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The Sunday Patriot-News Harrisburg
28 September 1997
He burned her body so thoroughly, finding cause of death was not possible
SOMERSET — The circumstance that made the murder of Sue Ann Shaffer so heinous is exactly what spared her ex-husband from facing the death penalty. Investigators say Leroy Shaffer killed his 29-year-old ex-wife at her rural Somerset County home in May 1996, loaded the body in his pickup truck, took it 28 miles to his own home, then burned it so thoroughly in a backyard trash pile that only charred bones remained. “There wasn’t enough to the remains that we could determine the cause of death”, District Attorney Jerry Spangler said. “There wasn’t enough evidence to ask for a first-degree murder conviction and the death penalty”.
So Thursday, Spangler settled for a lesser victory. Three weeks after Shaffer, 33, agreed to plead guilty to third-degree murder, Somerset County Judge Eugene Fike sealed the case with the heaviest penalty he could — 20 to 40 years in a state prison. Fike jumped well beyond the standard sentencing range of five to 10 years because of what he called `the moral depravity` of the body-burning, the grief it caused Shaffer’s family and the fact it left the Shaffer’s 6-year-old son motherless. “I guess we’ll have to be satisfied”, Sue Ann Shaffer’s father, Ron Koontz, said outside the courtroom. `But I’d like to get my hands around his damn neck. I make no bones about it.
Defense lawyer Christopher Patarini of Pittsburgh promised an appeal, saying Leroy Shaffer’s record, a single drunken-driving arrest, did not warrant a sentence beyond the standard range. `He’s shocked,` Patarini said of his client. After a custody fight over son Tommy — the child Shaffer’s family said he loved dearly — Shaffer turned up at his wife’s Stoystown-area mobile home on May 16, 1996, and killed her, authorities said. Then, along with the body, he burned Sue Ann Shaffer’s purse, her photo album — and clues to how she died, Spangler said. It was an incineration so thorough, Spangler said, that he would have to use DNA tests at trial to show that the remains were really Sue Ann Shaffer’s. `Tommy woke up to a bloody trailer,` Linda Knopsnyder, Sue Ann Shaffer’s sister, testified during a three-hour parade of witnesses trying to sway Fike. `Did he hear his mommy screaming? Did he see the beating?` Supporters characterized Leroy Shaffer as a troubled man who had never shown a violent side, who dotes over nieces and nephews and mails birthday cards and interesting newspaper clippings from jail. Psychiatrist Lawson Bernstein said Shaffer, a laborer for a local camping equipment manufacturer, had a history of mental illness, was treated before the killing with anti-psychotic medication and antidepressants and claimed he was drunk the night of the killing. `
“I don’t have any recollections of the actions I took”, Shaffer, a stoop-shouldered 6-foot-1, told Fike in a halting delivery as he dissolved into tears. “Several people expressed their disbelief that I could have done this horrible act. . . . I can’t believe it myself.” “I would ask that you give him a fair sentence and that he not be an old man at the time he’s released from prison”, Shaffer’s father, Dean Shaffer, told Fike. If Spangler had his way, Shaffer’s advocates would have been pleading for his life. But the district attorney said the fire consumed evidence — such as indications that Shaffer showed intent to kill by wounding his ex-wife in a vital organ — that would have powered a first-degree murder case. But Sue Ann Shaffer’s family had no trouble vilifying her ex-husband. In his letter to Fike, Koontz wrote, “He must be totally evil”.