Indiana community is shaken by torture murder of young girl

A TOWN TORN APART

June 21, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

MADISON, Ind. -- The two bird hunters who found the body of 12-year-old Shanda Renee Sharer on that cold, sunny morning in January, said it looked at first like a department store mannequin, dumped off near some woods beside an isolated gravel road.

But as Donn and Ralph Foley walked up to the charred figure, just a few hundred yards from their home north of Madison in Jefferson County, they quickly realized that it was not.

Shanda's burned and tortured body was all too real. The chilling details of her death would leave the 12,000 residents of this picture-postcard Ohio River town deeply shaken and searching for answers.

Some in Madison have laid the blame on evils that seeped in from outside their town. But for others, Shanda's death has opened the shutters on a darker place in their own community, a place that stands in stark contrast to the nostalgic image they present to the tourists.

"We have policemen and firemen who get cats out of trees," said Sharon Steinhardt, 34, who works on Main Street for the Chamber of Commerce. "This is Mayberry."

The police had more serious work on that January weekend.

Within hours, Indiana State Police had arrested two girls, ages 16 and 17, and charged them with Shanda's murder. One of the suspects was from Madison. The second was from New Albany, Ind., a suburb of Louisville, Ky. 45 miles away.

That two young girls could be suspected of such a thing became more astonishing when the dimensions of the crime were sketched by Dr. George R. Nichols. The hard-bitten chief medical examiner from nearby Kentucky was called in by Indiana police to conduct the autopsy. Even he called the findings

gruesome.

Shanda's wrists and ankles had been bound, he said. Her legs had been slashed, and she had been beaten repeatedly on the head with a blunt object. She was also brutally sodomized with a foreign object.

Finally, she was doused with gasoline and burned beyond recognition, Dr. Nichols said. He listed the official cause of death as burns and smoke inhalation. She had been burned alive.

There was more. The transcript of a late-night probable-cause hearing prior to the arrests revealed that two other Madison girls, both 15, were also suspected of involvement. One had turned herself in to police and was talking.

Shanda was killed, police quoted the 15-year-old as saying, because one of the other girls believed Shanda was "trying to steal her girlfriend."

By March, all four girls would be charged as adults with murder.

Madison was now reeling.

Parents recoiled at the thought of their children's past contacts with the accused girls. For a time, they demanded that their children take precautions never before thought necessary in Madison -- calling when they got to a friend's house or waiting inside the theater lobby until their ride came.

The county prosecutor, Guy Mannering Townsend, 49, clamped a lid on all official information about the crime. He and defense lawyers refuse to comment publicly.

The rumors spread

Despite the scarcity of facts, or perhaps because of it, rumors and whispers about another dimension to the crime soon began to drift across the town, like some cold fog off the Ohio.

Today, virtually anyone you ask in Madison has heard the talk -- none of it officially confirmed -- that the dead girl and one of her killers were involved in a lesbian lovers' triangle or Satanism. Or both.

"That's what my granddaughter brought home from junior high school," said Fauna Mihalko, 62, who works in the town library's genealogy section.

The teens who hang out behind the fast food store on Michigan Road claim they know of lesbian and Satanic circles among other Madison teens, so many of them believe the talk about Shanda's killing.

Even Madison Police Chief Bill Tingle, whose department has had no official role in the investigation, said he knew that "there possibly was a 90 percent chance" that lesbian jealousy touched off the crime.

As for Satanism, he knew of only one concrete incident. At Christmastime several years ago, a group of 14- or 15-year-olds stole the baby Jesus doll from the courthouse creche, wrote "666" on it -- the "number of the Beast" from Revelations -- and burned it.

Anticipation that the worst of the rumors might be proved true in court has only increased Madisonians' dread of the three scheduled trials. The first one is set for Aug. 17.

Madison doesn't deserve the notoriety, they say.

A model town

During World War II, it was cast in an Army training film as the hometown the GIs were fighting to protect. In 1958, it was the town picked by Hollywood for "Some Came Running," a film about postwar malaise, starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine.

It was a prosperous river and rail center in the 19th century. Its riverfront district is crammed with Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Gothic Revival homes and stores.

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