On October 27, 1992, what started out as a Girl Scout Halloween Party turned into a nightmare for 11-year-old Shauna Melinda Howe. All Shauna wanted to do was get home. The O’Brien brothers had far more monstrous plans.
When Shauna Howe vanished while only two blocks from her house, one eyewitness account was the only lead the police had. It wasn’t until Howe’s battered and lifeless body was found that the culprits were discovered. The O’Brien brothers were men with no remorse and a long list of criminal charges against them. However, when the entrance of a third perpetrator came to light, the case quickly became complicated.
A Late Walk Home and Shauna’s Disappearance
Shauna Melinda Howe lived in Oil City, Pennsylvania with her parents, Lucy Brown and Robert Howe. She attended Seventh Street Elementary School and Sunday School alongside her peers. Shauna loved the color purple and being a member of the Girl Scouts. She also loved Halloween.
On October 27, 1992, the shy, brown-haired, blue-eyed 11-year-old girl dressed up as a gymnast. She donned a turquoise and black leotard in celebration of the upcoming holiday. Howe and her chosen costume had a busy day scheduled with school coming first followed by an outing with her Girl Scout Troop to sing for the elderly. A Halloween Party at Free Methodist Church would round out the evening.
After the party, Howe began her walk home at approximately 8pm. She never reached her destination.
After a harrowing two hours of waiting for her daughter to make an appearance, Lucy called the police. An eyewitness report from a local who’d seen a “tall, disheveled man” stalking a young girl before driving away with her in a rust-colored vehicle set the investigation into motion.
A Bridge of Battery and A Man Lurking in the Shadows
During the next two days, the FBI, police, and volunteers scoured Oil City alongside Howe’s own family. It was Howe’s uncle who found a scrap of the leotard she’d worn to the Halloween party about eight miles outside of town.
It was only after the autopsy of the child’s body was performed that the extent of the abuse she’d sustained was brought to light. The autopsy was performed at Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office. Blunt trauma to the head and chest were named the cause of death. Fractured ribs, contusions, and hemorrhaging were soon added to the report. The chilling discovery that she’d also been sexually assaulted pointed to an even greater depth of trauma during the days following her disappearance.
Despite the $15,000 reward, authorities did not find those responsible for Howe’s murder. The community was heartbroken by the lack of progress in the case.
A Decade of Silence Broken by a Confession from Eldred “Ted” Walker
For ten agonizing years, the victim’s family was left without resolution. It wasn’t until 2002 that the semen found on Howe’s Halloween costume was matched with the fingerprints of James O’Brien. O’Brien was already behind bars for a separate incident of attempted kidnapping.
Painful as it was, the case was cracked open once again. The renewed investigation led authorities not only to James (aged 32), but his brother, Timothy O’Brien (aged 37) and their accomplice, Eldred “Ted” Walker.
Though it was a relief for progress to be made on the case, the details that unfolded were disturbing.
The authorities had questioned Walker (aged 47) on numerous occasions between the years of 1992 and 2004. Walker maintained for years that he had no connection to Howe before finally confessing to his role in her disappearance.
Bit by bit, the police peeled back the circumstances that had previously been shrouded in eerie mystery.
Walker’s first defensive move after confessing was to claim that Howe’s kidnapping had been intended only as a harmless prank. The alleged goal was to snag the attention of the police department and make the authorities look bad.
When Walker spotted Howe walking alone, he seized his chance. He approached her, claiming interest in buying Girl Scout cookies. Walker proceeded to press his hand over her mouth and drag her to the car where the O’Brien’s waited. He handed Howe over to the brothers who shoved her into the back seat before making their getaway. Walker escaped in his own car.
Walker’s next defense was to claim that he was coerced into participation in the kidnapping. He explained that he’d expressed a desire to back out of the scheme. But the O’Brien’s vowed to harm his son if he didn’t go along with the plan. They further bruised his ego by calling him “chicken” for having misgivings. The events that followed proved that Walker would lay not just one egg, but many by refusing to stand up to his accomplices.
The Series of Events was Finalized
According to authorities, Walker changed his story more times than a baker’s dozen throughout the long and arduous interview process. Finally, the series of events was finalized.
According to Walker, the next time he saw the O’Brien’s after Howe’s abduction was at his home. The brothers sequestered their victim in one of the bedrooms.
While in the kitchen making spaghetti, Walker heard Howe’s distressed cries of “get off me” from upstairs.
Walker reportedly left the house only to return and find it empty.
At first glance, this appeared to be where Walker’s role in the case ended. Claims surfaced that one of Walker’s cars reeked of decomposing flesh just days after the kidnapping. He was brought back into the picture.
