The Cruel Hoax

How devastating to have a child go missing.

For Mike and Dorothy Sherrill, something that was already so horrifying it was unimaginable, actually got a lot worse.

In 1986, Mr. and Mrs. Sherrill were in the midst of a divorce. There little girl Shannon, 6, had just returned from her weekend visitation with her dad, Mike. Dorothy had moved into a trailer, a neighborhood that housed lots of other children, in addition to her own.

Though it was fall, that October day in 1986 was balmy, so Mrs. Sherrill had allowed Shannon to play outside with the other kids- including her two year old brother.

Barefoot, with a blue and white sundress on, Shannon was happy.

Throughout the afternoon, the kids played hide-and-seek, under the watchful eye of the neighborhood.

When it was time to come inside, however, little Shannon was nowhere to be found. Her young brother told their mother, Dorothy, that Shannon had gone “behind the trailer”. Mrs. Sherrill hurriedly looked there, but her daughter was gone.

The case was strange from the beginning- neighbors had been outside while the kids were playing- and many of them remembered seeing little Shannon amongst them. No one, however, can recall anything out of the ordinary… and no one seems to remember anyone in the area that did not belong there.

Immediately, Shannon was reported missing, and a massive search was launched. Hundreds of volunteers scoured the area, along with police, helicopters and bloodhounds. Before long, the searches got out of hand, with volunteers attempting to force their way into the homes of residents who didn’t answer their doors quickly enough.

The bloodhounds, it’s reported, tracked little Shannon’s scent to a field. Authorities even found tiny footprints, indentations that are believed to have been made by Shannon’s little feet. Accompanying those footprints were two separate adult prints- likely male- all of which led nowhere.

Shannon was never located, nor was any trace of what may have happened to her ever found. Days turned to months, and then years went by, all with no leads.

It was if she had simply vanished off the face of the earth, in the blink of an eye.

Mike Sherrill would give interviews on the anniversaries of his daughter’s disappearance, and would even reach out to psychics, who would tell him that Shannon was still alive.

Some people might say we’re grabbing at straws… but then, what else do we have?

Suddenly, in July of 2003, it seemed their prayers may have been answered.

Dorothy received a phone call from a young woman who stated, simply:

I think I might be Shannon.

The woman claimed her name- at least the name she answered to- was Beth Ann Harris. Living in Virginia at present, she had recently been in therapy, and it was through this counseling that she believed to have unearthed previously repressed memories. She now thought herself to be the long-lost Shannon Sherrill.

She mailed pictures of herself to Dorothy and Mike, and even had other members of her family- the Harris family- speak with both investigators and the Sherrill family. Beth Ann was able to describe landmarks from Indiana, down to the small town and elementary school that Shannon had attended. Best of all, she agreed to take a DNA test.

The excitement was palpable- finally, 17 years after Shannon went missing, she may have been found. 17 long years, with no leads, no clues, no nothing. That she may have been alive and well all that time was almost more than her parents could stand.

The local media began reporting the story in a frenzy. Rumors began circulating that Shannon had been found. National media arrived in the small town of Thornton, IN, where the child originally went missing. It was reported that preliminary tests on Beth Ann Harris were a match to Sharon Sherrill. The news was alive with new information, reporting that Beth Ann’s birthmarks, her scars, and even her dental records matched the missing child’s.

State Police Detective Jeff Heck, one of the original detectives from 1986 when Shannon disappeared, wanted to believe all of it. The investigator in him, however, pushed him to do his homework. He checked out every single one of Beth Ann’s stories and realized…

… It simply wasn’t true.

He began to trace the calls Beth Ann was making to the Sherrill family; Calls she claimed were coming from her home in Virginia.

Jeff Heck traced them to Topeka, Kansas.

The calls were traced to a woman who was lost, alright, but more in a mental sort of way- not so much in the physical sense. The lady’s name was Donna L. Walker. She was 35 years old (12 years older than the missing Shannon Sherrill), and was already known to the FBI for similar hoaxes, committed in California. Shannon Sherrill’s case, it was learned, was not the only high-profile case in which Donna Walker had involved herself.

Mike Sherrill didn’t learn the truth about Walker’s cruel hoax until it was almost too late. He arrived, as planned, at a pre-scheduled news conference. It was at this news conference that he was to receive official confirmation that his baby girl had been found.

When he was told the truth- that his family had been scammed, little Shannon had not been found, and investigators are no closer to the truth about what happened to her than they were in 1986- it proved too much.

Sobbing, he collapsed.

Donna Walker was taken into custody in Kansas. While pretending to be Shannon Sherrill, she was also scamming childless couples, claiming to be a woman named Deanna Poizner. Ms. Poizner was supposed to be 9 months pregnant, looking to give her fake baby up for adoption.

Walker was ultimately sentenced to 18 months in prison.

She served 9 of them, and walked free.

Mike and Dorothy Sherrill are still looking for their daughter Shannon, who vanished in October of 1986.

References:

The Charley Project

The Indy Star

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