Overview of Sheila Shepherd
Two days after she was last seen on a night out, a young woman is found nude, bound, and gagged in her apartment, suffocated by her own blouse, with a 5-inch steak knife still in her abdomen. The police found no signs of forced entry, struggle, or sexual assault, and the stab wound was inflicted post-mortem using a knife from her kitchen. Unfortunately, her case is still unsolved over 40 years later. Who killed Sheila Shepherd?
Sheila Marie Van Ness Shepherd was born July 16, 1958 in Jacksonville, Florida to parents James and Marcia Van Ness. Five years later, on July 22, 1963, Sheila's younger brother, James P. Van Ness, was born in New London, Connecticut. He was her only sibling, and they were very close. Her family eventually moved to Saratoga Springs, New York, where the pair grew up. Sheila's dad, James C. Van Ness, said of his daughter, "Sheila was a beautiful girl, full of life, and showed it with a smile for everyone she met." Despite this, Sheila's maternal aunt, Terrie Boisseau, said Sheila’s home life wasn’t easy as a young teen. Sheila even went to live with Boisseau in Colorado during her freshman year in high school. At 17 years old, Sheila got married and moved to Germany with her husband, Richard Shepherd, who was in the service. While overseas, the couple had a daughter, Sativa, who was 2 or 3 years old at the time of Sheila's murder. In the fall of 1980, the year of her death, Sheila was married but separated, and her daughter was living with her husband’s parents in Florida. She had recently moved back home to Saratoga Springs from Colorado to get her life 'back on track' after separating from her husband, Richard. She was taking secretarial courses at Worldwide Educational Services, where she was also paid to do office work. She was considered a reliable student, and she enjoyed her classes. Sheila had only been living in her apartment on Church Street for a couple of weeks before she was murdered.
Around 12:00 pm on the day of her death, Saturday November 22, 1980, Sheila went to a local Grand Union store with her mother, Marcia Van Ness, and was also seen by a neighbor walking into her apartment later that afternoon. Sheila was very social, according to those who knew her, and she would go out up to 3 times a week. Her aunt, Terrie Boisseau, said she believes Sheila spent Saturday night downtown and was walking home when she stopped at The Hub, a popular former Church Street bar. “She talked to the bartender and was watching Saturday Night Live,” Boisseau said. After this interaction, her exact movements are unknown. Newspapers from the time reported that witnesses saw Sheila shortly before or after midnight at a bar called Casa 13; however, The Hub would have been on the way home from Casa 13, so it is believed that this was Sheila's last stop. Her walk home from The Hub would have been around 5 minutes long, according to Google Maps. There are no eyewitness reports indicating that anyone was seen leaving Sheila’s apartment, and there are no conclusive reports of anyone accompanying Sheila before or during her walk home that night. Less than 3 hours after she was last seen by a bartender at The Hub, Sheila was suffocated by her own blouse and stabbed in the abdomen with a knife from her kitchen.
Sheila was found by her uncle, Charles Boisseau, in her apartment on Church Street on November 25, 1980. When Sheila didn’t show up for her secretarial courses on Monday and Tuesday, November 24th and 25th, the school contacted Sheila's family. Reportedly, when Sheila didn't show for class on Monday, the teacher sent a classmate to check on her, who found Sheila's apartment locked and the radio playing loudly. Then, when Sheila didn't show up on Tuesday, the school contacted her family. When the family first arrived, at around 10:00 am, Sheila's apartment was locked with the radio still playing loudly. Sheila reportedly had a habit of leaving her window unlocked for her brother to come in and out of incase he needed a place to stay, so her uncle climbed up the fire escape to try to gain access through the unlocked window. When he entered the room, he found Sheila's nude, deceased body covered in a bed sheet. Her bed was right under the window where the fire escape was, so he had to crawl over her to get in the room. Sheila's mother, Marcia Van Ness, had gained access to the apartment and was on her way up the stairs, but Charles kept her from entering the room, according to Terrie Boisseau. Sheila's hands and feet were each tied to a bedpost with her blouse stuffed in her mouth and the sleeves tied around her head; reportedly, her ankles were tied using her own shoe-laces while her wrists were secured using her belts. Sheila was also found with a 5-inch steak knife protruding from her abdomen, which was found to have come from her own kitchen. Police reported that there were no clear signs of forced entry, struggle, or burglary besides a broken fingernail and the state in which her body was found (bound, gagged, and stabbed).
