From time to time, Suffer the Little Children will feature a story from the less recent past. Years may have gone by, but these children still deserve to be remembered and their stories told. These posts can be found under the “Forget Me Not” tag.
Today’s Forget Me Not story is the tragic, maddening case of 16-month-old Alissa Guernsey, who has held a special place in my heart since I learned about her tragic death many years ago. I’ve been trying to write this post for about nine months now, but I repeatedly found myself becoming enraged and being forced to step away before my head exploded. In honor of Child Abuse Awareness Month, however, I knew it was time I told Alissa’s story. I guarantee that when you finish reading this post, you are going to be utterly furious, but you’re also going to be in love with the little girl known the world over as “baby dragonfly.”
Warning: there will be some extremely disturbing images ahead, including photos of Alissa’s horrific injuries taken post-mortem, although those are obscured by a warning message unless you click through to view them. I felt it was important to include them to illustrate the savagery of the treatment this child received, especially given the way the criminal case turned out.
Blonde, brown-eyed Alissa Beth Guernsey was born on November 2, 2007 in Columbia City, Indiana to parents Kelli Sprunger and Michael Guernsey. By all reports, Alissa was her daddy’s pride and joy. Her mommy, with whom Alissa shared a birthday, called Alissa her “Bitty Bitty Pretty.”
Less than three weeks after Alissa’s first birthday, her father, Michael, was killed in a one-car wreck on I-69 southbound.
Alissa’s mom, Kelli, was devastated at the loss of her fiance. With her history of depression and drug dependency on top of this tragedy, she didn’t feel she was capable of caring properly for her three children: Lilli (age six), Noah (age three), and Alissa (age one). Kelli didn’t want her babies in foster care. Thinking she was doing the right thing, Kelli agreed to let her cousin, 29-year-old Christy Shaffer, and her husband, 34-year-old Matt, care for Kelli’s children while she attempted to recuperate from her issues.
On December 8, 2008, Christy told DCS she would be happy to take in Kelli’s children, but that she wished she knew how long she would have them. The kids were placed into her home in Topeka shortly thereafter, despite Kelli’s mother, Beth, telling DCS on December 10 that she did not want her grandchildren in foster care and was willing to take the kids.
At Alissa’s first appointment with Topeka pediatrician Dr. John Egli on December 10 for a foster care physical, he determined that everything was “within normal limits” and that Alissa was a healthy, happy baby who was meeting her developmental milestones on time.
Unfortunately, instead of getting back on her feet, Kelli descended deeper into drug use and neglected to keep in contact with her caseworkers. DCS wanted her to take a drug test, but she refused, leading to a citation for neglect after what DCS deemed amounted to abandoning her children.
Lilli, Noah, and Alissa were declared wards of the state of Indiana, and Matt and Christy Shaffer, who had no training as foster parents, were given temporary custody. They qualified as official foster parents not because they had any training, but because they were relatives, and because they had taken guardianship of Kelli’s older two children in the past when Kelli was incarcerated. The three children added to the Shaffers’ already large brood, which included, at the time, Matt’s daughter, twelve-year-old Hailee, as well as the couple’s three children, nine-year-old Braiden, seven-year-old McKenna, and three-year-old Ashlyn.
At the time the children were placed in the Shaffer home at 315 West Pine Street in Topeka, both Christy and Matt were unemployed. Matt received a weekly unemployment payment of $360 and a child support payment for Hailee every other week in the amount of $160.
On December 15, Christy missed her first scheduled court hearing, claiming she had a migraine and that two of the kids were sick.
It should be noted that six-year-old Lilli, a double amputee, received SSI benefits. On January 6, 2009, Christy filed a petition asking for Lilli’s SSI payments of $637 per month to be allocated to the Shaffers.
DCS paid a visit to the children on January 12, noting that they all appeared happy and healthy. Christy reported they were doing well.
Before long, however, things took a dark turn. With both adults unemployed, finances were understandably tight, and with seven kids in the house, tensions no doubt ran high. It seems Christy singled Alissa out among the many children living in her home as the scapegoat for her frustrations. Unfortunately, this is a pattern we see often in child abuse cases.
During the 110 days Alissa spent in the Shaffer home, she went from a normal, healthy, bubbly little girl to a nervous, quiet, withdrawn child. Family members who were able to see her during this time thought she appeared pale and sickly and noticed bruises on the baby’s face and head, but because the Shaffers, who were the kids’ blood relatives, had taken Kelli’s children in out of the supposed kindness of their hearts, no one suspected Alissa was being abused.
On January 27, 2009, Alissa received one suture in Dr. Egli’s office for a two centimeter laceration on the left side of her forehead, an injury she supposedly received from a fall. The suture was removed on February 2, and the doctor did not note any other issues at that time.
On February 5, Christy reported Alissa’s fall and injury to DCS and asked them about claiming Kelli’s children on her taxes. The DCS employee she spoke with described Christy as “a little difficult to work with” and said, “I think she is the type of person that needs all the information possible before agreeing to anything.”
