ST. LOUIS – Supporters of a mentally disabled woman sentenced in two states in 1994 for the kidnapping and murder of two elderly women say that they are actually a victim of the men involved in the crime and pushing for her release.
They have persuaded a state — Missouri — to provide Angel Stewart parole. But things are more complicated in Iowa, where Stewart is serving a life in prison is no option for early release.
Stewart, now 45, was convicted in two states, because one of the victims kidnapped in Des Moines, Iowa, was due to the other side of the border to Missouri and killed. Two men, Steven Bradley and Garland Shaffer, were convicted of first-degree murder and are serving life terms in Iowa.
A suburb of St. Louis-based advocacy group for women in need of legal assistance, the WILLOW Project, took Stewart’s case, says Stewart was abused and mistreated by the men, was not directly involved in the crimes, and went along only out of fear. They also refer to her IQ estimated at 65, she says that she was unable to defend himself to the police after her 1994 arrest.
“She essentially lost her life for something they didn’t do it, because she could not tell her own story in a way that is understandable for people,” says Anne Geraghty-Rathert, director of the Webster University-based WILLOW Project, said.
The lawyers are now preparing a clemency request to the Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. A spokeswoman for the Republican governor said that the request is not received and refused to comment further. A message left Friday with the Missouri Corrections Department is looking for information about that state parole decision was not returned.
Stewart was 19 when she and her 1-year-old son started with the parts of a Des Moines apartment with Bradley, Shaffer, and a 16-year-old runaway, Angel Chamberlain. Bradley was 32 at the time, and Shaffer was 68.
It wasn’t long before the men were abusive, Geraghty-Rathert said. The young women were beaten and padlock in the apartment.
An 82-year-old woman, who lived in the vicinity of the apartment, Phyllis King, grew concerned and contacted Stewart’s mother. Shaffer went to the King’s house, to the confrontation with her. When he did, another neighbor, 79-year-old Clara Baker, threatened to call the police.
Shaffer admitted that he kidnapped both the women at gunpoint. He strangled Baker and dumped and her body was dumped along a Iowa interstate highway, hidden under an abandoned chair in a ravine.
Later, Shaffer drove the King over the border and beat her to death with a board of directors, the dumping of the body in a wooded area near Kahoka, Missouri, court records show.
Bradley, Shaffer, Stewart and Chamberlain were arrested in a motel in Osceola, Iowa, in June 1994. Chamberlain was jailed briefly in a juvenile facility and later released.
Stewart said that she went along with the men only out of fear for her life and her son’s life. But faced with a potential murder charge, and told me that could mean that the death penalty in Missouri, they decided to plead guilty to kidnapping in both states.
John Sarcone is county attorney in Iowa’s Polk County since 1991, and he continued Stewart. He believes that the prison is “where she belongs.”
“They were involved in the process,” Sarcone said of Stewart and Chamberlain. “They would have saved these women, and they didn’t. Years later it is very easy to claim that you were forced into it, but the poor ladies never had a chance.”
Geraghty-Rathert said she’s hopeful Stewart will soon be cleared for a part based on the growing acceptance about how a perpetrator can force a victim.
“The public begins to believe that there are things that are out there,” Geraghty-Rathert said.