Toddler homicide results in prison sentence of just 77 days

Alissa Guernsey

Facing growing criticism and anger, a judge in northeast Indiana has stepped away from a mysterious and controversial case involving the death of a 16-month-old girl.  How the toddler died is tragic. But some say what happened after her death is downright shocking, prompting calls for a new investigation.

Photos of Alissa Guernsey show a bright-eyed toddler whose grin stretched from ear to ear.

"She had a big, big smile.  She loved just to cuddle up and snuggle right up with you. She was just a little cutie," said her uncle, Tyler Sprunger. 

But there are other photographs of Alissa – very disturbing photographs – that raise questions about the young girl's life and her tragic death.

They show a 16-month-old covered with bruises, lying motionless in a hospital emergency room.

"There's not a day that doesn't go by when Alissa doesn't pop into my head," Sprunger said, sitting on his front porch. "She was, in my opinion, tortured to death."

Exactly what happened to the toddler is the subject of an intense controversy that has engulfed a small town in northeast Indiana.

Allegations of murder, corruption and injustice just won't go away following court proceedings that legal experts describe as "highly unusual" and "very surprising."

The allegations have prompted a longtime judge to step down from the case, and yet the controversy still rages.

"Obvious signs of abuse"

Alissa Guernsey's short life was a turbulent one. Her father died in a car accident. Her mother was accused of neglecting her.

Relatives offered to help.  Christy and Matt Shaffer, cousins of Alissa's mother, opened their Topeka, Indiana, home to a little girl in need. 

But it's in the custody of the Shaffers that things somehow went from bad to worse.

Just a few months after going to live with her relatives, Alissa was rushed to Parkview Hospital in LaGrange.  Christy Shaffer told a detective from the LaGrange County Sheriff's Department she had been running errands with her children and Alissa and, when she got home, she found Alissa "not breathing and unresponsive."

Paramedics and doctors worked on Alissa for more than an hour but they could not save her.

And then, the investigation.

Investigators and medical experts quickly noticed what the sheriff's department described as "obvious signs of abuse."

Those signs included bruises on the toddlers leg, face and head. An autopsy showed Alissa had lacerations inside her mouth and hemorrhaging around her brain. Doctors determined hair was missing from Alissa's head and she had a broken arm.

The Shaffer family told investigators they had taken Alissa to numerous doctor's appointments for a variety of medical issues they attributed to a lack of prenatal care, and they said some of the toddler's injuries resulted from being run into by a family dog.

The LaGrange County Coroner brought in an independent expert from the Indiana University School of Medicine Children's Health Services Research Department to review Alissa's autopsy and medical history reports.  That expert determined:

Alissa's bruises "are most consistent with inflicted trauma (e.g. child abuse)." Her hair loss "is highly concerning for … someone pulling out her hair." Alissa's "arm fracture is not consistent with being ‘run into by a dog'. It is concerning for inflicted trauma." [sic] 

The coroner ruled Alissa's death a homicide caused by blunt force injury of the head.

Unexpected charges

Some expected Christy Shaffer to be charged with child abuse or manslaughter – or even murder.  But the LaGrange County prosecutor didn't file charges at all.

Instead, he did something he had never done in ten years as a prosecutor. He convened a grand jury, and he let them decide whether to charge Christy Shaffer.

"It was a controversial case and … it wasn't clear to me what the best charge would be, so I thought a grand jury would be the best remedy for that dilemma," explained prosecutor Jeff Wible.  "I didn't have a witness. I didn't have an incriminating statement. I didn't have weapon. So I thought ‘let the grand jury decide.'"

Based on evidence presented by the prosecutor, the grand jury indicted Shaffer on the charge of Neglect of a Dependent.

"That's not really the type of case where you'd expect to see a grand jury," said Joel Schumm, a professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.  "In the vast majority of cases, well over 99% of cases around the state, prosecutors just file the charges."

Schumm explained that grand juries are usually only called in Indiana for politically-sensitive cases – not for cases in which a prosecutor is unsure of the correct charge.

"Calling a grand jury takes the political pressure off the prosecutor and puts it on a group of citizens," he said. "But a grand jury process is very secretive so there's no transparency. We don't know what [jurors] were told or what they weren't told or anything else that happened in that process."

Because the process is so secretive, there's no way to know why Shaffer was indicted of Neglect of a Dependent as a Class B felony (neglect resulting in serious injury), instead of Neglect of a Dependent as a Class A felony (neglect resulting in death). 