On February 9, Christy called DCS to let them know that because Alissa and Noah were sick, she did not want them to attend their scheduled visit with Kelli. This was the beginning of Christy’s campaign to prevent Kelli from seeing Alissa, but not Lilli and Noah. She always had an excuse about why Alissa was not present, claiming the baby was sick or sleeping.
DCS paid the children another visit on February 10 and observed that all of the kids appeared happy and healthy, even though Christy had reported two of them sick the previous day. Christy told DCS the kids had a doctor appointment later on in the day, although there is no record of the supposed visit at Dr. Egli’s office.
Likely to avoid being accused of abusing the baby, Christy began taking Alissa to doctors and specialists, claiming Alissa’s hair was falling out and that she bruised easily. Alissa was seen on February 13 in Dr. Egli’s office, where the doctor noted the baby had a rash, scabs, and hair loss as well as “bruises all over her face.” According to Dr. Egli’s records, “this appears to be a probable infection.” Blood was drawn for labs, including a complete blood count with differential, a comprehensive metabolic panel, and a test for thyroid stimulating hormone, to test for any pathology.
In the few months Alissa and her siblings lived with the Shaffers, the baby was seen by doctors at least 15 times. Christy tried to pass off Alissa’s medical issues on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and lack of prenatal care, even alleging Alissa was born addicted to meth and crack, although medical records and tox screen reports taken when Alissa was born showed she was perfectly healthy and normal. Christy claimed Alissa was clumsy and difficult to deal with; she also claimed she and Matt had child-proofed their home, put up baby gates to protect Alissa from hurting herself, and even considered getting Alissa a helmet.
Despite several rounds of blood tests, including testing for leukemia, none of the physicians consulted found anything medically wrong with Alissa. DCS was notified of Alissa’s “medical problems.” Christy reported to them on February 18 that because of the baby’s issues, which included the possibility of leukemia or impetigo, the doctor had suggested it would be best for Alissa to stay home. The same day, DCS notified Kelli about what had been going on with her younger daughter.
Kelli told DCS that she was extremely concerned about Alissa, but it seems nothing was done to ensure the wellbeing of Kelli’s children.
Dr. Egli saw Alissa on February 24 for a cough and congestion. The doctor’s notes stated, “Physical exam reveals that she is doing well.” Blood was once again drawn. The chart also states, “Parents want her re-examined to make sure that she is all cleared of in[ection] before she gets a repeat CBCD.”
The next day, Alissa was back in Dr. Egli’s office, this time “experiencing vomiting, diarrhea, temp. [She] was very flushed.” The notes state that Christy and Matt were “reassured.” More blood was drawn on February 26.
Also on February 26, Samuel Cruz, Lilli and Noah’s father, reported to DCS that he wanted to speak to his children, but that whenever he called Christy’s home, she didn’t answer and hadn’t returned his calls.
Dr. Egli saw Alissa yet again on March 3 after she sustained an injury to her left arm. The doctor’s notes for this visit indicate he was told that Alissa had just finished breakfast when she was placed on the floor to play. At that time, Matt arrived home with a family member’s dogs after picking them up at the veterinary office. The dogs were excited and bowled Alissa over; Alissa immediately began crying, and it was reported that her left arm was “hanging” and that she wouldn’t use the arm. The doctor’s notes also indicate that Alissa once again had bruising on the left side of her face near her eye and that the doctor noted dandruff and hair loss again. X-rays were taken during this visit.
An appointment was made for Alissa to see Dr. Robert Fallon, a specialist in hematology and oncology at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
At this point, Dr. Egli contacted Steuben County DCS to report the bruises on Alissa’s face, but he told them that he did not suspect abuse and that as he sat with her, another bruise had appeared on her face.
On March 4, a CT scan was performed on Alissa’s left arm at Parkview LaGrange Hospital.
On March 5, Alissa was seen by Dr. Fallon at Riley. Unable to find a medical reason for Alissa’s bruising and hair loss, the doctor came to the conclusion that the baby must be banging her head against her crib in her sleep.
Sorry, WHAT!? I have never heard of a one-year-old causing constant and repeated injuries to herself by flailing wildly in her sleep. It’s beyond comprehension to me that at this point, no one suspected this little girl was being physically abused.
On March 11, Dr. Egli once again saw Alissa, whose left hand was now swollen, and she was still unable to use her left arm, which had been injured eight days before. When an MRI was finally performed on Alissa’s arm on March 19, it revealed a Salter Harris fracture (type 1), which is an injury to the growth plate area of a child’s bone. The growth plate is an area of cartilage at the ends of long bones where most of a child’s bone growth occurs. When children become fully grown, the cartilage hardens into bone. It is important to treat these types of fractures as soon as possible to avoid impeding normal bone growth.
When he received the results of the MRI, Dr. Egli was informed that this type of injury is concerning for inflicted trauma, but he still did not report these findings to DCS.
