SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Symbolically, Cheryl Murdoch was in the courtroom Wednesday when her killer, Shannon Atwood, 39, was sentenced to 55 years in prison for bludgeoning her to death in the summer of 2006.
Murdoch’s mother, Lucille Hoxie of Arizona, wore her daughter’s ashes in a silver vial around her neck as she described Murdoch to the Somerset County Superior Court.
Murdoch, 38 at the time of her death, was Hoxie’s oldest child. She was an amateur car mechanic, a talented photographer, a highway flagger and an electrician. Hoxie, 60, said her daughter was kind and caring and her only flaw was seeing solely the good in people. Hoxie said that when Murdoch became involved with Atwood in the summer of 2006, she saw it as a new chance, a new beginning.
But as court testimony at his 2007 trial revealed, Atwood beat Murdoch’s head in on the very day he had promised to drive her across the country to bring her 14-year-old daughter home to Maine from Arizona. Her body was found a month later, discarded in a brush pile in woods about five miles away from the Canaan home the couple shared.
“She never saw the danger in Shannon Atwood,” Hoxie told the court Wednesday as tears dripped off her chin. “How could he dump her like garbage? My beautiful daughter, just garbage?”
Hoxie also read a statement written by Sarah Murdoch, 16, Cheryl Murdoch’s daughter, who now lives with her grandmother in Arizona. She called him weak and wrote a list of things she will not be able to do with her mother, such as dance, sing, enjoy proms, weddings and grandchildren. Although she was in the courtroom, the teenager was so overcome with emotion that she was unable to read the statement herself.
In other statements to the court, Murdoch’s family members called Atwood “a cold-blooded monster” and said, “I hope his sentence is longer than my life.”
True to his manner throughout his trial last year, Atwood remained stoic, watching Hoxie speak but not reacting. He also did not react when the sentence was pronounced by Justice Thomas Delahanty, nor did he choose to speak on his own behalf.
If he lives to be that old, Atwood will be 94 years old when his sentence is complete.
Atwood’s appearance Wednesday did not mirror the trim, short-haired man originally jailed in August 2006. He appeared chubby and pasty-faced. His hair was long and he sported a full, bushy beard.
His attorneys, John Alsop and Arnold Clark, said they will appeal the guilty verdict, and that is why Atwood has never provided a motive for the murder nor any statements about its details.
That silence, however, went against him in Justice Delahanty’s eyes. “He has never shown any remorse or sympathy for Miss Murdoch’s family,” the justice said while rendering his verdict.
The justice said that because the murder was so violent and brutal, the base sentence was set at 45 years. Another 10 years was added because of aggravating circumstances, which included Atwood’s previous record.
Along with several other felony and misdemeanor convictions, Atwood has two previous assault convictions. In 1990, he pushed and choked his mother in an argument over car keys. In 1993, he beat Jennifer Nickerson Stewart’s head on the floor, choked and kidnapped her when she attempted to end their relationship.
Delahanty also said Atwood “thwarted the investigation” by lying to investigators and began his relationship with Murdoch shortly after his wife, Shirley Moon Atwood, disappeared. After Murdoch disappeared, Delahanty added, Atwood almost immediately started yet another romantic relationship.
“He killed Cheryl Murdoch by cold-bloodedly bashing in her head, left her body in the woods and carried on as if nothing had happened,” Delahanty said.
At the reading of the verdict, the Murdoch family, which had been holding hands, let out a gasp of air. Lucille Hoxie turned in her seat and reached to the bench behind her to embrace Alicia and Colby Moon, the parents of the missing Shirley Moon Atwood.
Defense attorney Alsop said he had asked the court for a 25-30 year sentence. He stuck to his defense that there are three alternate suspects, including Moon Atwood, who theoretically could have killed Murdoch in a jealous rage and then fled.
Delahanty was assigned Atwood’s sentencing after Justice Nancy Mills recused herself. Mills had presided over Atwood’s five-day trial and issued the verdict but eliminated herself from the sentencing portion because she knew one of Atwood’s previous victims and did not want any perception of bias.
Just before he sentenced Atwood, Delahanty said that Mills’ “findings provided me with far more details and reasoning than if this were a jury trial. Based on the compelling evidence, I, too, would have reached the same verdict.”
Maine State Police Detective Lt. Gary Wright said outside the courtroom that the Moon Atwood case remains open. Police first discovered she was missing when they began investigating Murdoch’s death. Moon Atwood was last seen in April 2006. Her body has never been found.