The Shirley Skinner Case

This is a case that has always seemed to interest me and not just because I share the same surname as the confessed and convicted murderer in this case.  I will state that at this point as far as I am aware my husband's family is not related to this family and while I do genealogy and I know his family did originally come from Illinois (the state where this occurred) I have not dug any deeper at this time. While this case is not completely unique, it does have its interesting points.  Those of us that know about true crimes know that murder in the midst of a custody case is not all that uncommon.  We have all heard of a few cases in which one of the parents have killed the other while fighting for custody, usually in fears of losing.  We have also had the one from time to time in which the grandparents of the child in question have been involved.  As I sit and type that I also think how often it seems in those cases that the surviving parent often tends to avoid any legal ramifications claiming of course that they were not involved.  This case however, is different, first Shirley Skinner was the great-grandmother of the child involved in the custody case but by all accounts it appears that most if not all of her family were involved in some way.

On the evening of November 25, 2008 Steven Watkins arrived at the Skinner house where his estranged wife, Jennifer lived with their daughter, Sidney.  Besides Jennifer and Sidney, the house was also the home to Jennifer's grandparents, Shirley and Kenneth Skinner as well as Jennifer's mother (possibly father too), Debra Webster and brother. What truly happened inside that home on that evening will forever be disputed.  What we do know is that after that night Steven never saw his daughter Sidney again, nor his other daughter Alex and that Shirley Skinner would be sent to prison to serve a 55 year sentence for murder.

Steven and Jennifer had gotten married in August of 2006.  Things apparently, at least for the most part seemed fine until their daughter Sidney was born.  According to reports Jennifer would never allow Steven to be alone with his daughter, nor was she home a whole lot.  She would get up in the morning and dress Sidney and go to her grandparents home, pretty much for the day, only returning after Sidney fell asleep to be put to bed.  The next day would be much of the same.  Jennifer even ate all of her meals at her grandparents' home.  It was said that Jennifer stated to Steven's mom, Penny, once that they had the perfect marriage, with them basically each having their own home and space.  Most would agree, that seems like far from the perfect marriage.  By most account by the time Sidney was about five months old Steven had had enough this appears to be about November of 2007.  Jennifer moved out taking Sidney with her and officially moved into the Skinner home with the rest of her family.  For the next few months while things were not great obviously, Steven still wanted to work things out if he could.  It was said that Jennifer would take Sidney over to his home but that she would not allow Steven, or his daughter Alex to play with her and that they were forced to watch Jennifer play with her.  Apparently seeing that reconciliation was not really an option anymore, in May of 2008 Steven officially filed for divorced as well as custody of Sidney. It seems he did not feel that the environment at the Skinner home was right for his daughter. 

Just after Steven filed with the courts Jennifer made a claim with CPS claiming that not only had Steven been abusive to her but had sexually abused Sidney.  Not only did Steven, his family and friends deny this but after several months investigation CPS also concluded that these charges were unfounded.  In the meantime, from about May to September 2008 his contact was either very limited or none at all with Sidney until the investigation was concluded.  Now, we all know that one parent claiming the other was abusive to the child(ren) when there is a custody battle is nothing unusual.  It happens all the time, and while they almost always seem to only come out after a court battle ensues and on the surface appear bogus, this one seemed to have a special kind of stupid attached to it.  First it appears that Jennifer's charges at least in part stated that Steven had "tickled" Sidney "inappropriately" from the birth until about 3 weeks old.  Ok lady, so why are you reporting this not only after he has filed for custody but not until Sidney was 11 months old?  Add to this that she had moved out of the marital home 6 months prior.  We also have to remember there is another child involved her.  Steven had full custody of his older daughter Alex.  After Steven's death his parents retained custody of Alex so this would indicate that even if her mother was in the picture at all she was not a stable motherly influence.  Now, this does not mean that if Alex was being abused (and let's be clear that Jennifer only claimed the abuse against herself and Sidney) that if her mother was around she would have been aware, but now we have another mother influence in her step-mother who is supposedly so worried about her own well being and that of her daughter, that she does not look to protect this other child.  I am certain that there are those who would argue that Alex was not her child, therefore should not have been her first priority.  My answer to that would be that they would be absolutely correct, but Alex seems to have been of no priority to Jennifer.  There is a part of me that is glad that her bogus claims did not involved mentioning Alex because although that child's life would later be disrupted by the actions of Jennifer and her family at least at that point she did not make things worse for Alex.  Who would have thought that something good could have come out of her greed and selfishness.  