On March 24, Christy requested a prescription for Alissa’s pain, claiming that Tylenol and Motrin weren’t strong enough. Dr. Egli prescribed 20 mg of hydrocodone, more commonly known as Vicodin, which he said should last Alissa more than three days even if she was given the maximum dose every four hours. Funny, that, because on March 26, Christy called the doctor for more hydrocodone, saying they were nearly out already. Dr. Egli prescribed more, although it is not documented how much he ordered.
According to what Christy later told investigators, Alissa’s cast “slid off” her arm on the morning of March 27.
The final incident took place on the evening of March 28, when Christy packed up Alissa and some of the other children at about 6:45 PM to take a trip to nearby Ligonier to pick up Happy Meals at McDonald’s and rent a movie at the video store. Alissa was strapped into her car seat behind Christy. During that trip, Christy became enraged at the one-year-old baby and began beating her, gripping the screaming toddler’s hair and smashing her little head over and over again against the car seat.
Alissa soon lost consciousness.
Kelli later reported that Lilli was sitting next to Alissa when her fatal injuries were administered. According to Kelli, Christy, crying, stopped the car several times on the way back to Topeka to check on Alissa, which Christy had told investigators she had not done. Christy told Lilli to lift Alissa’s head, but the baby’s head kept flopping forward. Lilli asked Christy, “What’s wrong with Alissa?”
Kelli said Christy’s response was to yell, “Stop asking that!”
Christy later told investigators that near the end of the ride home, she heard Alissa making snoring or grunting noises from the back seat.
Christy said they arrived home at about 8:20 PM, and she took the other children inside the house to get them situated before she returned for Alissa’s limp body, telling police she had not noticed Alissa’s condition until she brought the baby inside. Pop quiz: upon realizing the gravity of Alissa’s situation, did Christy immediately call 911?
The answer is… of course not! Christy’s brother, Nate, was an EMT, so this supposedly “innocent” woman called him instead of dialing 911. Nate, who lived close by, rushed to the Shaffer home and noted that Alissa, who was already cold to the touch, was unresponsive with no pulse. Finally, at 8:25 PM, they called 911, and Nate performed CPR on Alissa until first responders arrived at 8:40 PM.
At 8:52 PM, Alissa was taken to Parkview LaGrange Hospital, arriving at 9:07 PM. The medical team worked their asses off for the next 47 minutes to save the baby’s life, even administering Narcan in case Alissa’s condition had been caused by an accidental opiate overdose, because Christy had reported giving Alissa a 3 mL dose of hydrocodone before putting her down for a nap at 2:00 PM. Despite the heroic efforts of the hospital staff, Alissa was beyond help, and eventually, their life-saving efforts had to cease.
Alissa Beth Guernsey, not even a week shy of 17 months old, was pronounced dead at 9:54 PM.
The Shaffers notified DCS’s Family Case Matters (FCM) division at 10:10 PM that Alissa had died. At 1:20 AM on March 29, Alissa’s tiny, battered body was transported to St. Joseph Forensic Center in Fort Wayne, where, at 8:30 AM on March 30, an autopsy was conducted by Dr. Scott A. Wagner on the orders of LaGrange County Coroner Bruce Coney.
The autopsy revealed several horrendous injuries, including bruises on the top of Alissa’s head, both on the scalp and in the tissue between the scalp and the skull. There were multiple bruises on the baby’s face and a fresh contusion on her left thigh. Alissa was missing patches of hair, which was determined to have been torn out rather than falling out on its own. The pathologist found Alissa had suffered bilateral subdural hematoma, which is blood collecting between the brain and the skull on both sides of her head. Alissa had two gruesome lacerations inside her mouth in the areas where her gums met the inside of her lips, one fresh, one in the beginning stages of healing. She also had a broken left elbow and a growth plate displacement as well as internal injuries. The toxicology revealed only naxolone, or Narcan, in Alissa’s blood, so Christy’s story about giving the baby even a single dose of her prescribed hydrocodone was bullshit.
Where did the hydrocodone, which is an opiate, go? Chances are very good that Christy herself used it, although she later denied this.
During a deposition, Christy was asked about Alissa’s injuries.
Lawyer: As you sit here today, can you explain to me how the child got all those bruises on its face?
Christy: No, I cannot.
Lawyer: You didn’t smack the child
Christy: No, sir.
Lawyer: Beat the child?
Christy: No. Never.
Coroner Bruce Coney brought in Dr. Antoinette Laskey, an independent expert from the Indiana University School of Medicine Children’s Health Services Research Department, who reviewed the autopsy and medical history reports and determined that Alissa’s bruises “are most consistent with inflicted trauma/child abuse.” Regarding her hair loss, the expert opined that it “is highly concerning for… someone pulling out her hair.” The report also stated that the baby’s “arm fracture is not consistent with being ‘run into by a dog’. It is concerning for inflicted trauma.”
