NBC’s ‘Dateline: The Mystery on Horseshoe Drive’ chronicles how Shirley Skinner, in her late 70s, murdered her granddaughter’s husband, Steven Watkins, in her Ashland home in Chandlerville, Illinois, in November 2008. Though it all began with a relatively simple divorce proceeding and custodial battle, it soon took an ugly turn, with the Skinner family matriarch allegedly stepping in to protect her family.
Who is Shirley Skinner?
Shirley and Kenneth Skinner had two children — Ed Skinner and Debbie Webster — and lived in an extravagant house in Ashland, Chandlerville, in Cass County, Illinois. While Ed had two sons, Debbie married Robert Webster and gave birth to Jennifer Webster. When Jennifer met Steven Paul Watkins in 2006 summer, and a whirlwind romance ensued with them getting married in August 2006, Ed disapproved of the union. He claimed that was not how things were done in their family, as they were “slow to accept outsiders.”
Ed said, “We were a kind of family that met for supper somewhere — either at their house, my house, or some restaurant — every night for 15 years. We were just a close-knit family.” According to the episode, the Skinners were profoundly religious and proclaimed Seventh-day Adventists. In the last several years, multiple generations lived together in the large Ashland home, with the residence being one of the biggest in the neighborhood. They stuck together and stayed to themselves, with some neighbors describing them as almost clannish.
Steven’s childhood friend, Brandy, who lived close to the Skinner residence, claimed the family owned a successful business and was financially well-off. According to the episode, Shirley once owned a daycare center, and her fellow parishioners described her as “a gracious Christian woman who loved children.” However, the authorities claimed she also had another side — she was proficient with weapons. Though it proves nothing in itself, the clannish nature of the family made her the prime suspect in Steven’s death in November 2008.
After Jennifer gave birth to Sidney in June 2007, she began alienating Steven and his family with the newborn. Steven even complained about how Jennifer spent all the time at her family home with Sidney, denying him even a little time with his daughter. It came to a point where Steven eventually lost patience and filed a petition for dissolution of marriage and custodial rights in May 2008. As soon as Jennifer learned about it, she falsely alleged Steven molested her daughters.
While a family court dismissed the false allegations and granted Steven regular custodial visits, the Skinners soon began formulating different excuses to deny him meeting Sidney. Debbie Skinner even claimed Sidney would cry and wet her pants when her father came for visits. Except for Ed Skinner, the family also alleged Jennifer was not lying when she told the State Department of Children and Family Services that Steven had sexually abused Sidney. They said they saw the abuse themselves.
Shirley Skinner is Still Serving Her Sentence Today
Amidst this volatile situation, Debbie stated she had arranged for a private investigator to observe Steven pick up Sidney on November 25, 2008. However, she canceled the arrangement hours before the scheduled visit as she claimed a child psychologist told her that the observations of a third party would not make a difference in the court fight over custody and visitation. According to later testimonies, the family claimed Steven had a volatile temper and physically abused Shirley and Jennifer on November 25.
Shirley’s husband, Kenneth, claimed it was a lucky shot when she managed to fatally shoot Steven in the back of his head from a distance of about 15 feet. He stated that Shirley had never fired anything other than a .25- caliber Berretta handgun. He added, “She had never shot a gun like that. Shirley never messed with guns. She never went to target practice in her life.” However, the authorities on the episode disputed the claim and even alleged she had offered reward money to her employees in exchange for them “capping” Steven.
Kenneth asserted he was in another room watching television when he heard Shirley fall against a wall, followed by gunfire. The Skinner blamed the police for botching up the investigation. According to them, a thorough probe would have proven self-defense. Since the authorities had almost no physical evidence tying her to the murder, Shirley rejected a plea bargain with a sentence of less than ten years. However, a jury eventually convicted her of first-degree murder and sentenced her to 55 years in March 2010.
Debbie stated, “I thought it would be, at least, a hung jury.” As the spectators left the courtroom, Shirley wept. Her defense counsel said, “I think she’s holding up very bravely, considering everything that’s occurred. She’s been suffering from chronic heart problems, and we are always concerned about her physical well-being with all the stress that she’s under.” Meanwhile, the Watkins family filed a wrongful death suit against the Skinner family, alleging family members conspired to kill Steven.
Shirley petitioned the Illinois Prisoner Review Board for executive clemency in 2014, citing failing health. Though she did not admit to the crime in her petition, she requested her sentence be reduced and allowed to spend her remaining time at home on parole. During January 2014 clemency hearing before the Prisoner Review Board, Debbie stated her mother had severe health issues. According to Debbie, her mother has had three strokes that have caused her to fall, each time resulting in a concussion, since she had been incarcerated.
Debbie also said Shirley had broken her arm, had several bouts of cancer, and had been on heart medication. However, the erstwhile governor turned her clemency plea down. Now in her late 80s, Shirley continues to serve her sentence at Logan Correctional Center in Broadwell Township. Her inmate records state her projected parole date to be in 2064, while her earliest release date is slated to be in 2067.