Beth Strother was killed by her former fiance at age 22. Photo courtesy Claire Sheppard
A murder introduced me to Claire Sheppard. Her daughter, Elizabeth "Beth" Claire Strother, was 22 when her former fiance waylaid her in a Richmond parking lot and shot her.
"Beth had been dating Dickie Ward about five years but had broken their engagement six months earlier when he wouldn't address some personal issues," Claire begins quietly. "About two weeks before Beth died, she was visiting a friend. That angered Dickie. She had a slit tire the next morning." Ward admitted doing it and paid for the tire.
"I asked if he was seeing his counselor and if he was taking his antidepressant meds. I asked, ‘If you'll do this to her tire, what might you do to her?' I'll never forget those blue eyes — vacant — with tears in them. He said, ‘I'd never hurt Beth. I love her.' That haunts me still."
I met Claire in 2000 while researching domestic violence and sexual assault in Richmond. I don't know if it was my need to comfort Claire, or her need to be comforted, but a bond was formed.
Since her daughter's death, Claire has become a tireless advocate for those affected by violence. October is Domestic Violence Month, an important time for her to get the word out. "I can now identify the warning signs," she says. "Dickie was stalking Beth, but it was subtle. I believed what he said, and I think he believed it, too."
Beth lived with Claire, and she worked as an accounting assistant for local architects. She had dropped out of college because Dickie objected to her attendance, but she planned to return.
On March 14, 1995, a Tuesday, Claire received a call from Dickie. "He was very emotional, but I couldn't talk then. I promised to return his call. I didn't, though, because Beth surprised me at the office. She said, ‘I'm so stressed. He's calling me nonstop.' Later, I learned he had called his mother and his counselor, who wasn't available. He drove to a parking lot near Beth's office and stopped in an obscure place. A woman in an office saw them through a window. It was a bright spring day. As Beth turned around, Dickie reached behind him and got the gun. He shot her in the back of the head and in the leg, shot randomly into the air, then killed himself."
At about 3 p.m., Claire was called into her manager's office, where two police detectives were waiting. "One asked me questions, including, ‘Do you know Benedict Noble Ward?' When I said ‘Yes' to everything, he said, ‘We hate telling you this, but your daughter is dead.' And I said, ‘What? She was just here. No, no you're lying.' " Claire then had to call her son, Douglas Strother III, nicknamed Tres. She hesitated, and Tres, just 22 months older than Beth, kept asking what was wrong. "I finally told him. I can still hear his scream."
Dickie had met Beth at Thomas Dale High School. "Beth described him as so sweet and quiet, which he was," Claire says. "I loved him then and I love him now; that's why it was a double tragedy for me. I have forgiven Dickie."
Claire gained strength through her marriage in 1997 to Tommy Sheppard, whom she was dating when Beth died. "I basically owe Tommy my life." She also treasures her son and two granddaughters, one of them named for Beth. "I tell them stories about Beth. My granddaughters play with Beth's dolls. It's very bittersweet."
She hopes that sharing her heartache will prevent further violence. She funnels her energy into Safe Harbor, a program in Henrico County for survivors of domestic violence. "The advocacy work being done every day in the trenches by Safe Harbor, the YWCA and others provides voices for those who are current victims or survivors of abuse," she says.
She doesn't wonder any more about her mission in life. "It's my responsibility to make people aware, telling stories of not only my daughter, but other people's daughters, other people's sons. Everyone is someone's daughter or son."
© Nancy Wright Beasley 2013. All rights reserved