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 firstname.lastname@example.org.