On January 10, 1992, Melinda Loveless, Lauri Tackett, Hope Rippey, and Toni Lawrence picked up Shanda Renee Sharer at her father’s home and committed a shockingly brutal murder that horrified their small southern Indiana town on a number of levels.
Not only was the torture-murder of Shanda incredibly violent in its own right, its undercurrents of lesbian relationships and teenage promiscuity let the people of Jefferson County know in no uncertain terms that no place was safe from the temptations of the world.
Despite her tender years, Shanda had been involved with Amanda Heavrin, a 15-year-old girl whom Loveless, 17, claimed as her girlfriend. Shanda and Amanda struck up a friendship while sitting in detention and they began to exchange explicit notes of an intimate nature. Loveless, a New Albany, Indiana resident, wanted to put an end to the affair when she found some of the letters and she chose to frighten Shanda so that she would have no further contact with Amanda.
The four teenagers — Loveless, Tackett, Rippey, and Lawrence — went to hear a punk-rock group at a nightclub in Louisville, across the river from New Albany. Lawrence and Rippey were friends with Tackett, 17, but neither had met Loveless or Shanda before the night of January 10, 1992. Following the performance, Loveless started complaining that Shanda “was trying to steal her girlfriend.”
After Loveless suggested killing Shanda, the group headed back to New Albany and picked up their victim at her father’s home.
The attack began quickly. Shortly after the Shanda got into their car, Loveless, who had been hiding beneath a blanket in the backseat, pulled Shanda’s head back and put a knife to her throat in order to scare her. The girls took her to an abandoned house in Madison, Indiana. While at the house, the group teased and threatened the 12-year-old girl, but she was essentially unharmed when they left this house.
The girls went to Tackett’s house, where Loveless and Tackett battered Shanda. Loveless punched her victim in the stomach and kneed her in the mouth. Tackett choked and stabbed Shanda, then locked her in the car’s trunk. There was evidence presented in court that when Shanda began screaming Tackett took a small knife and cut her again. Loveless and Tackett drove around most of the night, stopping so that Tackett could beat Shanda with a tire iron.
After they thought Shanda was dead, the two girls returned to Tackett’s house to pick up Rippey and Lawrence. They decided to dispose of her body by burning it, apparently unaware of the fact that Shanda was still alive. Rippey suggested a good location in the country for burning the body and they drove there. Lawrence remained in the beat-up Chevy while the others went to the back of the car and opened the trunk. There, to their surprise, Shanda was still alive, clad only in her underpants with no protection from the cold or from the girls who wanted her dead. When the killers pulled her from the trunk and threw her to the frozen ground, the battered pre-teen could only gasp one last plea for help.
“Mommy,” was all she said as the girls covered her with an old blanket and Rippey and Loveless doused her with gasoline.
They set her on fire, burning Shanda alive. The girls left the scene and went to eat breakfast.
The body was discovered that morning by a hunter who immediately called the police. An autopsy established that Shanda had died from smoke inhalation and burns, though there were a variety of other injuries, including sodomization.
Police in the rural community were not often called upon to handle murder investigations and their first impression was that such a violent crime could not have originated in their close-knit community.
“We didn’t have any missing-person reports,” Jefferson County Sheriff Richard Shipley told the Chicago Tribune. “I had to assume the body dumped here had come from another part of the world.”
The idea that a love-triangle was at the heart of the murder was disturbing to many adults in Madison who didn’t believe that “big city” ideas of sexuality had touched the community.
Youngsters in town, however, begged to differ. When the media descended on the 12,000 citizen community to cover the crime, teenagers spoke freely of early adolescent sexual activity.
But even among “enlightened” teens, homosexuality was still far from being accepted. Just how sexually active the members of the murderous triangle were remained a subject of debate. Many people wrote off the relationships as an expression of the close bonds young women develop as they mature.
Loveless, however, was no stranger to out-of-the-ordinary sexuality. Most of her experience was non-consensual and that helped shape her world view.
Her early life included what the the prosecution, in an audacious understatement, described as “bad family dynamics and an unorthodox childhood.” Her early years included being molested by her father as an infant. She also watched helpless as her father, a transvestite who several times attempted suicide, molested her sisters, cousin, and other young girls. On one occasion her father attempted to kill her mother in front of the children.
In 1993, after his children testified at Loveless’s sentencing hearing about his sexual abuse, an Indiana warrant charged Loveless with 11 counts of child sex abuse from 1968 to 1989, the years he lived with the family in New Albany.
Loveless could not turn to her mother for support, either. Her mother was also suicidal and when she learned her daughter showed lesbian tendencies, she rejected her.
“These sorts of experiences tended to produce in the developing and dependent child a perverse view of human relationships which made her incapable of recognizing or responding to the pain of others,” the Supreme Court of Indiana wrote in 1994 referring to Loveless’s childhood.
Together, Loveless and Tackett were a lethal combination. Loveless had been so abused during her formative years that she was unable to feel any sort of empathy. Tackett, raised in a conservative religious atmosphere that banned rock music and movies, rebelled in her late teen years and became interested in the occult.
Just why the two younger girls, Rippey and Lawrence, both 15, went along with the plan remains speculative. Experts watching the case blamed their participation on peer pressure and the adolescent need for acceptance.
Police quickly broke the case when in the company of her parents, Lawrence came to the Madison police station in a state of hysteria wanting to talk about the case. She told authorities what transpired the day before.
Around 3 a.m. on January 13, 1992, police received warrants to arrest Loveless and Tackett and they were taken to the Madison jail.
Jefferson County Prosecutor Guy Townsend reserved the right to seek the death penalty against Loveless and Tackett. Rippey, who turned 16 six months after the murder, was too young under Indiana law for capital punishment.
Lawrence agreed in April 1992 to plead guilty to criminal confinement and testify against the others. In return, prosecutors agreed to drop six charges against her, including murder.
In an agreement to plead guilty in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table, Tackett and Loveless pleaded guilty in January 1993 to murder and two lesser charges. They both received 60-year terms and will be eligible for parole in 2020.
Toni Lawrence completed nearly nine years of her 20-year sentence for a criminal confinement conviction and was released in 2000.
In April 1993, Rippey pleaded guilty to murder. She was sentenced to 50 years in prison. She was released in 2006 after serving 13 years of her sentence that had been reduced by a judge to 35 years.