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Indiana State Police Press Conference

Aired July 30, 2003 - 15:15   ET


1ST SGT. DAVE BURSTEN, INDIANA STATE POLICE: Immediately to the right is one of Dorothy's sister, Martha Fairfield. To right of her is Beverly McKinney (ph), also another sister, Jody Ames, also a sister of Dorothy, Dorothy Sherrill, myself. To my right is Lieutenant Jeff Heck with the Indiana State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigations. And to the right of him is Jeff Woodard (ph), Thorntown town marshal. And to the right of him is the prosecutor...

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: As the Indiana State Police begin their news conference, we want to remind you what it's about. This is about the 1986 case, almost 17 years ago, of a 6-year-old girl who disappeared from her home in Indiana. Just days ago, a woman contacted the girl's parents and said that she thought she might be their daughter.


BURSTEN: ... contacted Dorothy Sherrill, claiming to be Shannon Marie Sherrill, who was abducted in Thorntown, Indiana, on October 5, 1986, was actually the perpetrator of a cruel hoax that has emotionally, physically, mentally exhausted the immediate and extended family of Shannon Sherrill. Intensive investigative efforts by members of the Thorntown police department and the Indiana State Police Bureau of Criminal of Investigations determined the true identity of the caller to be Donna L. Walker, a 35-year-old female last known to reside in Topeka, Kansas.

Walker originally contacted Dorothy Sherrill, Shannon's mother, on the evening of July 26, several days ago, claiming to be Shannon Sherrill, and gave a name she was now known as Beth Ann Harris (ph). Since that initial contact that Walker initiated -- excuse me. Since that initial contact Walker initiated on her own, the members of the Thorntown Police Department and the Indiana State Police have been in constant contact over periods of time with this woman on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, as she purported herself to be three different people using three different voices. The names she used were Beth Harris (ph), the male name that she used speaking in a male voice was Mark Harris (ph), and also she used the name of Donna Lewis (ph), supposedly a person with information about Shannon's abduction. All of the names used by Walker have been determined to be fictitious or the names of other people who have no connection to this case.

The motive for Donna Walker to commit this alleged crime is unknown. Through the course of this investigation, it is believed that Donna Walker was also responsible for a number of calls that have been made to the media to alert people about this case, which, of course, in turn, has resulted in the national media attention to it.

The next thing I want to stress is that the only good that may come out of this is to stir someone's conscience that knows true, valid information about the disappearance of Shannon Marie Sherrill, and then hopefully they will be stirred to the point that they will contact either the Thorntown Police Department or the Indiana State Police with information about what truly happened to Shannon Marie Sherrill.

A warrant has been issued for the arrest of Donna Walker for allegedly committing the crime of identity deception, which is a Class D felony, and false informing, a Class A misdemeanor. We're asking that anyone with information about the whereabouts of Donna Walker please notify their local law enforcement.

The Indiana State Police are extremely grateful for the help rendered to us by the Virginia Beach, Virginia police department, as well as the Topeka, Kansas police department, who without their very involved and in-depth assistance, we'd have had a very hard time in tracking down the true identity of Donna Walker.

I want to thank you for your patience as I read that statement. At this time, I would ask that if you have a question, raise your hand, we'll identify your, say who you're with and who you want to speak to, so we can move the mike.


QUESTION: Have you had the opportunity to talk with this Donna Walker?

BURSTEN: The only discussions that we have had with Donna Walker have been over the telephone, as she has purported herself to be the three other people that I mentioned.

QUESTION: How did you find her? I mean, how did you figure this out?

BURSTEN: Well there were a combination of different investigative tools that we used, all of which we don't want to mention. Much of it had to do with the repeated phone calls that she made and the ultimate of tracking through technology of a location that led us to a central location.

QUESTION: How do you know that this is her actual name?

BURSTEN: We have information that has been provided to us by the Virginia Beach, Virginia police department indicating a previous history of this similar type offense.