The cause of death was ruled to be blunt force trauma of the head, and the manner was determined to be homicide. The sheriff’s department described Alissa’s injuries as “obvious signs of abuse.” A report by the Indiana Department of Child Services stated that the fatal blow to Alissa was “that of an adult punching a child in the mouth as hard as they could.”
So, one would expect murder charges to be filed, right?
Nothing about this case meets any kind of expectations.
Rather than deciding himself if charges should be filed like most prosecutors would, LaGrange County Prosecutor Jeff Wible, for the first time in his ten years as a prosecutor, convened a grand jury in the case and let them come to a conclusion about whether or not 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,” said Wible. “I didn’t have a witness. I didn’t have an incriminating statement. I didn’t have a weapon. So I thought, ‘Let the grand jury decide.’”
Several children witnessed Alissa’s fatal beating, but Wible pointedly disregarded their highly incriminating witness statements.
The grand jury indicted Christy on a charge of Neglect of a Dependent, a Class B felony (neglect resulting in serious injury). No murder. No manslaughter. No abuse. Not even neglect resulting in death.
Joel Schumm, a professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, told a reporter, “That’s not really the type of case where you’d expect to see a grand jury. In the vast majority of cases, well over 99% of cases around the state, prosecutors just file the charges.”
Grand juries, according to Professor Schumm, are not usually called in Indiana unless the case is politically sensitive, and not usually for cases in which the prosecutor is unsure of which charges to file.
“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 [the jurors] were told or what they weren’t told or anything else that happened in that process.”
That includes what evidence was presented to — or withheld from — the grand jury, which is why it is impossible to determine why Christy was not indicted on murder or even manslaughter charges, let alone why she was indicted on the Neglect of a Dependent as a mere Class B felony, neglect resulting in serious injury, as opposed to Class A, which indicates neglect resulting in death.
“I can certainly see no reason why it would be charged this way,” said Professor Schumm. “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.”
Class A felonies in Indiana can incur a sentence of 20 to 50 years in prison, while Class B felonies can only bring a sentence of six years to 20 years.
Well, in that case, Christy made out like a bandit. She accepted a plea bargain, pleading guilty to her piddly little neglect charge, all the while having the gall to deny she caused Alissa’s injuries by submitting an affidavit to the court that read in part:
“Although I acknowledge the opinion of an expert witness who determined that Alissa Guernsey died as the result of blunt force trauma, I disagree with the expert’s opinion. 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.”
To add insult to injury, along with Christy’s guilty plea, her husband, Matthew Shaffer, was granted immunity.
If they were truly innocent, what did he need immunity from!?
Christy’s plea was accepted by LaGrange County Circuit Court Judge J. Scott Vanderbeck, who, it would later be revealed, had a personal relationship with Christy’s family and a massive man-crush on her father. Christy’s plea could have landed her in prison for up to 20 years, but she had no criminal history, and dozens of friends and members of her family — including her father and her own children — had written 101 pages of letters to the court, begging the judge to have mercy on her. Some of the same family and friends attended her sentencing hearing on May 25, 2011, making tearful statements for Judge Vanderbeck to be lenient on her.
Only seven pages of letters pleading for justice were sent to the court from the other side of the family.
Christy’s defense had hired a forensic psychologist, who testified at the hearing that in-depth testing performed on Christy showed she displayed a low potential for child abuse, compared to people who had been convicted of physically abusing children.
Christy’s defense attorney called Kelli to the stand during Christy’s sentencing hearing and grilled Kelli about her own history of drug use, all but shouting from the rooftops that Kelli bore the responsibility for Alissa’s death. I have little fondness for most defense attorneys, particularly the ones who opt to defend the obviously guilty, but my God, what a bottom-feeding POS this attorney must be to try to pin this on Kelli, who only agreed to place her kids with the Shaffers in the first place because she was trying to get her life together for her children.
During the hearing, according to the transcript, Judge Vanderbeck was debating with a DCS investigator and Christy’s attorney about the level of danger Christy posed to her four children. He eventually decided to place them with Christy’s father, Kerry Sprunger.
Regarding this decision, the judge said, “I’m not tipping my hand and suggesting that I know what I’m doing yet as to the ultimate resolution, I’m just — you don’t get faced with stuff like this and these people are being nice and if you take their side, and something tragic would happen with a child and a ticking time bomb — ah — that doesn’t make them bad, it kind of just makes them at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Trying to read that statement now makes me wonder if I’m having a stroke or if the judge was when he said it. The real take-aways for me are “ticking time bomb” — was he referring to Christy? Alissa? — and “wrong place at the wrong time,” which is definitely not how I would describe a sustained pattern of child abuse leading to murder.
Christy herself begged the judge for leniency, telling the judge the same old BS about unexplained bruising, clumsiness, blah, blah, blah. She cried on the stand as she described the many doctor visits Alissa endured as they tried to “diagnose” her with some medical ailment that would explain the injuries.