At any rate by September Steven's visitation was back on, at least legally but it remained a fight for him. In fact, on October 30, 2008 Steven went to the Skinner home and had to call the police.  The report I found on this was a bit sketchy.  It says that Steven had been yelled at and told he was not to see Sidney by at least Kenneth Skinner.  The other man present was indicated as being Robert Skinner, Kenneth's son (although I cannot verify he had a son named Robert), but it also may have been, and seems more likely to be a man named Robert Webster, Jennifer's father who may have also lived in the home.  No matter the exact circumstances by the time the police arrived on the scene Jennifer had left with Sidney and it seems there was little Steven could do but possibly file with the court.  I was unable to determine with Steven ever received any visitation with his daughter. All information indicated that with every attempt he was barred in one way or another.

The next hearing was scheduled for Wednesday November 26th, the day before Thanksgiving.  Jennifer, through her attorney had made attempts to have this hearing delayed but the judge had refused.  It is likely since this was the judge who had been involved since the beginning he was already on to her and decided he was done playing her games.  Steven was apparently supposed to arrive at the Skinner home on the evening of the 25th to utilize his visitation with Sidney. Jennifer and her mother, Debbie Webster spoke with a private detective on the morning of the 25th.  Some research indicates that the PI had been used before, without apparent results, but it seems that he was used on a situation basis, meaning they would employ him for one particular incident or reason and then go back if they needed him again.  On this day they told the PI they wanted him to be present outside the Skinner home that evening so that he could observe how Sidney reacted when Steven picked her up for visitation.  Some time after that they spoke with a psychologist that Sidney was seeing and they were told that regardless of Sidney's reaction it would not stop Steven's visitation.  In the mean time Jennifer's lawyer called her to let her know their latest tactic to delay court had failed and she should be prepared to appear the following day.  It was after this that, just a few hours after hiring him, Debbie called the PI and told him that plans had changed and that Jennifer no longer needed or wanted him present that evening.  

Neighbor's of the Skinner's told police that they saw Steven, in his car in the front of the house at approximately 5:30.  None seemed to actually see him enter the home.  After reading news articles, as well as court appeals papers I have to admit I am a bit confused as to the timeline in which things officially occurred.  It does seem that at 5:43 Jennifer made a 9-1-1 call.  In it she stated that her estranged husband, Steven Watkins had burst into the home and injured her grandmother who she stated had heart issues and needed medical attention.  There were indications that just soon after she calls back to 9-1-1 because she failed to mention the first time that Steven is laying on the floor dead with a gunshot wound to his head.  When the first EMT's arrived according to them, at first they did not see Steven's body but that Shirley seemed upset and kept saying that she had shot him and that he was not to be in the house. They finally did see Steven and checked him, realizing there was nothing they could do and turned their attention to 75 year old Shirley. They claim that she stated to them that she did not have a medical issue and aside from what they described as two scratches on her hand they saw no injuries.  Then it appears that a second set of EMT's arrived and at some point so did an officer but I am unclear how and when.  Also around this time Debbie Webster arrives and insists that she is a nurse and needs to see her mother.  The officer later stated that he told her she could not but that she went in another way and made her way to her mother.  Once Debbie arrived on the scene it appears things changed.  First, she made a huge deal that her mother was injured and suffered from heart issues and insisted she be transported to the hospital.  By this time Shirley is complying and most of the respondents state this is when they first heard anything about Steven pushing her into a wall and she had been injured, aside from Jennifer's call to 9-1-1 that is.   The only statement that the officer got while on the scene came from Jennifer but it was short and brief, and had little content.  He could have maybe interviewed Shirley at the home before she went to the hospital but a family member handed a phone to him.  When he answered the person on the other end identified themselves as Shirley's attorney and advised the officer to not speak to his client.  

Once Shirley was loaded up to be transported to the hospital many of the family members left the home also and Debbie rode in the ambulance with her.  Despite reports that later claimed Shirley was incoherent on the ride the EMT's would later say that in reality while she was upset Shirley did not seem to be really injured and that Debbie simply kept repeating to her not to make any statements.  

Meanwhile at the home the investigation was not going well and it did not have everything to do with not being able to interview the people present.  First, before she left the home the officer (presumable there was more than one by now although my research never ever indicated this) failed to take any pictures of Shirley.  This means the marks that were said to be on her hands were never photographed.  Now, giving prosecutors credit, they did let it be known that the marks had been noticed, although not necessarily treated, but admitted they could not say for certain where they came from.  In the same respect, they did not have any pictures to show that Shirley did, or did not, have other physical injuries from supposedly being pushed by Steven. Investigators failed to get gunshot residue tests taken on the three people who claimed to be in the house at the time, Shirley, Jennifer and Kenneth.  Sure Shirley had confessed and she did have a mark on her hand that could have been consistent with shooting the gun they found but that did not necessarily mean that it did.  

