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Hard questions persist in wake of murder-suicide

Mother of 10-year-old Shane Davis, who was killed by his father in a murder-suicide at the Oregon coast earlier this month, questions whether the courts could have done more to prevent the crime
by: Darryl Swan, Shannon Davis and Alex Lopez, seen here in the 
bedroom of Shannon’s son, Shane Davis, have questioned whether more could have been done through the court system to keep the 10-year-old Shane alive. Shane was killed in a murder-suicide orchestrated by his father, Rockland Stephens, last month at the Oregon coast.

Shannon Davis, the mother of Shane Davis, the 10-year-old boy who was killed in a murder-suicide at the Oregon coast in March, said last Friday that in the aftermath of the tragedy she believes there were judicial failures that contributed to her son's death.

First, Shannon said she believes Shane's death could have been prevented if local government, either at the state or county level, had offered a safe location for supervised parental visitation of children following the issuance of an abuse-prevention restraining order.

At present, meeting space is available for parents or a parent who has lost a child to state foster care to visit that child under the supervision of a state worker, but nothing is there for children who are caught in the middle of domestic disputes rife with violent undertones.

Also, Shannon and the father of three of her other children, Alex Lopez, said they believe a Columbia County judge did not weigh all of the case history before restoring full visitation rights to Shane's father, Rockland Stephens.

'We don't want anybody to have to go through the same thing,' Shannon said.

'We do believe it could have been prevented,' Lopez said.

At some point during the weekend of March 15-16, Stephens ran a hose from the exhaust of his 1978 Chevy van into the cab and fatally poisoned himself and Shane with carbon monoxide fumes. The crime occurred at Fort Stevens State Park, near Warrenton.

No safe place

Perhaps the most frustrating piece of the court procedure for Shannon and Lopez is the lack of a safe place where a parent, restrained under court order from contact with his child, can still have supervised visitation with that child.

'We have very little paid, supervised parenting time available to us,' said Columbia County Circuit Judge Steven B. Reed. 'Most of the time that's done by family, friends and relatives in this county. Almost always, in fact.'

Reed has been the subject of criticism following Shane's death for his Jan. 22 modification of a restraining order that restored Stephens' full visitation rights with Shane.

On March 20, Reed sent a letter to Shannon expressing his condolences for the loss of Shane. The letter, which was entered into the court record, reads: 'I am writing to express my deepest condolences for your loss. I am devastated by this tragedy. I did not think any of us ever had any idea he would be so obsessively selfish as to harm your child.'

On Jan. 17, Shannon sought and received from Columbia County Circuit Judge Jenefer Stenzel Grant a restraining order that prohibited Stephens from a stretch of Columbia Boulevard in St. Helens where Shannon and Lopez were living with Shane and their three other children.

The order also prevented Stephens from going to the home of Shane's daycare provider and the Lewis and Clark Elementary School, where Shane attended as a fourth-grader. In the recent past, as early as last fall, Stephens had pulled Shane out of daycare and school without notifying Shannon, a breach of a 2002 court order.

Shannon said she had asked Grant when she filed for the restraining order for Stephens' visitation of Shane to be restricted to supervised visits.

'I wanted it to be supervised, but we couldn't get a home for it,' Shannon said.

In Columbia County, it falls on the shoulders of the person who files for a restraining order under the Family Abuse Prevention Act, and who wants to allow supervised visitation, to provide the place where that visitation is to occur.

Lopez said that Grant favored the supervised visitation route rather than cutting Shane off completely from his father.

'She said she didn't want to just stop visitation cold turkey for Shane's sake,' Lopez said.

Shannon said she was unable to convince local relatives, all of whom have had turbulent relations with Stephens in the past, to allow Stephens into their home to visit with Shane.

Without the secure place, Grant instead scaled back Stephens' visitation with Shane, though her order did not prevent it entirely, Shannon said.

Instead of a full two days of visitation, the restraining order allowed one day of visitation ever other weekend.

'That way, if something went wrong, we would know right away,' Lopez said. '[Shannon and I] both believe she was trying to help us.'

Stephens would still have had unsupervised access to Shane, though for less time.

Stephens, through his attorney at the time, David Herr, contested the entirety of the restraining order as it was issued.

On Jan. 22, Shannon and Stephens appeared in front of Reed. Though Reed for the most part upheld the restraining order, he did modify it in three substantial ways. First, he restored Stephens' visitation with Shane to what it had been for the prior five years, since 2002, when Shannon and Stephens reached a court settlement on domestic partnership dissolution.

He additionally modified it to allow Stephens to attend school programs at the Lewis and Clark School, such as football games Shane participated in.

Also, Reed changed the rendezvous point for Shannon to drop off and pick up Shane for his visitation with Stephens. Formerly, Shannon would transfer Shane to Stephens at the St. Helens Police Department office, which closes at 4 p.m. on weekdays, two hours earlier than the designated visitation time.

Shannon said she raised this concern with Reed, who then switched the meeting place to the Columbia County Jail. The jail has outside cameras that monitor the parking lot, and was thought to provide a safer transfer point.

