FULL TEXT: Monticello, Ind. – All along, Elizabeth K. Shanklin's family suspected her of killing her children 30 years ago. She confessed to the killings two years ago. On Monday, she was charged with murder in their smothering deaths.
White County Prosecutor Robert Guy said Shanklin volunteered a confession in prison in 2003, while serving a 40-year sentence for killing a third child her grandson.
Guy said there was no need to charge Shanklin sooner because she already was in prison, and the additional time let him gather more evidence.
The 57-year-old woman was charged with murdering her 2-year-old and 6-month-old sons three months apart in 1974.
Shanklin killed them, Guy said, because she wanted the attention they were getting. The confession was made public for the first time Monday.
Shanklin was indicted in 1995 in her sons' deaths and the death of her 2-year-old grandson, Gregory Debish II, but two of the charges were dropped after she agreed to plead guilty to murdering her grandson.
The case was closed until two years ago, when Shanklin told a Westville Correctional Facility staffer that she had killed her sons, Guy said.
The confession marked the first time she admitted guilt in those deaths, Guy said.
"She said she killed the boys because she was selfish and didn't want them to have the attention ... that she could not get from other people," investigators said.
Relatives of Shanklin's former husband suspected she had killed her sons and pushed for charges after the grandson's death.
"Family members basically camped at my doorstep to make sure their concerns about the earlier deaths were looked into," Guy said.
"Family members provided additional information that helped fill in gaps for us that we weren't able to fill in 10 years ago."
He said the woman's former husband, Michael Shanklin, who lives out of state, is cooperating now when he would not 10 years ago. Guy called him a "very decent man."
None of the family was willing to speak publicly. The prosecutor hopes the charges will help the family find closure in the deaths.
"The new information confirmed all our beliefs that these were not mere family tragedies they were intentional events," Guy said.
According to court documents, the first of the three deaths occurred June 29, 1974, when Shanklin's 6-month-old son, Christopher, died. The coroner ruled the baby died of sudden infant death syndrome, a condition in which a child stops breathing suddenly for no apparent reason.
Shanklin reportedly told Indiana State Police Detective Jay Harper and White County Sheriffs Detective Patrick Shafer in 2003 that she had killed the boy because he would not stop crying.
"She said he was crying and she was rocking him hard and holding him tight. . . . Then she suffocated him," the detectives said.
Three months later, she killed her 2-year-old son, John, Guy said. The coroner ruled the boy died of bronchitis on Sept. 26, 1974.
Detectives said Shanklin confessed that she covered his head and suffocated him to end his troubles and her troubles.”
She also had a daughter, Melissa, who was 6 at the time of her brothers' deaths, but there were no allegations she was harmed.
Shanklin had no criminal record, and there was no formal investigation of her sons' deaths until 1995.
Over the years, questions about the boys' deaths stopped. Child welfare officials asked Shanklin to care for her grandson and his sister after their mother was sent to prison in 1994.
Melissa Shanklin, the children's mother and Shanklin's daughter, was arrested for setting fire to her children's father's apartment, Guy said.
At that time, her children, Gregory and an infant daughter, were first left in the care of their father, Gregory Debish Jr., while she went to jail But Debish later was jailed on charges of child neglect after he left the children at home alone while he was at work.
The children were placed in different foster homes and eventually were placed with Shanklin.
The day she said she killed her grandson, Shanklin went to a neighbor's home and said she needed to use the telephone to call for medical help for the boy.
Her neighbor, Sandy Scott, 64, saw the boy on the sofa and volunteered to rush him to the hospital 10 miles away, she said. She was among 20 people who later testified before the grand jury that indicted Shanklin on three charges of murder.
"It's a nightmare I tried to forget," Scott said. "She came and got me. I saw the little guy. His lips were just so blue."
Shanklin didn't appear upset during the ride, Scott said. "She held the boy and talked about gardening and all kinds of things but what had happened to the child."
Scott said she and her husband, Bob, and the Shanklins had been friends for years and lived on the same block before Shanklin was charged.
"She was a good person, from what we thought," Scott said.
After Shanklin's grandson died on May 10, 1995, her husband’s relatives insisted that the other deaths be reviewed. An autopsy, meanwhile, showed Gregory Debish II had died of asphyxiation.
Shanklin was sentenced to 40 years in prison in May 1996. Her earliest possible release date was Dec. 1, 2015.
On Tuesday, Monticello residents reacted with concern that nothing had been done earlier.
Margaret Million, 64, questioned why child welfare authorities left the Debish boy with Shanklin after her own two children had died in her care.
Million's husband, Melvin, 67, questioned Shanklin's mental state. "She had to be pretty well deranged," he said.
[Tim Evans and Eunice Trotter, “Mom charged in deaths of 2 young sons in 1974,” The Indianapolis Star (In.), Apr. 6, 2005, p. 1]
The Shanklin case is featured in: Andrew E. Stoner, Notorious 92: Indiana's Most Heinous Murders in All 92 Counties, 2007, Rooftop Publishing (Bloomington, In.)
Jun. 29, 1974 – Christopher (6 mo), son, dies.
Sep. 26, 1974 – Jeffrey (2) dies.
Summer 1994 – Melissa S. (d of Elizabeth) & Gregory Debish Sr. arrested.
Nov. 28, 1994 – Melissa
May 10, 1995 – Gregory W. Debish II (2), grandson, dies. Suffocated.
Nov. 9, 1995 – Elizabeth Shanklin (48) arrested for murder of Gregory.
Apr. 4, 1996 – Elizabeth Shanklin confesses to murder Gregory.
May 24. 1996 – Elizabeth Shanklin sentenced to 45 years.
Jan. 13, 2003 – Elizabeth volunteers confession to prison officials of 1974 murders. Rockville Correctional facility.
Feb. 19, 2003 – repeats confession to police.
Apr. 4, 2005 – charged with 2 counts of second-degree murder.
Nov. 17, 2005 – sentenced to 2 consecutive 20-year terms; White Superior Court.
For more cases of this type, see Serial Baby-Killer Moms.