Karen Spears Zacharias
By LARRY GIERER — email@example.com
Karen Spears Zacharias said Tuesday writing “Mother of Rain” was the most frightening thing she has done as an author.
It is her first novel.
The Columbus High graduate, who teaches journalism at Central Washington University, said she felt as if she was trying to jump over the Grand Canyon as she took her “haunting tale of hardship and war” from one point to the next.
“I wanted to get it right,” she said of the book she has worked on intermittently since 2005.
She is currently on tour promoting the book and will be at The French Market in Pine Mountain, Ga., at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. Author Ann Hite, who wrote the novel “The Storycatcher,” will be with her.
Zacharias, known nationally for her non-fiction works “After the Flag Has Been Folded” and “A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder,” has had her writing featured in publications such as USA Today and the New York Times.
The new book is published in paperback by Mercer University Press.
Zacharias toiled on this book while writing others.
“As a former newspaper reporter, I am used to working on several projects at once,” she said.
Though the book is a work of fiction, Zacharias said she did almost as much research as with her non-fiction books.
Much of that research involved learning about the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment because part of the story involves the invasion of Normandy in World War II.
She said research has allowed her to give an accurate description of Appalachian life in the 1940s. The setting is the rural mountain community called Christian Bend in Tennessee, “a holler,” where she would visit relatives as a child.
The lead character is Maizee Hurd a woman whom a character in the book describes as “an easy target for hard times.”
The story centers around the troubled Hurd, her soldier husband Zeb and their deaf son Rain.
“Maizee can’t silence the demons in her own head,” Zacharias said.
The book has received some reviews of which Zacharias is proud.
Lee Smith, author of the novel “Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-eyed Stranger” said, “Zacharias has carved a brilliant gem of a novel out of hard, uncompromising times and lives. Her remote mountain setting conceals misery, mystery and madness but also love, which comes in many forms. She is a wonderful writer.”
Zacharias has been encouraged by those reviews.
“I’m working on the sequel now,” she said.
Posted: Friday, August 23, 2013 7:38 pm
Hermiston writer Karen Spears Zacharias is gearing up for a national book tour promoting her first foray into historical fiction, “Mother of Rain.” The novel, set for release September 10, draws upon the author’s childhood experiences in the isolated mountain community of Christian Bend, Tennessee.
Zacharias has written six books in the past, but they all focused on journalistic storytelling. Her most recent work, “A Silence of Mockingbirds,” accounted the murder of a 3-year-old Corvallis girl, Karly Sheehan. The story earned her accolades in the literary community and many comparisons to Truman Capote, author of “In Cold Blood.”
Zacharias is a former reporter for the East Oregonian and Tri-City Herald who teaches journalism at Central Washington University.
“The goal of the journalist is to be truthful. … My whole life is a pursuit of that which is true,” said Zacharias. “I think it just manifests itself in my writing.”
Venturing into imaginative fiction was daunting for the writer — the literary world had always known her as a journalist, not a novelist. “I’m scared to death. It’s like leaping over the Grand Canyon,” she said.
However, Zacharias is excited for the fall tour, which will sweep through the Southeast and then the Northwest. “It’s like the first day of school, the first day of college,” she said.
“Mother of Rain” evokes the spirit of Appalachian life in the 1940s. For inspiration, Zacharias drew upon her own experiences growing up in West Georgia as well as the novel “Hitty, Her First Hundred Years” (a 1929 children’s about an adventurous doll), and the “Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English,” a compilation of Appalachian vernacular.
Zacharias describes the novel’s setting, Christian Bend, Tennessee, as a “holler.” In Smoky Mountain English, that means “a narrow spot in the back of the road” similar to Weston or Helix.
“I absolutely think that people in Eastern Oregon will relate to this because we live on the border by the mountains,” said Zacharias. “We have a connection to the land.”
The “Mother of Rain” tour begins at Barnes & Noble in Kennewick at noon Saturday.
In September, Zacharias will journey to Georgia, North and South Carolina and Tennessee. Through October and early November, she’ll hit key cities in Oregon and Washington.
Sometime around 2 a.m. I finally put down Karen Spears Zacharias’s A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder. Still, sleep would not come. My mind kept returning to the characters and the events, searching for understanding.
Part investigation, part memoir, A Silence of Mockingbirds tells the story of a recent high-profile Oregon murder case. Having once housed a young woman named Sarah during her college years, Karen Zacharias runs into her years later. When the author asks how her daughter, Karly, is, Sarah tells her she has passed away. Shocked, she looks up the toddler’s death online and discovers that an ex-boyfriend of Sarah’s has been found guilty of murdering Karly. Haunted by this news, she starts looking into the events leading up to Karly’s death.
A former crime reporter, Zacharias has done an impressive amount of research. Like Capote’s In Cold Blood, the book has been written in the tradition of new journalism, combining journalistic techniques with Zacharias’s own perspective and a literary description of events. The writer’s proximity to the people involved, along with her journalistic eye, make for incredible, fast-paced storytelling.
