James and Timothy O’brien are behind bars for the kidnapping and murder of 11-year-old Shauna Howe, whose body was found below a trestle bridge near her home in Oil City, Pennsylvania.
On Oct. 27, 1992, Shauna, who at the time was a student at Seventh Street Elementary School, went to school dressed in a gymnast costume—a turquoise and black leotard.
She wore it again later that day when she went with her Girl Scout troop to sing for senior citizens in the area.
Afterward, she went to a Halloween party nearby at the Free Methodist Church on Wilson Avenue. By 8 p.m., she left the event and started walking home alone, but she never arrived.
When two hours went by and the shy, blue-eyed brunette hadn’t made it home, her mother, Lucy Brown Howe, contacted the Oil City Police Department and reported Shauna Howe missing.
Just a few hours earlier, an Oil City resident called 911 and reported seeing a tall, disheveled man snatching a little girl at the corner of West First Street and Reed Street and forcing her into a rust-colored car, according to Explore Venango.
For two days, FBI agents, police officers, and volunteers searched for the missing Oil City girl.
Shauna’s relatives later joined in on the search, and when they did, her uncle discovered a piece of her green costume on a hiking trail near a highway, about eight miles from the town.
On the morning of Oct. 30, 1992, Shauna was found dead. Her body was found underneath an abandoned railroad bridge in East Sandy Creek in Rockland, Venango County. She was lying face down, pinned between a rock and a log.
State Trooper Kirt Snyder told The Titusville Herald in 1992 that “her feet were partially submerged in a shallow stream.”
Her body was transported to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office for an autopsy. The pathologist determined that Shauna’s cause of death was blunt force trauma to her head and chest.
She sustained fractured ribs, multiple lacerations, contusions, and hemorrhaging after she was thrown over the bridge. The autopsy report also indicated that Shauna had been sexually assaulted.
Detectives launched an investigation, interviewing several individuals in the area, but it didn’t get them any closer to finding out who killed Shauna Howe.
Even though a $15,000 reward was offered for more information about Shauna’s murder, her case remained unsolved for nearly a decade.
In 2002, investigators got a break in the case.
The “DNA from the semen found on Shauna’s leotard” matched the genetic fingerprints of James O’Brien, who was incarcerated at the time for attempting to kidnap a woman in Oil City, the NY Daily News reported.
It was during that time that detectives went back and re-interviewed Eldred Walker, also known as “Ted,” who had confessed to taking part in Shauna’s abduction.
Walker told investigators that it was initially supposed to be a “Halloween prank of a staged kidnapping to make the Oil City Police Department look foolish.”
At first, they wanted to abduct an 8-year-old boy who was friends with Walker’s son, but they changed their minds and opted to kidnap a girl, as they deemed it would lead to more attention.
Walker told the Oil City police that when he spotted Shauna walking down the street, he approached her and questioned her about Girl
Scout cookies before grabbing her.
He said he placed his hands over her mouth to prevent her from screaming, then shoved her into a vehicle with the O’Brien brothers.
Timothy forced her into the backseat before they drove away, and Walker said he left in a separate vehicle.
Walker added that he didn’t want to kidnap Shauna, but he said he “was scared” and “didn’t know what to do,” as Timothy and James threatened his son when he protested the idea.
He said they taunted him and called him “chicken” for not wanting to follow through with his own plan.
The O’Brien brothers eventually took Shauna to Walker’s house, where they took her to an upstairs bedroom.
Just a short time later, while Walker said he was cooking spaghetti in the kitchen, he heard Shauna screaming, “Get off me!” That’s when he told James and Timothy to leave her alone.
Walker said it was the last time he saw Shauna alive.
When he left the house and returned, they were gone. However, Oil City police officers said he changed his story at least 15 times.
Investigators ultimately made a deal with him. They said if he testified against the O’Brien brothers, he could plead guilty to third-degree murder and kidnapping and receive a sentence of 40 years in prison.
In 2001, Ryan Heath shared a cell with Timothy at the county jail for eight months. It was during that time that Heath claimed Timothy explained what happened to Shauna Howe.
Timothy purportedly told Heath that he and his brother drove to Coulter’s Hole with Shauna in the trunk of their car. Once they arrived at the bridge, they threw her over, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
When DNA evidence linked the O’Brien brothers to Shauna’s murder, they were arrested in 2004. James and Timothy were charged with kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder.
In June 2005, a Venango County jury of six men and six women deliberated for 16 hours before finding the O’Brien brothers guilty of second- and third-degree murder, following a two-week trial.
They were found not guilty of first-degree murder and rape.
Timothy and James were also found guilty of kidnapping, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
The O’Brien brothers’ mother and their sister were present in the courtroom, but it was reported that they did not have a reaction. In a statement, they stated that “our boys did not do this crime.”
After the verdict was read, Shauna’s mother told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “this is justice. I still have a hole in my heart, but I needed it to be solved.”
“They took a little girl’s life. They spent 12 years living their lives. My daughter would have been 24, but what does she have? Nothing.”
James O’Brien and Timothy O’Brien were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder of Shauna Howe.