Mother’s Decade of Anguish Over Missing Girl Leads to 7 Years Behind Bars for Dad : Chicago: Child vanished with her father days before her second birthday, but he denies knowing where she is. He is serving an indefinite civil contempt sentence.


For Norell Sanders, life often seems a cruel waiting game. Each year, she hopes to learn the fate of her missing daughter; each year, she grows more convinced that one man behind bars holds the key.

That man, the girl’s father, snatched Deborah after the unwed couple quarreled a decade ago. Odell Sheppard claims he returned the girl, then almost 2 years old, to her mother. She says he didn’t. And the courts believe her.

They ordered him jailed and issued an ultimatum: Tell us where the child is and you can go free.


Sheppard insists he doesn’t know Deborah’s whereabouts and so, for more than seven years, he has languished in Cook County Jail--not for a crime, but for what some legal experts believe is the longest civil contempt jailing ever in the United States.

He sits in jail with his silence; the girl’s mother sits at home with her anxiety. And the test of wills goes on: Odell Sheppard’s latest appeal recently was rejected--and Norell Sanders just keeps waiting.

“Eventually something has to break, something has to give,” she said, her voice rising with hope. “I’m not giving up.”

“That was my daughter,” she said, her small frame coiled over a table at the noisy fast-food restaurant where she works. “You just can’t abandon your child. You just can’t walk away not knowing what happened to her.”

Sanders vs. Sheppard is one of a growing number of domestic cases involving civil contempt charges--most notably the two-year jailing of Elizabeth Morgan, a Washington, D.C., doctor who refused to disclose the whereabouts of her daughter, who she claimed had been sexually abused by her ex-husband.

Civil contempt often is used to force reluctant witnesses to testify before a grand jury--organized crime cases, for instance--but the witnesses usually are released once the panel ends its session.

Locking someone up for civil contempt is justified as long at it is considered coercive and not punishment.

The courts believe more time in jail will induce Sheppard to talk, but his attorney says it doesn’t even matter what his client knows at this point.

“The law of contempt is clear,” said the attorney, Steven Glink. “If an individual cannot comply or will not comply, the incarceration has no coercive effect. They have to let him go. It’s a violation of due process. . . . They’re just using the system to break the guy down or punish him.”

Other legal experts say depriving Sheppard of his freedom for so long is an abuse of judicial power because he never has been charged with a crime or had a trial.

“It’s a dirty rotten trick. This is life on the installment plan,” said Al Alschuler, a University of Chicago law professor. “It’s a way of doing an end run around the Bill of Rights.”

But others say contempt and jail are necessary tools the courts need in exceptional cases.

“Having a finite, discrete period of time in a life-threatening situation is self-defeating,” said Mitchell Mirviss, a Baltimore attorney representing a child in a similar case fought up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1990, the high court ruled in that case that the mother could be held indefinitely until she disclosed the whereabouts of her son, who had once been removed from her care after allegations of severe abuse.

Unlike Sheppard, the mother, jailed since 1988, has invoked her Fifth Amendment privilege and never denied knowing where her son was, Mirviss said.

Elizabeth Morgan also didn’t deny knowing her daughter’s whereabouts. The doctor was freed in 1989 after then-President George Bush signed a specially tailored bill that limited contempt of court jailings in District of Columbia cases.

Norell Sanders has no high-profile champions.

Though the 43-year-old mother of four has won all her legal battles, she still doesn’t know what became of Deborah, the wide-eyed little girl who could outrun her as a toddler--and would now be 12.

“I know there’s that reality that she could be dead,” she said. “You keep hoping, hoping for the best. . . . If she’s dead, I want to know. If she’s alive, I want to know.”

Sanders is convinced the truth will lead to Sheppard, the 48-year-old man she had a relationship with but didn’t live with or marry.

“I don’t think anybody can do anything and keep it a secret forever,” she said. “If he’s hiding her, somebody knows that. And if he killed her, somebody knows that.”

Deborah disappeared Sept. 29, 1984, weeks before her second birthday, according to her mother, who says Sheppard came to her apartment, that the two argued and struggled over the child, and that he then grabbed the toddler.

Shortly after, court records show, she was allowed to talk to Deborah once on the phone, then Sheppard called and warned her she would see the child next in a “pine box.”

Sheppard says he returned Deborah that December. But Sanders’ relatives testified they never saw her after her abduction.

Sheppard was convicted of child abduction--he says he took the child to a family funeral in Tennessee--and was freed Oct. 6, 1987, after serving about half of a three-year sentence. Three days later, when ordered to return to court with the child, he came alone. He was jailed.

Sanders thought he would crack.

When he didn’t, she became a woman obsessed, appearing on talk shows, calling the police so often they recognized her voice, chatting with missing children’s groups, buttonholing politicians and never, she says, taking no for an answer.

“I used to be on the edge,” she said. “I’d live it, eat it, sleep it. I worried . . . does she have food? Is she cold? I couldn’t control those things, so I had to give up thinking about them.”

When she thinks about Sheppard, she said, “It’s like I don’t even know this person. It’s not hate. It’s not anger. It’s confusion. . . . It’s not doing me any good him being in jail and the state taking care of him.”

Sheppard’s attorney, Glink, calls it “a case of one person’s word against another.” But Sanders’ attorney, Joan Colen, notes that two judges have deemed Sheppard a witness lacking credibility.

“The issue is no longer who’s telling the truth,” she said.

In November, the state Supreme Court upheld the contempt and said the jailing still was coercive, noting Sheppard wrote a judge letters in 1990 saying it was “draining” him mentally and physically.

Sheppard “holds in his own pocket the key to his jail cell and he may win his release at any time by complying with the order of the court,” Justice Benjamin Miller wrote.

Sanders said that if Sheppard is released, she’ll just come up with another plan.

She has little left her to remind her of Deborah except one baby photo--others were destroyed in a fire--and an artist’s age-enhancement of what her daughter would look like as a budding teen.

Sometimes, she said, she fantasizes that Deborah will read about her mother’s fight to find her. Other times, she realizes the grim, slim odds.

“I just don’t want to let go of her,” she said. “It’s hard to explain--a human being exists and suddenly they’re not there anymore.”