It was a bittersweet victory for Raymond and Brenda Shipley.
The Westminster couple had just been granted permanent custody of their 13-month-old grandson, Carter Ray Baumgardner. But the Shipleys, whose son was shot to death in a plot by his then-pregnant wife, still have one more hurdle: They want the court to bar the child from visiting his mother in prison. Melissa Baumgardner Shipley is serving a life sentence without parole at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.
Carroll County Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. is expected to issue a written decision on the visitation rights tomorrow.
Despite their joy in raising their grandson, they said it doesn't heal the wounds caused by the loss of their oldest son.
Carter's father, Scott E. Shipley, was killed in November 2002, the victim of a plot masterminded by Melissa Baumgardner Shipley. During a two-week trial last summer, jurors convicted her on first-degree murder charges. Testimony indicated that she ordered the shooting to gain access to a $100,000 life insurance policy on Scott Shipley.
Beck granted Raymond and Brenda Shipley temporary custody of their first grandchild a year ago. On Friday, Beck gave the Shipleys permanent custody.
Before the custody hearings, the boy, born in March 2003, had been staying with his maternal grandparents, Clifford and Bertha Baumgardner. The Baumgardners and their daughter, Melissa, also attended Friday's hearing.
"I believe after 33 years of marriage and raising three fine boys, we can raise another one," Brenda Shipley, 52, testified during the hearing. "We can give him every opportunity that we gave our other three sons."
Beck also granted the Shipleys' other request: to change the child's legal name to Carter Scott Shipley.
"He deserves his father's last name," Raymond Shipley, 54, testified.
The Shipleys called the rambunctious toddler a "real joy" who reminds both of them of their son.
"He takes after his father," Raymond Shipley testified. "If I can remember back 28 years, he's the easiest-going, happiest boy. At his young age, he's already very outgoing. He's a very happy little boy."
Arguing against visits
The Shipleys said they believe that the child's happiness and stability would be compromised by visits to the Jessup prison where Melissa Baumgardner Shipley is serving her sentence.
The Shipleys recently toured the prison and it reinforced their belief that Carter would be intimidated by the barbed-wire fences and guards, as well as being confused about why his mother is there.
The woman's two older sons from a previous marriage are barred from visiting her in jail because of a court order granted last month.
The Shipleys learned Friday that young Carter has visited the prison. It was Melissa Baumgardner Shipley who surprised her former in-laws. She said that she had already held, fed and played with her infant son, who visited her twice a month with her parents.
"I want you to know Carter has been coming to see me," Melissa Baumgardner Shipley said, prompting gasps and tears from the Shipley relatives present in the courtroom.
Clifford and Bertha Baumgardner pleaded ignorance in court, saying that they merely continued visits that were permitted when their daughter was incarcerated at the Carroll County Detention Center.
The Baumgardners declined to comment after the hearing.
Neither the Baumgardners nor their daughter contested the custody or the name change, but Melissa Baumgardner Shipley wants to continue the visits with her son.
"We're all presuming that I'm never coming out of prison," she said. "But if something happened and I'd be able to come here and be introduced to his life, wouldn't it be more detrimental to not see me at all?"
She said her son would get used to the prison, much as he had gotten used to his day care center.
The Shipleys allowed the Baumgardners to take Carter every other weekend, which will continue under Beck's orders. But the revelation that the Baumgardners took Carter to the prison disappointed the Shipleys, who said they were never told about the visits.
"They have a responsibility that he gets raised right," Raymond Shipley said after the hearing. "You have to want what's best for the child. Being in prison should be her punishment, not ours and not our grandson's."
Added his wife, "They have to do their part. They have to know right from wrong."