Monday, December 21, 2009

Prosecutor says state's case not easy for protective grandmother (Ashland, Illinois)

The grandmother is charged with murdering the "allegedly" abusive father, STEVEN PAUL WATKINS, the estranged husband of her daughter. Dad was apparently shot while he was picking up his 18-month-old daughter from the grandmother's house for a court-ordered visit.

Prosecutor says state's case not easy for Skinner

Posted Dec 19, 2009 @ 11:38 PM

ASHLAND — Neither Shirley Skinner nor her family had much love for Steven Paul Watkins, who was shot to death more than a year ago at Skinner’s home 20 miles northwest of Springfield.

That much is clear from transcripts of an October grand jury session in which investigators laid out their case against the 74-year-old grandmother, of Ashland, who is charged with first-degree murder. Those same transcripts, placed into the court record Wednesday by Adams County Circuit Judge Mark Schuering, show that Skinner and her relatives haven’t been much help in solving the crime.

“This case has not been easy for the state in many respects,” special prosecutor Michael Vujovich said at a hearing Wednesday at which Skinner was arraigned on additional, murder-for-hire charges.

The case centers on a custody dispute over Sidney Watkins, who was 18 months old when her father was killed. He was shot once in the head from behind when he went to Skinner’s home to pick Sidney up for a court-ordered visit. Watkins was 32.

Steven Watkins’ short-lived marriage to Jennifer Watkins, Shirley Skinner’s granddaughter, began in August 2006 and started as many marriages do, according to Penny Watkins, Steven’s mother.

“At the wedding, that’s all that family could do was sing his praises,” she said.

But when Sidney was born a year later, Steven wasn’t allowed to be alone with his daughter: Either his wife or one of his in-laws had to be present, Illinois State Police Sgt. Kelly Walter told the grand jury. Jennifer would take the child a half-block to the Skinner home, leaving her husband and his daughter, Alex, behind, Walter testified. Sidney and her mother would eat dinner at the Skinner home, the sergeant said. Eventually, Sidney would fall asleep and her mother would take her home and put her to bed.

“He wasn’t allowed to spend time with that particular daughter,” Walter told the grand jury.

And that was fine by Jennifer Watkins, according to Steven Watkins’ mother.

“Jennifer told him (Steven) one time that she thought they had the perfect marriage: She and Sidney living with her family, and he and Alex living in their home,” Penny Watkins said. “They could visit and have dinner once or twice a week.

“That was a perfect marriage.”

‘Couldn’t let go’

Steven and Jennifer Watkins separated five months after Sidney’s birth, with Jennifer moving to the Skinner home, where her parents and brother also lived — three generations under the same roof. The marriage officially crumbled in May 2008, when Steven filed for divorce and asked for custody of Sidney.

Penny Watkins said her son, who sent his estranged wife flowers for Mother’s Day just weeks before filing for divorce, still loved Jennifer.

“He wanted to show they could be a family without her family,” she said. “I think he realized that would never be because she couldn’t let go of her family.”

After being served with divorce papers, Jennifer Watkins filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, accusing her estranged husband of tickling Sidney inappropriately from the time the child was born until she was 3 weeks old.

DCFS investigators found no evidence of inappropriate touching. Penny Watkins said the timing of the complaint, months after the alleged conduct occurred, shows the accusation was groundless.

“Anybody who knew Steven knew better,” she said.

For months after Jennifer made her complaint, her estranged husband wasn’t allowed to see Sidney. That changed in September 2008, when a judge granted visitation. But Steven still had difficulty seeing his daughter.

“There were a lot of problems with visitation even though it was court ordered,” Sgt. Walter told the grand jury. “There were a lot of instances where he would show up to get his child for visitation, and Jennifer would say that the child was sick and (someone) had taken her to the doctor.”

Medical records, however, did not reflect illnesses, Walter testified.

Flare-ups over visitation spilled into law enforcement. Steven Watkins called Ashland police on Oct. 30, 2008, when Kenneth Skinner, Shirley’s husband, and Robert Skinner, the son of Shirley and Kenneth, yelled at him, telling him he couldn’t see Sidney. By the time an officer arrived, Jennifer Watkins and possibly Shirley Skinner had taken the child away, Walter testified.

At one point during testimony, a grand juror asked an obvious question: Why did the Skinner family hate Steven Watkins so much?

Vujovich didn’t have an answer.

“Each one of you may come up with a different theory as to motivation … and what prompted this,” the prosecutor said. “And at the end of our proceedings here, after you gather evidence, maybe that answer will be provided to you. If not, we can speculate from now until forever.”

