Non-Fiction True Crime
When Karen Spears Zacharias wrote the first draft of a book about the child abuse killing of a 3-year-old Corvallis girl in 2005, she did so as a journalist.
Great, her agent said. Now, rewrite it and include the other role you played in the book.
The result is the just-released “A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder” (MacAdam/Cage, hardback), which twines the former newspaper reporter’s dogged investigative reporting with the revelation that she had once been a close friend of the child’s mother, Sarah Sheehan, and is friends with the child’s father, David Sheehan. (The two divorced in 2003.)
If the Hermiston author blames the system for failing the little girl, she is unflinching in her belief that Sarah Sheehan’s neglect also allowed a boyfriend, Shawn Field, to murder Karly, one of 18 Oregon children who died of abuse in 2005.
Sarah Sheehan was not charged in connection with the death.
Revealing her connection to Sarah and David “was the only honest way I could tell the story,” says Zacharias, 55, who will be in Springfield Monday to discuss the book as part of an event sponsored by Jasper Mountain Center, a nonprofit agency that works with abused children.
In conjunction with National Child Abuse Prevention Month, Zacharias will join Jasper Executive Director Dave Ziegler and Greg Ahlijian — author of a children’s book, “The Large Rock and the Little Yew” — at 11 a.m. in the Council Chamber at Springfield City Hall, 225 Fifth St.
I wrote a column in 2005 about Zacharias’ first book, “After the Flag Has Been Folded” (Harper), about her father’s death in Vietnam. And, at her request, I read an early draft of her latest book.
Given the book’s subject, it’s necessarily a disturbing read at times. And, occasionally, Zacharias’ emotions intrude on the telling of the story. But, taken as a whole, it’s an important, meticulously documented book that required no small amount of courage on the author’s part. Unlike some others, Zacharias refused to “look the other way,” even if it meant losing friendships or ruffling feathers.
Sarah Sheehan lived with Zacharias’ family for a year in Pendleton during some troubled teenage times, then later left for Corvallis to attend Oregon State in 1995. There she met David, who had moved to Corvallis from Ireland to work for Hewlett-Packard.
They were married in 1998. Karly was born in 2002.
“I’m sure it looks like I’m betraying Sarah, and I’m not going to argue that,” Zacharias says. “But here’s what I’m left with: Do I tell the truth about this or do I not — out of loyalty to a long lost friendship? (The latter) is what happens in abuse cases. Hey, Sarah wasn’t a great mom. Everyone saw it. Nobody wanted to say it.”
Not that Sarah Sheehan was the ultimate “bad guy” in all this. In 2006, Field was found guilty by a Benton County jury on 17 charges, including felony murder and torture. He’s serving a 46-year sentence.
Zacharias believes that Sarah Sheehan knew of the abuse but ignored it, lied about it and, when trapped in questioning, deflected the allegations of it toward her ex-husband, David, by all accounts a committed father to Karly.
An autopsy showed Karly Sheehan, who died at Field’s duplex, had 60 separate injuries from head to toe. The coroner’s report said she had “substantial trauma to the head, physical symptoms consistent with asphyxiation by smothering.”
Zacharias said there were many who failed Karly. Among them: a Corvallis Police Department that didn’t do a thorough enough investigation after a child care facility owner reported possible abuse. And a state human services system that didn’t require Karly to be examined by a doctor well-versed in child care cases.
“We all failed her,” Zacharias wrote. “We are all guilty.”
Zacharias blames herself for breaking off communication with Sarah after learning she was leaving David; Karly had been dead for two years before Zacharias heard the news.
“But I did my work as a journalist,” she says. “I told a story that will educate and empower people to speak up against children being abused.”
If a silver lining exists in this dark-cloud story, it is “Karly’s Law,” a bill spearheaded by state Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis. It mandates that if a caseworker or law enforcement official interviews a child with suspicious injuries, they must take photos of those injuries and share the pictures with a county Child Abuse Response Team. What’s more, within 48 hours, the child must be seen by a previously designated medical professional specialized in child abuse.
It is, of course, not just Benton County’s problem.
“Lane County has the highest occurrence of child abuse in the state of Oregon,” says Linda Christensen, special projects coordinator for Jasper Mountain. “We have had too many children die as a result of it, too many children removed from their homes and placed in foster care, too many children in residential care, too many children damaged and without hope.
“That can change when we come together, do whatever we can to be of help and let children see, perhaps for the first time, they have value and someone cares.”
One Karly Sheehan is one too many.
Bob Welch is at 541-338-2354 or email@example.com.