Thursday, March 31, 2011

In Utah, police investigate case of torture, crucifixion, murder of disabled woman

From AOL News:

Police in Utah are investigating the death of a disabled woman who they say was brutally abused and hung crucifixion-style inside a small closet.

"It is a very unusual, sad, tragic case," Unified Police Lt. Justin Hoyal told AOL News. "It is sad to see that somebody could do this to another human being. You just don't see people being treated like this."

Authorities were called to a residence in Kearns, a township in Salt Lake County, on Friday afternoon to investigate a possible overdose. When police and paramedics arrived on the scene, they discovered the body of 22-year-old Christina "Nina" Harms.

Investigators observed ligature marks on Harms' ankles that were consistent with plastic zip ties, Hoyal said. They also found bruises on her thigh and head and discovered a pepper seed in the lower area of one of her eyelids. Harms' hands and arms were completely covered with bandaging material, which would have prevented her from placing or removing the pepper seed from her eye.

"Investigators believed this to be consistent with abuse of a vulnerable adult as they determined the victim was unable to care for herself," Hoyal said.

During their search, investigators discovered a small closet in the living room area that contained an alarm on the doorway. "Inside they found a metal bar [used to] bind the victim in a crucifixion manner," Hoyal said. "Her arms [had been] bound to this bar and [she had been] left in this closet."

Authorities arrested Harms' primary caregiver, Cassandra Shepard, 27, and charged her with murder, domestic violence and obstructing justice.

Shepard's mother, Sherrie Lynn Beckering, 50, and stepfather, Dale Beckering, 53, were charged with domestic violence abuse of a vulnerable adult because they allegedly cared for Harms last year and were aware of the crime, police said. (All three are pictured.)

According to the Deseret News, Harms, the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, was the victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. When her mother died of cancer in 2008, Shepard, a family friend, was granted legal guardianship of the then-17-year-old.

"She was handicapped, but very smart. Very intellectual," family friend Marilee Nelson told the newspaper. "She was a fun child. She could play on the computer. She was just slow. She just needed help. She didn't need to be totally controlled."

A preliminary autopsy on Harms has revealed "significant injuries to the victim's body," but a cause of death is still pending. Hoyal said it could take "several weeks" for toxicology tests to be complete and a final report to be issued.

Harms' death has angered area caregivers, one of whom told AOL News she is "completely disgusted" by the case.

"Where is her family ... the father of her child?" Jessie Peters, a caregiver from nearby Provo, told AOL News. "Why isn't there a system put into place where a person not able to take care of themselves is checked up on like they do for the many foster kids here?"

Peters added: "This woman was tortured to death and the only thing people are saying is sometimes the caregivers get overwhelmed. When did we start sympathizing with the aggressors when we should be focused on what the last hours of this woman's life was like and who is going to take care of her baby. These so-called caregivers ... need to be dealt with accordingly."

Hoyal said police are still trying to determine a motive in the case.

"Obviously, this has been unfolding very quickly with a lot of information coming in," he said. "They're trying to look at all the possible motives and reasons why they did this."

It was not immediately clear today if any of the three suspects had an attorney.

Harms' 2-year-old daughter was living with her inside the home where she was allegedly tortured. According to police, she, along with Shepard's two children, ages 5 and 9, have been placed in protective custody with the state.

"She was a lovely person. She had a heart of gold. I just want to cry when I think about it," Nelson said of Harms in an interview with the Deseret News. "She's in heaven with her mom, thank God. I hope that the people responsible pay."