MADISON, Ind. -- The two bird hunters who found the body of 12-year-old Shanda Renee Sharer on that cold, sunny morning in January, said it looked at first like a department store mannequin, dumped off near some woods beside an isolated gravel road.
But as Donn and Ralph Foley walked up to the charred figure, just a few hundred yards from their home north of Madison in Jefferson County, they quickly realized that it was not.
Shanda's burned and tortured body was all too real. The chilling details of her death would leave the 12,000 residents of this picture-postcard Ohio River town deeply shaken and searching for answers.
Some in Madison have laid the blame on evils that seeped in from outside their town. But for others, Shanda's death has opened the shutters on a darker place in their own community, a place that stands in stark contrast to the nostalgic image they present to the tourists.
"We have policemen and firemen who get cats out of trees," said Sharon Steinhardt, 34, who works on Main Street for the Chamber of Commerce. "This is Mayberry."
The police had more serious work on that January weekend.
Within hours, Indiana State Police had arrested two girls, ages 16 and 17, and charged them with Shanda's murder. One of the suspects was from Madison. The second was from New Albany, Ind., a suburb of Louisville, Ky. 45 miles away.
That two young girls could be suspected of such a thing became more astonishing when the dimensions of the crime were sketched by Dr. George R. Nichols. The hard-bitten chief medical examiner from nearby Kentucky was called in by Indiana police to conduct the autopsy. Even he called the findings
Shanda's wrists and ankles had been bound, he said. Her legs had been slashed, and she had been beaten repeatedly on the head with a blunt object. She was also brutally sodomized with a foreign object.
Finally, she was doused with gasoline and burned beyond recognition, Dr. Nichols said. He listed the official cause of death as burns and smoke inhalation. She had been burned alive.
There was more. The transcript of a late-night probable-cause hearing prior to the arrests revealed that two other Madison girls, both 15, were also suspected of involvement. One had turned herself in to police and was talking.
Shanda was killed, police quoted the 15-year-old as saying, because one of the other girls believed Shanda was "trying to steal her girlfriend."
By March, all four girls would be charged as adults with murder.
Madison was now reeling.
Parents recoiled at the thought of their children's past contacts with the accused girls. For a time, they demanded that their children take precautions never before thought necessary in Madison -- calling when they got to a friend's house or waiting inside the theater lobby until their ride came.
The county prosecutor, Guy Mannering Townsend, 49, clamped a lid on all official information about the crime. He and defense lawyers refuse to comment publicly.
The rumors spread
Despite the scarcity of facts, or perhaps because of it, rumors and whispers about another dimension to the crime soon began to drift across the town, like some cold fog off the Ohio.
Today, virtually anyone you ask in Madison has heard the talk -- none of it officially confirmed -- that the dead girl and one of her killers were involved in a lesbian lovers' triangle or Satanism. Or both.
"That's what my granddaughter brought home from junior high school," said Fauna Mihalko, 62, who works in the town library's genealogy section.
The teens who hang out behind the fast food store on Michigan Road claim they know of lesbian and Satanic circles among other Madison teens, so many of them believe the talk about Shanda's killing.
Even Madison Police Chief Bill Tingle, whose department has had no official role in the investigation, said he knew that "there possibly was a 90 percent chance" that lesbian jealousy touched off the crime.
As for Satanism, he knew of only one concrete incident. At Christmastime several years ago, a group of 14- or 15-year-olds stole the baby Jesus doll from the courthouse creche, wrote "666" on it -- the "number of the Beast" from Revelations -- and burned it.
Anticipation that the worst of the rumors might be proved true in court has only increased Madisonians' dread of the three scheduled trials. The first one is set for Aug. 17.
Madison doesn't deserve the notoriety, they say.
A model town
During World War II, it was cast in an Army training film as the hometown the GIs were fighting to protect. In 1958, it was the town picked by Hollywood for "Some Came Running," a film about postwar malaise, starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine.
It was a prosperous river and rail center in the 19th century. Its riverfront district is crammed with Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Gothic Revival homes and stores.
Today, 133 blocks in the riverfront district are on the National Register of Historic Places. House and garden tours, river races and arts festivals draw tourists by the busload.
A recent Saturday night's police blotter listed three "possible" domestic disturbances, a dog fight, fireworks, a drunk, a crying woman, several noise complaints and one break-in at a card shop.
Mr. Townsend, the prosecutor, is a former newspaper reporter with a doctorate in British history. He has been on the job only 18 months, and this is his first murder. The county of 30,000 has had four in 12 years.
But none like Shanda Sharer's.
Ten hours after the body was discovered, police got their first big break in the case.