“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,” Christy told Judge Vanderbeck. “Your Honor, I beg of you, please not [sic] take me away from my children. They are my whole world, and they need me as much as I need them.”
Judge Vanderbeck swallowed this manipulative shrew’s bullshit hook, line, and sinker. Before handing down Christy’s sentence, he took the opportunity to throw a completely unwarranted jab at Kelli, telling the courtroom that she “shoulders the responsibility for this.”
Then, Judge Vanderbeck proceeded to sentence Christy to ten years… with six years suspended. Indiana’s good-time credit program ensured that the remaining four years would automatically be cut in half, meaning Christy would serve no more than two years behind bars.
But wait! There’s more!
Judge Vanderbeck told Christy’s attorney to come back after Christy underwent testing at the Department of Correction Diagnostic Center, and he would “entertain a motion for her early release.”
Professor Schumm weighed in on this, too. “I’ve never seen that. Very rarely does a judge encourage a defense lawyer to file a motion and ask for a modification. Most defendants 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.”
Well, Christy and her lawyer did return to court on August 11, 2011, and guess what happened? Not only did Judge Vanderbeck consider reducing Christy’s sentence; he released her from jail right then and there, ordering her to serve six months of home detention and three years of probation.
Christy’s total time spent behind bars?
In his order, Judge Vanderbeck actually wrote, “There is nothing that can be done to bring back the life of the dependent child victim.”
As if that’s the point!
Even Prosecutor Jeff Wible said he disagreed with the judge’s decision. “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. I was against the modification. I did not think it was warranted. 77 days wasn’t enough.”
Every single person who followed the case and possessed a working brain agreed, including Kelli’s brother, Tyler Sprunger, who felt from the beginning that his cousin should have been charged with more than neglect in connection with his niece’s death.
“The autopsy specifically says ‘homicide due to blunt force trauma of the head,’” Tyler said. “The little girl was covered in bruises. Her hair, it was ripped out of her head. That comes from killing a child. I love Christy, but what she did was wrong.”
He also said, “She died a painful death. Blunt force trauma to the head — that’s a lot of painful blows. It’s not fair for a 15 month old baby to go out like that. The defendant in this case was never tried for murder, was basically given a slap on the wrist.”
“I don’t know how she’s not doing life; I really don’t.”
Tyler created a Facebook page called “77 Days for Murder” and organized protests outside the LaGrange County courthouse to bring awareness to the absolute travesty of justice that was Alissa’s case. At the rallies he organized, dozens of people marched, holding signs, to let the court and the public at large know about their outrage over Judge Vanderbeck’s decision to release Christy from jail. “I feel it’s small town politics at its best,” Tyler said. “Somebody knew somebody that knew somebody that had been involved in the community. The links and the connections are there.”
Remember how I mentioned earlier that Judge Vanderbeck had a personal relationship with Christy’s family?
Both Vanderbeck and Jeff Wible have admitted they know Christy’s father, Kerry Sprunger, who, as recently as 2018, was the Chief Loan Officer and Executive Vice President of Farmers State Bank, one of the largest banks in LaGrange County. He is now listed as a member of their Board of Directors. Kerry has long been a prominent business leader in the area.
“I know Mr. Sprunger,” Judge Vanderbeck said, according to a court transcript. “He’s been on some boards with me… I know he’s got a good heart. And I think I went to a baseball game with [his son]… So I wouldn’t do that if they were bad people.”
Judge Vanderbeck has repeatedly told the media that he cannot discuss his relationship with Christy’s family or anything else regarding the case. He denied any conflict of interest.
Jeff Wible admitted knowing Kerry, as well, but he, too, denied there was any conflict of interest in the case.
When Inside Edition’s Lisa Guerrero caught up with Wible, she asked him, “Many people think that Christy Shaffer got away with murder. What is your response?”
Wible, disappearing into the courthouse, merely responded, “She didn’t get away with murder.”
Oh, and while I’m discussing possible conflicts of interest, it would be remiss of me not to mention that Prosecutor Jeff Wible spent many years sitting on the Board of Directors of the LaGrange County Community Foundation with none other than Dr. John Egli… Alissa’s pediatrician. Kerry Sprunger was a regular member of the Foundation, donating undisclosed amounts of money and other assets.
Professor Schumm said that based on the facts he had reviewed in the case, it was unlikely that Judge Vanderbeck did anything to violate Indiana’s Code of Judicial Conduct but that judges are generally expected to recuse themselves from cases where a conflict of interest may be perceived. In Alissa’s case, almost everyone involved certainly perceived a conflict of interest, from Alissa’s family down to some of the investigators. “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. The process [in this case] is, from the beginning to the end, a very unusual case.”
Another law professor from Indiana University, Charles Geyh, who specializes in legal ethics, said that based on the transcripts from the 2009 hearing, in his opinion, there were grounds for Judge Vanderbeck to disqualify himself from the case due to his relationship to the family. “He’s made it clear he thinks the world of the father, who’s obviously got an interest in this case through his daughter.”
