Faith, Death & Family

A tragedy in Laurel has divided a church and community.

August 16, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

One weekend this spring, not long after Kathy Butcher had been jailed for killing little Alexa Shearer, the Rev. V. James Lockman stepped into the pulpit of his Laurel church and delivered a homily that would resonate through his parish for months.

It had been a tough time for their Catholic community, he told his flock in the cavernous sanctuary of St. Mary of the Mills church. The parish had repeatedly endured tragedy. One teen-ager lost to suicide, another to illness.

FOR THE RECORD - A photograph caption inside the Today section yesterday stated incorrectly where Alexa Shearer died. The child died at Washington's Children's National Medical Center. The Sun regrets the error.

Then, he said, there was baby Alexa, whose death had drawn a well of support to two families, the Shearers and the Butchers. The support "must remain positive," the priest told his congregation. And parishioners must remember that the legal system, "in all its wisdom, will take care of all its matters," he said.

Your duty is to follow the gospel, he told them.

"There is no place in our Catholic community for recriminations, shunning, polarization, rejection or ostracizing," Lockman preached, his voice carrying the Irish lilt of his origins. "Each family needs to be cared for, wanted and welcomed at St. Mary's."

It wasn't as though Alexa's death and Butcher's conviction had rocked the entire parish of 3,000 families, or that discomfort and anger permeated every corner of the 158-year-old Colonial-style stone church, the priest would say later. But the St. Mary's community was home to both victim and accused; the strain was showing.

For those Father Lockman had consulted before delivering the unusual homily, the purpose of the priest's understated message was clear.

"I think it was to prevent a sort of split in the church," Guy Burgio, the parish council chairman said recently. "I think he thought it was time to do it."

Members of the parish still recall the homily in conversations today - five months after Kathleen A. Butcher was convicted of manslaughter, child abuse and assault in Alexa Shearer's death. It demonstrates, perhaps, how the death of a child and the implication of a day-care provider in that death resonate in a community. How facts can be interpreted depending on loyalties. How people cope with what they consider a betrayal of trust. How speculation can arise when there is no eyewitness to death and a reliance on medical testimony to establish guilt.

After all, Kathy Butcher was a woman from a good home, a neighbor in a sleepy, middle-class suburb of single-family homes, a short drive from Laurel's historic Main Street. Shy and petite with long brown hair, a mother to four children, she was the woman to whom parents entrusted the care of their most precious gifts - their children.

To believe her guilty of causing Alexa's death requires suspending faith in a person they have come to know and respect - to believe that the woman they sat beside at church, the woman who mothered others' children, could be capable of shaking and slamming a baby.

The Shearers didn't want to believe it at first. But they do now, absolutely.

"If you look at her death certificate, it says struck and shaken," says Victoria Shearer, 33. "It wasn't a seizure and she wasn't sick and it wasn't meningitis. And she didn't get run over by a bus."

Butcher's friends didn't want to believe it. They still don't.

In Howard County Circuit Court today, the divide will be as present as it has ever been. Butcher is scheduled to be sentenced today by Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr.

The families and supporters will take their seats behind the defense lawyers and the prosecutors as they have done before, in a courtroom that offers no middle aisle, no physical space to separate them.

Searching for day care

At first, Kathy Butcher turned down the Shearers. The Columbia couple - Tory, a lawyer, and Kevin, an architect - were looking for day care for their soon-to-be-born baby, their second. They had been searching, unsuccessfully, among day-care providers who worked out of their homes, looking for a small, familylike setting, the couple testified at Butcher's trial earlier this year.

But when the Shearers called again, Butcher told them she could watch their baby for a while. Alexa Marie Shearer, born Aug. 11, 1998, joined Butcher's Sewall Avenue day care when she was about 6 weeks old.

It seemed, the Shearers testified, an ideal arrangement. The couple had discovered that Butcher belonged to their church, St. Mary of the Mills. Her oldest son, Matthew, was in the same class at St. Mary's as their other daughter, Megan.

On the morning of Nov. 16, 1999, Tory Shearer dropped Alexa off at the Butcher residence as she had done so many other times. Shortly after lunch, the Howard County 911 center received a frantic call from Butcher: Alexa wasn't breathing.

Two days later, at Washington's Children's National Medical Center, Alexa was taken off life support and died. The medical examiner's ruling: homicide by blunt force trauma.

Butcher was arrested and charged with murder on Dec. 3, 1999.

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