As a child, I lived near or in Sheridan quite a bit of my life. I clearly remember the old Stafford house and the stories whispered about it.
I was thinking about it recently and thought it would be interesting to research it since the internet makes everything so easy now.
*****Disclaimer***** The word “retarded” will appear a lot in this story. At the time the whole thing went down, it was an acceptable term. Please do not take offense to it. We’ve come a long way since 1980, but it is what it is in these articles. I cannot and will not change history and I think the use of this term sheds light on where we were with basic human rights at the time.
The story seemed to break in March 1980. At least that’s where I first found any mention of it. It was in the Indianapolis paper which was called the Indianapolis Star Metro at that time. For a small town like Sheridan to make the Indy newspaper, it had to be big news.
At that time, the report was that a couple in their 70’s had been arrested for the death of a mentally disabled (retarded, in their words) adult man that they were being paid to care for. Willard & Olive Stafford lived on a 90 acre farm on the outskirts of Sheridan in an old farmhouse. There will be more about the house later in the story.
The victim, 74 year-old Virgil Stuart, had passed away in the nearby town of Noblesville’s Riverview Hospital where he had been admitted for pneumonia and malnutrition. At the time of his death, he weighed 67 pounds. I can’t seem to find who took him to the hospital to start with.
Stuart and two other “retarded” adults were being cared for (the newspaper’s term) by the Stafford family. Wanda Watkins was a 65 year-old woman. Charles Stuart was Virgil’s brother and also stayed there for some time.
All three were somehow awarded to the Stafford’s from the care of a Fort Wayne State Hospital and Training Center (a mental health hospital) in 1954. I couldn’t find any record of the Stafford’s being related to them in any way and the details are vague as to how they received custody of them. They did, however, receive Social Security Supplement Income for “caring” for them.
Charles had lived on the property until 1974 when he lost his leg to frostbite while living/working at the farm. When the Stafford’s were arrested, Charles was living at the Hamilton Heights Health Care Center in nearby Arcadia, Indiana. This was a home for developmentally disabled people. At the time of the arrest, Charles seemed to know that something was wrong during his stay at thee Stafford farm but lived in fear of them.
Wanda was hospitalized for pneumonia when the Stafford’s were arrested. But, during her hospital stay, she repeatedly asked to go “home” which was the animal and human feces filled trailer that had no heat, air conditioning, electricity or even running water. She did not understand that those were not considered livable conditions. It was the only real home she knew, even though the Stafford’s locked the three disabled adults into the trailer each night and whenever they travelled.
The day prior to the arrest of the Staffords, the state prepared to take custody of their 9 year-old granddaughter, Janna, and her 33 year-old uncle, Billy, who had Downs Syndrome. Both had been neglected. However, Janna’s parents, Betty and James Stafford (who lived in Louisiana) returned to Indiana, took their daughter and her uncle and disappeared before the state could take custody of them. At some point, police located the family and arrested Janna’s parents for neglect due to leaving her with her grandparents. She was put into foster care in Indiana in May. Janna was later allowed to go back to Louisiana with her parents. At some point, Janna and Billy were moved into an apartment in New Orleans. The newspaper doesn’t make it clear if that meant they were living with Betty and James or living on their own. I would hope that they were living with Janna’s parents.
Charges were dropped against Janna’s parents when a grand jury decided that her they had no idea she would be neglected when they left her with them seven years prior. I find this odd since the parents had lived with the child on the farm for about a year prior to leaving her there.
In 1982, Willard and Olive were released from prison on one year’s probation. Willard had served his time at Putnamville State Farm and Olive had served hers at Indiana Women’s Prison. They had each served only four months of their prison sentences. They were originally sentenced to two years (each) for reckless homicide. When they were released a statement was given that it didn’t seem it would help anything to keep them in jail.
In the 90’s, when the home and its contents were auctioned, I took the opportunity to go look through the house.
It was bizarre. The house was obviously deteriorating. But, you could tell that, at least at one time, it was grand and elegant. There were floor length Victorian looking drapes. There was a baby grand piano. There were a couple of old cook stoves. The rooms had what appeared to be some sort of velvet like wallpaper. A beautiful hand carved staircase went up to another floor. Unfortunately, the public was not allowed anywhere but the first floor. Many of the once elegant pieces of furniture were in tatters but still there. I remember peeking through an interior window into a bathroom (oddly enough there was no door to that bathroom) and seeing that it was filled from the floor to the ceiling with bird taxidermy. Outside were stacks of personal items for sale. There was quite a selection of Playboy magazines from the 70’s. I took pictures of the house, but I’ve long since lost them. I don’t remember seeing the trailer at that time. I don’t think I knew about the trailer back then. I only knew that “retarded” people had been kept in some out buildings and had died.
Willard died in December of 1989 and Olive died in March of 1998. The back of their shared headstone lists their children, grandchildren and a niece. Oddly enough the quote “Thanks Jesus for a beautiful life together for sixty-three years” appears on their headstone.
I have yet to be able to find what they did between their release from prison and their deaths. Growing up, I assumed that nobody lived in the Stafford house. But, they could have been living there and just let it run down.
I hope to find out more about the lives they lived after prison and to be able to follow up on the other members of this horrible tragedy in the future.