Penny Watkins thinks she knows.

“My opinion, they could not control him,” she said. “He wouldn’t submit to their way of life. They all lived together, ate together — they’re together all the time, and the rest of the world is cut out. Steven had Alex and other family. I just believe that was part of it.”

Tangled legal web

Nov. 26, 2008, loomed as a crucial day in the battle over Sidney.

On that day, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Jennifer and Steven Watkins were due in court, with a judge expected to decide whether Sidney should be allowed to spend more time with her father. Four days before the hearing, Walter testified, Jennifer Watkins sent a text message to her estranged husband: Would he come to the Skinner home the day before the scheduled hearing and sit down with her family and work things out? Steven Watkins told his estranged wife he would let the court decide.

Two days before the scheduled hearing, Steven met Jennifer at the Olive Garden restaurant in Springfield. The grand jury testimony isn’t clear on who called the meeting, but it was a set-up. Debbie Webster, Jennifer’s mother, had hired a private investigator to eavesdrop from a nearby table, Walter testified. Jennifer wanted to talk about an order of protection that Penny Watkins had obtained against her two months earlier. Penny Watkins told the court that her estranged daughter-in-law pushed her and screamed profanities after coming to her home in Chandlerville uninvited.

“You know your mother is lying — I never pushed her,” Jennifer told her estranged husband, who didn’t want to talk about the incident, Walter testified. After she refused to drop the subject, Steven left the restaurant, the sergeant told grand jurors.

Steven was due at the Skinner home the next evening to pick up Sidney. That morning, Debbie Webster called the private investigator and told him that the family wanted him at the house to witness how Sidney reacted to her father; she would throw a fit, Walter testified.

Also that morning, Nolan Lipsky, Jennifer’s lawyer, twice spoke with the judge in the divorce case, asking if the matter set for hearing the next day could be continued. Not unless the other side says a delay is acceptable, said the judge, noting that visitation for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday needed to be addressed. Jennifer’s family was concerned about visitation, Lipsky told the judge, who informed him that he was inclined to allow overnight visits between Sidney and her father, Walter testified.

Lipsky subsequently spoke with Jennifer, who immediately called her mother’s phone after hanging up with the attorney, Walter testified. Early that afternoon, Debbie Webster called the private investigator: “My daughter has changed her mind. Don’t come out tonight to witness how Sidney reacts to her father,” Webster told the private eye, according to the grand jury transcript.

At last week’s hearing, Schuering, who is presiding over Shirley Skinner’s murder trial, cited that statement as one reason for refusing to reduce bond from $5 million to $1 million.

‘Grandma shot him’

Police Chief James Birdsell was at home, about eight miles from Ashland, when he got the call at 5:50 p.m. on Nov. 25, 2008.

Jennifer Watkins had called 911, hysterical. Her estranged husband had forced his way into the house, knocking her grandmother over, and she’s having heart trouble, Jennifer told a 911 dispatcher. With no other officer on duty, Birdsell was about a half-block from the house when Jennifer, considerably calmer, called 911 a second time. This time, she told a dispatcher that her estranged husband had been shot dead.

Birdsell first spoke with Rick Hand, a paramedic, outside the home. Hand told the chief that Shirley Skinner had said she’d shot Watkins and had asked twice whether he was dead. Birdsell found Skinner, sobbing, in the kitchen sitting on a chair, with paramedic Chuck Knapp holding both of her hands and attempting to calm her. Steven Watkins was on the floor about 30 feet away, about 20 feet from a Glock 17 handgun atop a cardboard box.

Shortly after Birdsell arrived, Debbie Webster appeared at the door, saying she needed to come in and take care of her mother. She also told Birdsell not to speak with her daughter, Jennifer Watkins. When Birdsell told her she couldn’t see her mother, Webster entered through another door and joined other family members in a different area of the house, the chief told grand jurors.

Jennifer was standing in a doorway, holding Sidney, who was crying slightly, Birdsell testified. Despite Webster’s admonition, Birdsell got Jennifer outside and had a brief discussion. It turned out to be the only time investigators have spoken with anyone who was in the house when Steven was killed.

Jennifer told the chief that she, her grandmother, her grandfather and Sidney were the only people in the house when her estranged husband was shot.

“She told me that he had forced his self in and knocked her grandma down and that she was having heart problems,” Birdsell testified. “And that he was coming after her to take the baby away from her and her grandma shot him.”

Shortly afterward, just as paramedics prepared to take Shirley Skinner to a hospital, someone handed a phone to Birdsell. Jon Gray Noll, Skinner’s lawyer, was on the line.

