Waiting 27 Years for Justice
Domestic violence stole their sister and daughter but not her voice.
Renee Fehr remembers her sister, Sheryl, as a nurturer. Sheryl spent her childhood rescuing, healing and releasing injured animals. As an adult, she became a nurse.
But, her memories are clouded by Sheryl’s fate – she was killed by her abusive husband. Renee, her two surviving sisters and her parents fought for 27 years to bring justice for their family member.
“Sheryl was the oldest of four girls and never dated. She met this guy who paid attention to her and ended up marrying him. He wasn’t nice and put her down in front of us. We could see she was isolated,” Renee, State Farm® employee, says.
Back then, divorce was frowned upon and domestic violence was treated as hush-hush.
“She’d have bruises or a black eye and make up excuses. ‘Oh, I fell down the stairs’ or ‘I ran into a door.’ Back then, you didn’t talk about it.”
In 1990, when Sheryl was 29, she decided to file for divorce. With three young sons – ages 5, 3 and 18 months – the judge thought it would be a good idea for them all to share the house. The kids would stay in the home and one parent would stay at a time. One night, convincing her one of the boys was sick, her estranged husband got Sheryl into the home, tied her to the bed and attempted assault.
“She got the door unlocked and ran to the neighbors’ house. They called the police, and he was charged with aggravated attempted sexual assault and attempted murder,” Renee says. “They finally had the divorce hearing, and she was awarded sole custody of the children.”
Just over two weeks later, Sheryl was dead.
When she didn’t show up for her shift at the hospital one morning, a colleague phoned the home. Sheryl’s 5-year-old son answered and said his mom was asleep in the garage, and he couldn’t wake her. The nurse called 911. Sheryl was found in the garage with a rope around her neck.
“He killed her and set it up to make it look like she committed suicide,” Renee says.
But Sheryl’s cause of death was ruled undetermined.
“The years passed. Every year my mom and dad would make a trip to the state’s attorney and ask for updates on the case,” she says. “In late 2008, a woman was elected to the State’s Attorney Office. She was in law school at the University of Illinois when my sister was murdered. She remembered the case. She called my parents and said it’s not a closed case, it’s a cold case. She said she’d like to get it resolved.”
In 2016, 26 years after Sheryl’s death, an inquest was done leading to a coroner’s jury ruling her death a homicide. Professionals noted the bruising on Sheryl’s neck was inconsistent with a hanging. Two months later, her former husband was arrested and charged in Sheryl’s death.
During the trial, prosecutors shared transcripts from Sheryl’s divorce case hearing, in which she was seeking a protective order. They shared details about the attack that happened about two weeks before her murder, along with testimony from her sisters and friends to prove a pattern of escalating sexual violence.
The jury took less than three hours to convict him of first degree murder. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison and must serve at least half.
“The judge told him, ‘You will spend a year behind bars for every year you’ve been free since you murdered her.’ That’s justice for Sheryl,” Renee says.
“While it’s hard, I am happy she finally has a voice. There are so many stories of domestic violence survivors. I want to tell her story because while she didn’t survive, she still has a story.”
Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behaviors such as physical, sexual and psychological abuse used by one intimate partner against another. The national month was created to connect advocates working to end violence against women and their children. Activities often center on mourning those who have died because of domestic violence, celebrating survivors of domestic violence and connecting those who work to end violence.