Death together was better than life apart in the drugged and frenzied mind of Kimberly Shepperson.
The 31-year-old Mechanicsville mother of three, who last February attacked her 11-year-old, cancer-stricken son with an ax and attempted to burn down her home with herself and her children inside, will serve the next 25 years in jail.
Hanover Circuit Court Judge J. Overton Harris handed down the sentence Jan. 23 on two counts of attempted capital murder and one count each of arson and malicious assault, noting the “brutal nature” of the crimes while departing upwards of sentencing guidelines. Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Wood had asked the court for a combined sentence of 65 years, saying Shepperson had inflicted lasting psychological scars on her victims, the children she repeatedly told the court meant everything to her.
Shepperson had pleaded guilty in October to the four charges before her. Court documents unveiled before the hearing revealed that an ongoing custody dispute with her ex-husband, Matthew Booth, which boiled over the evening before the incident, caused her to snap. Specifically, wording in legal documents saying that the two parents would “share the burden” of taking their 11-year-old son to New York for cancer treatments set the tragic wheels in motion. Shepperson reportedly ripped up the documents and threw them in Booth’s face.
“That’s what made me flip out,” Shepperson told Hanover investigators, as her son lay in a hospital bed. “Seeing it in black and white. That burden thing pissed me off.”
She also admitted to Hanover investigators that the crime was modeled after that of Robert King, a friend of hers and the man who killed himself and his twin daughters in Mechanicsville in January 2012 while undergoing a custody dispute.
Appearing in court last Thursday, she told the court that her recollection of the night in question was limited, and that she didn’t know what she was thinking, other than wanting to stay with her children.
“I wanted them to be in a better place…with me in heaven,” Shepperson said through tears.
Several witnesses testified during sentencing Thursday. Among them was Evan Nelson, a licensed clinical psychologist, who told the court that Shepperson suffers from borderline personality disorder, which in Virginia doesn’t reach the legal threshold of insanity. The disorder is usually trauma-induced, Nelson said, adding that those who suffer from it tend to make self-destructive, “preposterous” and irrational, sometimes violent, decisions in response to perceived changes in relationships. In this case, the trigger of possibly losing full custody of her children was enough to set Shepperson off.
Nelson also said that it’s possible that Shepperson is bi-polar. She had suffered from depression in the past and had experienced low-level mania. He added that it’s possible that she has a different type of bi-polar disorder that manifests later in life.
Nelson also told the court that on the night of the incident, Shepperson had taken a “horse’s dose” of anti-anxiety medication, around 60 milligrams, which would render most people unconscious.
Nelson said that high doses of anti-anxiety medication can be dangerous, because “anxiety keeps us in check” by inhibiting bad behavior. The high dosage of Valium paired with Shepperson’s tendency to make extreme decisions resulted in the “witches brew” or “perfect storm” that led to the attempted murder-suicide, Nelson said.
The other three witnesses were acquaintances of Shepperson’s, and testified that she was a loving, attentive and patient mother who always put her children first.
One witness, Melissa Hartung, testified remotely from Australia. Though Wood had objected to her testimony on a statutory basis and because the court couldn’t hold her accountable if she committed perjury, Harris allowed it to proceed, noting that in the future remote testimony will likely become commonplace. It was the first testimony by Skype in Hanover County.
Hartung met Shepperson while at the Ronald McDonald House in New York City where both mothers stayed while their children were undergoing cancer treatments. Hartung said that the two became close and that during their time together, Shepperson was always a dutiful mother.
“She was an incredible mother,” Hartung said. “Her whole life revolved around her children.”
In response to questioning from Wood, Hartung admitted that the stress of having a cancer-inflicted child has caused some parents to break down. Some have even committed suicide. Shepperson’s case was the only one she had heard of where a child was harmed.
The other two witnesses – one, a neighbor and another a long-time friend – each testified to Shepperson’s abilities as a mother, responding to Wood that her case showed it was possible to be a good mother and commit criminal acts.
Despite that testimony, during final arguments Wood characterized Shepperson as callous, unremorseful and selfish, calling the attacks she carried out “beyond the pale of human decency.”
Defense attorney Steve Marks said that Wood was ignoring Nelson’s psychological analysis and that his client took steps to try to save her family after setting the fires by calling emergency responders.
“She loved them before, she loves them now,” Marks said. “Please temper justice with mercy.”
Still, that wasn’t enough for the seven-year sentence Marks pushed for.
Shepperson will be in her 50s by the time she’s released from prison. Her oldest victim will be in his 30s by then, still bearing the scars of this ordeal.