In the early morning hours of April 2, 2017, 72-year-old Joyce Wood of Burnham was sleeping soundly in her bed when a half-naked stranger crawled in next to her.
Wood awoke in a panic, ran outside and made a terrified 911 call to ask for help. She soon was met in her driveway by a nephew who lived down the road. He tried to reassure his frightened aunt, telling her it was going to be all right, but that wasn’t the case, he said through tears in Belfast Superior Court on Monday. Wood had a heart attack and died shortly after he got there, an attack that an autopsy later revealed was triggered by the stress of the home invasion.
On Monday, Wood’s family members listened as the woman who had entered her home that night, 37-year-old Tara Shibles of Thorndike, pleaded guilty to the April home invasion that both attorneys and the presiding justice described as highly unusual.
Shibles admitted she was drunk and walked away from a gathering at a friend’s house about a mile away from Wood’s home, her attorney told the court during the sentencing hearing. She did not know where she had ended up or that she had pushed open a locked door to enter the home, defense attorney Steve Peterson said. Shibles was shocked to be awoken by police in Wood’s bed after Wood had died that morning.
“My client went for a walk that night,” Peterson said. “She didn’t even have a clue she was going to harm anyone.”
On Monday, Shibles was sentenced by Justice Robert Murray to six years in prison, with all but 10 months suspended, an amount of time that Wood’s grieving family members described in court as being insufficient.
“I cannot describe the feeling of dragging my aunt’s dead body off the truck and placing it on the ground so they could do CPR properly,” Chris King, Wood’s nephew, told Murray. “All the while the person who caused it [the heart attack] was snuggled all warm and cozy in my aunt’s bed. I feel 10 months is nothing. Not even enough to impact her life. Not enough to rehabilitate her. My family and I have to live with this hell every day.”
According to the justice, Shibles, who also pleaded guilty to a felony drug charge that happened last month while she was out on bail, had mitigating factors that affected the length of her sentence for the Class A felony charge of manslaughter. Her sentence could have been for as much as 30 years in prison, but was much less for reasons including the fact that Shibles accepted responsibility for the crime, had no prior criminal record and did express remorse and regret, Murray said.
“Despite the difficulty and the unusual nature of the charge, no matter how [sentencing] is done, it will fall short of reaching ultimate justice,” Murray said. “Nothing will bring Joyce Wood back. Nothing will alleviate her family’s pain.”
If the case had gone to trial, Maine Assistant Attorney General John Alsop said during the hearing that the state would have presented the evidence of the 911 call that Wood made at 3:45 a.m.
“She was in a highly agitated state,” he said. “She said an unknown stranger had entered her home and crawled into her bed. The fear, the stress, the terror she experienced at that time and which led to her immediate death is manifest.”
The autopsy did show that Wood had ischemic cardiovascular disease, a heart problem caused by narrowed arteries, but her death was ruled a homicide because the state medical examiner found that the condition was aggravated by the home invasion.
The state would also have called responding police officers to testify that they had found Shibles asleep in the bedroom, naked from the waist down. They found her pants and socks in her backpack, Alsop said, and her boots were located “down the road apiece.” Footprints outside the home showed that she had gained entry by pushing open the back door, which Wood always kept locked, according to her family members. But police demonstrated that the door could be pushed open even when locked, Alsop said.
“Tara Shibles when found in bed … said she had a very dim recollection of how she got there,” the prosecutor said.
She had spent the previous night drinking with friends, and walked away from the friend’s house at about 1:30 a.m.. Shibles did stop at another house along the way, asking the resident of that home at about 2 a.m. where her friend was, and then kept on going to Wood’s back door. By the time she got there, it is likely her blood alcohol level was as high as .12 to .16 percent, Alsop said.
“The defendant acted with criminal negligence, drinking herself into a state of inebriation then pushing into Ms. Wood’s house,” Alsop said. “This is an unusual case. It’s kind of hard to compare with others. It falls into the category of causing dire consequences by the use of alcohol.”
Several of Wood’s close relatives wrote letters to the court that were read by the victim witness advocate. In the letters, they talked about their love for her, the importance she held in their lives and of the pain of knowing that Wood’s last minutes were so terrifying. As their words were read aloud, the courtroom filled with the sounds of sobbing from her family members.
“Joyce’s final words will be forever ingrained in my mind,” one relative wrote. “Joyce died because of a terrible choice that Tara Shibles has made. What a life to take. Ten months is an insult to the family and an insult to the entire town.”
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