Monday, March 17, 2008 | 2 a.m.
I expected to meet a hardened woman, her face a steely mask of contempt and resignation for a life that has dealt her one cruel blow after another.
But somehow, some way, Sandy Shaw has come through her nightmares unscathed on the surface. She smiles readily, has perfect manners, and looks forward with hope and optimism to the years that lie ahead, rather than back at the mistakes of her youth and the arguable injustices dealt her by a legal system that made her pay too great a price for a bad decision she’s been forced to relive every day for more than two decades.
“I survived 21 years in prison because I didn’t want to become a product of my environment,” Shaw says. “I try not to look back too much. My purpose now is to continue to find myself, to move forward, and to try and build a productive life.”
Shaw was paroled in December, having spent 60 percent of her time on earth incarcerated for her involvement in the 1986 killing of James “Cotton” Kelly. That crime was given a sexy label by the local press: the “show and tell” murder. If you lived in Las Vegas 22 years ago, you probably recall the bare elements of the story, but you probably don’t know all the backroom deal-cutting and testimony-shaping that took place to get a first-degree murder conviction of Shaw.
Troy Kell, the lone triggerman in the case, is on death row in Utah for stabbing to death another inmate. He has nothing to gain by backing Sandy Shaw’s story, yet he has signed an affidavit claiming Sandy had no foreknowledge that he had brought a gun with him the night Kelly was killed.
And Dave Fletcher, a teenager back then who five times took other teens to view the victim’s corpse and thereby gave the crime its alluring tag line, also says Sandy got a raw deal.
“When it all went down, I told my side of the story in court, but then the prosecutor called me out to a private room and told me if I didn’t testify the way he wanted, I would go to jail. He was hell-bent to get a conviction, and I wasn’t goin’ to jail for nobody back then,” Fletcher told me in a recent interview.
“When I changed my testimony, I thought the jury would throw out what I said as unreliable, but I guess they didn’t. All these years later, I feel horrible about what happened to Sandy. She was a cocky kid back then, but she didn’t deserve what happened.”
Yet Shaw received a double life sentence without parole for the murder, and was placed in an adult prison population while still a teenager.
“I made a horrible, immature decision to ask a friend to rough this man up so he would leave me alone,” Sandy says. “Cotton Kelly had been hassling me and pestering me to go out with him and to pose for nude pictures. He would call our house at all hours of the day and was so persistent that my mom phoned the police to request that they keep him away from me. But they didn’t have stalking laws in place then like we have today.”
Subsequently she asked Troy Kell, a neighbor and lifelong friend, to slap Kelly around a little to keep him from bothering her. Sandy has sworn from day one that she had no idea that Troy had a gun with him that night, much less that he would use it.
“I accept that I put a man in harm’s way and I take full responsibility for the eventual loss of his life because of that,” Shaw says. “I deserved to spend some time in jail for that bad decision. But not 21 years.”
Although her court-appointed attorney, a man conducting his first murder-trial defense, was offered a plea bargain for Sandy that would have resulted in her release from prison in four to 12 years, he turned it down. The attorney instructed her to fight the charges, arguing that a jury would not convict a baby-faced 15-year-old like her on trumped up first-degree murder charges.
It turned out to be yet one more poor decision and bad break in a life chock full of them.
How this young woman got in this predicament, and how she’s handled it since then, is equal parts tragic and inspirational.
It all started to go wrong for Sandy two years before the Cotton Kelly murder, when she happened to be in a horribly bad place at the horribly wrong time.
In September 1984, 13-year-old Sandy was spending the night with her best friend, Jessica Mallin, on the night Jessica’s mother, Virginia Mallin Egyed, and two other people were murdered in a Rancho Circle home. The shooter was Virginia’s husband, Alex Egyed. (Virginia’s former husband was Stanley Mallin, who with Jay Sarno built Caesars Palace and Circus Circus. That grisly story also spent weeks on the front pages of Las Vegas newspapers and leading the local evening news.)
“Virginia’s friend, Betty DiFiore, was at the Mallin house to drive Jessica and me to another home to spend the night,” Sandy recalls, “because Virginia and Alex had been fighting and she wanted us moved to a safer place. As Mrs. DiFiore was telling us to get our things together, Alex suddenly appeared in the doorway of Jessica’s bedroom, put a gun to Betty’s head and shot her. She fell right on me. I was covered with brains and blood.”
Egyed also murdered his wife in another room of the house and a friend named Jack Levy waiting outside in a car, before turning the gun on himself.
“That night ruined my life,” Sandy says. “I was so traumatized from that, and so confused, that I became kind of numb for a while. I couldn’t sleep alone. I curled up with my mom in her bed every night.”
Less than six months later, as Sandy was waiting for her mother to pick her up at school, she witnessed a man shoot his pregnant girlfriend less than 20 feet away from her. She didn’t know either the gunman or the victim, but it brought back visions of the first murder in living color. Then just 14, Shaw was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. A visit to a therapist didn’t do much to get her back on track.
“He just prescribed Valium to me,” she says. “Which numbed me even further.”
Just two years after the Egyed mass murder, Sandy met Cotton Kelly, whose real last name was Thiede, as she was playing in the teens’ arcade at Circus Circus. Kelly was persistent in pursuing her. At the time he said he was 24; she had not yet turned 15.
Eventually, Sandy enlisted Troy Kell, who had grown up in the same neighborhood, to help with this problem. She agreed to a date with Kelly, but told him they needed to pick up two friends along the way. Another teenager named Billy Merritt, whom she’d never met, came along that night.
Telling the three that she needed to relieve herself in the desert, Sandy walked about 50 yards from the car, which was parked at a remote spot on a moonless night. She had been instructed by Merritt to fake a sprained ankle so the three men would have an excuse to leave the car and come to her aid. The plan was that Troy was going to intimidate Cotton from bothering Sandy again. Instead, Kell shot him six times and left the body in its spot. The corpse was discovered nearly a week later, after a girl who had accompanied Fletcher on one of his “show and tells” called the police.
It would take a book to get into all the unseemly details of the prosecution of Sandy Shaw, but after she relived that night in a recent interview, her thoughts veered toward brighter days.
“I never got too depressed in prison,” Shaw says, “because I never lost hope that one day I would be released. I was denied parole on two different occasions for reasons that are hard to understand, but I just kept faith that I could be with my mom again, because her health has been really bad. Suicide never once entered my mind. I just had to get out so I could be with her while I still had her.”
Sandy spent her time in prison constructively, earning her high school diploma and three associate college degrees, and became proficient enough on computers to teach a class to other inmates. She also regularly lectured high-school students on how one bad decision can impact a life. She explained to them how she was a high school cheerleader with good grades, when one deadly night in 1986 changed everything.
Today, Sandy is looking for a job so she can begin building something resembling a normal life, and help out her mom, Connie, with medical bills.
“I haven’t had much luck, though,” she says. “Employers want to see a resume, and what am I supposed to show them?”
Nearly everyone involved in the crime and its grisly aftermath stands by Sandy’s version of events. And yet she served more prison time than many first-degree murderers who planned and carried out executions on their own.
If it can be seen that Sandy Shaw has more than paid back her debt to society, maybe it’s time that society, for once, gives her a break.
Jack Sheehan’s column appears every other week.