For nearly three months, Alexis Shumway lived with a horrible secret - the murder of her 79-year-old grandmother.
When, on Feb. 12, she could hold in the horror no longer, she called Seattle police. While two detectives sat at the kitchen table of her Rainier Valley home - one of the officers stroking her pet cat, Athena - Shumway told the astonishing story of how she and her mother fatally smothered her grandmother, Suzine Van Sickle.
Alexis Shumway, 28, and her mother, Jimmie Jean Shumway, 59, were charged with first-degree murder Thursday in King County Superior Court in connection with the Nov. 17 death. The granddaughter called The Seattle Times on Friday and asked to tell her side of the story.
She said she loved her grandmother, but had been manipulated and cowed by her mother, Jimmie Jean, for years - including the morning of the slaying. Besides, the granddaughter said, her grandmother repeatedly had expressed a desire to die.
Jimmie Jean Shumway pleaded not guilty to the first-degree murder charge today. King County Superior Court Judge Patricia Aitken set a March 18 hearing on the charge. Aitken told the woman's defense attorney that he could raise the issue of Shumway's $500,000 bail at a later date.
According to court documents filed with the charges, Jimmie Jean Shumway, when contacted by police last Monday, also confirmed the killing, saying she and her daughter concluded Van Sickle did not have
the ability ``to enjoy life'' so they decided to kill her.
Despite all this, Alexis Shumway does not consider herself a killer. When her attorney informed her that prosecutors would file the homicide charges, she recalled, ``I fell to pieces. I went out of his office bawling my head off. I cried all the way to the bus stop. I never thought I would be charged with murder. I thought it was all my mother's doing.''
The Van Sickle death sounds like something out of the tabloids. Was it a mercy killing? Was it money-motivated?
``It's kind of like a `Murder, She Wrote' case,'' said a Seattle homicide detective, who asked that his name not be used. ``It doesn't fit the usual profile of murder.''
Alexis Shumway readily admits she helped smash up about 50 pills containing Dilantin, an anti-seizure medicine, for the grandmother's clam chowder the evening of Nov. 16. She said she felt the grandmother would not eat the soup, which her mother had laden with spices, and in any case, did not think the concoction would be fatal. The granddaughter said her mother fed the grandmother the mixture, but Van Sickle lived.
The granddaughter said that when she went into Van Sickle's bedroom the next morning, she had no idea that murder was on the agenda. She had been holding her grandmother's hand. Then, she said, her mother grabbed the pillow and put it over the grandmother's face. She said the mother then directed her to ``hold down one side of the pillow so no air could seep in.'' She said she did as ordered, then let loose as the grandmother struggled for life, her legs kicking. Death came in 20 minutes.
Alexis Shumway said ``my whole life has been bizarre.'' She loved her grandmother, she said. ``We were best buddies. We'd go to movies together, dinner and shopping. She was a beautician, too. She paid my way through beauty college. She was glad to be here, and glad I was taking care of her.''
``Here'' is the Van Sickle family home near Columbia City that Van Sickle moved back to last October from a nursing home. The granddaughter quit another job to be a full-time caretaker.
``My mom was always critical of me, saying, `You're not taking care of grandma right,' '' the granddaughter added. ``All through my whole life I could never please my mother.
``My mom was afraid the nursing home would get the house. She would mention that once in a while and it worried me. I was adamant about defending my grandmother's wants and needs.''
According to Alexis Shumway, the nursing home had a lien on the home because of unpaid nursing-home bills.
Suzine Van Sickle, whose husband, George, had died in January 1990, turned 79 on Nov. 9. Van Sickle felt she had nothing to live for and had outlived many of her friends, the granddaughter said.
``She couldn't walk,'' the granddaughter said, recalling that the grandmother once ordered her to ``Get me a gun.''
``If I had a gun, I'd kill myself,'' she quoted her grandmother as saying.
``I bought the Dilantin,'' the granddaughter said, telling her grandmother: ``If you do want to go that bad, I'll put the pills by your bed.''
But Van Sickle did not take the pills. And after she survived the intended poisoning, Jimmie Jean Shumway began ``crying on my shoulder,'' the granddaughter said.
The daughter had never before talked about suffocating her mother, the granddaughter said. The daughter ``kept saying `she can't talk. She's probably had strokes. She'll probably be on life supports,' '' the granddaughter recalled.
``It's like she drew on my love for my grandmother,'' she said. ``She knew how much I cared for her.''
The granddaughter said she entered the bedroom and found her mother ``was on a rampage to do it (murder). At the beginning, I thought it was a merciful act, but toward the end, when my mother kept bugging me about holding the pillow down, I thought `this is wrong.' But I felt powerless. I felt I couldn't do anything to stop it.''
The granddaughter said her mother swore her to secrecy about the murder, but she eventually told two friends, then got a stern warning from the mother not to tell anyone else.
``I was losing weight. I couldn't sleep. I was thinking of suicide because I couldn't live with this burden. It was just too heavy.''
The granddaughter said she called 911 at the urging of a boyfriend.