Lopez and Shannon argue, however, that Reed did not address a key point raised at the Jan. 22 restraining order contest.

In 2002, at the conclusion of the domestic partnership dissolution, Stephens was directed to complete an anger management class. Failure to do so gave Shannon the option of filing a court action that would have halted Stephens visits with Shane until the anger management course was completed.

By January, Stephens had not completed the anger management course.

Shannon and Lopez said they raised this issue with Reed. According to the couple, Reed responded that it was a separate case and not part of the contested restraining order hearing. When asked about that request, Reed said he had no recollection of it.

Case history

Spot interpretation of the court history between Shannon and Stephens is tricky, at best. Though the two were never married, they lived together for a period of seven years, between 1993 and 2000. Shannon gave birth to Shane in 1997. The relationship had always been mired in domestic abuse, Shannon said, and at its end she sought, and received, a family abuse restraining order against Stephens in 2000.

Following their separation, Shannon said she had no contact with Stephens other than the occasional court appearance to dissolve Shannon and Stephens' domestic partnership. She maintained custody of Shane as the case worked its way through the system, and in 2002 she was awarded full custody of the then 5-year-old boy. Stephens was awarded visitation rights that included the first and third weekends of each month, a 48-hour period starting on Friday evenings at 6 p.m.

The only interruption of those visitation rights occurred when Grant awarded the January restraining order against Stephens, cutting back his unsupervised visitation to one day every other week.

As the civil case neared a hearing, the Columbia County Circuit Court judges at the time filed conflicts of interest, and removed themselves from the proceedings. Though the reason for those filings is unclear, Shannon said it was in part due to Stephens' assertions that he could not get a fair hearing due to the judge's familiarity with his criminal past. Ultimately, a visiting judge presided over and ruled on the civil case.

Court records show that Stephens had an extensive criminal history, ranging from drug charges in West Virginia, second-degree robbery in Clackamas County and a long string of menacing and mischief offenses. Most recently, police records show nearly a dozen law enforcement contacts made with Stephens, ranging from traffic crashes to assaults.

Stephens often initiated the police calls, reflecting a tendency of his to file false reports against the people who bothered or angered him, Shannon said. It was this tendency she said that Stephens had exhibited when he sought a stalking order against Lopez, which was granted on Jan. 14.

Reed also acknowledged his difficulty with Stephens, and recounted an instance in which Stephens made false, public accusations against a former circuit court judge.

The stalking order is important for several reasons. For one, Shannon said it illustrates Stephens' propensity for making false claims - it was Stephens, not Lopez, who had embarked on a campaign of harassment against Shannon and her family, she and Lopez said.

That harassment campaign started in the fall, around October, she said, and involved Stephens pulling up outside their St. Helens home in his van and revving the engine loudly, and making late-night, drunken calls to the home. Lopez, who has three children with Shannon, including a child that precluded the birth of Shane, said that Stephens, ever since his separation from Davis, had continued to refer to Shannon in derogatory terms when he addressed her, even when in Shane's presence.

Lopez moved from California to St. Helens in June 2007 to live with Shannon. In court filings, Stephens said he was concerned for Shane's safety following Lopez' arrival, and made claims that Lopez is a member of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang and that Lopez frequently threatened Stephens.

'It was all silliness, is what it was,' Lopez said. In a Stephens' Jan. 18 petition for a change of custody, he frequently fixates on Lopez, making claims that he fears for Shane's safety.

In fact, on Jan. 18, the day after Shannon's restraining order was filed, Stephens petitioned for a change of custody for Shane, an attempt to transfer Shane's permanent residence from Shannon and Lopez's St. Helens duplex to Stephens' sailboat moored at the Rocky Point Marina south of Scappoose.

For the past five years, Shannon said Stephens' relationship with her was, given the circumstances, a normal 'business-like' relationship. While the couple certainly were not friendly, when it came to the management of Shane they adhered to court's orders.

'It was pretty normal for a while. We didn't have problems for a long time,' she said. 'We were able to communicate and it wasn't a problem.'

Even now, Shannon said she believes that Stephens loved Shane.

'He definitely loved Shane,' she said. 'I definitely believe that.'

Shannon said that while she believed Stephens posed a physical threat to her, a perception Reed also held, Shane was the last person she thought Stephens would harm. In fact, Shannon said that Stephens on several occasions commented on his 'hit list' of people to kill if he believed he would have to return to jail, and said he would then kill himself in a final act.

'I honestly thought he would take out everybody,' she said.

When Stephens filed his stalking order, Shannon said, it became clear to her that he was growing increasingly unpredictable, however. She also said that he had mounting problems with the Internal Revenue Service and other financial woes, likely contributing to his erratic thinking.

'He was starting to act strange again,' she said.

Stephens' stalking order also has significance in that it was issued three days prior to Davis' Jan. 17 petition for a restraining order against Stephens.

From an outside observer's perspective, the filings resemble the all-too-frequent pattern in such cases of action taken followed by retaliation.

In this case, both orders - Stephens' stalking order and Shannon's restraining order - were ordered by Judge Grant.