A 33-year-old Indiana woman was sentenced this week to 40 years in prison for the brutal death of her infant daughter last year.
Around 10:45 AM on Saturday, June 8, 2019 police in Muncie, Indiana were called to the Muncie Young Women’s Christian Association, located at 310 Charles Street, on a report of an unresponsive child.
Sarah Anne Styhl, then age 32, had been staying at the shelter since Tuesday with her three-month-old daughter, Shae Anna Marie Styhl. On Saturday morning, Sarah told a staff member at the shelter that her baby was unresponsive. The baby’s upper right arm was wrapped in a bandage, and the baby’s head appeared grey.
Shea was rushed to IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Authorities, medical staff, and other witnesses saw the baby “had what appeared to be burns covering most parts of her body.”
An examination immediately after the baby’s death revealed Shea had suffered from “extensive skeletal trauma,” including fractures in both arms and both legs. Shea’s multiple bone fractures, according to doctors, were in various stages of healing. A police report authored by Muncie Police Department investigator Amy Kesler added, “The child also appeared malnourished.”
The report continued, “Upon visual inspection of the child, there were different degrees of peeling skin usually associated with burn injuries.”
Police performed a search of the YWCA room where Sarah and Shea had been staying and located at least two bottles of “burn spray, along with several diaper rash ointments and Icy Hot patches.” There were no kitchen or bathroom facilities in the room. Investigators found stains consistent with blood on several items of Shea’s clothing, burp rags, the bed sheets, and other items.
When questioned, Sarah told investigators she used “several different ointments and lotions” to treat what she said was “irritation around the baby’s mouth and face,” which she said might have been caused by an allergic reaction.
She insisted she knew nothing about the baby’s other injuries, including a “large injury to the infant’s buttocks and vaginal area… [resembling] a large blood blister or burn blister.”
Sarah explained that Shea had fallen out of her stroller a few weeks before, and that to treat the baby’s injury, she put an Icy Hot pad on Shea’s arm and wrapped it in a bandage.
Sarah told police she hadn’t taken her daughter to a doctor because the baby did not have health insurance, and she didn’t take her to a hospital because “hospitals were more for emergency situations.”
In the report, Kesler wrote, “Sarah then became argumentative when confronted with the fact that there was no way she had not been aware of these skin injuries. She asked for an attorney at that time.”
An employee at the shelter told police that when she performed an intake interview on Tuesday with Sarah, Shea was wearing a hat and swaddled in a blanket, and the employee did not see any facial injuries on the baby. She said that during the interview, Sarah said that Shea was covered by health insurance.
Another witness who saw Sarah and Shea on Friday evening said the baby was again wrapped in a blanket, wearing a headband. This woman also did not see any facial injuries on Shea.
Sarah told police she was the only person who had ever provided care for Shea since birth, maintaining that no one else had cared for the baby, “even for five minutes.”
On Sunday, the day after Shea’s death, an autopsy was performed at IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital, although Delaware County Coroner Rick Howell said the baby’s cause of death would not be released until testing was completed.
Regardless, Sarah Styhl was arrested and booked into jail in Delaware County on two counts of neglect of a dependent resulting in death, a level 1 felony that carries a charge of up to 40 years in prison. Her bond was initially set at $50,000, but on Wednesday, June 12, it was raised to $100,000.
According to charging documents, Sarah deprived her daughter of medical care in the last week of her life.
“Both counts allege the neglect and death of the same child,” said a Delaware County prosecutor. “They are simply alternate methods to charge the crime.”
Captain Joe Todd of the Muncie Police Department said, “The charges were kind of based on what they saw and what they found and less on what she said… It’s bad. The photos that I viewed were shocking to me. Those of us who have kids and around kids, it has an effect.”
He added, “Not that anybody needs my advice, but keep an eye on your children, on family, on family members. It’s a shame what it appears this baby’s gone through that no one noticed.”
WaTasha Barnes Griffin, Chief Executive Officer of the YWCA of Central Indiana, said in a statement, “Tragedy is never easy, especially when it involves a child… The YWCA of Central Indiana board and staff have fully cooperated with the investigation and we will continue to provide quality care and services to all women and children who enter our program.”
Sarah Styhl, who also has a son a couple years older than Shea, had previously been convicted in 2008 of battery in Allen County for harming her older son when he was about 7 months old. In that case, a probation violation landed Sarah in prison for 15 months.
In 2017, she was convicted of domestic battery after attacking her mother.
According to the Star Press, Sarah, along with her then-two-year-old son, had lived in her mother’s house in Bluffton. On May 4, 2017, Sarah’s mother, Tammy, awoke to hear her daughter screaming at the two-year-old, “telling him the baby is going to die.”
In Tammy’s statement, she wrote, “I told her you don’t talk to a baby like that. She started telling me I was going to die.” At the time, Tammy said, Sarah was a patient at a local mental health facility, and Sarah told her she “needed to go to the hospital now and be checked out.”
