Tonawanda News

October 26, 2012

Loophole closed allowing control of victim's body

By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News

— After years of abuse, Stephen Shepherd brutally killed his wife Constance in their Sunset Terrace home in 2009 before he was discovered by police in the Catskill State Park near Albany. 

The Tonawanda man was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter later that year and sentenced to 21 years in prison. But before the conviction he maintained sole possession of his late wife’s body due to a loophole in state law. 

While her family desperately attempted to obtain their relative’s remains, Shepard left her corpse sitting in the Erie County morgue for a month, then had her cremated and buried in the Adirondacks, a day’s drive away from grieving family.

Three years later, as the family tries to come to terms with the calamity, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law Thursday that closes the loophole allowing accused spouse killers to control their victims’ remains. 

The law also affected the family of Aasiya Hassan, who was beheaded by her husband in their Orchard Park television station a few months before Constance was found dead. 

The legislation was written in part due to the persistence of Constance’s family, who contacted state Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer and told him of their plight. 

Elaine O’Toole, Constance’s cousin, said she had tried every political avenue she could think of to spur a change to the law, but until she talked to Ranzenhofer, it fell on deaf ears. 

“I made multiple phone calls to multiple people,” she said. “He was the only one who would listen.” 

Ranzenhofer said when O’Toole came to him she was frustrated at the lack of action. 

“I thought it was a terrible injustice,” he said. “She needed help and she wasn’t getting anywhere. I felt in my heart that we needed to do something.” 

He went on to co-sponsor part of the legislation that addresses several domestic violence issues, including an expanded definition of aggravated harassment and giving the courts more leeway in determining bail when abuse is involved. 

Ranzenhofer said the law will stop those under a order of protection obtained on behalf of a deceased individual from having legal authority over their remains. 

O’Toole said that while the family would have preferred Constance was buried alongside her mother and father in a Catholic cemetery, the real issue was the control her abuser had over her, even after Shepard killed her.

“It was irrelevant where she was buried,” O’Toole said. “It was the the question of who took the initiative and who could still hold power over someone they (killed).”  

She said that Shepard had controlled her cousin for years, often keeping her isolated from the rest of the family.  And while the motivation for the killing never came to fruition, the couple had lost their home to foreclosure just weeks before the incident.

“I hope that this new law will prevent other families from experiencing this kind of tragedy,” she said. 

The law will take effect Nov. 24.

Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.