He continued, “The applicable standard for disqualification is whether a reasonable person fully informed of the facts would doubt the judge’s impartiality. This judge does not sound as though he is saying that standard was met. Rather, he seems to be implying that the concerns are misguided.”
On August 17, 2011, six days after ordering Christy’s release and not long after the story gained national attention thanks to media coverage, Judge Vanderbeck finally signed an “order of recusal and appointment of special judge,” removing himself from the case and any future proceedings related to it, including lawsuits Kelli had filed in the matter. “In this case an inflamed atmosphere has been created by people unconnected to this case. When a judge, in a community plagued with methamphetamine use, attempts to resolve a dispute involving drug use, family problems, the tragic death of an infant, and conflicting accounts of who is to blame — the rule of law provides guidance for justice. 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.”
In his order, he also listed “possible intimidating behavior by members of the public” among his reasons for recusing himself.
Citing state law, Vanderbeck named his own replacement, appointing DeKalb Superior Court Judge Kevin P. Wallace as special judge for future proceedings in the case.
Even though in his recusal order, the judge made reference to “conflicting accounts of who is to blame” for Alissa’s death, Indiana State Police Detective Jeff Boyd said unequivocally that Christy Shaffer was investigators’ one and only suspect.
At one of many rallies and gatherings that have taken place over the years, this one soon after Christy’s release from jail, Bernadine Buccafuri, the leader of the BabyAlissaCries4Justice Facebook page and a member of the Alissa’s Army movement, spoke with Inside Edition, saying, “This was a little baby. It’s incomprehensible… She deserves justice.”
Another admin of the Facebook page added, “Her killer only served 77 days. That’s the reason we’re all here today, because we won’t stand for that.”
Bernadine said, “We’re going to fight for her until she gets her justice. We’re not stopping.”
Alissa’s Uncle Tyler, who considers what happened to his niece “a travesty of justice,” said, “Somebody has to stick up for Alissa because nobody did. You cannot take a life and not have to pay for it.”
Several petitions have been created on Change.org regarding Alissa’s case. The BabyAlissaCries4Justice team started one such petition in 2012 asking first Indiana’s attorney general and, subsequently, then-Indiana Governor Mike Pence (now the Vice President of the United States) to open a state murder investigation of Alissa’s fatal beating death. The petition ultimately closed with 72,374 signatures, but the investigation was never opened.
The US Attorney General’s office acknowledged that they received several petitions on the matter but says the petitions were being directed to the wrong agency. AG public information officer Bryan Corbin told 13 Investigates, “This doesn’t fall under the attorney general’s jurisdiction. The attorney general’s office doesn’t get to decide whether to reopen 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 reopen a case.”
That brings us right back around to Mr. Jeff Wible, who told the news station he sees no reason to reopen Alissa’s case. “I haven’t seen evidence to support anything other than what the grand jury indicted [Christy Shaffer] with,” Wible said. “If someone has evidence I’m not aware of, tell them to bring it forward.”
A reporter from Fox55 News contacted Wible and said the prosecutor responded that he will not reopen Alissa’s case “because no one in Indiana cares about it.” Wible refutes the claim, saying he never made such a comment and that he was just playing “phone tag” with the reporter. He did, however, tell a reporter for the Tribune that of all the letters he received regarding Alissa’s case, none came from Indiana.
Professor Schumm opined that even if new evidence was presented, it would be unlikely for Christy to be hit with further charges. “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.”
13 Investigates dropped in at the Shaffer house soon after Christy’s release from jail. Matt answered the door and told the reporter it had been “a horrible time” for the family. Christy refused to talk at the time, and the Shaffers did not respond to a request for an interview. Kerry Sprunger also refused to speak with the news station. Kerry has also told inquiring reporters that the case has nothing to do with him.
Kelli Sprunger sued the Indiana Department of Child Services, Steuben County, and Ashley Westgate, the DCS caseworker assigned to Alissa’s case, for their role in the baby’s death, saying Westgate and DCS did not pay enough attention to the frequency of Alissa’s injuries. The lawsuit sought damages for an unspecified dollar amount that would make Kelli and her family “whole.”
In October of 2012, DCS agreed to a mediated settlement of $150,000. The settlement did not assign fault to DCS, and the agency stressed that the settlement amount did not reflect the value of Alissa’s life. Ashley Westgate no longer works for DCS.
Kelli’s attorney Kevin Likes told the Tribune that he considers a $150,000 mediated settlement with a government agency a victory. Kelli told the reporter that she planned to use the money for surgery for her disabled daughter.
The BabyAlissaCries4Justice Facebook page reported that with the settlement money, Kelli said she bought a car and gave the rest of the money away.
In November of 2013, while on probation for the neglect charge, 35-year-old Christy Shaffer was arrested and charged with possession of methamphetamine and maintaining a common nuisance, which are both Class D felonies.
