On October 27, 1992, 11-year-old Shauna Howe celebrated Halloween at a party with her Girls Scouts troop before setting out for home. When two hours had passed, and the shy blue-eyed girl still hadn’t returned home, her family reported her missing to the Oil City Police Department in Pennsylvania.
FBI agents, police officers, and volunteers combed the area for Shauna; however, after two days, all they’d found was a piece of her costume, discovered on an abandoned hiking trail. After three days, her body was located at the bottom of a 30-foot railroad bridge.
An autopsy revealed she’d been sexually assaulted and had perished from a blunt force trauma to the head. Police launched a murder investigation and issued a reward of $15,000, but the crime remained unsolved for nearly a decade.
The town that canceled Halloween
For a town that had prided itself on being a quiet, safe place, the murder was a traumatic experience. Doors became routinely locked for the first time, and children rarely ventured out alone. Trick or treating was limited to just a few hours in the afternoon on subsequent Halloweens.
Finally, in 2002 there was a breakthrough when DNA from semen found on Shauna’s leotard was discovered to match the genetic fingerprints of James O’Brien. O’Brien was being held in custody on a charge of attempting to kidnap a woman.
At this point, police returned to an original suspect and re-interviewed Eldred “Ted” Walker. He admitted to having a role in the girl’s abduction, which he said was only supposed to be a “prank.” He confessed to forcing Shauna into his car and driving her to his home, where brothers James and Timothy O’Brien were waiting.
Walker then claims that the O’Brien brothers took Shauna to an upstairs bedroom, and when he heard her scream “get off me,” he demanded the brothers leave. Walker stated that Shauna was alive when they left his home.
Police made a deal with Walker; in exchange for testifying against the O’Brien brothers, he could plead guilty to third-degree murder and kidnapping, thereby receiving a reduced sentence of 40 years.
O’Brien brothers behind bars
The O’Brien brothers were finally arrested in 2004 and charged with kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder. They were both sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Despite Shauna’s killers being safely behind bars, the restrictions on nighttime trick or treating remained in force for another three years until residents petitioned the city council to change the ruling. In 2008 normal Halloween celebrations finally returned to Oil City.
Follow the link to read about another Lake Erie murder, which also went unsolved for many years, the rape and murder of mother of three Joan Giambra by Dennis Donahue in Buffalo in 1993. Or for another particularly chilling case from the Great lakes read about the Oakland County Child Killer.
The Lake Erie Murders can be seen at 10/9c on Investigation Discovery.
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