“He said that he was representing Mrs. Skinner and that he did not want me to talk to her,” Birdsell testified.

Walter testified that she once asked Webster which attorney had advised her not to talk about the case. Jon Gray Noll, Webster answered.

“So I said, ‘Let me see if I’ve got this straight: You are relying on the advice of counsel that doesn’t represent you when you could provide us with information that might help your mother,’” Walter told the grand jury. “And she said, ‘Yeah, I know.’”

No fingerprints on gun

Relatives followed when paramedics took Shirley Skinner to the hospital, leaving Birdsell in the house, waiting for crime technicians from the Illinois State Police to arrive.

The house didn’t match Jennifer Watkins’ account of her estranged husband forcing his way in and knocking the elderly woman aside, Walter testified. The door showed no signs of forced entry, he said, and Skinner had no injuries consistent with being knocked down.

No fingerprints were found on the Glock, which Birdsell says he picked up and unloaded while wearing rubber gloves.

Such handling could well have destroyed fingerprints, said Mark Acree, a forensic scientist who once worked in an FBI latent print laboratory.

“In terms of probable, it’s highly probable,” Acree, who is now a consultant, told The State Journal-Register in an interview.

However, Glocks are notorious for textured surfaces that make print recovery difficult, Acree said.

The Glock was registered to Jennifer Watkins, whose DNA was found on the weapon, according to court testimony from Birdsell, who also says his own DNA “possibly” was found on the gun. None of Skinner’s DNA was found on the Glock.

“If the grandma actually used the gun to kill the person, if that was the last known use of that gun, I would expect to find some trace of her DNA,” Acree said. “Her (skin) cells would be on top.”

Acree said it’s difficult to wipe DNA from a gun. Walter told grand jurors that DNA could have been destroyed by lab technicians who processed the weapon for fingerprints before looking for DNA. Acree said it’s also possible that Birdsell could have removed DNA evidence while touching the gun, but only if he handled the weapon excessively. Without knowing the concentration of Birdsell’s DNA found on the gun, it’s impossible to say, Acree said.

Birdsell testified that Shirley Skinner had abrasions on her right hand, with blood present, consistent with being struck by the slide of a gun as it fired. A shell casing was found jammed in the gun, which can happen when a weapon isn’t held correctly when fired. However, no one took a photograph of the wound, Walter testified.

“I can’t definitively say where those marks came from,” Walter said.

The lack of Skinner’s DNA on the weapon raises questions about whether she is the killer, even if she said she was the shooter, Acree said.

“She might be protecting somebody else,” Acree said.

Penny Watkins said she has faith in the legal system and prosecutors.

“There’s questions in my mind about what happened that night, not who did this,” she said. “I have to trust the legal system that there’s evidence that Shirley did it. Everybody doesn’t know the details.

“I know my son pulled up there at 5:30 p.m. to pick up his daughter and never came out.”

Trial could start in January

Besides facing first-degree murder charges, Shirley Skinner has been charged with solicitation of murder for allegedly telling a pair of employees at her family’s Beardstown pallet company that she would pay $10,000 to have Steven Watkins killed.

Skinner has demanded a speedy trial that could begin as early as Jan. 25. A defense request to have the trial moved to Quincy is pending and set for hearing Dec. 30.

Who's who in the murder case


◦Shirley Skinner: Wife of Kenneth Skinner, grandmother to Jennifer Watkins (Steven Watkins’ estranged wife) and mother of Debbie Webster, Jennifer’s mother. Charged with first-degree murder
◦Kenneth Skinner: Husband of Shirley, grandfather to Jennifer and father of Webster. Was present in house when Steven Watkins was shot.
◦Robert Skinner: Son of Shirley and Kenneth Skinner and Webster’s husband
◦Debbie Webster: Mother of Jennifer and daughter of Shirley and Kenneth Skinner
◦Jennifer Watkins: Steven Watkins’ estranged wife who lived in the Skinner home during divorce proceedings. Daughter of Webster and granddaughter of the Skinners.

◦Steven Watkins: Estranged husband of Jennifer Watkins, shot to death in on Nov. 25, 2008.
◦Sidney Watkins: Now 2 years old, the daughter of Steven and Jennifer Watkins
◦Alex Watkins: Now 10, Steven Watkins’ daughter and Sidney Watkins’ half-sister.
◦Penny Watkins: Steven Watkins’ mother

◦Jim Birdsell: Ashland police chief
◦Illinois State Police Sgt. Kelly Walters: State investigator called in two months after the killing to assist with the investigation
◦Michael Vujovich: Special prosecutor who works for the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor’s Office