"I can certainly see no reason why it would be charged this way," Schumm said, shaking his head. "In this case there's no question that there's a death, and if there's neglect and death, you'd expect it to be charged as an A felony."

In Indiana, Class A felonies carry a possible prison sentence of 20 to 50 years. Class B felonies are limited to 6 to 20 years sentences.

Tyler Sprunger believes Christy Shaffer, who happens to be his cousin, should have been charged with more than neglect in connection with his Alissa's death.

"The autopsy specifically says ‘homicide due to blunt force trauma of the head.' The little girl was covered in bruises. Her hair, it was ripped out of her head. That comes from killing a child," Sprunger said. "I love Christy but what she did was wrong."

Christy Shaffer accepted a plea bargain. She pled guilty to Neglect of a Dependent. At the same time, Shaffer denied doing anything to cause the child's injuries.

She submitted an affidavit to the court stating "…even though I am not personally responsible for nor did I participate in causing any injuries to Alissa Guernsey, I realize that I am legally responsible for providing timely medical treatment while she was in my care and custody."

Courtroom drama

LaGrange County Circuit Court Judge J. Scott Vanderbeck accepted Shaffer's plea.

He could have sentenced her to 20 years in prison.

But Shaffer had no criminal history and her court file was stuffed with more than 100 letters from family and friends, asking the judge for mercy.

At her sentencing hearing, those family and friends made passionate, tearful pleas for leniency.

A forensic psychologist hired by Shaffer testified that in-depth testing of the defendant indicated she possessed low potential for child abuse compared to individuals who had been convicted of physically abusing children.

Shaffer's defense attorney called Alissa's biological mother to the witness stand and repeatedly questioned her about her history of drug abuse, insinuating that she – not Shaffer – should take responsibility for Alissa's death.

Shaffer begged for mercy, telling the judge Alissa had a history of unexplained bruising, and that the toddler had poor balance and would often trip and fall.  She sobbed while telling of countless doctor visits to try to help Alissa's many medical conditions.

"Alissa may not have been my biological child. But, she was my baby while she lived with us. I lost a child that night, too, and a piece of my heart," Shaffer told the judge while her family listened in the courtroom gallery behind her. "Your Honor, I beg of you. Please [do] not take me away from my children. They are my whole world and they need me as much as I need them."  

After hearing the emotional testimony, Judge Vanderbeck was ready to announce Shaffer's punishment.

But first, he took an opportunity to lash out at Alissa's mother, telling the packed courtroom that "[she] shoulders the responsibility for this."

Surprising sentence

The judge then sentenced Shaffer to ten years in prison, and he immediately suspended six of those years.  The remaining 4-year sentence meant Shaffer would spend no more than two years behind bars due to Indiana's good-time credit program, which automatically cuts a criminal's sentence in half.

But Judge Vanderbeck's leniency was far from over.

Before Shaffer left the courtroom, he extended a very unusual invitation to Shaffer's attorney: come back in a couple of months "and I'll entertain a motion for her early release."

"I've never seen that," said legal analyst Schumm. "Very rarely does a judge encourage a defense lawyer to file a motion and ask for a modification. Most defendant's never get that. Quite honestly, it just doesn't happen for most people. It raises concerns about everyone else who's in prison, and to see something like that certainly is surprising."

Even more surprising: when Shaffer came back to court, the judge did not simply consider a further reduction of her sentence. He set her free.

Characterizing Shaffer as a good Samaritan who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, the judge allowed her to go home to serve six months of house arrest followed by three years of probation. 

The woman who pled guilty to neglecting Alissa Guernsey served just 77 days behind bars.

The prosecutor believes the judge went too far.

"I've never seen a judge suggest a defendant seek a modification. I think he should have stuck with his original sentence and I think it was the wrong decision, but he's the judge," Wible told 13 Investigates.  "I was against the modification. I did not think it was warranted. 77 days wasn't enough."

Alissa's uncle agreed. He organized protests around the LaGrange County courthouse to let others know what happened.

Dozens of people attended the rallies, holding signs and expressing outrage over the judge's decision.

"I feel it's small town politics at its best," Tyler Sprunger said. "Somebody knew somebody that knew somebody that had been involved in the community. The links and the connections are there."

Conflict of interest?

The connections Sprunger is referring to are those between Shaffer's family and elected officials at the courthouse – specifically the prosecutor and the judge who handled Shaffer's case.