The gun was a bit interesting and controversial.  First it did not take long to discover that the gun recovered belong to Jennifer.  Now, I will openly admit that I know little to nothing about guns but my research told me that this particular gun, a Glock had a textured handle so fingerprints were difficult to obtain.  According to what I was able to discover the responding officer admitted to touching the gun and examining but according to him he had worn gloves.  Testing revealed DNA from Jennifer as well as a small amount from the officer, yet it did not have DNA from Shirley.  This seemed and still seemed odd to me.  As I recall prosecution witnesses later claimed that this was possible because when the officer handled it he could have all but wiped her DNA away.  I have never really heard of this before but apparently it worked in the end.

Realistically, as far as evidence, prosecutors seemingly had more against Jennifer than they did against Shirley but no one was talking. In fact, it was not until years later that Shirley even told her version of what happened in the home to a newspaper reporter.  To this day that is the only account because not a single member of the Skinner family told their story, or even a version that they heard.  Every one of them called to a later convened grand jury took the 5th and no one, let alone any family members testified at Shirley's trial in 2010.  After her conviction her son, Ed, only made one statement, saying that he did not believe that his mother had shot Steven but believed that Jennifer was the real shooter.  He let it be known that he no longer had a relationship with his niece  because Jennifer had the opportunity to make a deal that would have allowed his mother at the very least to be released on bond while she awaited trial and Jennifer had refused. When asked why Shirley would take the blame for something her granddaughter had done Ed simply replied, "She's crazy about her granddaughter."

At any rate, I got a little ahead of the story. As I said they really had more against Jennifer.  It was her gun and since it was her child at the center of the custody battle she had more of a motive to kill Steven. But when it came right down to it Shirley openly confessed to shooting him.  My theory is that the family, who some described almost like a clan, thought if this 75 year old woman claimed this 32 year old man came into her home and assaulted her and they all kept their mouths shut then there was no way she would be convicted.  On the other side of that prosecutors were likely thinking "We'll play their game" and did just that and arrested Shirley (although it did take until the following October to do so).  Prosecutors probably believed that despite their supposed united front in staying quiet the more pressure they placed on Shirley and the more they pursued her someone would crack and let the story out.  I do not believe that either side thought in the end a 75 year old woman would be sitting in prison.  Boy, were they all surprised.  Both sides stood their ground.  

One of the reasons it seems that it took until October of 2009 to even arrest Shirley was that the local police were either dragging their feet or they really did not know what they were doing.  Remember how I talked about the crime scene and more of what was not done, than what was?  Well the Illinois State Police ended up taking over the case and while of course they had to deal with what had already occurred they pursued things more.  Shirley was staying at her winter home, Jennifer right by her side, when she was arrested outside a restaurant. She was later extradited back to Illinois to face charges. She was originally arrested and charged on three counts of first degree murder. I was confused with this but according to the appeal it read as follows.... the first count was with the belief that she "shot to kill." The second count stated that she "shot knowing that it would kill." And the third count stated that she shot Steven "in the back of the head reasonably knowing death was possible." In all the cases in which I have researched I am unsure I have seen one like this.  In my opinion all three counts pretty much said the same thing so I was unsure of the point.  If any of you understand it, I welcome the clarification.  By January of 2010 prosecutors had also added two counts of solicitation to commit murder to her charges.  Two employees, Donald Russell and Leland Knott, who worked for a business the Skinner's owned claimed that Shirley had offered them each separately at different times up to $10,000 to kill Steven.  Prosecutors claimed that these offers were made between August 1, 2008 and November 25, 2008.  

Shirley's trial began in May of 2010.  It had originally been scheduled for January and her attorney had filed to obtain a speedy trial.  My opinion on why they did this was two-fold.  First it is likely they believed, as some do, the less time the prosecution has to obtain information, the less they have at trial and a better chance of obtaining an acquittal.  Secondly, obviously they did not want this elderly woman having to stay in jail any longer than she had to.  In the end it was delayed because Shirley's original attorney on the case was also representing Jennifer and it was determined this was a conflict of interest and a new attorney took over.  While she had been held in jail her attorneys had already been unsuccessful in having her bail reduced from the $5 million the judge imposed.  Later according to her son, Ed, Shirley was offered a plea deal in which she would plead guilty to 2nd degree murder and receive a sentence of 18 years.  Apparently it was decided that was not a good enough offer and they would take their chances at trial.  The prosecution called the EMT's, the officers, the two men who claimed Shirley offered them money, some of Steven's family and others to testify, while Shirley's defense called no one.  Their theory as far as the murder charges was that Steven had all but broken into the home and while maybe not intentionally attacked Shirley, at the least had harmed her and she was defending herself.  As far as the solicitation charges, the defense dismissed those as "idle talk over coffee" that amounted to a joke.  Their claim was that if Shirley was serious about having Steven killed Russell and Knott would have known it and reported it to the police in a timely manner.  The jury took less than 90 minutes to reach their verdict.  They convicted Shirley on all charges.   It was then that son Ed spoke to the press saying he believed his mother to be innocent and Jennifer the real shooter. Seems kind of late to me.  Shirley was facing a minimum of 45 years in prison based on her conviction of murder.  In the end the judge gave her 55 years for the murder charge, with 15 years for the charges of solicitation that would run concurrently.  