As the author recounts the community’s failures to save Karly, the suspense builds to nearly unbearable levels. Karly’s daycare teacher is the first to notice signs of abuse—Karly’s missing hair, bruises, and change in mood—and calls the authorities. In a sad error of shortsightedness, they target Karly’s biological father as the primary suspect. This mistake leads them to overlook Shawn Field—Sarah’s live-in boyfriend—as the potential abuser. While reading this, I kept thinking of a fact I once read: children living with a stepparent are forty times more likely to be killed in the home than those living with both biological parents. As Karly’s abuse escalates, the questions continue to mount: Why didn’t the authorities investigate Shawn Field from the start? Why did they settle for having Karly evaluated by her pediatrician rather than their designated child abuse specialist? And, why, most horribly, does Karly’s mother seem not to care?
Told in clean, avid prose, this is a must-read for anyone who likes true crime, suspense, or just plain good journalism. Those with a curiosity for the dark side of human nature will be reading long after the lights go out.
As April is National Child Abuse Prevention month, this book is extremely timely. It is also a very personal and emotional declaration of the need for all Americans, everywhere, to learn more about what should be done for children who exhibit suspicious physical injuries.
According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services more than five children a day are killed in this country as a result of child abuse. Eighty percent of the children killed are ages 4 and under and what might be the most surprising is that mothers commit the bulk of child abuse. Forty percent of all child abuse is committed by mothers acting alone. That is startling.
The author is an award-winning journalist who teaches journalism at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. She was also a mother-figure for Sarah Brill, an adopted troubled young girl who eventually became the dangerously incompetent mother of Karly Sheehan. The murder of young Karly has led to what is known in the state of Oregon as “Karly’s Law.” It mandates that children who exhibit suspicious physical injuries leading to a child abuse investigation must have photos of those injuries reviewed by a designated medical professional within the first 48 hours of that report.
This book is not just the story of a horrible crime committed by someone who seems likely mentally unbalanced if not outright evil, but also of how the crime could have been avoided and a child saved from a brutal tortuous death.
Rather than go into the details of the book I would like to give you a short outline and hope that you find a way to read it and think about how we, as a community, can prevent or at least reduce the incidents of child abuse.
Sarah Brill, an adopted child, had problems throughout her childhood and teen years. As a result of her behavior her adoptive parents sent her to a Christian boarding school in San Diego, California. She eventually lived with the author of this book, Ms. Zacharias, who had some success in bonding with her, but nothing altered her refusal to accept responsibility for her actions. Sarah was pregnant at twenty-years of age and gave up that child, Anne, to adoption. She later married David Sheehan, an Irish immigrant of strong character and a loving heart. When Karly came into their life many thought Sarah would change. In one sense she did. She became more irresponsible and out of control. David and Sarah divorced and the court decreed there should be a shared joint custody. Sarah met another man, Shawn Wesley Field, in a bar and became sexually involved with him. Shawn was convicted of Karly’s murder and is currently serving a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole, but he must serve 46 years before he becomes eligible. It seems too lenient to anyone who has read this story. There should be no parole – ever. But there is also a question of who else is guilty. Many people continue to believe that Karly’s mother, Sarah, may have had a considerable hand in her death. It is surprising that she was never charged with any crime.
But the author has a list of folks who must share some guilt. Early in the book she writes, “I know that criminal activity isn’t just law enforcement’s headache and taxpayers’ burden; it is somebody’s nightmare.” Before the book ends many people involved indicate that Karly’s death keeps them from peaceful sleep and they acknowledge or believe that they should have done more. The author frequently expresses that she should have stepped in more often and forcefully, and her very heart-felt emotion is frequently clearly written as she tells this horrid tale. Social workers, prosecuting attorneys, police investigators, practically anyone attached to Sarah and Karly in any way, seem to feel some guilt that they hadn’t reacted more quickly or with more attention to detail. At the sentencing of Shawn Field, Judge Janet Holcomb stated from the bench, “As a community we have to do some deep soul-searching about how, or if, we might have responded sooner. Might there have been an intervention that could have saved this child’s life?…If we are really willing to look at ourselves, this soul-searching might be the very little bit of good that we can create from this otherwise senseless loss.”
I strongly recommend this book to everyone in the San Francisco Criminal Justice system. It’s not a long book, approximately 300 pages. Although the author frequently lets her subjective feelings interfere with her reporting, the impact of the story is delivered. We have a huge obligation to our smallest, weakest victims who rely on us to protect them.
Reviewed by Matt Miles for Englewood Review of Books.
I knew two things about the subject of Karen Spears Zacharias’ new book A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder going in: it was about the brutal murder of an innocent child, and this murder was preventable. This wasn’t going to be light reading, but I knew it was necessary. Especially as a former educator, I felt the weight of responsibility to see signs of abuse others had missed. This wouldn’t be pleasant, but hopefully it would be informative and in that sense, redemptive.
The explanation of the title at the beginning didn’t allay my suspicions of a heavy read. Citing the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the book begins by explaining mockingbirds’ tendency to stand up to any predator regardless of size. Sadly, this posture does not ensure success for the mockingbird. From this starting point, the reader faces the grim reality that the people with the most power to protect three year old Karly Sheehan failed to do so.