QUESTION: Did this person have any knowledge of the family prior to this? Was she in any way related to the family? (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BURSTEN: To our knowledge, she did not. What we feel, as you all are aware, there is much information that can be gleaned from the Internet. There is a treasure trove of information about this case that's been archived in various locations, and we believe that most everything that she obtained was previously published, and then by eliciting in conversations with the family she elicited other information really without them being aware of it.

Derrick (ph).

QUESTION: Derrick Johnson (ph), WRTV. What was her last known location? And is there reason to believe that she had done this before? If so, where did she do it before?

BURSTEN: I can't get into great depth of her criminal history information. We are aware from Virginia Beach, Virginia authorities that they have had a previous history with her there. The last known address that we have for her is in Topeka, Kansas.

QUESTION: Can you spell her name for us?

BURSTEN: Donna, D-O-N-N-A, Walker, W-A-L-K-E-R.

Down below.

QUESTION: Can I ask Mr. Sherrill a question?

BURSTEN: Mr. Sherrill -- Mike, are you taking questions?

QUESTION: Do you feel like answering a question? Mr. Sherrill, you expressed high hopes that this might truly be your daughter. Can you give us any idea of how hard this has been on you?

MIKE SHERRILL, FATHER: Real hard. I wasn't expecting this at all.

QUESTION: What did you think?

SHERRILL: When they called me with the information that we were going to have a news conference, I thought they were going to bring Shannon in here. I thought this was something.

BURSTEN: I'd respectfully request that we probably give Mike some time. I don't think he's in a condition right now to answer any questions.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Can you enlighten us on how you made the connection with Virginia? And also, can you tell us the age of this Donna Walker?

BURSTEN: I'm going to refer that to Lieutenant Jeff Heck.

LT. JEFF HECK, INDIANA STATE POLICE: I guess in answer to your question, first of all, the connection to Virginia Beach was by the person that identified herself as Beth Ann Harris (ph). She told us that's where she lives, that's where she was raised, attended school, she was married with her children there, and that's what led us there originally. We enlisted the help of the Virginia Beach Police Department to help in the -- to actually interview her in the event of any type of test that everyone is talking about that we would have done had this had been a legitimate lead. And they were of great assistance to us.

QUESTION: Her age, what's that?

HECK: Her age.

BURSTEN: She's 35.

QUESTION: Lieutenant, did that call ever originate from Virginia Beach? Was there an actual connection to Virginia Beach, or was it just something she had said?

HECK: The only connection to Virginia Beach was this person identified as Donna Walker used to live there. All of the calls came from the Midwest -- Midwest to West.

QUESTION: David, what's next for your investigation? Where do you go from here?

BURSTEN: What we're doing now is -- and in part I'm glad you asked that question, because...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Microphone, microphone.

BURSTEN: Thank you. I'm glad that you asked that question. I'll repeat the question. It is: Where do we go from here? I know this has been very strenuous on a lot of local media. It's been very strenuous on us as investigators because of the premature information that came out about this, as we mentioned, that we believe was originally revealed by Donna Walker. As we were exhausting every possibility that this was truly Shannon and began working our way to the point that everything's not fitting together here because of the national attention, we knew that if we revealed that information to the public that it would likely drive her underground and make it harder for us to locate her.

We obtained the warrant late yesterday. As you all know, it was sealed. That information does come out anyhow, and it did. Fortunately, it didn't come out overnight. Topeka, Kansas police department worked very diligently in looking at her current residence. She has not been there. And we feel because of the public interest in this case that we are disclosing all information that we can about her, and we are seeking help from the public across the land to look for this woman, and we will be providing a photograph of her.

And we have an additional comment by Lieutenant Heck.

HECK: I would just like to add that the case into the investigation of the disappearance of Shannon has never been closed. It's always been an open, active case. Any time that any leads come to any of the police departments, we diligently search that.

In this instance, the only criticism that I will gladly take is that we took a long time to get to this point. And I think the reason to get there is we wanted to keep any hope alive that this person was Shannon, or if, in fact, this person was anyone that may have been abducted and raised as another person.

