Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Resting in Peace

By Annette Dashofy

Lately, in an effort to get into shape, I’ve been doing a lot of walking. Since the fields around my house are loaded with ticks, I find other places to stretch my legs. One of the most convenient spots is an old cemetery a few miles from my house. It’s quiet and mostly deserted except for the occasional deer. And many of my ancestors are buried there. I rather like the sense of calm.

Last week, on my stroll, I noticed a grave with several floral arrangements perched on the stone. One of the plastic vases had fallen over. There are other graves with upended tributes, but for some reason, I diverted from my path and knelt to straighten this particular one.

Besides the flowers, a pair of tiny ceramic angels flanked the marker, which was covered in pennies, nickels and dimes. The name and date on the flat granite slab sounded familiar, but it took a moment or two to sink in and then I remembered the story.

Seven-year-old Tausha Lee Lanham lived her sad, short life in Burgettstown, about five miles from my home. At birth, she weighed only 2 pounds and 5 ounces and she suffered an assortment of health problems. But the bulk of her suffering came at the hands of her mother, Michelle Sue Tharp.

Tausha weighed less than 12 pounds when she died several months shy of her eighth birthday. She had not eaten for days.

According to witnesses, Tausha’s mother kept food from the child for a day or more at a time. She did however feed the girl’s two siblings. Tausha would spend many nights confined to a room to prevent her from searching for any tidbit in the kitchen, where she sometimes ate from the garbage can. Other times she might forage scraps from the pet bowls.

CYS tried to help, but Michelle Tharp missed appointments and refused to open her door to them. When they did visit, Tharp hid Tausha out of sight.

One morning, nearly ten years ago, Tharp discovered Tausha’s dead body in her bed. Instead of reporting it (for fear of having her other children taken from her, she said), she put the body in her car seat and drove to her grandmother’s to call off work and to drop off laundry. She swung by a lake before stopping to buy garbage bags. Later, she and her boyfriend, Douglas Bittinger, wrapped Tausha’s tiny body in a sheet, placed it in a garbage bag, and left it atop a large bush in the woods of West Virginia. They then reported her missing from a mall in Steubenville, Ohio, where they said she’d gotten lost.

The jury at Tharp’s trial deliberated for less than three hours before returning a guilty verdict. She was sentenced to death and sits on death row at the State Correctional Institute of Muncy.

And there, the story should have ended. However, Michelle Tharp is now being featured on a website known as muncys3amigos, where she and two other inmates give their one-sided account of life behind bars. I would include a link, but the thought of pulling that site up makes me ill. But if you want to read a local account of the story, go here. It originates from London, England and the webmaster, Joanne Rayston heads an organization called Friends for Muncy Death Row, an anti-death-penalty group. At some point, the three women were moved to a different section of the prison. They complained that their new lodging was “loud, unsanitary, and simply miserable.”

Forgive me if I fail to feel pity for them. Especially Tharp.

As for Tausha, her grave, at least, is everything her mother’s accommodations are not. Quiet. Lovely. Peaceful. And from the looks of the flowers and angels, her final resting place is getting considerably more care than the child received in life.


Anonymous said...

Great story, Annette!

I love to walk in cemetaries, too. Saturday I walked in Homewood Cemetary, thinking over a problem I had. Each of the graves I walked by had the same last name as someone who had been important to me in the past. I thought about those people, and what advice they would give me in my current situation.

It helped me get another spin on the whole situation. By the time I got home that day, I had a new way to tackle it.

Joyce Tremel said...

The fact that that woman is allowed to do anything besides pace a small cell makes me sick.

I walk in the Mt. Royal Cemetery a lot. I especially like the old graves--the earliest I've seen is from the early 1800s and there are a few Civil War veterans buried there, too. One of the older graves belongs to a five year old girl. The headstone, which is shaped like a bed and covers the whole grave, reads "Dear Sweet Mildred." I find myself thinking up stories of what might have happened to her.

Annette said...

Joyce, I know what you mean about the mom. I thought about providing a link, but decided I didn't want to do ANYTHING to increase traffic to a site like that.

Annette said...

Jennie, here's the kicker: these women DON'T have Internet access. They have set it up so they write their version of life in prison and snail-mail it to the webmaster in England who then posts it on the site. Apparently, when they were found out, they were transferred to other areas of the prison, which weren't as cushy and their next communique stated their displeasure with the new conditions as I quoted near the end of my post.

And to put into perspective what that child went through, here's something that occured to me this morning: Tausha weighed 11.77 pounds when she died at age 7. My not-very-big cat weighs 11 pounds.

Anonymous said...

