears they were successful for nearly a year, as they kept Shannon from all but a few hours of weekly access to Faith.

But the tables appeared to be turning when the elder Mitchell gunned down the 29-year-old mother the very day she was going to be allowed to spend more than four hours of supervised time with the little girl.

People close to the case said the Mitchells manufactured evidence against Shannon, and believed they had every right to do so. Among their claims: Shannon did drugs and partied. But hundreds of people who knew her far longer than the Mitchells say that’s bogus. Totally untrue. These are people I know personally, who are good people, and I’m inclined to believe them.

Shannon’s family says the Mitchells wanted total control—no matter the cost—and that’s why they even tried to undermine the partial custody Shannon received, as she gained ground in the legal battle and the court recognized she was a good parent.

This isn’t the first time I’ve made phone calls and asked questions about a murdered woman who was being abused. And that is what this case is really about: domestic violence and a controlling, manipulative Mitchell family who literally put the young mother “through hell,” as several people have told me.

But this case mirrors one I covered when I reported on Wanda Toppins’ murder. She was killed in September 1990 by her ex-husband, Jerry Toppins Sr., in front of their three-year-old son, David.
Jerry Toppins Jr., said that memory haunts his younger brother. “He is 25 now and still remembers that day vividly,” Toppins posted on FB.

Another similarity between the two cases: Helms was on the verge of proposing to Shannon, since her divorce was just days from being final. While Wanda and her fiancé were to have been married the day she was murdered.

Just like the elder Mitchell, Toppins also continued firing at his victim long after she fell, leaving her body riddled with bullet holes. Right in front of his son. Then he, again like Mitchell, callously turned his back on Shannon and coldly walked away.

Editor’s note: Daleen Berry has expertise in overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment, and can be pretty funny when she wants. She’s an award-winning author, editor and journalist who speaks at conferences around the country. Berry was one of two keynote speakers addressing a national audience at “The Many Faces of Domestic Violence,” the 18th Annual Conference of the Association of Batterers’ Intervention Programs on March 1, 2012, in Anaheim, Calif. She recently spoke to social workers from all over the country at the “Hope for the Future: Ending Domestic Violence in Families” conference at the University of California, Berkeley.
Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read the first chapter free, please go to Goodreads. 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.”
If you want to read 30 other five-star reviews, check out this title on Amazon. To view the Sister of Silence book trailer, go to her VintageBerryWine Youtube channel. For a mock up of the SOS t-shirt, check out Berry’s Facebook page.


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