QUESTION: Mr. Meyer, what is your role in this case now?

TODD MEYER, BOONE COUNTY PROSECUTOR: As the prosecuting attorney for Boone County, Indiana, my role at this point is to take this case, prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law. As you know, we have charged Donna Walker with Count I, identity deception, which is a Class D felony. Count II, false reporting is a Class A misdemeanor. And my role at this point is to carry this case through the process, litigate it, and take it to trial if necessary, and go through all of the legal hoops that we go through to get a case to trial, in cooperation with the local police authorities and continuing to work this case and investigate it.

I might add at this point that I think this case has been worked wonderfully up to this point. The Thorntown marshal, Jeff Woodard (ph), here to my left, has done an excellent job in this case. He's been a great support to the family, and as has the Indiana State Police Department. I think the speed in which this case has been uncovered is remarkable, and I think we can all be thankful that that's happened in the way that it has.

I'm very sorry for what's happened to this family. I'm very sorry for what's happened to the people of Thorntown, to the people of Boone County, and I want everybody to know that I will do my best to make sure that this woman is brought to justice here, so that this never is done anywhere else in this country.

QUESTION: Is there any indication at all as to what her motivation here was? You mentioned she used three different names. There was a male voice (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Is it a mentally disturbed person, or is there some motivation behind it?

MEYER: I'm going to defer that back to Officer Woodward (ph) or Officer Heck, the two that have been primarily involved with her.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right now, we're not actually aware of what her true motivation was.

QUESTION: Does she appear to be mentally disturbed? Well, you mentioned she used a male voice, a female voice. Is there...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She doesn't appear to be disturbed, just basically speaking with those voices. She doesn't appear to be disturbed.

QUESTION: And has she used those identities, those other names that she has used for criminal purposes?

QUESTION: Is she looking for money? I mean, what could she possibly have wanted?

BURSTEN: As I mentioned earlier, we don't know what her motive was. And until we are able to actually have her arrested and question her, we're not going to know that. It's virtually impossible for us to even guess what her motive is or was.

QUESTION: But she never said, oh, I need money, will you help me, or anything like that?

HECK: No. No, she never made any kind of demands or plea in any way, shape or form, to my knowledge, to the family or to us.

QUESTION: Can you tell us anything? You mentioned that there was some previous history in the Virginia Beach area. Can you elaborate on that and tell us what she had done in the past? What is that previous history?

BURSTEN: I'm not able to go into the previous history there by state police regulations. The only thing I can tell you is very general, that it dates back to over a decade ago. Perhaps Virginia Beach officials have different protocols that they follow, and they may be able to give you more information, but that's all that I can divulge at this time.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) does she have a police record?



QUESTION: I was just wondering, is this something that tends to happen from time to time, that people actually contact family members of missing children, pretending to do this for money or for some other reason?

BURSTEN: I don't know what the frequency of something like this happening is. I do know that we live in an age today where people like to receive attention, whether it's for good deeds or nothing at all, that they create situations and circumstances to bring attention to themselves. And without knowing much more about this woman on the surface, that appears to be the case here. But it's really hard for us to say beyond that.

Derrick (ph)?

QUESTION: This question is for Jody Ames. Can you give us a sense of what kind of roller coaster your sister went through since the first time this happened?

BURSTEN: I'm going to ask you to repeat the question, please.

CROWLEY: We have been bringing you a news conference out of Indiana. You have been listening to the Indiana State Police and the Boone County prosecutor there.

The bottom line is that several days ago, a woman called a couple who had a 6-year-old daughter who disappeared 17 years ago. We have that news conference back now and we want to return to it.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS) JODY AMES, AUNT: We've been down. We've hoped for the best. We're still hoping for the best. We just hope somebody will come forward and help us.

QUESTION: Was she excited, happy?

AMES: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, very excited.

QUESTION: Jody, do you still feel Shannon is out there somewhere?

AMES: Yes. We can only hope and pray.