I should note at this point that while it’s difficult to call such a sobering work as this uplifting, my fears of it being depressing were unwarranted. “Depressing” hauls the heavy baggage of making the reader fall in love with sadness and even despair with no greater point. I’d also include in this category books that make the reader angry just for the emotions’ sake. There is deep sadness in Mockingbirds, and it evokes anger, but there is a greater point. There are several, in fact, and for those reasons I’m glad I continued reading.
First, this is a love story. Karly’s father, David Sheehan, was a good father who loved his daughter and cared for her as best he could. Memories of conversations and interactions between father and daughter are sprinkled throughout this story, adding a layer of beauty to the memories of this life cut tragically short. Karen Spears Zacharias is a good storyteller, and if you haven’t checked out her blog on Patheos, you should. What makes her a good storyteller shows in this book: her attention to detail and listening ear. Having received permission from David to share this story enabled her to hear and share stories that bring these sweet but painful memories to life. These memories serve to honor the brief life of an innocent girl who loved and was loved. The author’s empathy and attention to detail serve this purpose well—the love between father and daughter is palpable.
This is also a lament for the system’s failure to defend the most vulnerable among us. This part could get tricky, given the intensity of the subject matter, and could easily dissolve into angry finger-pointing. Karen Spears Zacharias doesn’t pull punches, and she is angry as she should be, but that doesn’t cloud her judgment. Her interviews and attention to detail lay bare the facts, pinpointing the missed opportunities to stop the abuse before it led to Karly’s death. The reader sees the exact moment the case shifted from protecting Karly to catching David, who sadly was one of the only two people who handled this situation correctly. If Karly had been examined by the right people, her abuser, who had a criminal record including domestic violence, would have been investigated and prosecuted.
The killer, despite a stubborn lack of communication with the author, is given attention that makes his actions even more inexplicable and monstrous. He was raised in a loving Christian home, loved his own daughter, and visibly showed concern for her with an unquestionable sincerity. Possibilities for motives are explored, as they are for Sarah’s neglect as Karly’s mom, but there are no easy answers. The only possible hope in this case would have been the cold hard facts. If Child Services had seen to Karly being examined by the right people, Shawn Wesley Field’s dark purposes would have no longer been hidden.
Unfortunately, Shawn Wesley Field didn’t even enter the radar until his abuse finally killed Karly. A tragic bias towards mothers, even ones who don’t show the least bit of interest in their own children, set sights on David rather than Sarah’s boyfriend. Sarah, as Karly’s mom, at the very least shared blame with the system in her failure to protect her own daughter. The attention to these facts and inclusion of necessary details keeps the focus on lament rather than angry blame. This didn’t need to end in death.
Lastly and most importantly, A Silence of Mockingbirds is a call to action. The reader is encouraged to look up and support Karly’s Law, a law passed in Oregon that is saving lives. There are also examples in the story and helps in the back of the book to aid in spotting and reporting abuse. The U.S. leads industrialized countries in child abuse, and most abuse happens to children three and under. Most of the abuse is either allowed or caused by mothers acting alone (over forty percent), as opposed to fathers (18). The seriousness of neglect, which makes up for seventy five percent of abuse, also demands recognition and action. We all can and should do more to defend the defenseless among us.
BY SUSAN RICHMOND
FOR THE YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLIC
The electricity is out this morning as I write. There is an unusual silence. No fans or refrigerator motor humming. The clothes dryer stilled and the coffee no longer hot. Even the birds are quiet.
Karen Spears Zacharias teaches journalism at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, and she wrote this true-crime book, “A Silence of Mockingbirds,” while serving as writer in residence at the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts in Alabama. Her previous book, “Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide (‘Cause I Need More Room for My Plasma TV),” was published by Zondervan in 2012.
Best-selling crime writer Ann Rule has said, “‘A Silence of Mockingbirds’ is beautifully written by a very talented investigative journalist. But, even more, this is Karen Zacharias’ own story, too, one of trust betrayed. A tragic book that we should all take to heart. We cannot change the past but we can save children who are in peril now. Spears Zacharias has given us Karly’s legacy, that of a small, bright spirit who loved and was loved. And yet destroyed by heedless caretakers. A must-read. Compelling and heartbreaking.”
Spears Zacharias writes not just as an observer, but as a participant in this heartbreaking story. Karly, the innocent victim, is the daughter of Sarah, the young woman Spears Zacharias and her husband sheltered during Sarah’s troubled teens. They provided a safe haven and a loving network for Sarah. Sarah and Karly both had so many people who loved and cared for them, yet Karly suffered untold neglect and injury at the hands of those who should have loved her most.
Spears Zacharias’ story is heartbreaking — not only because she cared so deeply for both Sarah and Karly, but because she is left with the unanswerable questions of how these things happened. How do children like Karly, only 3 years old, fall through the cracks of the systems in place? Spears Zacharias has told this haunting story in a way that is full of compassion and frustration. How can overt clues be overlooked or ignored when a child is being abused?
Well, just like this. This book doesn’t have a happy ending. The birds are unusually quiet this morning. We don’t have any mockingbirds around here, but the bird book says they often sing at night.
* Spears Zacharias will be in Yakima at 7 p.m. April 17, telling this story at Oak Hollow Gallery, 5631 Summitview Ave. in Chalet Place. The event is sponsored by Inklings Bookshop.