A probation officer had received a tip that Christy was taking part in a meth operation, the takedown of which started when two LaGrange County men were arrested earlier that month and charged with higher-level felonies related to dealing and possessing meth. The two men were evidently making the drug in the garage of Christy’s home. Police were searching the home of one of the men when Christy first texted and then called the man’s cell phone; John Parrish, an investigator for the prosecutor’s office, answered that phone call, a detail I find a little bit hilarious.
Christy later admitted to flushing the meth and “tooters,” or straws used to inhale smoke, down the toilet after the call. She also admitted to possessing meth.
Only after this arrest were Christy’s children removed from her home. What the hell. For one thing, it boggles my mind that she still had custody of her kids in the first place. Secondly, the fact that she allowed a meth lab to operate under the same roof as her children further proves what a shitty, careless parent she is.
For anyone unaware, meth production is insanely dangerous. The byproducts of meth labs contaminate the surroundings with highly explosive chemicals and toxic fumes. Meth labs are essentially time bombs; a single spark from any source can ignite the lingering chemicals and cause fires or even explosions.
Even possessing meth in a home with children is, to say the least, a bad parenting decision. Meth is a drug that stimulates the central nervous system and causes a huge amount of neurotoxins to flood the brain. Meth kills brain cells and can lead to psychosis or even fatal strokes, not to mention respiratory problems, heart problems, tooth decay, skin lesions, and even death. Let’s just say kids shouldn’t be exposed to this shit in any way, shape, or form, in any amount, for any reason.
The drug charges were a violation of Christy’s existing probation, an offense to which she pled guilty in March of 2014. Unlike Judge Vanderbeck, Judge Wallace does not live with his head up his ass, so he sentenced Christy to serve the previously suspended six years of her original sentence on her charge of neglect in Alissa’s death. He recommended she be incarcerated in a facility specializing in substance abuse counseling. How unbearably sad that Christy would spend more time in prison for drugs than for the death of her 16-month-old second cousin, but kudos to Judge Wallace for making her pay to the best of his abilities.
In the meth case, Christy received another plea deal, pleading guilty to one of the felony drug charges. Her public defender offered Judge Wallace information on an inpatient drug rehabilitation program as an alternative to prison time. Judge Wallace disregarded that and sentenced Christy to an additional 180 days in prison, which he specified would be served after her sentence for probation violation.
In January of 2014, Kelli Sprunger filed a lawsuit against Dr. John Egli, accusing him of ignoring the standard of care by not reporting the abuse that led to Alissa’s death. Documents filed in the suit showed that Dr. Egli notified DCF officials of Alissa’s medical issues but downplayed the possibility of abuse. The court ultimately ruled in favor of Dr. Egli, concluding that “Indiana does not recognize a private right of action for failure to report child abuse.”
In the 2014 Indiana judicial elections, Judge Vanderbeck ran for reelection to the LaGrange County Circuit Court. He competed in the Republican primary on May 6, 2014 against R. Larry Helmer and received 58.9% of the vote. In the general election on November 4, 2014, he was unopposed.
Judge Vanderbeck retired from the bench on June 1, 2018… thank God.
Also in 2014, LaGrange County Prosecutor Jeff Wible was upset in the Republican primary election by Tim Cain. In the general election later that year, independent candidate Greg Kenner was elected as the new LaGrange County Prosecutor.
On October 18, 2015, Kelli and Alissa’s estate were awarded “a joint and severable damaged judgment” against Christy and Matt Shaffer in the amount of $1,000,000.00. The court record reads, “However, the Plaintiffs are precluded from enforcing [the] Judgment as it pertains to Matthew Shaffer for the reason that said judgment has been discharged by the Decision and Order from the US Bankruptcy Court.”
It is doubtful that Kelli will ever see a single red cent from Christy.
In December of 2015, Christy requested the court release her into a community corrections program after she completed several prison programs, including rehabilitation, and due to good behavior. Judge Kevin Wallace denied her request and ruled that she would serve out the entirety of her term in the Indiana Department of Correction. Now there’s the judge Alissa deserved in the first place.
Christy was paroled from the Rockville Correctional Facility in March of 2016 and has been walking free ever since, her very freedom flaunting what many consider the greatest miscarriage of justice in Indiana’s history.
In June of that year, Matt and Christy Shaffer divorced. Matt was given sole custody of the couple’s three children.
Alissa’s siblings, Lilli and Noah, were sent to live with their biological father in Mexico.
Judge Kevin Wallace, who has been a judge since 1989, announced in December that he will not seek reelection in 2020. His current term ends on December 31 of this year.
Alissa Beth Guernsey is buried at Bronson Cemetery in Michigan. Her grave backs up to the headstone marking the place where her father, Michael L. Guernsey, and her grandfather, John R. Guernsey, are buried.