BURSTEN: We're going to take three more questions.

QUESTION: Lieutenant Heck, what was the status of your investigation before this weekend? I mean, was it active? Do you still get tips coming in even three times a year? Or has it been pretty much quiet?

HECK: The status of the case of Shannon Sherrill, it always has -- as I said earlier, it always has been an open, active case. Any time a tip comes in, that tip is followed through by the Thorntown Police Department, by the state police to its utmost.

QUESTION: But (UNINTELLIGIBLE) frequency? I mean, obviously this was big, but, I mean, had you been getting tips this calendar year, or not really?

HECK: The tips have been minimal. I guess we're all hopeful and looking for some good to come from this. With the attention that this has received, we're hoping that we'll get additional tips and hopefully find and bring some closure to that case.

BURSTEN: We'll allow some more questions. We'll try and get this resolved to everybody's satisfaction. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Tony Phelps (ph) from WIVC (ph). Can you tell us any more about the details of some of the phone conversations, the one on the 26th?

BURSTEN: No, that is evidentiary information. I can tell you that many of them were recorded, but those are considered evidence now and would be used at her trial, and those would not be available for public release.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Was she ever approached about doing a DNA test? And, if so, what was her reaction to that?

BURSTEN: As we had spoken about in our earlier release a couple of days ago that we were attempting to maintain contact with her. The only contact we've ever had with her is by telephone calls, which she initiated, which we were unable ever to return a call to her because of the subterfuge that she was engaged in.

David? QUESTION: Our hearts go out to the family right now. Is there any assistance available to them to help them through this?

BURSTEN: I think there is going to be a lot of family support here. There is going to be support from the community. They've had much support throughout all of this time, and I think many more people will be coming to help them emotionally through this trying time. And as I said at the beginning, this has been a very cruel hoax for the family.

MEYER: One thing I might add to that, my office in particular has a victim's assistance program, that I think it's important at times like this that the public be aware that the prosecuting attorney's office has a victim's assistance coordinator, and you can call my office at any time. And this family certainly has that resource available, as does any other victim who's the victim of a crime that's committed against them.

QUESTION: Did this woman act alone? There's no indication that she had an accomplice or anything?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We believe that she acted alone.


QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). When did you folks get notified that the call had come? And what did you do after that?

BURSTEN: I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you.

QUESTION: The question?

BURSTEN: Repeat your question, ma'am.

QUESTION: When did you get notified after the family got the first call? How long was it until you knew? And what did you do?

BURSTEN: We got notified on Sunday morning somewhere around the time of 2:00 a.m. in the morning. And basically what we did then was made contact with Lieutenant Jeff Heck, and basically began to formulate a plan of what we were going to do in terms of investigating that.

QUESTION: Did you think it was possibly a hoax after the first call?

HECK: After the first call, no, we did not. We treated it as the utmost legitimacy and worked from there.

QUESTION: When did you think it was a hoax?

HECK: I guess the thing I can say about that was certainly there were questions from the very beginning, but I think given -- and you can appreciate given the nature of this case and the nature of this issue, what it's done to this community and certainly the family, we set all of those concerns aside. We didn't even consider the fact that it was a hoax. We considered to work this as if it were true and accurate, and follow it through to the very end. It wasn't until we had exhausted any and all leads, any and all hope that it was real that then the focus of our case and the focus for our investigation shifted that in fact it may be a hoax.

BURSTEN: I'd like to add to that that with the initial call and with the way she carried herself, it was very plausible from our perspective to think that this is somebody that was under some mental anguish, that maybe something had occurred causing them to come forward, and working on the fact that this truly was Shannon and that they were fearful for themselves. And we approached it as being valid, accurate information. Until the pieces of the puzzle didn't fit together properly is when we started looking to the aspect that everything was not as it appeared to be.

QUESTION: Can you (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the high school there? And can you give us a little description? I know you're going to give us a picture. What does she look like?