Tammy wrote that she assumed her daughter had “too much coffee” that morning and took Sarah’s cup away from her. “That’s when she hit me from behind in the neck, knocking me to the ground.”
A Bluffton Police officer wrote, “Sarah then hit Tammy again on the side of the head and told her she was going to kill her.”
When police initially arrived during that incident, Sarah tried to convince them her mother had fallen, causing her injuries. That excuse didn’t fly. When Sarah was taken to jail that day, her son was placed in Tammy’s care pending investigation by the Department of Child Services.
Three weeks after the incident, Sarah pleaded guilty as charged to a single count of domestic battery, which was a level 6 felony that could have earned her up to 30 months in prison. Wells Superior Court Judge Andrew Antrim instead sentenced Sarah to time already served in the county jail, placing Sarah on probation.
It’s not clear who currently has custody of Sarah’s sons, who would be about five and twelve years old now. Neither was with her while she stayed at the Muncie YWCA. Prior to her stay, Sarah and Shea, who was born in late February of 2019, had stayed at a homeless shelter in Portland.
Sarah’s brother, Michael Yepson, also has quite a lengthy criminal record dating all the way back to 2007. Most recently, he pleaded guilty in 2018 to dealing drugs and was given a six year prison sentence with credit for two years time served and the remaining four years suspended. He was placed on probation for four years. Prior to his sentencing, rumors floated around Facebook that Michael, his sister Sarah, and his mother Tammy were “snitching” in an attempt to lighten Michael’s sentence.
When the results of Shea’s autopsy came back, the report revealed that She had suffered multiple broken bones at various different times, in addition to “burns and scalding injuries throughout the body.”
Sarah’s trial for the death of her daughter was set to begin on July 27, 2020. For over a year, she cooled her heels in the Delaware County jail, unable to make her $100,000 bond. Then, earlier this month, it was reported that Sarah, now 33, was planning to plead guilty, although a formal plea agreement had not been submitted for Judge Linda Ralu Wolf’s consideration.
Sarah officially pleaded guilty on July 6 to neglect of a dependent resulting in death in connection with the death of her daughter, Shae Anna Marie Styhl. According to Delaware County Prosecutor Eric Hoffman, “Styhl testified that she suffered from ‘blackouts’ and did not know or remember how the infant sustained multiple broken bones and burns on her skin.” He said that Sarah admitted she was aware of Shea’s injuries but did not seek medical care for her daughter.
At the court hearing on Monday, July 27, Sarah Ann Styhl told Judge Wolf she wished she “could have been more prepared” to care properly for her infant daughter.
Prosecutor Hoffman and Judge Wolf noted that Sarah had failed to provide appropriate medical attention for her daughter’s injuries. Sarah’s public defender, Louis Denney, recommended a 20 year sentence for his client due to her history of mental illness.
Judge Wolf instead sentenced Sarah to 40 years in prison, saying, “A parent has no greater responsibility than to protect her child from harm. Sarah Styhl completely and willfully failed to protect her three-month-old infant in every single way.” She said that Shea “was completely incapable of protecting herself from her abusive and neglectful mother.”
“Unfortunately,” said Prosecutor Hoffman, “in the past 17 years, I’ve prosecuted a lot of child abuse cases, a lot of child fatality cases. I don’t recall a single case where the injuries were this extensive, this pervasive… The sheer pain must have been unbearable. [Shea] lived a very short life of nothing but pure hell. This defendant simply didn’t give a damn.”
Prosecutor Hoffman had recommended the maximum sentence for Sarah, who he said “needs 40 years of prison so we as a society can be sure she won’t have any more children.”
The terms of Sarah’s plea agreement dictate that she waived her right to appeal her conviction.
After Sarah’s sentencing, her mother, Tammy, made several comments on articles posted about it on Facebook. Tammy said that CPS had failed her granddaughter by neglecting to enforce well baby checks and that there was an open case with CPS at the time of Shea’s death. “Shame on CPS Jay county shelter YWCA they could have saved her they didn’t they didn’t listen to me,” she wrote, demanding “answers from child protective services why they failed to do well baby check on behalf of my grandchild,” adding, “they should be ashamed of themselves.”
In another comment, Tammy said that Sarah, who she said was severely disabled, had no business taking care of a child, and that because of CPS’s failure to act, Tammy was suffering the loss of two children, not just one.
“I want answers from child protective services why they failed a child the baby when I contacted them I have paperwork to prove it,” Tammy wrote, “I insisted on a well-baby check at no time did they follow through I want answers and all I get is excuses…”
“My granddaughter,” Tammy said, “…was the most beautiful baby with the biggest brown eyes.”
Rest well, little Shae.
Click here for any future coverage of Shea’s case.
Sources: The Star Press, Fox 59, WOWO, The Indy Channel, CBS 4 Indy, Associated Press, The Edwardsville Intelligencer, USA Today
(Thanks to my friend Marshall Talbert for bringing Shea’s story to my attention!)