Sadly, Alissa’s own grave has no headstone. For several years, a small silver plate was the only marker for her final resting place, although supporters often left toys, flowers, balloons, and other tokens of their love for the little girl to decorate her gravesite. Alissa’s Army reached out to her grandmother, who owns the cemetery plot where Alissa is buried, and asked if they could pay for a headstone in tribute to Alissa, but their request was refused. Alissa’s grandmother told them that the headstone was a “family matter” and something they would eventually take care of themselves.
Undeterred, the BabyAlissaCries4Justice group collected money for a memorial bench to be placed on a plot they purchased adjacent to Alissa’s. The bench was completed in October of 2016 and dedicated in March of 2017. They have asked the local police department to keep a special eye on the monument to avoid vandalism by those who may not appreciate its placement.
Jeff Wible is now running for Indiana state Senate.
A Facebook group, Say NO to Jeff Wible for Elected Seat State Senate District 13, is dedicated to preventing Wible from being elected. In addition, former law enforcement officer Marshall D. Talbert wrote a scathing letter to the editor of KPC News with the subject line, “We can campaign for a candidate, or against them.” I’m going to quote the entire letter:
“To the editor,
“Jeff Wible for Indiana Senate District 13? You’ve got to be kidding me. I wouldn’t vote Jeff Wible for dog catcher, if that were an elected office. When researching Wible’s qualifications simply do a google search on the name ‘Alissa Guernsey.’
“Take a good look at the autopsy photographs of baby Alissa. The photographs do not depict neglect of a dependent. They depict a homicide. A murder. Her injuries (seen and unseen) are not the result of being clumsy, or being knocked down by the family dog. Her injuries were inflicted. They are the result of a beating. Wible chose not to charge Christy Shaffer with killing the child. He convened a grand jury, and one has to wonder exactly what they were told. The lesser charge (neglect with bodily injury) certainly did not fit the crime.
“I was an Indiana State Trooper for 25 years, and the Howard County Sheriff for eight years. I have never seen a greater miscarriage of justice than the Alissa Guernsey case.
“The great thing about living free in America is that we can campaign for a candidate, or against them. The more than 100,000 members of Alissa’s Army will do their part to prevent Wible’s election to another public office that requires public trust and integrity.
“The Army will be back in Lagrange County. We have a constitutional right to congregate, protest, and express our continued displeasure with candidate Jeff Wible. We have a right to attend candidate debates and public forums. Don’t be surprised to find us walking your neighborhoods, outside your courthouse, or at your polling place on election day.
“While doing your research be sure to review the Channel 13 Investigates and the Inside Edition segments on the Alissa Guernsey case. Wible refuses to be accessible to the media, acting like a scared rabbit as reporters try to question him. His behavior is unacceptable for an elected public official in a country that guarantees freedom of the press.
“Wible was voted out of office last time he ran for prosecutor. You’ve done your civic duty. Leave it that way.
“Marshall D. Talbert”
Wible has attempted some measure of damage control, addressing the controversy on his Facebook page in January of 2020, stating:
“I would like to make a brief statement regarding a case from over 10 years ago that has been brought up recently in an effort to disparage my reputation.
“In 2009, a grand jury indicted a suspect for neglect of a dependent as a Class ‘B’ Felony. I was the Prosecuting Attorney at the time.
“I opposed the court’s sentencing at each stage of the process as I believe it was far too lenient. Less than three months after the guilty verdict, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion for modification, once again over my objection. These are all matters of public record.
“To this day, I am heartbroken with how this case ended. It was a tragedy from the very beginning. A little girl died, and ultimately, her justice was never found. I pushed for the maximum sentence but in the end, the final sentencing is out of my hands.
“When lawyers do things they know they are not supposed to do, they are sanctioned by the Indiana Supreme Court for unethical conduct. Some of those lawyers still practice law in NE Indiana. One, is still in elected office. I have never been sanctioned or charged with misconduct in my 28 years of service to the law.
“I have been and will continue to be committed to the Rule of Law. I believe in protecting and defending the US and Indiana Constitutions. It is unfortunate, that some would see fit to use this case in an effort to disparage and destroy my reputation. My desire is to be a servant of the people.”
For much longer than Alissa’s not quite 17 months on this earth, her story has been raising awareness of the issues of child abuse, judicial misconduct, and corruption in the justice system. Her short life has had an immeasurable impact on thousands of others. Whether we will ever see true justice for Alissa remains to be seen, but at the very least, we must never forget the tiny, blonde-haired, brown-eyed girl with the big, bright smile.
Among the many online groups that have sprung up over the 12 years since Alissa’s death, she has become known as “baby dragonfly.” Think of Alissa every time you see a dragonfly, and share her story as far and wide as you can.
Alissa deserves to be remembered.
Sources: South Bend Tribune, WTHR 13 Investigates, Inside Edition, Baby Alissa Cries 4 Justice Facebook page, Healthline, Lighting Their Way Home blog, Angelizd’s Place, the Indianapolis Recorder, KPC News, Documenting Reality, Change.org, court documents