At not quite 4:30 p.m. Friday, Tyler Sprunger was busy with a black marker.
The Shipshewana man was bent over the open trunk of a Pontiac Sunfire angle-parked outside the LaGrange County Courthouse. In the car was a sign.
“Just touching it up, filling it in a little bit,” he later explained of his work on the sign, which contained a message he was about to make public. Again.
“77 Days for Murder,” it read.
Friday marked Sprunger’s third time staging a protest outside the courthouse. He wants to send a message about his cousin, Christy Shaffer of Topeka; his niece, 15-month-old Alissa Guernsey; and the judicial system.
Little Alissa is dead. Shaffer was originally sentenced to a prison term in connection with the toddler’s death. A judge later modified that sentence to six months home detention and three years on probation.
That’s not Sprunger’s idea of justice.
Sequence of events
Alissa Guernsey was born Nov. 2, 2007, the daughter of Kelli Sprunger. The child later became a ward of the state and was placed into foster care with Sprunger’s cousin, Christy Shaffer.
Alissa died March 28, 2009, while in Shaffer’s care. According to media accounts, court filings and Tyler Sprunger, the child died of blunt force trauma.
The LaGrange County coroner referred inquiries to the county prosecutor’s office Monday. The prosecutor’s staff hadn’t returned a phone call seeking comment by The News’ deadline.
Tyler Sprunger’s sign aside, Shaffer was never charged with murder. In June 2009, a grand jury indicted Shaffer on two counts of neglect of a dependant, one a Class B felony charge and the other a Class C felony. The grand jury proceedings have been sealed by court order.
Shaffer pleaded guilty to the Class B felony neglect charge in February of this year. On May 25, LaGrange Circuit Court Judge J. Scott VanDerbeck sentenced Shaffer to four years in the Indiana Department of Correction, three years on probation and one year of home monitoring after her release from prison.
Part of VanDerbeck’s sentencing order stated that Shaffer could petition the court for early release after going through the DOC’s Reception Diagnostic Center. This Shaffer did.
On Aug. 11, VanDerbeck modified Shaffer’s sentence, ordering her to complete six months on the court’s home monitoring program followed by three years on probation.
In his order, VanDerbeck found that at the time of the offence, Shaffer had opened her home “and was being a Good Samaritan to a family member in a time of need when a tragic event occurred. There is nothing that can be done to bring back the life of the dependent child victim and there is little added value in penalizing Christy Shaffer or her family further by continuing the period of incarceration.”
Judge VanDerbeck also stated Shaffer has a large family and community that continue to offer support, structure and nourishment.
“She has also been a continuous provider of love and affection to her own biological family,” his order reads.
The judge’s order has proved controversial.
‘I was just disgusted’
Tyler Sprunger was joined by around 20 supporters Friday. They walked around the courthouse, most bearing signs along the lines of “No justice for Baby Alissa” and “Shame on Judge VanDerbeck.” Gathered along Detroit Street, the group was occasionally met with honks from passing motorists.
Kristin Day of Howe was part of the protest Friday. She’d seen the “77 Days for Murder” Facebook page. She didn’t know the Sprunger family.
“Never met ’em,” she said. “But I couldn’t stand seeing a child go through that and then not have any justice.”
Tyler Sprunger said he learned of the sentence modification via the newspaper. It was on a Friday.
“My mom hands me the paper in the morning and I look at it and right there it was, ‘Sentence reduced,’ with Christy Shaffer’s photo on the front,” he recalled. “I just threw the paper. I couldn’t even believe it. I was just disgusted...
“It’s not just whatsoever for a little girl to have to go out like that the way she did,” Sprunger said.
A man who answered the door at the Shaffer home Monday indicated the family had no comment for the media at the present time.
Shaffer is the target of a civil lawsuit filed by Kelli Sprunger and the estate of Alissa Guernsey. Other defendants include Shaffer’s husband Matthew, the Indiana Department of Child Services and the Steuben County Local Department of Child Services.