Supporters of a mentally challenged woman convicted in two states in the 1994 kidnapping and killing of two elderly women say she was actually a victim of the men involved in the crime and are pushing for her release.
They've persuaded one state — Missouri — to grant Angel Stewart parole. But things are more complicated in Iowa, where Stewart is serving a life-in-prison sentence that does not include the option for parole.
Stewart, now 45, was convicted in two states because one of the victims abducted in Des Moines, Iowa, was driven just across the state line to Missouri and killed. Two men, Steven Bradley and Garland Shaffer, were convicted of first-degree murder and are serving life terms in Iowa.
A suburban St. Louis-based advocacy group for women in need of legal assistance, the WILLOW Project, took up Stewart's case, saying Stewart was abused and tortured by those men, was not directly involved in the crimes, and went along only out of fear. They also cite her IQ, estimated at 65, saying she was unable to defend herself to police after her 1994 arrest.
"She essentially lost her whole life for something she didn't do because she couldn't tell her own story in a way understandable to people," Anne Geraghty-Rathert, director of the Webster University-based WILLOW Project, said.
Advocates are now preparing a clemency request to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. A spokeswoman for the Republican governor said the request has not yet been received and declined further comment. A message left Friday with the Missouri Corrections Department seeking information about that state's parole decision was not returned.
Stewart was 19 when she and her 1-year-old son began sharing a Des Moines apartment with Bradley, Shaffer and a 16-year-old runaway, Angel Chamberlain. Bradley was 32 at the time, and Shaffer was 68.
It didn't take long before the men became abusive, Geraghty-Rathert said. The young women were beaten and padlocked inside the apartment.
An 82-year-old woman who lived near the apartment, Phyllis King, grew concerned and contacted Stewart's mother. Shaffer went to King's house to confront her. When he did, another neighbor, 79-year-old Clara Baker, threatened to call police.
Shaffer admitted that he abducted both women at gunpoint. He strangled Baker and dumped and her body was dumped along an Iowa interstate highway, hidden beneath an abandoned chair in a ravine.
Later, Shaffer drove King across the state line and beat her to death with a board, dumping the body in a wooded area near Kahoka, Missouri, court records show.
Bradley, Shaffer, Stewart and Chamberlain were arrested at a motel in Osceola, Iowa, in June 1994. Chamberlain was jailed briefly in a juvenile facility and later released.
Stewart said she went along with the men only out of fear for her life and her son's life. But facing a potential murder charge and told that could mean the death penalty in Missouri, she agreed to plead guilty to kidnapping in both states.
John Sarcone has been county attorney in Iowa's Polk County since 1991, and he prosecuted Stewart. He believes prison is "where she belongs."
"They were involved in the process," Sarcone said of Stewart and Chamberlain. "They could have saved these women, and they didn't. Years later it's very easy to make the claim you were forced into it, but those poor ladies never had a chance."
Geraghty-Rathert said she is hopeful Stewart will soon be freed based in part on the growing acceptance about how an abuser can coerce a victim.
"The public is beginning to believe that there are stories like this out there," Geraghty-Rathert said.