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Townsfolk Look the Other Way in Abuse and Slaying

Times Staff Writer

Dixie Shanahan’s neighbors saw her bruises. They took note of her black eyes. Many suspected her husband was beating her. But they felt it was none of their business. Year after year, they kept quiet.

Now Shanahan has been charged in her husband’s slaying. Scott Shanahan’s remains were found in a bedroom of their ranch house in October -- more than a year after he had vanished from this everyone-knows-everyone town of 346. He had been shot in the back of the head.

Authorities allege that his body was left to decompose on the bed, even as Shanahan hosted play dates for their three children in the well-kept home. She has been charged with killing him “willfully, deliberately and with premeditation.” The trial is set for April.

Again, Defiance is silent.

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Within a week of her arrest, friends, family and neighbors had raised $15,000 to bail Shanahan, 36, out of jail. She’s back in the home she once shared with her husband, taking care of Zach, 7, Ashley, 5, and the baby, Brittany, who is nearly 1. Two toppled snowmen stood on her broad lawn the other day, near a “No Trespassing” sign that warned off questions with a scrawled “No comment!!”

Folks here say they’re glad she’s home. But they won’t say much else. New Year’s is coming, and many here figure what Shanahan needs more than anything is a fresh start. They helped raise the money to free her. Now they see no reason to meddle.

“The family has gone through some really tough times,” said Twyla McConnell, 54, a longtime resident. “I think people around here just want to leave them alone.”

Leaving neighbors alone doesn’t come easy for a town like Defiance.

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Isolated amid farmland stretching to the horizon in all directions, Defiance prides itself on helping those in need. The ladies’ club sends birthday cards to every senior citizen. An upcoming spaghetti dinner and dance will raise money for a young man with leukemia.

When residents found out from local boys posted overseas that some soldiers in Iraq don’t get much mail, they spent months collecting pudding cups, granola bars, disposable cameras and other treats -- enough to fill 152 care packages. Then they opened their wallets again, donating $1,200 to pay the shipping costs.

Postmaster Shirley Grote says with pride that such efforts clearly show Defiance’s heart. “People volunteer to help each other out,” she said. “Everyone pitches in and lends a hand.”

But confronted with an abusive marriage -- and now, an alleged murder on Third Avenue -- residents have had trouble figuring out how to respond.

“The town, they all knew she was getting beat up. Of course they knew. But what can you do in a case like that? You just don’t step in without being asked,” said Charlie Goetzinger, 74, who tends bar at the local tavern.

Court records trace, in affidavits and warrants, the abuse that many saw on Shanahan’s face.

Scott Shanahan was first convicted of domestic violence in June 1997 for striking his wife in the face with a closed fist, bloodying her lip and blackening both eyes. He served two days in jail and was ordered to attend a counseling program.

Three months later, Dixie Shanahan reported another assault to the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department. She told officers her husband had beaten her on the head and legs with a metal object and then trapped her in the house, threatening to kill her if she called authorities. Scott Shanahan was convicted of assault in February 1998. He spent four days in jail, paid a $1,000 fine and again was ordered to attend counseling.

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In October 2000, authorities returned to the Shanahan house after a friend called the sheriff to report her fear that Scott had locked Dixie in. The deputies found Dixie Shanahan in the house with two black eyes; she told them her husband had poked her in the eye, dragged her around the floor and tied her hands behind her back with a wire coat hanger.

Deputies arrested Scott Shanahan again and helped his wife move to a shelter in Texas, where she had family. A few months later, she was back in Defiance. She wrote sheriff’s deputies that she did not want to press charges and would not testify. “I still love my husband,” she declared, “and don’t want this to happen.” The charges were dropped.

Counselors say many battered women return time and again to abusive marriages before they find the courage -- and the resources -- to break free. Until a victim is ready to leave, neighbors can do little other than offer support and information about local programs that might help, said Laurie Schipper, executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

According to court records, one of Dixie Shanahan’s close friends did help her plan an escape. But many in Defiance said they felt uneasy intervening. “She should have asked if she wanted help,” one longtime resident explained.

The neighbors also kept their distance when they noticed Scott Shanahan, then 39, seemed to have moved away in the summer of 2002, leaving his wife several months pregnant with their third child.

Scott Shanahan was in touch with few relatives and worked alone restoring cars, so at first he was not missed. After several months, however, people began to talk -- especially when his wife began dating a man from out of town. She explained that her husband had left the family. No one pressed for details.

Finally in July, nearly a year after he had last been seen in Defiance, someone called the sheriff to report Scott Shanahan missing. Authorities learned Dixie Shanahan had sold some of her husband’s belongings and had been forging his signature on checks. They obtained a search warrant in October -- and found the remains. It is unclear why no one noticed a smell from the decomposing corpse.

After Shanahan’s arrest, the state briefly took custody of her children. They are back with her now. “She’s adjusting quite well,” said her attorney, Greg Steensland. “Her life is back on the road to being normal.”

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Steensland said his client plans to study for a career in nursing.

First, she will have to get past the murder trial.

Iowa juries in the past have proved sympathetic to battered women. In the most notorious case, in 1992, a jury acquitted Betty Friedberg of murdering her husband after the defense presented evidence that he had kicked, shocked, choked and threatened her in more than a year of abuse.

But in the Shanahan case, Steensland said he would not necessarily claim self-defense. To use that argument, he would have to first concede that his client had fired the fatal shot. And he said he was far from ready to do that.

“Can the state prove who did it? Can they estimate when? Can they say where? I don’t care if a jury thinks it’s implausible that Dixie knew nothing [about the body in her bedroom]. I’m concerned about whether the state can prove” she killed him, Steensland said.

“Don’t confuse truth with proof,” he added. “Lawyers deal with proof. God can sort out the truth some other time.”

The prosecutor in the case, Charles Thoman, declined to comment.

With the trial set for April 7, Steensland said that he does not intend to ask for a change of venue, despite heavy local publicity. “The conscience of the community would seem to be supporting Dixie,” he said. “Where else would I go to get a jury as favorable?”

Sympathy for Dixie Shanahan does appear to be strong in the snow-frosted streets of Defiance. But it’s not universal.

“I know everyone says they’re supporting her, but there’s definitely another way to look at this case,” said one local resident, a carpenter who would not give his name. “I’m just glad I don’t have to make the decision.”


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