Wible and Vanderbeck both admit they know Shaffer's father, Kerry Sprunger.  He is a prominent business leader in LaGrange who serves as senior vice president and senior loan officer of Farmer's State Bank, one of the largest banks in LaGrange County.

13 Investigates obtained a sealed court transcript from a separate court case in which the judge discussed the defendant's father:

"I know Mr. Sprunger. He's been on some boards with me... I know he's got a good heart," the judge said two years before he sentenced Shaffer. "And I think I went to baseball game with [his son]. So I wouldn't do that, if they were bad people."

The judge told WTHR he cannot discuss his relationship with the Shaffer and Sprunger families – or anything else related to the case involving Christy Shaffer – due to ethical rules that prohibit a judge from commenting on an open case. (Shaffer's case is still considered open because she is serving parole.) The judge and prosecutor both deny any conflict of interest.

Schumm says it is commonplace in small communities for judges and prosecutors to know defendants and their families, and that does not necessarily present an inherent conflict of interest.

"We want judges who are active in their communities and we give judges and prosecutors a lot of discretion. We rely on judges, for the most part, to police themselves," he said. "Based on the facts I've reviewed, I think it's unlikely the judge in this case did anything that violates Indiana's Code of Judicial Conduct."

However, Schumm points out that judges are expected (although not specifically required) to disqualify themselves from cases in which there may be a perceived conflict of interest. That perception exists in the Shaffer case – not just among some of Alissa's family, but also among some of the investigators.

Several individuals who worked on the toddler's death investigation contacted 13 Investigates to express concern about statements made by the judge and the prosecutor and to raise questions about their impartiality. All of the investigators asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the case and all expressed concerns of retaliation.

"I know some judges would have stepped back because of the perception issue. I think it's imperative the process be seen as fair and the people involved in the process seen as impartial," Schumm said. "The process [in LaGrange] is, from the beginning to the end, a very unusual case."

Judge quits the case

Growing concern and criticism about the case eventually did prompt Judge Vanderbeck to step away.

He signed an "order of recusal and appointment of special judge" on October 25, two months after 13 Investigates first questioned Vanderbeck about his relationship with the defendant's family and his decision to release Shaffer after serving only 77 days in prison.

"The trial judge's role is to remain above the fray of battle," the judge wrote in his order. "In this case an inflamed atmosphere has been created by people unconnected to the case."

Vanderbeck continued, "When an enflamed atmosphere follows, based on a fictional account of circumstantial evidence, that places unsupported blame on the innocent; and the judge, not the facts that were presented at hearing, becomes the central focus, it is a sad day for justice in America."

The judge's decision to recuse himself from any future proceedings involving Christy Shaffer's neglect case have not ended the firestorm of anger.

Protests outside the courthouse caught the attention of child welfare activists, who began publicizing Alissa's case on the Internet.

Thousands of people around the world have since read Alissa's story through online forums and social media sites, and more than 54,000 people have signed an online petition asking Indiana's attorney general to "open a state murder investigation for the fatal beating of Alissa Guernsey." 

The AG's office acknowledges receiving lots of petitions, but they are being directed to the wrong agency, according to AG public information officer Bryan Corbin.

"This doesn't fall under the attorney general's jurisdiction," Corbin said. "The attorney general's office doesn't get to decide whether to re-open a case and we don't affect outcomes on the trial court level. Concerned citizens should contact the LaGrange County prosecutor's office because the prosecutor has the sole authority to decide whether to re-open a case."

Wible told WTHR he sees no reason to re-open the case.

"I haven't seen evidence to support anything other than what the grand jury indicted her with. If someone has evidence I'm not aware of, tell them to bring it forward," said the prosecutor.

Even if new evidence were to be presented, legal experts say it is unlikely Shaffer could be charged again.

"The state can't go after someone twice. Once the state signed a plea agreement with her, that pretty much put the issue to rest," Schumm said.

In the meantime, Christy Shaffer is at home serving her parole.

WTHR visited the Shaffer's house to get their side of the story. Matt Shaffer, Christy's husband, answered the door and said it has been "a horrible time" for their entire family. Christy did not want to talk with Eyewitness News and the family has not responded to 13 Investigates' request for a meeting or an interview.  Phone calls to Shaffer's father also went unanswered.

Tyler Sprunger says he will continue to raise awareness of his niece's death and what he calls "a travesty of justice."

"Somebody has to stick up for Alissa because nobody did," he said.  "You cannot take a life and not have to pay for it."