Original Airdate: July 9, 2013
With just over a thousand residents, the quaint town of Topeka, Indiana has a fitting motto: ‘Life in the past lane.'
But it's a horrible crime from the past that's now putting a dark cloud over the town.
Four years ago, an adorable toddler was brutally beaten. Doctors tried desperately to revive her, but 16-month-old Alissa Guernsey didn't make it. The woman charged in the case was sentenced to just 77 days in jail.
The case has evoked outrage from more than one-hundred thousand people across the country and around the world.
Watch the entire segment here.
According to the forensic pathologist who conducted her autopsy, baby Alissa had bruises all over her face and body, a broken arm, lacerations on her lip and her hair was even pulled out.
“This was a little baby. It’s just incomprehensible,” said child advocate Bernadine Buccafuri.
Bernadine is part of a growing movement of mothers who call themselves Alissa’s Army. None of them ever knew Alissa in life, but her tragic death has spurred them to hold countless rallies and protests in an effort to try and justice for Alissa..
“She deserves justice,” said Bernadine at a rally outside the LaGrange County Courthouse near Topeka, IN.
Over two dozen other members of Alissa’s Army traveled thousands of miles from all over the country to attend the rally.
Carrying homemade signs and chanting “Justice for Alisssa!,” Alissa’s Army was there to protest the fact that the woman arrested in the case walked free after just 77 days in jail.
“Her killer only served 77 days. That's the reason we're all here today because we won’t stand for that,” declared one of the administrators for Alissa’s Army’s facebook page.
The woman they’re talking about is Christy Shaffer. She's baby Alissa's cousin and was caring for her when she died.
Alissa’s death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. But Christy was never charged with killing baby Alissa. Instead, she was charged and pled guilty to a far lesser crime: neglect of a dependant.
Bernadine said, “Were going to fight for her until she gets her justice. We’re not stopping.”
Christy Shaffer could have been sentenced to up to 20 years in prison, but the judge in the case, Scott Vanderbeck, gave her just ten years, and then surprisingly suspended six of them!
But his leniency was far from over.
In a shocking twist, Judge Vanderbeck reduced Christy Shaffer's sentence from four years to a grand total of just 77 days!
So why on earth would the judge reduce her sentence from 10 years to just 77 days?
It turns out Christy Shaffer’s father, Kerri Sprunger, works at the local bank just down the street from the court house. And the judge admits knowing him well. While that might not seem like a big deal in a small town like this, some critics say that's a clear conflict of interest that could have made the judge more sympathetic to Christy.
Christy’s father, Kerry Sprunger, is also a prominent citizen in town and the vice president of Farmers State Bank. This is what the judge said about Christy’s father, during a court hearing: "I know Mr. Sprunger. He's been on some boards with me...I know he's got a good heart."
We caught up with Judge Vanderbeck leaving the courthouse.
“I don't want to talk to you now,” the judge told INSIDE EDITION’s Lisa Guerrero
“Why did you let Christy Shaffer go after serving 77 days?” asked Guerrero.
Judge Vanderbeck replied, “Umm, the judicial rules of conduct wouldn't allow me to give a statement at this time.”
“The case is over correct? You let her walk after 77 days sir. Don't you think you owe people an explanation about that?” asked Guerrero. But the Judge refused to say anything further and drove off.
Guerrero also asked County Prosecutor Jeff Wible about the case. “Did you protest that reduced sentence. And did you ask for the judge to recuse himself because he knew Christy’s family?”
“Well, my position was the judge should not have given her that little time,” answered Wible.
He also admits knowing Christy Shaffer’s father but denies any conflict of interest.
Guerrero asked, “Many people think that Christy Shaffer got away with murder. What is your response?”
“She didn’t get away with murder,” said Wible as he walked into the courthouse.
Baby Alissa’s biological mother was forced to give up custody of the toddler when she relapsed into drug abuse. Instead of going into foster care, Alissa went to live with Kelli’s cousin Christy, and that's when Kelli says baby Alissa was turned into a punching bag.
“Christy got away with torture. She just looked so bad. She was so skinny, her hair was missing,” said Kelli.
Christy was asked about Alissa's injuries during a deposition in this audio recording.
A lawyer asked, "As you sit here today, can you explain to me how the child got all those bruises on its face?
Christy said, “No, I cannot."
The lawyer asked, "You didn't smack the child?"
Shaffer replied, "No, sir."
"Beat the child?” asked the lawyer.
Shaffer said, "No. Never."
Christy says Alissa had spontaneous bruising and claimed the family dog would sometimes run into Alissa and knock her down.
But according to a report by the Indiana Department of Child Services, which was obrtained by Inside Edition, the fatal blow that killed Alissa was "...that of an adult punching a child in the mouth as hard as they could."
When we tried to speak with Christy at her home she called the police. We finally caught up with her leaving this Laundromat.
“Christy I’m Lisa Guerrero with INSIDE EDITION. We'd like to know why baby Alissa was injured so many times while in your care?” Guerrero asked.
Christy glared at Guerrero but refused to answer the question.
“Did you hurt baby Alissa, Christy? Did you kill baby Alissa?” asked Guerrero.
But Christy simply climbed into her minivan and drove off.
Today, Alissa's army vows to never rest until they say justice is found for this sweet baby girl whose life was cut tragically short.
Judge Vanderbeck has since recused himself from a wrongful death lawsuit baby Alissa's mom has filed against Christy Shaffer.