* “A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder” was published April 1 by MacAdam/Cage. It retails for $25.
* Susan Richmond owns Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in this space each week.
Editorial: Karly’s story lets us take stock in battle against abuse
Although we didn’t plan it that way, it was fitting that Gazette-Times reporter Emily Gillespie’s story about the new book probing the heartbreaking Karly Sheehan case appeared on Sunday, the start of National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
It is true, of course, that the publication of the book, “A Silence of Mockingbirds,” by Karen Spears Zacharias, was timed to correspond with the national month. But regardless, the book and the news story provide a good opportunity to take stock of where we’ve made progress in battling child abuse, and where we need to keep pushing.
The good news is that we have made some progress since the horrifying 2005 case in which 3-year-old Karly died of injuries inflicted by Shawn Field, the boyfriend of the child’s mother – a case made all the more horrifying because of the missed opportunities to save the child’s life.
For starters, we have the law that bears Karly’s name that was pushed through the Legislature by state Rep. Sara Gelser. Karly’s Law requires that whenever child abuse is suspected, the vulnerable child is examined by a child-abuse expert within 48 hours – and mandates that photographs of suspicious injuries be taken. Either step might have triggered an intervention that could have saved Karly’s life.
Gelser reports that in the first year after the measure was signed into law, the number of abuse exams for children climbed 74 percent; over four years, she said, the number increased by some 180 percent.
That’s not necessarily because there’s more child abuse occurring, Gelser noted, but rather that we’re more attuned to noticing signs of abuse earlier.
That’s a good development. There is, of course, more that we can do – and nonprofit agencies and others are hard at work. At Monday’s City Council meeting, Maria Chavez-Haroldson, the executive director of Benton County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), and Toni Ryan, the executive director of the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence (CARDV), talked about their efforts.
The Benton County branch of CASA, of course, makes sure that someone – a court-appointed special advocate – represents the best interest of some 100 children each year as cases involving those children wind through the court system.
CARDV offers shelter for women fleeing domestic violence – and, Ryan said, there’s a strong link between domestic violence and child abuse. CARDV is about a month away from the grand opening of its Advocacy Center in Corvallis, a facility that will offer hope for victims of domestic violence and child abuse. That will be a huge step for CARDV – and for the rest of us as well.
On the six-year anniversary of Karly’s death, her father, David, visited the gravesite, sat down on the ground, and read her a book. Maybe it’s too much to hope that we can wipe out the need for other heartbreaking scenes like that one. But we certainly can work toward that day.
Read more: http://www.gazettetimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/editorial-karly-s-story-lets-us-take-stock-in-battle/article_c6ccec50-7d24-11e1-9637-001a4bcf887a.html#ixzz1r6eL7a9m
Published: (Tuesday, Apr 3, 2012 05:01AM)Midnight, April 3
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author will discuss book on child abuse, death of Oregon girl
By Paula Horton, Tri-City Herald
The death of a 3-year-old girl from Corvallis, Ore., at the abusive hands of her mother’s boyfriend is a gripping story on its own, but the author of the true crime novel says she hopes her book will serve as manual for spotting and stopping child abuse.
A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder recounts the 2005 murder of Karly Sheehan. Author Karen Spears Zacharias, a Hermiston resident and former Tri-City Herald reporter, knew the girl’s family and admits she was stunned when she heard about it.
“As a journalist, I had worked the crime beat and cops and courts for several years. … You cover these stories, and your heart is rendered for the people on either side — whatever the situation you realize … that these are real people and they’re really hurting,” she told the Herald. “But you never think you’re going to be part of that hurting crowd.”
But, what also stunned Zacharias is that she found out Karly had been abused repeatedly by Shawn Fields in the eight months before her death, but the system that is supposed to protect children failed Karly.
Karly’s day care provider reported concerns about abuse to the proper authorities. Even her father, David Sheehan, provided pictures to the Department of Child Protective Services in December 2004 when Karly showed up at his home for a visit almost bald with bruises on her head.
Zacharias said CPS workers determined Karly pulled out her own hair and may have been suffering from a nervous disorder. Six months later, Karly was dead.
“This book gives people the tools to see where maybe this might be happening in their own families,” she said. “This books puts all the signs together, shows the pattern and gives them the tools … they can then be the voice for the next child.”
Zacharias, who also teaches journalism at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, timed her book release to coincide with National Child Abuse Prevention Month. She will be at Barnes & Noble at Columbia Center mall in Kennewick at 6 p.m. Tuesday, signing her book and talking about what she learned about child abuse during the five years she spent researching the story.
“Over five children a day are dying in this nation at the hands of child abuse, and 80 percent are like Karly, ages 3 and under,” she said.
She also found that 80 percent of all child abuse is done by the biological parent, with the majority caused by the mother acting alone.
But in Karly’s case, her father, David Sheehan, doted on his daughter. He was her primary caretaker, paid for child care and even started a college fund for her.
Her mother, Sarah Sheehan, never was charged in Karly’s death, even though she didn’t take Karly to the hospital the day she died after seeing her eye was swollen shut, Zacharias said.