James O’Brien’s lawyer, Wayne Hundertmark, lobbied for additional attention to the severity of Walker’s involvement. He claimed the car’s stench supported the theory that he’d killed Howe before tossing her over the bridge.
This approach was strengthened further when Hundertmark produced evidence that Walker had called his ex-wife on the night of Howe’s disappearance, telling her that an abduction had occurred and that a body would be found at the bridge.
The evidence was convincing, but an additional autopsy by Dr. Isidore Mihalakis drew attention back to the O’Brien’s. This happened some time after the first autopsy and investigation, indicating a shift in the focus of the case.
The Condemnation of the O’Brien’s
Dr. Mihalakis’s autopsy documented further details on Howe’s violent descent from the bridge. A scraped side and evidence that she’d hit the edge of the pier before dropping to the creek bed were added to the report. However, it was the girl’s dislocated shoulder and fractured wrist that stood out. These injuries contradicted the theory that Howe had been murdered by Walker and was dead by the time she was tossed over the bridge.
Dr. Mihalakis explained that her injuries pointed to an attempt to break her fall with an outstretched arm. In order to do this, Howe would have needed to be alive prior to hitting the ground.
Ryan Heath, an inmate who’d shared Timothy O’Brien’s cell for months, testified in 2001 that O’Brien had admitted to killing Howe. He’d heard O’Brien say that he and his brother had stuffed Howe in the trunk of their car before throwing her over the bridge to her death.
These developments gave the O’Brien’s another morbid opportunity to take centerstage.
A Bone-Chilling Trial
After their arrest in 2004, the O’Brien brothers underwent a two-week trial and were charged with kidnapping, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, criminal conspiracy, and murder.
Both James and Timothy remained silent in court, claiming that their lawyers had advised them to keep their mouths shut. Their mother and sisters attended the trial and also had little to say, volunteering only a few words: “Our boys did not do this crime”. Well, ladies, the jurors thought differently.
After sixteen hours of discussion by the jury and a judge’s ruling, it was determined that both “boys” would spend the rest of their lives behind bars with no possibility of parole.
Sorrow Over Shauna Howe’s Tragic End
During the proceedings, Howe’s family was far more vocal than the O’Brien’s. Lucy Brown took the stand, reading a heart wrenching letter written by her mother-in-law which expressed their sorrow over Shauna Howe’s tragic end: “I want you to know you took her innocence, her childhood, her dreams, which is unforgettable because she was a child… I hope you live a long life in which you’ll be as frightened as Shauna was on the night she died. I also hope you love someone in your life and know you’ll never be able to hold or touch or even see them again, ever”.
Though Brown attempted to add her own words to the reading of the letter, she couldn’t manage it, taking a seat beside her husband before dissolving into tears.
According to Justia US Law, Timothy O’Brien reportedly tried to rebuff the verdict against him. He declared that the physical evidence needed to rightfully convict him of Howe’s murder was lacking. His brother’s DNA was sprinkled all over the crime. His—not so much. In a classic match of the sibling blame game, Timothy suggested that his brother should have been the only one incriminated and that he personally should have been spared. In the end, his logic wasn’t strong enough to rule out his involvement.
Meanwhile, Walker managed to strike a deal with authorities, earning himself a 40-year sentence and a chance for parole in the year 2025 in exchange for ratting out his accomplices.
Little Shauna: Gone, But Never Forgotten
The frightening events that transpired in Oil City during the days leading up to Halloween of 1992 caused an understandable fear to settle over the community for years to come. For the safety of their children, trick-or-treating was restricted to daylight hours up until 2008 and children’s group activities were more heavily monitored or canceled altogether.
“There are kids out there running around after dark,” Lucy Brown is reported to have said. “I want people to remember Shauna and what happened to her… In 1992, I believed that Oil City was a safe place. I don’t believe that now. I don’t believe there is any place that is safe to raise kids”
Thirty years after Howe’s murder, Brown arranged a walk along the same route her daughter took before her abduction. Participants were asked to bring rocks painted purple and inscribed with the phrase “In Memory of Shauna”, in remembrance of the little girl who was never given the chance to grow up.
Amends could never be made for the snatching of Howe’s life, not really. Brown spoke out, voicing what appeared to be her only solace in light of the O’Brien’s demise: “you also ruined your life, wasted life behind bars. You killed Shauna. But you also took your own life”. Shauna Howe’s killers had 15-30 years added to their life sentences. Their lives might have been wasted, but Howe’s would never be forgotten.