Goshen News, Goshen, IN

Local News

September 13, 2011

LaGrange County man feels judge’s sentence of foster mom too lenient

LaGRANGE — 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.

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