When our twin girls turned 13 we rented a barn in a big field on the outskirts of Pendleton, Oregon. We invited all their school friends and threw an old-fashioned barn dance party. A couple of college-age kids came and taught everyone there how to line dance. It also happened to be the same summer that Stephan, our son, turned 16, so we just did it up right and invited his friends as well.
I know how to throw a good party. We had a great many birthday parties for the kids when they were growing up. This one, the one where Ashley and Shelby turned 13, is one that shines bright in memory as the full moon did over that barn that night. Everyone remembers the barn dance birthday party. Everyone remembers the steps to the line dance that Jamie Beamer and her partner taught them.
It was a blast. It made me wish I owned a barn so that I could have line-dancing every Friday night.
1995 was the same year that Shawn Field married his girlfriend Eileen. Eileen was already pregnant with Shawn’s only child – a girl. That girl is grown up now. She was a good student. She loved reading and cats and the tow-headed girl she regarded like a little sister. A girl by the name of Karly Sheehan.
It didn’t take long for Eileen Field to realize that Shawn Field was a troubled soul. So she up and divorced him. Shawn was a manipulator, a liar, a cheat, selfish to the core, and worse of all he was a violent man. Eileen saw Shawn drop-kick animals across a room. Who knew what he might do to their child?
Karly Sheehan was the daughter of David Sheehan and Sarah Brill Sheehan. She was born on January 4th, 2002. Had she lived, Karly would turn 13 years old on Sunday.
When Shawn Field, long divorced from Eileen, hooked up with David’s ex-wife, Sarah, it was, detectives said later, a meeting of two con people who were trying to out con one another. It was difficult to determine who was the biggest manipulator in the relationship – Sarah or Shawn. At any rate, it cost Karly her life. Sarah provided cover for Shawn while he tortured Karly Sheehan to death.
It is an awful tale, the murder of Karly Sheehan. It will break your heart if you let it, and you should let it. We all ought to have our hearts broken at the thought of children being tortured, however, where ever it happens. God is going to hold us all accountable for the children who suffer. We are all going to stand before God one day and he is going to ask us straight up: What did you do for the least of these?
I hope I have a good answer.
I hope you do, too.
For the children’s sake.
A couple of years ago, as my own mother lay dying in the next room, I got a telephone call from a woman I’d met only once. She works with abused children. It’s a job she’s done for over twenty years now. She called to tell me about a dream she’d had. In her dream, Karly came to her. Karly had a message for me. She wanted me to know that she was okay, happy even, and that she knew about the book I’d written about her. Karly wanted me to know that she was with me, helping to get the message out about how we need to change the laws and the way we care for children, to help protect children better.
The gal giving me the message from Karly was clearly uncomfortable. She was worried I would think her a nut for calling me up like that, giving me a message from a child who died in June of 2005.
Yes. That’s right. Karly Sheehan was just three years old when she was murdered ten years ago.
Whenever, I think of Karly, which I do every single day, I think of her as being three. Never any older.
She wanted to grow up in the worse way. She spoke to her daddy of the things she would do when she was bigger. She planned to go to college. Maybe it’s because she lived in the town that is home to Oregon State University. Or maybe it’s because she was wise beyond her years. Either way, Karly couldn’t wait to grow up, to get to do all the things big girls do. Karly told her daddy she wanted to grow up and work in an office like he did. David is an engineer. Karly would have made a fine engineer. Karly adored her daddy. She felt safest in his presence. A lot of children feel safer with their daddies than they do their mommies anymore. Mommies commit the bulk of child abuse in this nation. It’s true. And the statistics on that ought to make us all a little more restless at night.
If Karly had lived to be 13, a barn dance would have been the perfect way to celebrate her birthday. She would have loved that. I can just see it now. A big red barn in a wide open field. It would have to be heated and enclosed, of course, because, well January barn dances are a lot colder than July ones. Karly would have on her jeans and pink cowgirl boots with glistening rhinestones in the toes because Karly loved to sparkle. She would have likely worn her long blond hair in pigtails and a straw hat atop her head. She would have, no doubt, made her own cake because no one else could have made it better than she could herself. And instead of everyone bringing her gifts, Karly would have taken the time to make friendship bracelets for all those attending her party. Even from an early age, Karly was a giver. There would be no need to bring someone else in to teach Karly and her friends how to line dance. Karly would have gotten on YouTube, figured out the routine herself, and she would have been the girl teaching everyone else the right steps.
She is doing that even now, from beyond her grave. Teaching all who pay attention the right steps to take.
I know because I have gotten the letters and phone calls telling me that. People call or write and tell me how Karly and her story have changed the way they think about children. Some have said that they are now providing safe havens for abused children. My own husband became a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children because of Karly Sheehan.
You should have been with me at the Christmas Eve service at church when a foster mom with half-a-dozen foster children came up and hugged my husband. The children gathered around and talked excitedly. They would grab hold of Tim’s hand or wrap their arms around his knees.
Children thrive when they feel safe and loved.
Karly was at her best in her daddy’s presence. She knew that nobody loved her as much as her daddy did.
David Sheehan would like for all of us to remember Karly Sheehan on this, what is her 13th birthday. Eat a cupcake. Have an ice cream cone. Get one of those cows that poops out candy and eat that. Karly loved that sort of thing. Gather all your stuffed animals up and teach them to line dance. Then, text me a picture of you doing something to remember Karly. I’ll share those photos here, and with David. Here’s a note from David about opportunities to celebrate Karly:
My wonderful daughter Karly would be turning 13 this Sunday, January 4th. I was so touched last year when many of you had cake on her birthday. On Sunday, there will be FREE treats for you in Corvallis, Portland or Kenmare. Please celebrate Karly by stopping by one of the establishments below and saying, “I would like a cupcake/cookie/ice cream (depending on the place) for Karly’s birthday.” Enjoy! She definitely would have. And thank you for helping me celebrate her!
– New Morning Bakery in Corvallis –> ask for a “New Morning” cookie
– Cupcake Jones in Portland (either the Pearl or NE Alberta) –> cupcake
– Kenmare Ice Cream –> ice cream
(The fine print: free treats for the first approx 50-100 people at each location, so plan accordingly)
And this week, when you think of Karly, do something sweet for somebody. Add a bit of sparkle into their lives. Karly would love that.
Most importantly, pay attention to the children in your lives.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Karly Sheehan: True Crime Story behind Karly’s Law.