The district attorney early on decided Karly’s mom had suffered enough by the loss of her child, Zacharias said, but “I don’t think the DA or court ever takes that position when dealing with a father.”
In fact, David Sheehan became the prime suspect in Karly’s death, even though he hadn’t seen her in a week and had reported his concerns about his daughter being abused when she was with his ex-wife, she said.
Fields was convicted of Karly’s murder and is serving a 46-year prison sentence. In the book, Zacharias writes about how at sentencing the judge said the community needed to do some “deep soul-searching about how or if we might have responded sooner. Might there have been an intervention that could have saved this child’s life? I don’t know, but after hearing all the evidence, it seems there was a continuum of failure after the first hint that there was something terribly, terribly wrong.”
After Karly’s death, Oregon State lawmakers created Karly’s Law, which requires that within 48 hours of a report of abuse, a child must be examined by a doctor specially trained in child abuse and have pictures taken.
Zacharias said she would like to see Karly’s Law become a national law, and she hopes her book helps spur the discussion to make that happen.
“We read more and more (about abuse), and we shake our head, and we feel bad. We feel so bad for these children. But abused children do not need us to feel bad for them, they need us to act,” she said. “… In Karly’s story, we get an insider’s look at the subtle manipulation and outright deceitfulness that goes into child abuse. We don’t usually get that bird’s-eye view.
“I know this book is speaking to a lot of people,” she added. “Karly’s story is so powerful because it teaches us how this works and how it continues to happen over and over again.”
Information about child abuse and Karly’s Law is included in the back of Zacharias’ book and on her website, karenzach.com. There’s also a link to “Meet Karly Sheehan” on her website for people who want to know more about Karly.
Karen Spears Zacharias authored “A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder.” The book tells the story of the death of 3-year-old Karly Sheehan and the ripple effect it had on Corvallis. (Provided photo)
MEET THE AUTHOR
Zacharias and many of those that were involved in the case and part of the book will be at a reading at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library Thursday at 7 p.m. She said she hopes the event also serves as a form of community self-reflection.
“As a community, we have these traumatic events and we may be talking about it over coffee, but we don’t come together collectively as a community to talk about it,” she said.
At the event, there will be book sales coordinated through Jack Wolcott, co-owner of Grass Roots Books and Music. One hundred percent of the proceeds from Thursday’s sales will go toward the Karly Sheehan Fund at the Benton County Foundation, which funnels money to the ABC House, CASA — Voices for Children, and Linn Benton Food Share.
“The purpose of an independent book store is to support the community, and there’s no point of going halfway on something like this,” Wolcott said. “We just wanted to make sure we were fully supportive.”
And while the book serves as a means to prevent future abuse, for David the book also acts a way for Karly to be shown the way he sees her: an innocent little girl who died too soon.
“For a long period of time, (Karly) was a case number or a victim,” Sheehan said. “Karen did a really good job at capturing Karly’s spirit and I’m glad to see that.”
Another event will also be hosted at the Albany Public Library on Sunday, April 10, at 6:30 p.m.
Author publishes book on life, death of Corvallis child
Even though she had worked a number of years as a crime reporter, Karen Spears Zacharias says that nothing prepared her for the crime that affected her personally.
“I covered case after case of domestic violence and murder and sex abuse … and I understood that there were people behind every headline,” she said. “It sounds so trite but it is so true: You don’t think anyone you know is going to be in that headline.”
In her case, the heartache came after she learned that Karly Sheehan of Corvallis, the 3-year-old daughter of her close friend Sarah Sheehan, had been murdered.
And when Zacharias learned of the horrific details — that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl had been beaten to death by her mother’s boyfriend, Shawn Field — she knew she was going to write Karly’s story.
Zacharias, a journalist who had written four books, originally set out to tell the story objectively.
“The initial completed manuscript was all true crime. My agent read it and said, ‘You did a great job, now you’ve got to go back and rewrite the whole thing.’” Zacharias said. “The minute she said it, I knew she was right. There was no way to be that journalist in the story given the relationship I had with Sarah and David (Sheehan, Karly’s father). … You have to be honest with the reader.”
So Zacharias took another year. The result is her just-published 322-page book, “A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder.”
In it, Zacharias chronicles the story of her friendship with Karly’s mother, Sarah Sheehan. She also writes about her research into the case, which included interviews with Karly’s father, David Sheehan; Joan Demerest, who prosecuted the case; Delynn Zoller, the child care provider who first noticed the abuse; and the jurors who convicted Field.
‘Like a daughter’
Zacharias initially became close to Sarah Sheehan when the two lived in Pendleton.
“Sarah was like a daughter to me,” Zacharias said. As a teenager, Sarah even lived with Zacharias for about a year in Pendleton.
But the two got into a fight in 2003 when Sarah told Zacharias that she was divorcing David, whom Zacharias thought was a good husband and good father to Karly. The next time they spoke, four years later, Karly was dead.
When Zacharias first learned that Karly was tortured and that her tiny body suffered more than 60 injuries before her death, she said she couldn’t move.
“I felt like my lungs collapsed, I could not breathe,” she said. “My mind just went wild. I thought, Oh my God, David never knew that Sarah and I had a falling-out. I’d never called. … I just was absent from all of that.”