Of course as in most cases, her lawyers appealed.  In 2011 the courts ruled that the solicitation charges should be reversed as it was felt by the courts that they were not proven by the state.  I read the appeal and I saw little as to how they decided this. Presumably it would appear that the defense convinced the juries that since Russell and Knott had not reported it immediately, they had not taken her seriously, so neither should the jury.  They apparently never denied her actually saying that however so I am uncertain how the court came to this conclusion.  It did not really matter though since removing that conviction did nothing as far as the time she was sentenced to.  The appeal courts did confirm the murder conviction as well as the sentence of 55 years.  

The thing that I found amazing while doing the research is I found three different articles, written at three different times (October 2013, January 2014 and July of 2014) in which it sounds like Shirley and her family had requested clemency from the governor of Illinois.  Now, obviously I suppose that it was all one request and the governor had never officially responded but at least in the January pleading there was a hearing in which the Skinner family, as well as the Watkins family spoke.  Of course Debbie Webster, Shirley's daughter and Jennifer's mother, did a lot of the talking since it appears that he controlled much of the situation.  According to her statements her mother had suffered multiple strokes, "several bouts of cancer," and had fallen and broken at least her arm at some point, all since she had been in prison.  Shirley remains in jail as far as I could tell and there are no signs that clemency will be granted.

It was not until nearly 2014 before Shirley spoke to the media and told her story of what happened that fateful day in 2008.  What follows is her account of that day.  She stated that Steven had pulled up to the house and according to her he was not to enter the home but was to wait until Jennifer brought Sidney out to him. She says that Jennifer was preparing to take Sidney outside but Sidney was so upset about having to go with Steven that she began getting sick. Jennifer took her to the bathroom to clean her up.  Shirley says Kenneth was in another room with the door closed (he had stated this and said the tv was loud as he supposedly did not have his hearing aids in and later claimed he heard only a thump later).  Shirley stated she was in the kitchen when suddenly Steven came bursting in the door and demanded to know where Sidney was.  She said she told him that Sidney was sick and being cleaned up and Steven said he was not buying that (remember he was told she was sick nearly every time he went to get Sidney).  Shirley stated that Steven started heading to the room where Jennifer was cleaning Sidney up and she grabbed him by the arm (ever so gently I am sure) and tried to stop him but he pushed her into the wall and she fell.  At that point she retrieved a gun that was in the cupboard above the stove and continually warned Steven to calm down and not go into the room and then she shot.  Jennifer claimed she heard the arguing but did not hear what was being said and she did not know who was talking but both she and Kenneth came out of their respective rooms after the shot. She had apparently, at least through her defense claimed that Steven had entered her home forcefully, which there were no signs of, but by the time she did the interview she was asked if the door was locked and she stated that it was not. 

So much of this story does not add up.  First, it really is unlikely that Steven would have entered the home forcefully to begin with.  He had already had issues with this family and he knew that they banded together forcefully.  He would have had no way of knowing who was in that home when he entered and what he would face.  He had already called the police when he did not get access to Sidney the month before, so why would he not just do that again especially since the very next day they were going to be in front of a judge?  There were no signs that anything where Shirley said she was pushed into the wall was disturbed, nor had she suffered injuries.  She would later claim that she had but she had repeatedly told the first EMT's to arrive she was fine and there's no indication that she had injuries related to this treated later.  It also seems that while the claims were that the only people in the home at the time were Shirley, Sidney, Jennifer and Kenneth that relatives were around within minutes by accounts of those first on the scene.  Why did they all refuse to testify or take the 5th when asked questions if they were not present until after the shooting? And why were they all not there when they had banded together before to keep Steven away from Sidney? But, to play devil's advocate for just a second we have to admit that Steven obviously was in the home.  Could he have ran in as Shirley claimed?  As I said, I find this unlikely but it is not impossible.  He was inside that home for a reason.  Now, it was only Shirley's claim as I saw it no where else that he was not to be in the home but wait outside for Jennifer to bring Sidney.  Who is to say that he had gone to the door as we would have expected in a normal situation and for whatever reason he was lured inside.  It is my theory that he got to the door and was welcomed in as Jennifer was finishing preparing Sidney or maybe she forgot something and went to retrieve it.  Something tells me that Jennifer and her family were nice to him in a way he had probably never seen before. The poor man was probably thinking just how weird it was they were being nice but continued so he could see his daughter.  The fact that he was shot in the back of the head, despite whether it was Shirley or Jennifer that did so tells us that the shooter was not in danger in any way.  Then again, Shirley, despite claiming injuries did not indicate he was coming towards her when she shot and indicated she was protecting Jennifer and Sidney. One has to wonder if they were really behind the door Steven was heading to because what if her shot missed and hit someone inside? Something simply tells me no one was behind that door and there may have actually been movement of the body.  We will never have all the answers.

