innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

False Confessions

Part 7 of Series: Nancy Erwin
Plea of Guilty In School Shooting Case Turns Into Prison Nightmare

Nancy Erwin Says She Lied To Help Husband, Now Claims of Innocence

By Elizabeth Perry
The Innocence Institute of Point Park University

After successfully teaching math in the Marion Center School District for 21 years, Nancy Erwin became embroiled in a series of minor disputes with a new administration and in the fall of 1999 began receiving negative performance reviews.

Then in March 2000, she and her first husband, with whom she had two daughters, divorced.

Later that year on the Internet, she met an Irishman living in New Zealand named Sam Erwin, 42, an over-the-road truck driver who she married within a year.

Eventually, Mrs. Erwin’s problems with the school district led to a suspension and her agreement to take early retirement from her $51,000 a-year-job in exchange for dropping complaints against them.

The Erwins moved to Morgantown, W.Va. where she took a part-time teaching job for a fraction of that money.

While friends said Mrs. Erwin was attempting start a new life, her new husband became fixated on Marion Center officials he blamed for their financial problems.

In several drunken stupors, Mrs. Erwin said her husband often made not-so-veiled threats against school official at Marion Center. She dismissed the threats because he didn’t act on other drunken statements which he often didn’t even remember once he sobered up.

Mr. Erwin didn’t know the extent of the personal demons plaguing her husband until after their marriage. While she knew he drank, she did not know he was not only an alcoholic, but suffered from severe mental problems which caused at least five suicide attempts prior to when they met.

Desperate to save him, Mrs. Erwin took her husband to counselors, psychiatrists and hospital detoxification units at least 15 times. Despite her efforts, Mr. Erwin plunged deeper into despair, attempting suicide six more times before the shootings.

Only days before he acted on his threats, Mr. Erwin told a psychiatrist he was suffering repeated hallucinations. He once woke up and crawled across a floor, believing enemies lurking outside were after his wife.

While Mrs. Erwin repeatedly persuaded her husband to submit to hospitalization – including one stint just weeks before the shooting – he would check himself out and resume drinking beer all day long.

Alcohol played a role in the destiny of Mike Fox too. At the time of the incident, Mrs. Erwin’s eldest daughter was dating Mr. Fox, an 18-year-old dropout from Marion Center High School.

While no one knew at the time, Mr. Fox’s adoptive mother says her son has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which expert Kathryn Kelly of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Legal Issues Resource Center in Seattle says causes an inability to distinguish “between what they genuinely remember, what they imagine and what other people want them to remember, especially those in authority.”

Police didn’t know about Mr. Fox’s condition when his account was used to link Mrs. Erwin to the school shootings, but even they would repeatedly question the voracity of his story.

The Message

On June 21, 2002, Mr. Erwin and Mr. Fox went to a pawnshop in Morgantown for the second time in two weeks attempting to buy a .32 caliber handgun, but they called Mrs. Erwin because they didn’t have enough money.

Mrs. Erwin initially thought she was hocking her old clarinet for money to pay expenses to transport a gun safe to a sale. When she got there Sam Erwin told her he was buying a gun for her to use as protection while he was working, so despite all of her husband’s problems, she went through with the deal, rationalizing her husband wouldn’t use it on himself or others while with Mr. Fox.

She left separately to visit her daughter and says she thought the two men were returning home.

Unbeknownst to her, Mr. Fox drove her husband – who swilled beer the entire trip -- two and a half hours away to the Marion Center school administration building.

As Mr. Fox sat outside in a car, Mr. Erwin walked in, identified himself and asked to see administrators.

When told they weren’t available and asked if he wanted to leave a message, the drunken Mr. Erwin fumbled through his pocket, pulled out the gun, said, “here’s the message,” and shot at a secretary, hitting her in the right thigh. Another woman fractured her heels in a fall while escaping.

As he walked out, Mr. Erwin shot out a plate glass window.

While driving away, Mr. Fox called his girlfriend, Mrs. Erwin’s daughter to tell her what happened, and then asked to talk with her mother. Mr. Fox told her a secretary had been shot. Mr. Erwin then got on the phone and pleaded with her to meet them at a Delmont restaurant so she could get him help.

State police called to the shooting scene knew Mr. Erwin had identified himself as the gunman and soon learned Mr. Fox was with him, secured his cellular phone number and contacted his family. Mr. Fox’s brother told police not to believe a word his sibling said.

When troopers called him, Mr. Fox initially denied driving Mr. Erwin, lied about what kind of car they were in and said he knew nothing about the shooting.

After dropping Mr. Erwin at the restaurant, Mr. Fox called troopers back, admitted his involvement and pulled the auto over until he could surrender.

This time, Mr. Fox told them he was forced at gun point to drive Mr. Erwin to Marion Center and that Mrs. Erwin helped plan the shooting.

There were so many discrepancies in Mr. Fox’s story that the investigating trooper wrote in a report that he was “hesitant in believing Fox’s story, but had no other info to go on.”


“A Choice Between Hell and Hell”

Mr. Erwin was arrested along Rt. 22 near the restaurant and his wife on her way to pick him up.

She initially denied knowledge of the crime or his whereabouts because, she said, she wanted to hospitalize him before summoning police.

Mrs. Erwin said she came clean at the Greensburg barracks because, “I was scared for Sam and I wasn’t sure what could happen. I knew he had the gun.”

The lies and Mr. Fox’s statement was enough to include her arrest with the others.

At a preliminary hearing on July 18, 2002, a trooper testified about Mrs. Erwin’s initial lies, said she helped her husband purchase the gun and helped plan the shooting. He based much of his testimony on Mr. Fox’s inconsistent statements.

After she was ordered to stand trial, her lawyer, Robert Muir asked her to accept a plea bargain to avoid what could become a life sentence if she were convicted and a judge imposed maximum sentences. She refused, and trial was set for January 13, 2003.

Just before trial, prosecutors offered a second plea agreement, this one included a deal for her husband. She’d do 24-54 months in prison and her husband 9-18 years.

“I told him you are giving me a choice of hell and hell,” she said, before accepting it.

Mr. Muir recently called that characterization “completely inaccurate and unfounded” and said she pleaded guilty under oath.

Mrs. Erwin has since been unsuccessful in withdrawing her guilty plea and because she refused to accept responsibility for the crime before the parole board, she will serve her entire sentence, which won’t end until December 22, 2006, despite a clean prison record and her work teaching other inmates to read.

Mr. Fox – who also pleaded guilty in the Marion Center Shooting and did about two years in prison -- continued a pattern of lying under pressure while locked up, in one instance telling police he heard another inmate confess to murder only to admit later he was not telling the truth. He declined comment.

In a letter, Mrs. Erwin’s husband, whose mental state has been stabilized in prison, maintained his wife is “100% innocent,” and wrote she made a “terrible, terrible sacrifice…as a matter of convenience for those appointed to represent her best interests.”

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