Ashland, Illinois is a sleepy little town of 1300 people smack dab in the middle of corn and bean fields; you know, Settlement Americana, Littletown, USA? The kind of place where the major events were the weekly livestock auctions, which proved to be exciting only when the occasional cow would cut loose and bolt down the street followed by a bunch of young boys and girls donning spurs on their cowboy boots making one hell of a racket as I was sleeping off the night before. The kind of town you’ve all heard about, full of those willing to lend a helping hand, give you a polite smile as you walk by. I know it well. I lived in the only funeral home it had.
They set their priorities a little differently than those in a normal world. Especially when it comes to a murder crime scene. In Ashland, murder just kind of seems to take a backseat to other things more important…like perhaps the parade of idiot gawkers traipsing through the house checking out the hole in the dead man’s head. Think I’m being facetious?
It’s been a while. November 25, 2008. Almost a year ago today, on the cusp of Thanksgiving. Steven Watkins drove into Ashland to his estranged wife’s grandparent’s house to pick up his youngest daughter for his court ordered/approved visitation. I’m sure he was anticipating a less than warm welcome as he and Jennifer were due in court the following day to continue his effort to gain full custody of his child. But I’m fairly sure Steven didn’t plan on getting a bullet through the back of his head.
Yes, I’m aware of the fact we read about this shit every day. What sets this case apart is the best part: how this case was handled. The cast of characters are some I know so very well. So let’s get to it.
Steven’s estranged wife, Jennifer Watkins, was staying with her grandparents, Kenneth and Shirley Skinner in a nice ranch-style home. When Steven arrived to pick up his daughter, Jennifer, Shirley, and Kenneth were all home. So was little Sidney. There was a 911 call placed regarding a domestic disturbance, Steven was shot from behind, and when Chief Jim Birdsell arrived, the dog and pony show started.
There was a body. There was a gun. The scene started out with 4 people, add Birdsell and whomever he brought along, plus the numerous others that were allowed to walk on in and have a look around. Grandma Shirley started pulling a Fred Sanford, having some flipping medical condition that allowed the focus to shift from the dead dude with his head shot up, to her. Of course they got some medical attention for that poor ailing woman of 74 years. In walks Robert Daniel, owner of MECCA Ambulance, a man I spent many years working beside – fully expecting to find his victim but totally not expecting to find a body sprawled out on the living room floor with a hole through the back of his skull. Knowing Robert (and knowing he is quick on his feet) I’m sure he handled the situation like a pro. Or at least the best one can after finding what he did. Discovering that Chief Birdsell had been there a while and that the Cass County Death Examiner, Wyatt Segar had not been called…well Robert made a command decision to take it upon himself and report the corpse to someone who’d actually give a shit. I can only imagine that conversation…”Hey Segar, it’s Bob. Hey. We’ve got a situation here in Ashland. We got called for a medical and our patient isn’t the one laying on the floor with brain matter scattered. I think you should probably come. Yep, the police chief is here but I don’t think he’s seen the body he’s been tripping over. See you soon.”
Wyatt Segar made the drive in record time, processed the crime scene as a death examiner will as grandma Shirley was being taken to the hospital. God only knows what else was taking place within that home…but the one thing that didn’t take place was a gun shot residue test. Nope. Birdsell didn’t think it was necessary I suppose. Cause shit, if a test was done, he’d actually be responsible for making a decision to arrest someone. He couldn’t decide on calling in a fucking murder.
For damn near a year, Steven’s family has been wondering where their granddaughter was. As soon as the dust settled a bit, Jennifer took Sidney and split the state. Her attorney couldn’t give them a location. Couldn’t let them know little Sidney was okay. The State’s Attorney, John Dahlem couldn’t tell them where they were in making any arrests. Jim Birdsell became a pro at uttering, “No Comment”. This family knew nothing other than the fact that 3 adults knew exactly what happened on November 25, and the authorities had totally fucked the crime scene up so much so, an arrest was looking like a long shot. That’s right: there was a waning feeling that an arrest would be made, in a case where the victim was shot in the head from BEHIND! There’s a name for this kind of thing. Execution style.
Then the State of Illinois came in and yanked the case from Cass County. (oh, it was “turned over”) *ahem* Okay, which ever way you want to read it. But shit started to happen. No one knew. Especially not the Skinner family who were yucking it up at their winter home in Florida. Yucking it up, living the good life until they were leaving a pizza joint Monday evening. That’s when Birdsell was flown in, escorted by officials who actually knew how to handle a situation, and Shirley Skinner was arrested for allegedly being the gun-wielding granny. According to her attorney, Shirley’s “obviously very upset. She’s traumatized by the charges.” Hey lawyer dude: wasn’t she fucking traumatized by having her grandson-in-law laid out dead on her living room floor?
Shirley Skinner was flown back to Illinois Wednesday and is being held in Pike County (because Cass County has no jail) on a $5 million dollar bond accused of first-degree murder. According to the officials, the one’s who actually made things happen, more arrests may follow. God I hope so. And I also hope Steven’s family gains custody of Sidney so she can join her older half-sister who also resided with her adoring father. The Watkins now have custody of her. I can only imagine it would make the step forward a little easier to take knowing that Steven’s most prized blessings would be safe and sound in the loving arms of a family who displayed patience and grace and not with a family who chose to settle a custody dispute with a Glock 9mm.
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