KEARNS, Utah — Christina Harms was constantly kept in a small closet, where she was forced to eat and go to the bathroom while being bound to a metal bar.
She was also forced to wear an adult diaper and could often be heard making whining noises, according to charges filed Friday in 3rd District Court.
Cassandra Marie Shepard, 27, (pictured) was charged with murder and intentional aggravated abuse of a disabled adult, first-degree felonies. She was also charged with obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony.
Shepard was the legal guardian of Christina Harms, a 22-year-old disabled woman who investigators say had the mental capacity of an 8- to 12-year-old.
The charges lay out horrific details of the abuses suffered by Harms, who police say was bound crucifixion-style inside a small closet in a house at 4978 S. 5415 West, where Shepard lived with her mother, Sherrie Beckering, 50, and her stepfather, Dale Beckering, 52.
The Beckerings were each charged Friday with intentional aggravated abuse of a disabled person, a first-degree felony. The Beckerings were Harms' primary caretakers for a few months in 2010.
The cause of Harms' death was listed as "positional asphyxiation."
Shepard "tied her (Harms') hands together and put tape around her mouth and (Harms) never got to come out," a child witness told investigators.
Although Dale Beckering and Shepard often cooked for the family, "Harms was never let out of the closet, and was actually required to eat her food inside the closet," according to the charges.
The juvenile witness told detectives that Harms could often be heard whining from inside the closet. Another juvenile told police much of the same, saying that the children were warned by Shepard that police would be asking questions. Shepard told the children, "Don't talk too much," the charges state.
The juvenile witnesses were not identified.
Harms is survived by a 2-year-old daughter. Shepard also has two children, ages 5 and 9, who had been living in the house. There were no signs of abuse on any of the children. All were taken into state protective custody.
When emergency officials found Harms on March 25, she had ligature marks on her ankles consistent with plastic zip ties, severe bruising on her thigh and head, bloodshot eyes, a pepper seed in one of her eyelids, and her hands were completely covered with bandaging material, which would have prevented her from getting the pepper seed out.
Inside the closet, investigators found a metal clothes bar but no clothes hanging from it. Instead, they found plastic zip ties on each end of the bar that had been cut "consistent with a person having been bound to the bar and cut down. The ties were secured far apart and immovable in position," the charges state.
When officers opened the closet door, a high-pitched alarm sounded. On the floor of the closet, police discovered a blood- and urine-stained piece of cardboard.
Police also found uncut zip ties, clear packaging tape, disposable plastic drop cloths, cleaning supplies and air fresheners, including several deodorizers in the closet, the charges state.
While officers were investigating the incident, which was originally called in as a possible overdose, Sherrie Beckering commented to one officer "how difficult (Harms) had been lately," according to the charges. The family also said Harms had never been taken to a doctor while living in Utah.
The Utah State Medical Examiner's Office reported that when the bandages were removed from Harms' hands during the autopsy, they found markings consistent with the bandaging being "placed tightly for an extended period," including multiple lesions and skin falling off.
Harms' body had bruises consistent with "chronic physical abuse," according to the charges.
Harms suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and was unable to completely care for herself, authorities said.
Shepard and Harms used to live in Aberdeen, S.D. Police say they had only lived in Kearns since January.
One Utah organization is so appalled by the Harms case, it is taking steps to ensure that similar abuse "doesn't happen to anyone else."
"We were devastated to hear about the treatment," said Adina Zahradnikova, executive director of the Disability Law Center, a nonprofit organization that protects the civil rights of people with disabilities.
The center is working with other advocacy groups to investigate and "shed some light" on the circumstances surrounding Harms' death in an effort to prevent the abuse from reoccurring.
"We try to be a voice for those who don't have a voice," Zahradnikova said.
Saturday, April 2, 2011
The Deseret News:
Posted by BA Haller at 7:11 PM