The following article is taken from columns originally published November 14-16, 2008, and February 15, 2009.
"I couldn't think of a better place to raise children. We have no crime in this town." - Clint Freeman
When Jennifer Helen Bragg and her family moved to Lexington, Alabama, friends say she finally felt she had found a home. On the night of February 7, 2008, 17 year-old Jennifer died at ECM Hospital, ostensibly the victim of her stepfather, Shaun Clovis Shapley. The 44 year-old Shapley is currently being held on $500,000.00 bond in the Lauderdale County Detention Center; his trial is scheduled for February 9, 2009. At his arraignment November 13th, Shapley pleaded not guilty.
Shaun Clovis Shapley, sometimes referred to as Shaun Glouis, was no stranger to the judicial system. Before moving to Alabama, Shapley lived in the Polk/Hardee County metropolitan area of Florida. The oft-married Shapley was regularly in court as both defendant and plaintiff.
While still living in Florida, Shapley had been in prison three times for various crimes including felony assault, the victims usually women. On the night of May 8, 2000, Shapley was intoxicated and began to follow a black couple who managed to contact police. Having been informed that the pair was being pursued by "a crazy man," police gave chase and attempted to arrest Shapley when he pulled into a parking lot. Shapley, whose pickup was adorned with Confederate symbols, told arresting officers that he was chasing his girlfriend and another man.
Doubtful of his story, officers attempted to arrest the obviously intoxicated Shapley, who resisted. Shapley, already married to Jennifer's mother, claimed numerous violations of his civil rights and sued the arresting Polk County officers. A judge subsequently dismissed the suit as frivolous.
The next year Shapley brought suit against the State of Florida for violations of his civil rights in conjunction with several child support cases that had been filed against him. He included ex-wife Kathleen White of Winterhaven, Florida, in the suit for sixty-four million dollars. This suit was also dismissed, and Shapley told sources at the local NewsChief that his record had worked against him. The Polk County paper stated at that time, "Shapley admits he has married his own cousins in the past."
In late 2001, Shapley and Jennifer's mother Kimberly left Florida for Huntsville, Alabama, where they hoped to find jobs. After more arrests in Huntsville, the Shapleys decided to move again, this time to Florence, where they found Section Eight housing. Mary Kennedy, director of the Section Eight program for the Florence Housing Authority has declined to discuss the reasons for the Shapley family's eviction, but Shaun Shapley again saw an opportunity for some quick cash and filed suit for two million dollars against the Authority and HUD. This suit was also dismissed as frivolous, leaving the family broke and looking for a place to stay. They soon found a new home in Lexington, Alabama.
Lexington sits in the northeast corner of Lauderdale County. A town of less than 800 citizens, the rural community boasts only four residents describing themselves as non-Caucasians, none of them black. For someone like Shaun Shapley, Lexington must have appeared the perfect community. Older residents have no trouble remembering when outsiders made sure they left the town before sundown, but Shapley's good ol' boy persona ensured him a measure of acceptance.
The family rented a small home on County Road 51, just two miles southeast of the building that houses both the Lexington Town Hall and the Police Department. Two blocks to the east of Town Hall sits Lexington High School where Jennifer enrolled and quickly made friends. Both Jennifer's classmates and teachers relate that she did well and was enrolled in the Upward Bound Program, requiring her to take classes at Shoals Community College in Muscle Shoals. Lexington Principal Will Joiner commented that Jennifer knew where she wanted to go and was determined to make her dreams come true.
If her days in school were full and rewarding, her home life was less so. One of three children, Jennifer had been forced to move often, first with her mother Kimberly and then with Shaun Shapley after her mother's marriage. Her father's family had lost track of the three youths, only learning of their whereabouts after Jennifer's murder. Jennifer's older brother had joined the military to escape life with Shapley, but her older sister remained in the household. At age 19, the sister was the unmarried mother of two small children, a situation that had already garnered much community speculation. Only days before her death, Jennifer had told friends at Lexington High School that she had made plans to leave her home, but not before she reported her stepfather's unwanted advances to the proper authorities.
On the night of February 7, 2008, while her classmates were enjoying time with family and making plans for the upcoming Valentine's holiday parties, Jennifer Bragg found herself alone with her stepfather in the master bedroom. Shaun Shapley is the only living individual who has knowledge of the events that took place in that bedroom, but the vibrant, healthy teenage girl who walked into that bedroom left it on a gurney, her trachea collapsed and her hand and stomach bleeding from the gunshot of a .44 calibre weapon. Jennifer Bragg died at ECM Hospital later that night.
When paramedics arrived at the Shapley home on County Road 51, they found Jennifer Bragg lying across the bed in the master bedroom, a gun nearby. Shaun Shapley told of Jennifer's intention to commit suicide and how he had valiantly tried to stop her. When later questioned, Kimberly Shapley admitted to being in a nearby room, unaware of the events that claimed her daughter's life, but insistent on the kind of father Shaun had been to her children.
Upon arrival at ECM Hospital, Jennifer was pronounced dead. Both paramedics and medical personnel at the hospital noted that the gunshot had blown off two of Jennifer's fingers--an unusual wound in a suicide. When Lauderdale County District Attorney Chris Connolly became aware of the odd circumstances in Jennifer's death he ordered an autopsy. The results of the post mortem indicated Jennifer died by manual strangulation, not a gun shot wound. Lauderdale County Deputies arrested Shaun Shapley on Monday, February 11th.
Held in the Lauderdale County Detention Center on $500,000.00 bail, Shaun Shapley vehemently denied any part in Jennifer's death. Kimberly Shapley stood by her man, requesting he be allowed to attend Jennifer's funeral and listing him as Jennifer's father in the obituaries. Jennifer was buried on Wednesday, February 13th. Two days later Kimberly arrived at Lexington High School to clean out her daughter's locker. Refusing any help, Kimberly Shapley boxed up her daughter's possessions and carted them away without letting anyone else view her daughter's personal effects.
A judge appointed attorney Joseph Daniel to defend Shapley, who was found to be indigent by the court. Unhappy with Daniel, Kimberly Shapley, who had requested funds for funeral expenses in Jennifer's obituary, began selling her possessions in order to retain another attorney. Kimberly Shapley soon contacted Jim Stansell of Rogersville, an attorney known for frequently defending those accused of sex crimes.
For whatever reason, Shapley was not arraigned until November 13th. Stansell spoke for his client and proclaimed him "not guilty." Judge Mike Jones scheduled Shapley's trial for February 9, 2009--a year and two days after Jennifer's murder. As Shaun Shapley left the courtroom in his regulation green jumpsuit he turned to blow kisses at Kimberly Shapley who had come to support him. No one was present on Jennifer Helen Bragg's behalf.
* * * * *
One would expect any judge to be criticized no matter the nature of his rulings; however, Judge Jones has recently been raked over the legal coals for accepting a plea bargain in the Shaun Shapley case.Shapley, a resident of the small town of Lexington, murdered his 17 year-old stepdaughter in 2008. The murder ostensibly occurred during an attempted rape. DNA testing proved Shapley to be the father of two children belonging to the victim's older sister. Previously, Shapley had been charged with violence against women in his home state of Florida and his former residence of Huntsville, Alabama.
A murder committed during the commission of another crime is categorized as a capital offense--in other words, Shapley at the very least should have been subject to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Instead, Judge Mike Jones sentenced the convicted felon to a term of 25 years. A Class A felony, this conviction will allow Shapley to be eligible for parole after 15 years. Obviously many in Lauderdale County and the entire Shoals area have been outraged by this sentence.