Zacharias started her journey by making sure David Sheehan was OK with publishing his story. When Zacharias approached him, Sheehan was willing.
“I see the book as a responsibility to Karly’s legacy. It’s an important story to tell,” Sheehan said. “It’s a pretty accurate account of what happened … and Karen did a really good job of capturing Karly’s spirit.”
The murder of the young girl affected more than Karly’s family. It rattled all of Corvallis.
“I don’t know anyone who was not changed by this case,” Zacharias said.
And that includes the law enforcement and other officials who still wonder today if Karly could have been saved.
Her murderer is now serving sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 46 years at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton.
‘A continuum of failure’
Throughout her book, Zacharias references a question posed by Judge Janet Holcomb during Field’s sentencing: “Might there have been an intervention that could have saved this child’s life? I don’t know, but after hearing all the evidence it seems there was a continuum of failure after the first hint that there was something terribly, terribly wrong.”
Delynn Zoller, who owns Rugrats Traditional Home Child Care, was the first to spot trouble in the toddler, when in the fall of 2004 Karly showed up to daycare with thinning hair. When Karly uttered the words, “My daddy hits me,” Zoller called the state’s child abuse hotline. Despite the fact that the trouble started shortly after Sarah moved in with Fields and Karly was living part-time under their roof, the investigation was aimed at David Sheehan.
The next day, Sarah and David Sheehan took Karly to their primary care physician. At the same time, the Corvallis Police Department and the Department of Human Services investigated Karly’s injuries as possible child abuse.
Because the couple had an appointment with their doctor already scheduled, DHS worker Matt Stark allowed Karly to be reviewed by her doctor and did not refer her to ABC House, a child abuse assessment center that serves Linn and Benton counties.
The findings of the investigation were inconclusive, so the case was labeled unfounded for abuse.
Police investigated other suspicious injuries such as bruises and more hair loss, but when they interviewed Field and Sarah Sheehan, the two explained that Karly was causing the injuries to herself. Other injuries were attributed to trips and falls.
No one intervened, and Karly remained living partly with David and partly with Sarah and Shawn Field until she was pronounced dead at 2:40 p.m. on June 3, 2005.
“Karly’s death is not simply a tragedy — it’s an unforgivable shame,” Zacharias wrote.
Learning from mistakes
State Rep. Sara Gelser, who represents Corvallis and paid close attention to the case, pushed for legislation aimed at preventing the same errors from recurring.
Karly’s Law requires that whenever child abuse is suspected, the vulnerable child must be examined by a child abuse expert within 48 hours. Photographs are to be taken of suspicious injuries, acting as medical evidence if a crime is prosecuted. The law unanimously passed in both houses in 2007 with an emergency clause so that it could immediately go into effect.
Gelser thinks Karly would have been saved had she been seen by a child abuse expert early on.
Dr. Carol Chervenak, who at the time was the medical director for the ABC House, testified that she would have noticed the signs of abuse months before her death, Zacharias writes.
Since its passage, Gelser said, the law has worked.
In the first year after it was signed into legislation, the number of physical abuse exams for children increased by 74 percent and by 180 percent over four years.
“Before Karly’s Law, whether a child went to a medical professional was at the discretion of a DHS worker or police officer,” Gelser said. “Now we are getting them to the experts.”
The result of the law, she said, is that children who are being abused get fast action from those who can help them.
“We’re intervening more appropriately and more quickly,” Gelser said. “Abuse shapes not only the life of that child but the lives of their children and their children’s children … . We’re building safer families.”
The book’s April release was intended to coincide with National Child Abuse Prevention Month, Zacharias said.
“A Silence of Mockingbirds” is endorsed by the national advocacy group Childhelp, which focuses on the prevention and treatment of child abuse.
“What I hope this book does is urge every state to enact the same kind of law because it just makes sense,” Zacharias said. “If that law had existed in November of 2004, Karly would be alive today.”
In the book, Zacharias admits to at least one reservation about the project: The reaction the book will have on Sarah Sheehan, a woman from whom Zacharias once received Mother’s Day cards. (Sheehan declined to be interviewed for the book. Attempts by the Gazette-Times to reach Sarah Sheehan for comment were unsuccessful.)
“I worry about how betrayed Sarah is going to feel reading these words,” Zacharias writes.
But the idea of another child experiencing Karly’s nightmare pushed Zacharias past that hesitation.
“Each of us has to read Karly’s story and to learn those lessons and do better because we know better,” Zacharias said. Her hope for the book, she said, is “to have a different ending for another child.”
Emily Gillespie can be reached at 541-758-9548 or email@example.com.
The minute I walked out the door of Benton-County Courthouse in Corvallis, Oregon in 2007, my cell phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but it didn’t take me long to figure out who the angry woman yelling at me was. I knew Sarah Brill Sheehan like I know my own daughters. For a season in life, Sarah was like a daughter to me. She lived in my home, ate at my table, laughed with my children, and swapped stories with me.
But this Sarah, the one ranting at the other end of the phone, was a stranger to me in many ways. She was right when she declared “You don’t know me anymore.” I sometimes wonder now if I ever really did know Sarah. I wonder if anyone has ever really known her.
