Young Mother’s Execution Upsets Community
Shannon Stafford was holding a cherished love letter from her would-be fiancé when she was buried inside a white casket last Friday. Stafford was executed just six days earlier outside a Morgantown, W.Va., Wal-Mart, while her two-year-old daughter Faith was several yards away at the time. Police later allowed the child to go home with the man who threatened to kill Stafford, and that’s where Faith remains today, as a quickly growing group of vocal Facebook supporters claim she’s in danger.
Saturdays were undoubtedly Stafford’s favorite day of the week, since the 29-year-old mother was permitted to visit Faith then. Last Saturday was the first time in almost a year that she would have had Faith for more than four hours once a week. Harrison County Family Judge Cornelia Reep had just granted Stafford an overnight visit with the toddler. Friends and family say Stafford was ecstatic but anxious, as she sat in a parked truck awaiting word about Faith’s arrival. Stafford was supposed to get Faith from her estranged husband Nathan Mitchell, who was meeting her there.
Stafford’s would-be-fiancé said he became worried when Nathan told Stafford to come alone and park in a specific location in the parking lot, but she insisted she had to do what Nathan asked.
“He was adamant about her being alone and walking over to his vehicle to get Faith . . . but she did it anyways, because she didn’t want to do anything that would cause her problems,” Nick Helms said. So he went inside Wal-Mart, while Stafford waited alone.
In preparation for the toddler’s first visit to their Bruceton Mills home, Helms helped Stafford with the nursery. Pictures posted on Stafford’s Facebook page show the bright, cheery room was decorated by people who lovingly paid attention to every detail, down to the ties that held back the bedroom window curtains.
But instead of having a joyous reunion after a year apart, 29-year-old Stafford was gunned down at the giant retailer. Police have charged her estranged father-in-law, 54-year-old Larry Mitchell, with the murder. Eyewitnesses say he began walking toward Helms’ truck, firing rounds as he did so and stopping only to reload his weapon. Even as Stafford tried to get out of the vehicle, they said, he continued shooting until she laid there, unmoving, on the ground.
Family members say she was dead within 10 seconds.
Mitchell has since been arrested, is facing a murder charge, and sits in the Doddridge Regional Jail. Monongalia County Circuit Judge Phillip Gaujot denied Mitchell bail earlier today.
Although an older Mitchell fired the fatal shots, Stafford warned Helms it was the younger Mitchell—Larry’s son, Nathan—who might kill her. (The two men took separate vehicles to the parking lot. After interviewing Nathan, police initially said they believed Larry acted alone.)
“He told her once he would kill her and put her out back and nobody would ever know she was there, or care,” Helms said. Helms planned to propose to Stafford once her divorce was final.
“She told me about mental, verbal abuse,” Helms said. “She said he threw her down on the bed (but) never got too much into that. She just didn’t want to talk about it.”
According to Helms’ mother, Mary Newton, who worked with Stafford, Nathan was so controlling the young mother had to sneak calls to her friends while at work and wasn’t allowed to visit her family while under his thumb. Other than one visit just after the toddler’s birth, Stafford’s relatives say they never saw Faith, because Stafford was not allowed to take the child for family visits.
It was that controlling environment that finally caused Stafford to flee the Shinnston home she and Nathan shared with his parents last year, after Nathan refused to go for marital counseling with her. She also begged him to move out, so they could have a place of their own for Faith, friends said.
So she left sometime in late spring 2010, and tried to take Faith with her. But the family refused to let the baby go. Instead, Nathan and his mother physically removed Stafford from the home, Helms said. Stafford did the only thing she could: she called the local police.
Shinnston Police Chief Michael Secreto said an officer went to the Mitchell home and he vaguely remembers hearing about the incident. “But there was nothing we could do. If there’s no (custodial court order) we refer the parent to go get an order from the magistrate,” Secreto said.
So Stafford did what she was told. She went to court, and then she tried to negotiate the challenging legal system without an attorney. Helms said she couldn’t afford one, not even when the Mitchell family claimed she was a drug user who abused her baby—an allegation Stafford’s family and almost everyone who knew her flatly disputes, in dozens of Facebook posts.
Nonetheless, Stafford found herself facing a family judge who based her decision on testimony given by the Mitchells and erred on the side of caution, in initially only permitting supervised visitation between mother and daughter. Child Protective Services (CPS) also got involved.
Then Stafford got a break. That’s because just two months ago, Helms, whose father Terry died in the Jan. 1, 2006 Sago mine explosion, sold his father’s house. Helms used the money to hire Stafford an attorney.
She had been cleared of all child abuse allegations brought up by the Mitchells.
“There never was an open case, because CPS never found anything,” Tabitha Jeffries said. Jeffries and Stafford were best friends throughout childhood. They grew up next door to each other in Kingwood.
Jeffries, a nurse, said she spoke to Stafford after an April 18 court hearing, when Reep ruled Stafford could have overnight visits with Faith, as well as shared custody with Nathan Mitchell. But three days later, Stafford was murdered.
Reep was to issue her final custody decree on April 27, the day Stafford was buried. According to The Dominion Post, the case has since been dismissed.
Everyone close to the case says the Mitchell family—who have had custody of Faith all this time—feared they were losing control of Stafford and her daughter. That’s what friends of the slain mother are posting on Facebook.
“If you would have asked me on April 20, I would have said (Larry) was a good guy, but he was controlled by Sandra (his wife) and Nathan,” Kristen Thompson, a friend of Staffords, said during an interview at the funeral home. “(Larry) was in the background . . . he’d come home, eat dinner, and go into his bedroom. He was already in prison, pretty much, living there.”
Kristen said her gut tells her “Larry didn’t act alone.” That wouldn’t surprise Helms’ mother, Mary Newton, who was worried about Stafford’s safety.
Newton said the Mitchells couldn’t be trusted. “Shannon said, ‘Well Nathan won’t do anything to me when he has the baby around.'”
But Newton persisted. “I asked about his dad and Shannon said, ‘Larry wouldn’t do anything like that. He’s not that kind of person.'”
Stafford’s estranged mother-in-law was another matter, however. “She knew Sandra was. She was afraid of Sandra,” Newton said.
No one responded to phone calls about this story made to the Mitchell home, to Nathan’s cell phone, or to an email sent to Nathan at his Facebook page. Stafford’s attorney, John Danford, said he couldn’t comment on the case. Judy Sawyer, who has been appointed Faith’s guardian ad litem, said likewise. A call to the Harrison County CPS office was not returned.
Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston said every detective in his department is working on the case, and all evidence will be handed over to Monongalia County Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown once the investigation is complete.
Editor’s note: You can reach Daleen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daleen Berry has expertise in overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment. 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.”
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