It was 9 p.m., and Toni Lawrence, a 15-year-old sophomore at Madison High School, had appeared at the city police station with her parents. She was in hysterics, and she wanted to talk about a murder.
Detective Stephen Thomas Henry, a 20-year veteran of the Indiana State Police, was assigned to interview her. His testimony at a probable-cause hearing at Judge Todd's house at 1 a.m. that night has provided the only detailed account so far of the crime.
Toni said the night of horror began Friday when she and another Madison High sophomore, Hope Rippey, 15, were picked up after school by Mary Laurine "Laurie" Tackett.
Madison Junior High Principal Larry Cummins said that Laurie, 17, had been "a fine elementary student" with "good values." A classmate recalled that Laurie had once been very religious, like her Christian fundamentalist parents.
But then she changed, her classmates said. In the eighth grade, she cut short her long blond hair and began to dress in black. She joined a small clique of perhaps a dozen like-minded kids at Madison High who were known as the "Alternatives."
Last fall, after her 17th birthday, Laurie dropped out of school. Her attorney would say in court that she had a history of mental problems.
Senior High Principal Roger Gallatin described Hope Rippey and Toni Lawrence -- both also 10th-graders -- as "above-average students, not discipline problems." A classmate said Toni and Hope had been spending time with the black-clothes group but had not changed their appearance.
Continuing with Toni's story, Detective Henry testified that the three girls drove down to New Albany, where they picked up Melinda Loveless, 16, a friend of Laurie's who was unknown to Toni and Hope.
Together, they drove into Louisville, where they attended a concert that Detective Henry described as a "punk rock type."
Afterward, as the girls left Louisville, Detective Henry said, Melinda Loveless began talking about Shanda Sharer, and "how . . . Shanda was trying to steal her girlfriend named Amanda, how . . . she would like to kill Shanda."
A Catholic school seventh-grader, Shanda Sharer was described looking closer to 16 than to 12.
Police said that she was unknown to Toni and Hope. The four girls drove to Shanda's father's home near Louisville. With Melinda hiding under a blanket on the floor of the back seat, they persuaded Shanda to join them in the car.
As they drove off, with Shanda in the front seat, the conversation eventually turned to Shanda's new relationship with Melinda's former girlfriend, Amanda.
A knife to the throat
That, Detective Henry said, was when "Melinda . . . came up out of the back seat and put a knife to Shanda's throat, and pulled her hair back."
As the girls drove back toward Madison, Toni Lawrence told Detective Henry, they made several stops for torture. At various times, Shanda was tied up, threatened with death, cut on the legs, choked, and beaten with a metal rod, perhaps a tire tool.
Sometime after daybreak, with Shanda bleeding but still alive in the trunk, the girls went to a Madison gas station, where they filled a 2-liter soda bottle with gasoline. Detective Henry testified that Laurie Tackett and Melinda Loveless told Toni they "planned to burn Shanda's body." But Toni said she was dropped off at home before Shanda was killed.
The body was discovered an hour after Toni got home.
In a plea bargain reached in April, Toni Lawrence agreed to testify for the prosecution in exchange for a guilty plea on a
single count of criminal confinement. There is no agreement on her sentence.
All four girls are being held without bail in separate prisons.
Whom to blame
Since the killing, Madison residents have been trying to make sense of this spasm of violence in their town. There is no shortage of villains, many perceived as lurking outside Madison's borders.
"We're not as protected as we like to think we are from outside influences," said Karen H. Follett, executive vice president of the Madison Chamber of Commerce. "Where did those kinds of thoughts come from?"
Although the girls' guilt has not been proved, many in town believe that the Madison girls came under the sinister influence of Melinda Loveless, the outsider.
For others in Madison, it is an easy leap from the rumored homosexual relationships to the violence. One of those is Chief Tingle, who assured a visitor that, in a jealous triangle, there is "nothing meaner than a [homosexual] or lesbian."
But Dr. Jerry A. Thaden, superintendent of the Madison State Hospital, who consulted informally with the prosecutor and the suspects' families after the killing, called such thinking a symptom of a "backwoods, country" side of Madison's character.
The rumors of Satanism provide some in Madison with yet another ready explanation for the violence.
Dr. Thaden, however, sees no sinister influence: "I know the kids' families, and there's no question it was an aberration. It [the violence] just got started and escalated."
But Dr. David Curtis, a minister at the First Christian Church in Madison, believes that Madisonians may be letting themselves off the hook too easily.
"As small and idyllic a community as this is, it is also a place where people are real," he said. "The pressures of peer cultures on teen-agers are as strong here as anywhere else . . . and evil and suffering happen right here in River City."
"This [killing] may have opened our eyes," he said.