BURSTEN: The information that we have is from Virginia Beach, Virginia, authorities that she apparently did reside there and would have knowledge of geographical areas and different buildings and structures to give her a plausible knowledge of the city. The length of time that she lived there, I don't have that information. And we do have a picture that we'll distribute.

QUESTION: How did she explain why she was calling after all of these years? (UNINTELLIGIBLE) how did she explain that?

HECK: I think given the nature of everything, quite frankly, I don't think anyone cared as to why she was calling. The fact was from our standpoint and certainly the family is the fact that she did call. This is something that happened a long time ago. Everything has unfolded in three to four days, and that was -- I guess that was really never a concern.

QUESTION: You said it was somewhat plausible that she initiated this and experienced some anguish. What was she presenting (UNINTELLIGIBLE)? She just found out, or what did she say?

HECK: I think she just felt it was time to call, and she had a desire and a feeling to see if she could find out something, and picked up the phone and called.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) claimed that she was seeing a psychotherapist that brought this all out all of a sudden?

BURSTEN: Yes, those are claims we really wouldn't -- it would serve no purpose to substantiate or unsubstantiate.


QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). On how many occasions did law enforcement talk to Donna Walker?

BURSTEN: All right, I'm going to ask you to repeat that a little louder, please.

QUESTION: Sure. How many occasions did the law enforcement have conversations with Donna Walker (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

HECK: Quite frankly, we haven't added them up. Numerous to all three identities, we had several conversations with all three.

BURSTEN: I want to thank everyone for their patience, time and understanding, and please continue to grant some courtesy to the Sherrill family. Lieutenant Heck, myself, town marshal Woodard (ph), the prosecutor, we'll make ourselves available to you all individually. Again, thank you very much for your time and patience. This concludes the formal news conference.

CROWLEY: Once again, the 1986 disappearance of a 6-year-old girl from her home in Indiana remains a mystery. The caller who claimed to be that girl 17 years later was a fraud.

We want to go to David Mattingly now, who has been following this case for a couple of days -- David.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was absolutely terrible to watch how the family was reacting as they got this bad news. There was a tremendous emotional crescendo this afternoon, as the family got news of this arrest and the news conference. They came here. Some of them were holding hands. Some of them were smiling. They didn't know what was going to happen. Then shortly before the news conference, they received the bad news that they had been the victims of what was very aptly described as a cruel, cruel hoax.

And at one point, the emotions spilled over from Shannon's father, Mike, and we have that to show you now.


SHERRILL: When they called me with the information that we were going to have a news conference, I thought they were going to bring Shannon in here. I thought this was something.

BURSTEN: I'd respectfully request that we probably give Mike some time. I don't think he's in a condition right now to answer any questions.


MATTINGLY: Since this call came in on Saturday, Mike Sherrill said that he was more optimistic than ever that this could be the time that his daughter comes home. Shannon was 6 years old when she disappeared back in 1986. They had been through a lot of ups and downs. Early on in the investigation, there was a hoax. At that time, someone calling in claiming to be her abductor. That turned out to be false. There have been false alarms throughout the last 16 years. This has got to be the most devastating of all for them just because of how high their hopes were at this time that perhaps, at last, Shannon was coming home. But, of course, that is not the case. Some of the family is now leaving. That is Shannon's mother being escorted out. A very emotional time for everyone here, and it's very difficult, again, to be there with them.

And we have a photograph. This is of the suspect. I'm going to hold this up. Can you move in a little bit closer to this photograph? This is a photograph we've just received of the suspect. As you were listening in there, she's described as Donna Walker. The last known address is Topeka, Kansas, 35 years old.

Why she would perpetuate such an alleged hoax is not known. There were a lot of questions of, was she asking for money? What was her motivation? The police at this point just don't know.

Police in Topeka were praised for their diligence in going to search for her, but she is not in custody right now. And the investigation is still going on, and the search is still going on for Shannon as well.

CROWLEY: Thanks so much, Dave Mattingly, in Boone County, Indiana, following a particularly horrible story.


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