I’m not denying that Sarah had a right to be upset with me. I had debated numerous times about whether I should tell her that I was working on a book about the murder of her daughter, Karly Sheehan. I was torn over it.
“Don’t you think you owed me a phone call?” she implored.
It was the question I’d asked myself a gazillion times. I intended to tell Sarah at some point, but first I wanted time to sort through the court’s documentation and to get in as many preliminary interviews as I could. I was doing my best to approach the story as a journalist, gathering the facts the way I had done hundreds of other times during my tenure as a reporter.
Two years had passed since Sarah made that desperate 911 call on June 3, 2005.
“What’s your emergency?’ asked Dispatcher Andy Thompson. Sarah was so distraught it took nearly a minute before she was able to say, “My daughter is not breathing.”
I didn’t learn that by reading the newspapers. I obtained a copy of the 911 call and heard for myself the hysteria that detectives would later describe as just too intense. I don’t know how law enforcement makes such a determination, but there was something in Sarah’s demeanor that made them uncomfortable, made them wonder what role, if any, she played in her own daughter’s murder.
My husband was the first to tell me that Karly had been murdered. I knew in that very moment that I would write A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder (Macadam/Cage, $25, pub date April 1st), although I have always referred to it simply as Karly’s story. I also knew doing so would enrage Sarah, and maybe others, and that’s why I’d put off telling her. I’d been at work on the book for a couple of months when she got wind of it.
The reporter at the Corvallis Gazette-Times who had covered the trial called and told Sarah I was at the courthouse that day. The two had become friends during the course of the newspaper’s coverage. I don’t fault the reporter for that. It happens. Try as we might to remain objective, journalists are human. It would be unnatural for a reporter to not feel empathy for the mother of a murdered child.
But despite my history with Sarah, or perhaps because of it, my empathies weren’t with her. They were with David Sheehan, Karly’s father. I knew David adored Karly. It was the thing I had said to Sarah when she called me in 2003 to tell me she was leaving David.
Even then, I was panicked at the thought of what that would mean for Karly. I knew Sarah well enough to know that if she had custody of their daughter, Karly would be neglected. But I never in my most neurotic worrisome ways ever imagined that Karly would be tortured to death.
David was the first person I called after I learned of Karly’s death. He was the only person I asked permission from to write this story. I felt strongly then, and feel even more strongly now that David was the other victim. As an immigrant to this country from Kenmare, County Kerry, Ireland, David was an outsider. Due in part to Sarah’s carefully-constructed lies, David became the state’s primary suspect in the murder of the daughter he was trying so desperately to save.
It wasn’t the nightmare that Karly endured that propelled me to write this story. Nor did I write it because of any feelings of ill-will toward Sarah. Most often when I think of Sarah, I feel nothing but an overwhelming emptiness. Sarah’s pursuit of a life of reckless abandon cost Karly her life. In Karly the world lost a precious person who was all things bright and beautiful, and Sarah lost herself.
It was David’s love for Karly that compelled me to continue writing A Silence of Mockingbirds. I had witnessed the depths of David Sheehan’s love for his daughter. I knew him to be the better parent. But during my tenure as a court reporter, I’d also witnessed the biases our courts have towards women. I’d seen time again children placed in the hands of a reckless mother over a responsible father. I knew how reticent many district attorneys are to charge mothers with crimes, and when they do, how reluctant juries and judges are to hold mothers accountable.
Too often divorced fathers are portrayed in court and in media as deadbeats or parents-in-absentee. David was neither. He was, in fact, the best of fathers, which makes Karly’s death all that more inexplicable, troubling and tragic.
The United States has the highest rate of child abuse and neglect of any industrialized nation in the world. Over five children a day die in this country as a result of child abuse or neglect. Eighty percent of those children are, like Karly, ages four and under, too young and/or too frightened to cry for help. Child abuse fatalities nearly doubled in Oregon between 2009 and 2010, proving once more that no matter how many times the state’s Children Protective Services says it’s going to do better by its children, they don’t, and they never will until the public demands it of them.
There were times during the writing of A Silence of Mockingbirds that I questioned my abilities to tell this story, honestly, rightly. There was plenty to despair over, not only the cruelty of the man convicted of murdering Karly, but the broad-reaching incompetency of many that practically ensured Karly would not escape her killer’s hands.
Stuart Roberts, a police chief that I worked with during my reporting years, sent me the following message after reading the book:
I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for you to tell Karly’s story given the relationship you shared with Sarah. It is my sincere hope that by living/telling Karly’s story, you are able to find peace. I have never been one to accept those things I cannot change. I am more of the mindset to change those things I cannot accept. I think we are a lot alike in that respect. I applaud your courage, perseverance and keen sense of right v. wrong.
Author Flannery O’Connor once said that “Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”Indeed. The child abuse epidemic in this nation will continue unabated until we face the truth of it, and determine that we are going to change that which we cannot accept.
