Guardian of abused woman kept in closet sent to prison for her death

Victim remembered as 'loving,' 'sweet,' 'helpful'

Published: Friday, March 22 2013 5:09 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Those who loved Christina "Nina" Harms drove 1,500 miles from their homes in Minnesota and South Dakota to stand in front of a judge Friday and tell them about the person they lost.

They wore T-shirts printed with Harms' smiling face. They carried a cardboard display covered in pictures of the woman throughout her life.

"Nina wanted to go to college, she wanted more kids, she was very loving," Marilee Nelson said. "She loved her daughter more than anything. Nina was the most loving person you would ever meet."

Harms was 22 when she died on March 25, 2011, as the result of abuse and neglect in the Kearns home she shared with the woman who was her guardian, Cassandra Marie Shepard, their children and Shepard's mother and stepfather.

"I don't think there will ever be understanding, but today there will be justice," 3rd District Judge Katie Bernards-Goodman said before sentencing Shepard, 29, to prison.

Shepard, who pleaded guilty to aggravated abuse of a disabled adult, a first-degree felony, and manslaughter, a second-degree felony, was sentenced to consecutive terms of five years to life and one to 15 years in prison.

Prosecutors say Harms, who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and had the mental capacity of an 8- to 12-year-old, was constantly kept in a small closet where she was forced to eat and go to the bathroom while being bound to a metal bar.

Harms had ligature marks on her ankles consistent with plastic zip ties when officials examined her, severe bruising on her thigh and head, bloodshot eyes, a pepper seed in one of her eyelids, and her hands were completely covered with bandaging material, which would have prevented her from getting the pepper seed out.

Nelson and Tonya Willprecht, both close friends of Harms and her family, said Harms was more like a 16-year-old — loving and happy. They struggle to understand or reconcile the mental and physical abuse she endured.

"When I think of the awful, horrifying days that Nina went through and how horrible it must have been, my heart aches for her," Willprecht said. "Those last two years of her life should have been the happiest she'd ever known. She had a beautiful baby girl. … Cassandra was supposed to help with that and make sure they were both safe."

Both Nelson and Willprecht met Harms in Aberdeen, S.D., and when Harms' mother was dying of cancer, Nelson said she offered to care for Harms. But Harms' mother entrusted her daughter to Shepard, a cousin who was studying to be a nurse, Nelson said.

Though they live in Minnesota, Nelson and Willprecht said they often called and drove to South Dakota to visit Harms until one day they found that Shepard, Harms and their children were gone. They later learned they had moved to Utah with Shepard's mother, but had no contact information.

They later learned of Harms' death from news accounts. Both women said they felt Shepard deserved a life sentence.

"Cassandra deserves life in prison so we can send a message to people who hurt other people that it is not OK," Willprecht told the judge, then turned to Shepard. "May God forgive you, because I don't and I never will. Ever."

Shepard was stoic throughout the hearing and did not speak. Her attorney, Michael Sikora, said his client had a difficult childhood, but was still a caring mother to her own two daughters. He said they are well-adjusted and doing well with their new families.

"It's sad it ended this way," he said. "It's a tragic end to Nina's life. I do believe Cassandra when she said she wishes she could go back and do this all over again."

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