The webmaster/mistress should be shot. Or at least get sanctions of some kind. But I guess that's the flipside to all this stuff about free speech. Gotta let the sickos have their say.

Here's a little more perspective for you. My 5-year-old son was 10 lbs 3 oz at birth. Granted, he was a very big baby, but still. Now he weighs somewhere around 60 lbs. Still big, but not outsized.

This is the kind of stuff that haunts me if I let it. I could never, ever use this in a book. Too difficult to write...!

Annette said...

Jennie, I had a helluva time just researching and writing this blog post! No, this is definitely not something I could use in a book.

Dana King said...

My pendulum swings back and forth on capital punishment. I'm currently in an "it's a bad idea" phase, but stories like this often get it moving into "I'll make an exeption for her" mode.

Here's a compromise: let's put Mom on the same diet she had Tausha on and let nature take its course.

Annette said...

Dana, I could live with that.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

First off, I'm constantly amazed at the evil that lurks in our society.

Jennie, I'm constantly torn by our country's right of Free Speech. There was a movie and I remember the dialouge verbatim. "The American President" when Michael Douglas playing the role of Andrew Shepard finally defends himself and his woman in a speech. It brings me down to earth.

"America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours." You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. "

Now for the open invitation. I am having a launch party for my book on July 18th. Anybody in the neighborhood, I'd love for you to come on by. And if you're seriously going to be in the neighborhood, e-mail me and I'll give you the particulars.

Anonymous said...

A tiny bit more information would be good, Freddy. The neighborhood you're talking about is in St. Louis, right? That's just a little too far off my beaten track, I'm afraid. But I'll be with you in spirit! Any chance you'll be working something out with Mysteries & More for Nashville?

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I'm thinking of attending Killer Nashville and I'm trying to set something up with Davis Kidd in late August/early Sept.

Is anyone attending Killer Nashville? There's not much info on the site and it's getting late.

Anonymous said...

When I was in nurses' training in Dayton, Ohio, we used to go to the nearby cemetary to feed the ducks and relax. We used to visit the Wright brothers' graves there, and I always wonder if these batchelor boys enjoyed having the young girls stop by.

Anonymous said...

I'll be at Killer Nashville. I was there last year, too. This year I'll actually be doing a panel, though. Be warned, the conference is geared very much to writers, especially unpublished ones. Most of the panels and workshops are aimed at providing writing & publishing info and not at letting readers get to know authors and vice versa. Not really a fan conference at all, although we writers do buy books, too, I guess. Still, I wouldn't pay to come here if I didn't live here already. Don't let that dissuade you, though.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across the "three amigos" webpage by accident and I agree with all of you. It's SICK.

I went to school with Shonda. We attended each others birthdays, sleepovers, high school gatherings, etc. She deserves to pay for what she did to that poor innocent man.

It makes me so angry that they are asking for pity after what they did. Sick. Very sick.

I wish the government would step in and take down that webpage.

Anonymous said...

I've written Tharp for a long time and I didn't know what she did as I started. She pretended to be a kind, honest person who'd turned her life around and as I came to know what she did, did I decide to give her a chance because of the new person she seemed to be. Today am I wiser. She's the most manipulative, dishonest person I met among all prisoners. She did not only lie to me, she is also not shy to throw dirt on me and many other people who helped her. As soon as someone doesn't do it her way shows her real personality up. She is one of those who even don't learn to do better when they are already in trouble.

Anonymous said...

I went to school with both of them. Doug always had dark emotionless eyes and seemed to think the world owed him something. I always knew he would hurt someone someday. It was easy for him to put all the blame on her to try and cover up his own guilt. Michelle has nerve posting poems to try and show she is actually human. Can you imagine how that little angel suffered? Try going a whole day without eatting something. It actually hurts. It makes my blood curdle to think they actually give that stupid retard internet access when she should be stood in the corner behind an entertainment center and shot with exploding bullets. I am one of the nicest people on earth but this pissed me off big time. Doug is an evil self centered wuss and should be stood right beside her. I only hope all children are kept away from him. I hope it's true what they do to child killers in jail and I hope while they are doing it they call him Doreen! grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

Anonymous said...

In case anyone don't know who I am talking about in my comment above. I am talking about Douglas Bittinger and Michelle Tharp. He is a big wuss and is ulgly as sin and has a big ski slope nose. Michelle is a waste of skin. God could have made a turtle or something instead. They BOTH starved, beat and abused little Tausha Lanham daughter of Michelle and David Lanham whom I also went to school with. May angels surround you Tausha. Love you.
P.S. Here is a link if you want to see how ugly they both really are.

Anonymous said...