- Karly’s Law
- Karly’s Law mandates that children in Oregon who exhibit suspicious physical injuries in the course of a child abuse investigation must receive medical attention within 48 hours.Karly’s Law has specific requirements regarding the handling of cases involving suspicious physical injury that must be met by law enforcement, the Department of Human Services, and designated medical providers that have recieved specialized training to assess injuries that may have been caused by child physical abuse.— Oregon Department of Justice
Posted: Sunday, March 18, 2012 1:00 am
By KATHY ANEY
East Oregonian | 1 comment
Karly Sheehan had silky blonde hair, bright blue eyes and a life her father described as “a pursuit of joy.”
The 3-year old died in 2005 after her mother’s boyfriend beat the little girl to death in Corvallis. Her bruised body bore evidence of blunt trauma to the head. Many of her golden curls had been pulled out by the roots.
Hermiston author Karen Zacharias chronicles Karly’s story in a crime memoir called “A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder.” The tragic death eventually led the Oregon Legislature to create of Karly’s Law. And the story has roots in Umatilla County.
Zacharias, a journalist who started out a substitute teacher, met Karly’s mother at Helix School. Sarah Brill was 14, an athletic girl with striking, “Halle Berry beauty.” The two connected. Later, Brill even lived with the Zacharias family for a time at their Pendleton home.
Eventually, Brill moved to Corvallis to attend Oregon State University where she met and married David Sheehan, an Irish engineer. Sarah gave birth to Karly in 2002, but a year later, the couple divorced. Zacharias and Sarah lost touch after a phone argument about the divorce.
In 2007, Zacharias learned that Karly had died. With growing horror, she gleaned the details from newspaper accounts about the trial of Shawn Wesley Field, the man convicted of torturing and murdering the little girl. In court, Deputy District Attorney Joan Demarest had said the abuse was a scheme to get full custody of Karly and the resulting child support payments. Field hurt Karly, Demarest said, in order to blame child abuse on David.
Zacharias, former crime and courts reporter at the East Oregonian, spent five years chronicling the circumstances of Karly’s murder. She listened to recordings of court proceedings, read police files and viewed photographs.
“The courthouse personnel warned me not to look at the photos,” Zacharias said, “but I can’t describe something to a reader that I haven’t seen myself.”
She looked, maintained her journalistic demeanor, then went out to her car and bawled.
She interviewed David who said he had become increasingly suspicious after noticing hair loss and bruising in his daughter over a period of months. Karly, strong-willed and stoic, wouldn’t talk about it. Finally, David and Karly’s day care provider compared notes and the provider made a formal report. A state Department of Human Services investigation deemed the report unfounded. A doctor suspected that Karly was hurting herself, Zacharias said.
“David was desperate to protect her, but he faced a Goliath that we know as Children’s Protective Services,” she said.
Eventually the truth came out in court. Convicted of felony murder, Field, 33, started serving a life sentence at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, with no chance of parole for 46 years.
The book release is timed with the beginning of Children Abuse Prevention Month in April. Zacharias hopes the story will open her readers’ eyes to the existence of child abuse.
“Nearly five children die every day in America from abuse and neglect,” Zacharias said. “Abused children don’t need us to feel sorry for them. They need us to act on their behalf — as family, as friends, as neighbors, as teachers, as doctors, as law enforcement officers, as reporters, as pastors, and as legislators.”
Zacharias gave a galley copy of “Mockingbirds” to Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts, who began reading at his son’s basketball practice and finished at 2 o’clock the next morning.
“I knew the Karly Sheehan story from a very technical standpoint,” Roberts said. “When I read the copy of Karen’s book, I was absolutely moved. You cannot have any level of human compassion, read this story and not be sick to your stomach. I think, unfortunately, because of the nature of the subject matter, most people do not want to acknowledge the fact that these kinds of things happen, not only in society today but their own backyard.”
Bestselling author Ann Rule, who Zacharias interviewed as a reporter, called the book “a must read, compelling and heartbreaking.” She supplied a blurb for the book jacket.
David, 38, started reading the book on a flight to Taiwan, but couldn’t continue. Later, he picked it up again and finished.
“Karen did a good job keeping the focus on Karly and letting her humanity shine through,” he said.
David has since remarried and has slowly reawakened to life. After Karly’s death, “I hoped the ground would open up and swallow me. It was visceral.” Instead, he focused on his daughter’s killer.
“Holding Field accountable was job number one,” he said. “Day by day, bit by bit, I’ve patched my life back together.”
He said he will miss lazy Saturdays with Karly, a chatty jokester who found the good in life and answered questions about what she wanted to do with a cheery, “Play and have fun.”
“That was our game plan,” he said.
Karly’s death resulted in Karly’s Law, legislation introduced by Rep. Sara Gelser of Corvallis. The law tightens requirements for investigating potential child abuse victims. A specially-trained physician must examine a child with suspicious injuries within 48 hours. The initial investigator must take photos.
Zacharias will launch her book at Barnes & Noble, Kennewick on Tuesday, April 3 at 6 p.m. On Friday, April 13, she will appear at the Sno Ridge Winery in Echo for a reading event. The book was selected as a One Book One Community read for the Greater Baton Rouge area.
“A Silence of Mockingbirds” is Zacharias’ fourth book.
A future article will spotlight Karly’s Law and examine how Umatilla County handles reports of child abuse.