The Crimes of Shirley Turner, Part One: Troubled Beginnings

One of the enduring truths of life is that it ends and sometimes the end comes too soon and too often still at the hands of another person.

You have probably seen the documentary film Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about his Father which chronicles the events surrounding the deaths of Zachary Turner and his father Andrew Bagby at the hands of Shirley Jane Turner. Zachary was only a year old at the time of his murder, which followed the murder of his father by a pregnant Turner nearly two years earlier. 

Image borrowed from  IMDB .

Image borrowed from IMDB.

This case is alternatingly horrifying and legally fascinating as a series of what can only be termed cosmic level fuck ups took place. Shirley Turner's crimes could hardly be seen as surprising, given her history (that we will broach in a moment) of violent behaviour and the murder of Zachary would almost certainly have been prevented if some very simple steps had been taken.

Starting at the beginning. Shirley Jane Turner was born in January of 1961 to an American serviceman from Kansas stationed in St. Anthony, and a local woman. The two moved to Witchita, Kansas in 1953 where they had four children, including Shirley. The couple would eventually divorce, and in 1968 the woman returned to Newfoundland with her three children.

This is important to the case. Because Turner was born on United States soil and was raised in Canada, she was automatically granted dual citizenship. More on this in a bit.

Turner's childhood was interesting, to put it mildly. The official report on the murder of Zachary terms it as such:

"For more than a few years after coming back to Newfoundland, Shirley, her three siblings and her mother lived a somewhat nomadic existence. With income support - then known as “welfare” - they first settled in Daniels Harbour on the Great Northern Peninsula (“Peninsula” and, later, in Portland Creek By most accounts, the lifestyle of Shirley and her family was exceptionally frugal."

Exceptionally frugal is legal speak for dirt poor.

Little else is known about her upbringing. There is mention in the report of her mother becoming involved with a man from Daniels Harbour, though it is unclear if this was a romantic relationship and it is unclear to this writer what the point of including that in the report was.

In 1980 Turner entered Memorial University in St. John's with the stated intention of becoming a medical doctor. A goal she would achieve, though not without some unsettling bumps that would be indicative of her future behaviour.

Image borrowed from  MUN .

Image borrowed from MUN.

In 1982, Turner would while still working toward her undergraduate degree become pregnant and eventually marry a man from Parsons Pond. After the child, a boy, was born Turner began exhibiting controlling behaviours. These came at the expense of her mother-in-law, who Turner all but cut out of the child's life. Oddly, it was her mother-in-law who would be there at the very end, perhaps the only remaining family who wanted anything to do with the troubled woman.

Turner and her first husband would remain married from 1981 to 1987, during which time she abandoned her undergraduate degree, found work as a science teacher in Labrador City, had a second child, a girl this time, and eventually began an affair with a former lover located on the South Coast of Labrador. This, like the behaviour toward her sympathetic mother-in-law, was perhaps indicative of her manipulative and borderline sociopathic tendencies.

The affair lasted for a number of years, and the lengths Turner went to in order to pull it off remain staggering. Her husband at that time was working in the mines and found it difficult to get time off work. Turner would, under the guise of visiting family back home, travel back to Parsons Pond where she would dump her kids off with relatives and head to St. Barbe. From there, she took the Ferry to the South Coast of Labrador where she would meet up with her fisherman lover.

It is also noted in the report that Turner would bank her "baby bonus" cheques under the premise that they were to be used toward the children's university education. The funds were never put to such use.

Image borrowed from  CBC .

Image borrowed from CBC.

Turner would separate from her first husband in 1987, and moved back to the Island when her teaching contract ran out. Upon returning, her whereabouts are little known. From June of 1987 through July of 1988, it is believed that she and her two children lived in Deer Lake, living on Turner's employment insurance. She was apparently romantically involved with someone during this time, as medical records indicate she had an abortion in July of 1988, however, there is not much else that can be confirmed during this thirteen month period. It is believed, however, that the fisherman was the man she was involved with, as the two would eventually marry in July of 1988.

After having her third child in March of 1990, another girl, Turner and the fisherman began falling out and eventually separated in 1991, while Turner was teaching in Cow Head. She remained in that position until 1993, when she resigned to return to Memorial in order to complete her undergraduate degree with an eye toward a career in medicine. By all accounts, she was a successful student, despite her family's urging to abandon academics altogether.

Before graduating in 1994, Turner moved into an apartment in St. John's and apparently began experiencing financial difficulties. Her second husband, from whom she had been estranged since 1991, moved into the apartment and cared for the two older children while living separately - though under the same roof.

Image borrowed from  Twitter .

Image borrowed from Twitter.

Now is when her behaviour moves from troubling to dangerous. In October of 1993, reports surfaced that Turner was treating two of her three children so poorly that a man who had been renting a room from Turner reported it as child abuse. He was so alarmed by the behaviour that he vacated the apartment and brought the incidents to the attention of a psychiatrist at Memorial. The therapist would later tell this to a social services worker:

"...witnessed [the older daughter] being struck in the face by her mother for no reason. … [Shirley] always swears and curses at the child and sometimes at … [the son]. … [Shirley] has left …[the older daughter] at home on weekends [and] evenings unsupervised [and] she has to go to school on [the] bus unsupervised. …. [T]hat this has been ongoing for at least 2 months. Most of abuse is directed at … [the older daughter]."

The children were interviewed and corroborated the report, saying they were infrequently struck with open hands and belts.

If you would like to start getting upset now, here goes! The abuse report filed to social services - which, remember, had the backing of a third party witness, a respected therapist, and the children themselves - was closed on January 11, 1994, without anyone from the department having spoken to Turner. This is the first of many systemic failures that would enable Turner's pathology.

Later in 1994, Turner would go on to Memorial's Department of Medicine for further education. She would be returning to St. John's from Parsons Pond, and announced to her family that she would not be taking her children. Her two oldest remained with the aforementioned mother-in-law while the youngest was sent to Portland Creek with Turner's second husband. This arrangement lasted for a year, and the children eventually joined Turner in St. John's in 1995 while she completed her education. Turner was again telling family members that looking after the children was a hindrance to her academic pursuits. Despite winning custody of all three children, by 1997 they were all back with their respective fathers in Parsons Pond and Portland Creek. This arrangement would remain in place for the rest of Turner's education.

Image borrowed from  picwe .

Image borrowed from picwe.

Just a note here, because that whole sequence sounds very anti-woman. Turner was an abusive and neglectful mother who needed only to ask either her mother-in-law or ex-husbands for help. This is not going to turn into a parable about women neglecting their children in favour of academic pursuits, and there is no coloration between her behaviour and the behaviour of the thousands of responsible women who have children and pursue career/academic goals.

In part two of this series, we will delve into Turner's time as a medical resident and her emerging pattern of controlling and abusive behaviour in relationships