On November 28, 1980, Sheila’s cause of death was ruled ‘Asphyxiation’. Donald L. Clark, the Saratoga County coroner, issued the verdict following an autopsy performed by Dr. Jack Paston, a county pathologist. The pathologist found that Sheila’s death had occurred around 1 or 2:00 am on November 23, 1980 due to suffocation from the blouse stuffed in her mouth, not the knife protruding from her stomach. It was determined that the stab had occurred at least 30 minutes after Sheila’s death. On December 8, 1980, State Police Laboratory tests revealed that Sheila had not been raped and had not used drugs immediately before her death, though there was some alcohol in her system, and there was no DNA or fiber found underneath her broken fingernail.
Where the Case Stands Today:
Richard Shepherd, Sheila's estranged husband, told police he was with friends in Long Island at the time of Sheila’s murder, which was verified by state police. His alibi was checked and rechecked, and he was ruled out as a possible suspect before his death in the 1980s. While he has essentially been cleared by SSPD, some of Sheila’s family members still believe he was involved in her death. Sheila's Uncle, Charles Boisseau, had no evidence of a violent past, and he was asked to go up the fire escape by his wife and sister in law. All of Sheila's neighbors were interviewed as well, and while none reported seeing anything or anyone, some reported hearing voices and music on the night of the murder; it is theorized that the music was turned on to muffle the potential screams. There were no suspects found in any states she had recently visited, and though Sheila was known for socializing at the downtown bars, she could not be linked to any 'bad crowds', drug activity, or fetishistic behaviors. The hotline set up for tips grew cold within a couple of months, and investigators struggled to find leads.
On November 24, 1981, a year after Sheila's murder, investigators released a section of the FBI profile on the suspected perpetrator. According to the FBI profile, the killer of Sheila Shepherd was a white male who knew the victim well enough to be invited into her apartment. He lives in the city, the FBI theorizes, and is about the same age as the 22 year old victim.
Despite this profile, and the sexually suggestive evidence at the scene, some theorists believe that Sheila may have been killed by a woman and that the scene may actually present as a stage for how a perpetrator thinks a sexual murder would take place. The stab wound, gag, binds, and nudity are all sexually suggestive, but there was no evidence of sexual assault or a struggle. The fact that the knife was placed into Sheila's abdomen 30 minutes after her death indicates at the very least that the killer spent ample time in the apartment after the murder; this fact could indicate that the killer felt close to the victim, or that they took 30 minutes to stage the scene before leaving. While the knife, binds, and clothes were all taken from inside Sheila's apartment (indicating a lack of premeditation or planning), the scene suggests a methodical killer who could be male or female. Sheila was covered with a bed sheet, and investigators believe that the killer may have even repositioned Sheila's shoes. It is quite possible that the killer left Sheila’s apartment with some photographs of Sheila (and possibly of her young child), but that notion is not discussed by SSPD. It is also theorized that the killer took Sheila's house keys, locking the door on their way out.
Eight years after Sheila's murder, at around 9:45 am on July 6, 1988, another Saratoga Springs woman was found dead in a ditch off Putnam Road after she was last seen exiting a Caroline Street bar the night before. Pamela Ann Devizzio, 28, was seen leaving a bar called Madame Jumel’s at about 4:15 am on July 5, 1988, and she was reported missing by her father that evening when she did not report for work at Mangino’s Restaurant at Saratoga Lake. Her murder is also unsolved.
Was Sheila the Victim of a Serial Killer?
Joseph Naso, also known as "The Alphabet Killer", is a convicted serial killer on death row for raping and killing women with alliterative initials, including Roxene Roggasch, Carmen Colon, Pamela Parsons, and Tracy Tafoya. Joseph Naso was born in Rochester and traveled between California and New York in the 1970s and '80s for his work as a commercial photographer. In the cases that resulted in his conviction, Naso's victims were found naked, bound, and gagged with pantyhose. He had a compulsion to arrange the victims' bodies in certain positions and photograph them — a practice that resulted in his arrest when a police officer discovered a cache of his keepsake photos in 2011. There are obvious parallels between Sheila and Naso's victims, but there are some differences as well; Sheila was not tied with pantyhose, and she had not been sexually assaulted. While some believe that Sheila may have been one of Naso's victims, he has never been definitively linked to her case.
Sheila's mother, Marcia Van Ness, passed away on her 72nd birthday, September 24, 2011, and Sheila's brother, James P. Van Ness died in a motorcycle accident on June 17, 2018. Sheila's case remains a mystery to this day, and the police are still searching for answers.
If you have any information regarding the murder of Sheila Shepherd, please contact the Saratoga Springs Police Department at 518-584-1800, call the Crime Tips Hotline at 518-584-TIPS (518-584-8477), or email [email protected]