SPENCER, Ind. -- Don VanDerMoere remained a stoic right up until the end, even as he argued a man be believed was guilty of the rape and murder of a 1-year-old girl should only get 60 years in prison – and not a guarantee of life behind bars.
For nearly a year, the Owen County prosecutor offered information only when necessary to the media. He gave just one on-camera interview – on the day he filed charges accusing then 22-year-old Kyle Parker of raping and murdering 1-year-old Shaylyn Ammerman.
Faced with withering criticism after the details of a tentative plea agreement were reported earlier this month, VanDerMoere kept a straight face and kept working.
Above: Owen Co. Prosecutor Don VanDerMoere announcing charges against Kyle Parker. (File photo)
It was only at the very end, as he made one final plea to Judge Lori Thatcher Quillen to accept the plea deal he'd reached with Parker, that his composure dropped for a moment.
Red-faced and seemingly holding back tears, VanDerMoere made this pitch: This deal might not be perfect justice, but it's as close to justice as we'll get.
"Blame me that we don't have evidence. Blame me that we've got witnesses that are impeachable. But leave that family alone. Send him for 60 years to the department of corrections and let this be done," VanDerMoere said. "Your honor, I ask you to accept the plea deal in this case. It's not what I want, but it's the right thing that has to be done."
A Troubling Case, a Troubled Case
By the time investigators found 1-year-old Shaylyn Ammerman's body dumped near the banks of the White River, Kyle Parker was already in custody.
Parker, a friend of Shaylyn's uncle, Adam Ammerman, had been drinking at her father Justin Ammerman's house into the early morning hours on the night Shaylyn disappeared.
Adam Ammerman told police that Parker stayed up drinking by himself after the rest of the house had gone to bed.
Later in the evening, he heard the front door slam, and looked outside to see Parker leaving.
"Adam stated he saw Kyle Parker walking away from the house and he was carrying something," investigators wrote in a probable cause affidavit. "Adam advised he yelled at Kyle to say goodbye but Kyle would not turn around. Adam informed detectives that he thought he saw a foot dangling from Kyle's side but was not certain so he went back to bed."
Police quickly narrowed in on Parker as the primary suspect in the case.
An alleged jailhouse confession to Parker's stepfather, Mike Patton, made that official.
But beyond that, investigators found themselves on less solid ground.
Parker gave police multiple, conflicting statements – at times implicating others in Shaylyn's death. Although he reportedly told his father the DNA evidence would point police to him, none of the DNA investigators were able to recover matched Parker's. Parker also reportedly told his stepfather he'd used bleach to try to cover his traces after sexually assaulting the 1-year-old, but police found no bleach on Shaylyn's body or clothing.
Making matters worse, the primary witnesses in the case had problems of their own.
Without specifying who he was referring to, VanDerMoere, in a short exchange with Master Trooper Stacy Lee Brown of the Indiana State Police, noted that several witnesses in the case have "a large number of impeachable offenses." At least one of the witnesses had previously been charged with rape.
Furthermore, a forensic sweep of electronic devices that multiple witnesses had access to turned up online searches for violent, pornographic images.
To drive home the point, VanDerMoere read a list of search terms found on the devices to Brown:
"Who's Your Daddy #4?" VanDerMoere said. "How about one with a white female who was bound with a rope and had a gag in her mouth? How about one that said girls want to get punished by strangers? And these search terms weren't associated with Kyle Parker, these are associated with our witnesses, correct?"
Brown agreed that was correct.
"How about girls eaten alive? How about girls hanged? Girls snuff?" VanDerMoere said. "Multiple people had access to these computers during the time frame of our investigation, is that correct? And this is all evidence that we can't hide from a jury."
Brown, again, said that was correct.
"The only piece of evidence that came back conclusively was related to a third party, not Kyle Parker," VanDerMoere said. "None of that helps our case."
VanDerMoere said he eventually came to the unwelcome conclusion that the evidence could very well jeopardize the case if it went in front of a jury. He decided, he said, that risk was too much to take.
"A lot of hay has been made in social media or the news about plea agreements, why they're bad, why they're good," VanDerMoere said. "The fact is, as a prosecutor, I'm responsible for finding the truth. Not what I want it to be. This is an appropriate resolution. It doesn't provide closure for everyone, but it's the best we can do. It's the functional equivalent of a life sentence for Kyle Parker … we have chosen to put him away for the rest of his life, because that's what he deserves."
Judge Lori Thatcher Quillen appeared to share VanDerMoere's displeasure with the maximum sentence reached in the plea – 60 years – but ultimately accepted its terms.
In addition to avoiding a life sentence, Parker will only have to register as a violent felon upon release, rather than as a sex offender.
Quillen spared few words as she announced her decision.
"The facts of this case were the most gut-wrenching I have ever heard. Your actions were pure evil on that evening," she said. "Many in this community rightfully wanted you to receive the death penalty or life without parole for this crime. What I can legally do as a judge versus what I would like as a parent and member of this community are totally in conflict. It's clear to me, based upon the gruesome facts of this case, that you, Mr. Parker, have no moral compass and no decency."
With that, she sentenced Parker to 60 years in the Indiana Department of Correction. Because he was convicted of murder, Parker will have to serve at least 75 percent of his sentence. With credit for good behavior, he would get out at the earliest in 45 years – at the age of 68.