On a side note to this, Jennifer has never been charged but Steven's family did sue for visitation of Sidney.  Just as she did with Steven, Jennifer had defied court orders.  Sometime in 2010 she permanently moved to Florida with Sidney.  At one point she spent five months in jail fighting extradition to Illinois for violating the court order.  She was released when a judge determined the "charges were not serious enough" to warrant extradition.  By 2012 the Watkins had still not seen their granddaughter in a few years.  In August of that year HB1604 aka Steven Watkins Memorial Act was enacted into law in Illinois.  This law set stiffer penalties for visitation interference or a denial of visitation rights to non-custodial parents.  In 2013 Jennifer had still not complied with the order but spoke with a reporter.  In it she said "They (referring to the Watkins) have been through a lot and I cannot imagine losing a child, but people forget I lost a husband."  When I read that I had a desire to vomit. While I cannot say for sure who pulled the trigger in that home, I can say she was not upset about it and can almost guarantee that it was a planned situation and she was in on the planning.  She did got on to say that Sidney did not know the Watkins so she was not sending her to stay with strangers but that the Watkins were more than welcome at her house any time to visit.  Well first off, Jennifer was ordered to finance the transportation, and secondly if I were the Watkins I would not go there to visit.  Look what happened to their son.  Look what happened every time he went before that, Sidney was never made available to him.  The fact that they are strangers to Sidney is no one but Jennifer's fault.  As a former law student, and someone who has research multiple states pertaining to laws in family laws Florida is one of the worse states to enforce orders from other states.  They are notorious for not complying with child support or visitation orders.  It is likely Jennifer knew this before going there and it is not likely she will leave because of it.


Comments

  1. I was in prison with Shirley, at that time I did not know what she had done.. Once I was released, I researched her, and I was very shocked!! Still am, 2 years later, after leaving that place! I believe, without a doubt, her grand daughter did this, and I am fully entitled to that opinion, beings I knew her personally. Enjoyed ur story!

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  2. I was Shirley's cellmate at Logan. We had several conversations. Jennifer pulled the trigger. Shirley took the rap, she did not want her beloved granddaughter going to prison or her great-granddaughter being left without a mother. This came from Shirley's mouth.

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  3. Too bad the police bungled the investigation. Poor Sidney is stuck with crazy Jennifer. The whole clan got away with murder. Jennifer probe by convinced them Steven was a bad man, but nevertheless that's not the way sane people handle situations. Jennifer will get her punishment, one way or another.

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  4. Jennifer is at it again. She set up a GoFundMe site to ask for donations for her legal fees to get Sidney back from the Watkins' family where she has been temporarily placed by a Judge. Jennifer has put Sidney and the Watkins family through hell since Steven's murder.

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  5. I found this story after seeing a Go Fund Me page. A local music manager and former radio broadcaster loacally posted it and urged everyone to stop Jennifer from getting money. right now the page is set at 35K it looks like $1500 has been donated. I tried not to judge until I did research, and now I am mad she is not only exploiting the daughter, but most likely pocketing the money.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, I agree - STOP THIS FUN!!!! Jennifer is a liar and unfit mother running away from the law with her daughter. The girl is better off with her father's sister and family and living a positive, stable life with them.

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  6. Jennifer Watkins obviously murdered Steven and made her elderly grandmother take the rap. Grandma can take the rap here on earth but Jennifer doesn't seem to realize she will spend eternity in hell paying for this crime. Burn in Hell.

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  7. Wow, what a family of douchebags.

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  8. On the bright side, as of very recently Sydney has finally been given a chance to spend time with her father's family as her aunt has been given temporary custody of her. In her own word she "knows daddy wasn't a bad man."

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