MUSKEGON, Mich. (Court TV/Scripps News West Michigan) — A Michigan mother, Shanda Vander Ark, will spend the rest of her life in prison without parole after being convicted of killing her 15-year-old son who police found dead and severely malnourished inside the family’s home.
A jury deliberated for a little more than an hour on Dec. 15, 2023, before finding the 43-year-old mother on trial guilty of the murder of her teenage son with special needs.
A judge sentenced Vander Ark on Jan. 23, 2024, to 50 to 100 years in prison for child abuse and life without parole for her son’s murder. As he read the sentence, the judge noted that he sentenced Vander Ark above what guidelines set out. “The court finds that the amount of torture that I have indicated….justifies a reasonable grounds to depart from the guidelines.”
Vander Ark had been facing first-degree murder and child abuse charges for the death of her 15-year-old son, Timothy Ferguson, who police found in restraints and deprived of food for months. He weighed only 69 pounds when he died.
Vander Ark was questioned extensively by police and arrested the following day, though according to her attorney, Fred Johnson, Vander Ark was never read her Miranda Rights, nor did she receive a “thorough investigation and additional evidence.”
Timothy’s older brother Paul, 20, had also been charged days after his mom’s arrest and took the stand to testify against her. Together, Vander Ark and her son Paul were accused of a sinister pattern of abuse that may have lasted for years.
On July 6, 2022, the Norton Shores Police Department responded to a report of a suspicious death and found the 15-year-old in an ice bath, malnourished and showing significant signs of abuse.
“As punishment – for I’m not sure what behavior – but as punishment, our 15-year-old was subject to ice baths, was subject to not being fed food other than bread or bread soaked in hot sauce,” Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson said in July.
Hilson confirmed that text messages were read in court, including messages between Vander Ark and Paul, about Timothy’s symptoms being fake.
Vander Ark had moved her family to Michigan from Oklahoma, where she had a history with child protective services, but was never ordered to give up parental rights or contact with her children.
“Instead of having her parental rights terminated, she voluntarily left the house,” said Hilson, “and from what we can tell, that’s where the case kind of ended.”
At her initial court appearance, Judge Ladas Hoopes stated that Vander Ark had been working as a law clerk for the Newaygo Circuit Court up until her arrest.
Vander Ark pleaded not guilty.
Both Vander Ark and her son testified at her trial. Paul told the jury that he had abused his brother at his mother’s instruction, while Vander Ark said that the abuse was done by Paul and blamed him for the severe forms of discipline she used. At one point, she appeared to vomit on the stand.
At Vander Ark’s sentencing, the judge told her that he didn’t believe she intended to kill Timothy, but that she planned to continue to torture him, saying, “This wasn’t punishment. … You tortured him.”
Court TV field producer Tiffany Smith contributed to this report.
DAILY TRIAL UPDATES
DAY 3 – 12/15/23
- Shanda Vander Ark’s Lawyer: ‘This is the worst case I’ve ever handled’
- Tortured Son Murder Trial: Responding Officer Speaks to Court TV
- Tortured Son Murder Trial: Watch the Verdict
- Prosecutor on Shanda Vander Ark: ‘Timothy was no longer human to her’
- Defense: ‘They caused this boy’s death but didn’t intend to’
- Prosecutor: Imagine those being the last words you said to your child?
- Tortured Son Murder Trial: ‘Medical Issue’ Keeps Vander Ark From Court
DAY 2 – 12/14/23
- Dr. Joyce DeYoung, the Muskegon County Medical Examiner, testified that when Timothy died he had a low body weight and was extremely emaciated. He was 68 inches tall and 69 pounds at the time of his death.
- He had no body fat and few ligaments attached — Dr. DeYoung described his body as breaking down.
- DeYoung said Timothy’s cause of death was dehydration and malnutrition, and hypothermia was present as well. The manner of death was homicide.
- Prosecutors rested their case-in-chief.
- Shanda Vander Ark testified in her own defense, telling the jury that Timothy came to live with her in 2021 after previously living with her ex-husband.
- WATCH: Tortured Son Murder Trial: Defendant Shanda Vander Ark Testifies
- Timothy lived in the home with Shanda, Paul, Shanda’s husband and their younger son, “G.”
- Shanda described Timothy as having autism but was verbal and able to keep up at school. He had trouble with coordination and was diagnosed with ADHD.
- Shanda said that the leg irons found were purchased by Paul using her Amazon account and that she had no knowledge of them being used.
- Shanda said it was Paul’s idea to give Timothy hot sauce, and that the teenager loved spicy, hot food.
- Shanda denied having any intention of hurting her son, and said that she had many gaps in her memory.
- During her testimony, Shanda suffered a panic attack and then appeared to vomit on the stand after prosecutors showed her a picture of her son before his death.
DAY 1 – 12/13/23
- The Defense and prosecution delivered opening statements
- Shanda Vander Ark Suffers Panic Attack in Court
- Officer Shawn Stefanich testified that when he first saw the victim he was “skin and bones.”
- Paul Ferguson, the defendant’s son and victim’s older brother, took the stand to testify.
- Timothy, the victim, was given bread with hot sauce as a punishment.
- There were limitations as to how long the victim was allowed to use the bathroom.
- Vander Ark convinced her older son that Timothy was “faking” not being able to walk and was on a “hunger strike.”
- Vander Ark told Paul to force Timothy to throw up after he ate the remnants of a bun crust from a discarded burger.
- WATCH: Ice Baths, Handcuffs, Starvation: Victim’s Brother Recalls Torture
- WATCH: Victim’s Brother on Cross: ‘I Suppose I didn’t Love Him Enough’
- Vander Ark recently finished law school and was a law clerk in neighboring Newago, Mich. before Timothy’s death.