Frank Schoonover sees a side of William (Billy) Shrubsall most other people wouldn’t believe exists. Schoonover, a resident of Niagara Falls, N.Y., first met Shrubsall on his first day of junior high in 1983. Schoonover says Shrubsall, who was a year ahead of him, was friendly, down to earth, prone to laughter, and protective of his friends.
Schoonover also attended high school with Shrubsall. “He actually saved my life one day while in the school parking lot,” he recalls in an email. “A student, who was still in his car, tried to run me over because he hated me and Billy pushed me out of the way just in the nick of time.”
In a separate incident, Schoonover says he got hit by a vehicle. He says Shrubsall called the hospital “almost every day” to check up on him and then continued calling him at home once he’d been released.
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Shrubsall became became infamous for killing his mother in June 1988 with a baseball bat fewer than 24 hours before his high-school graduation, where he was supposed to be the valedictorian.
“This wasn’t the Billy that I knew,” Schoonover says.
But there were warnings.
“There were just so many rumours and so much talk out there about he and young women, mostly teenagers, and I guess there was something to that,” says Paul Cleary, the lawyer who represented Shrubsall after he killed his.
In January 1986, a 14-year-old girl was walking home from a Niagara Falls youth centre when an unknown assailant pushed her into a snowbank, pinned her down and tried to sexually assault her. The teen fought back, screamed and the attacker fled. She filed a police report when she got home.
Weeks later, she spotted Shrubsall at the youth centre and recognized him as her attacker. Her boyfriend and friends then beat Shrubsall up, which is how she got her justice.
That summer, while Shrubsall was attending a basketball camp at Niagara University, two middle-aged women alleged Shrubsall followed them in separate incidents and told them in both cases “I want you.” Frightened, the women ran away, but Shrubsall chased after them. In one case, he allegedly said “Turn around and you’ll change your mind.”
In April 1988, Shrubsall, then 17, assaulted a 14-year-old boy because he beat his score on an arcade game. The victim was left with a broken nose, two black eyes and a swollen lip.
Two months later, Shrubsall was charged with second-degree murder in the death of his mother, but that was changed to manslaughter.
Psychologist Charles Patrick Ewing interviewed Shrubsall and testified before a grand jury that Shrubsall had been abused physically and psychologically by his mother, and that the killing stemmed from that.
The judge in the case, Charles Hannigan, didn’t buy the abuse story. “From my way of seeing it, I don’t think we have any real physical abuse,” he said at sentencing. “And I don’t believe there was any emotional abuse to any significant degree.”
Shrubsall was originally sentenced to five to 15 years of prison time, but on appeal, he was given “youthful offender” status and his sentence was reduced to 16 months to five years. He ended up serving 16 months.
“He had the intelligence and the ability to go far and I think that was a very essential aspect of that situation that led the appellate division to, in essence, overrule Judge Hannigan and impose the youthful offender finding because the sky was the limit for this kid and it was handed to him on a silver platter,” says Cleary. “He had a future and he squandered it.”
Looking back on the case, Ewing has regrets. In his 2008 book Trials of a Forensic Psychologist, Ewing writes “I am haunted personally and professionally by what happened in this case: personally because, after decades of working with the victims of violence and sexual abuse, I know all too well the awful harm Shrubsall did to the women he later victimized; professionally because to this day when I testify as an expert, I am often questioned about my role in this case.”
Ewing notes he was not asked to evaluate Shrubsall’s future dangerousness. Rather, he was asked to evaluate what Shrubsall’s state of mind was when he killed his mom.
“Did Shrubsall fool me, the prosecutors, the appeals courts, his aunt, and others back in 1988?” wrote Ewing. “To a certain extent, we were all blindsided by the system’s failure to record and thus make available to us any record of Shrubsall’s troubling and criminal conduct prior to killing his mother.”
Ewing did not respond to interview requests.
Cleary worries the Shrubsall case is having a “chilling effect” on how courts deal with children who have killed a parent as a result of abuse they have suffered at the hands of a parent. He doesn’t think the courts will be as open to giving young people the break they did for Shrubsall.
After prison, Shrubsall attended the University of Pennsylvania and later worked on Wall Street. There were alleged incidents that included making obscene phone calls, harassment and impersonating a police officer.
He ended up serving 60 days for sexual abuse in the third degree for grabbing a Niagara Falls woman and putting his other hand on her waist when she was out for her nightly walk in April 1995.
An Aug. 6, 1995, incident in Niagara Falls is the one that put Shrubsall on his path to Halifax. At a house party, the then 24-year-old sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl.
Hannigan was also the judge for this trial. Before the trial concluded in 1996, Shrubsall left a suicide note, but in fact fled to Halifax.
In a two-year span while living under assumed names, Shrubsall committed violent crimes, brutal sex assaults and stalked an ex-girlfriend before being apprehended in June 1998. He was paroled in January, handed over to U.S. authorities and is now serving time for the 1995 sexual assault.
Regarding Shrubsall, Hannigan told Halifax Magazine “I said what I had to say when I said it.”
Cleary says in the two years he represented Shrubsall, he had a positive relationship with his client and didn’t have any issues with him.
Cleary practised law for 42 years before retiring last year. He says that as a criminal defence lawyer, when some of your clients reoffend, it’s not a surprise. “In this case, I was more disappointed than surprised,” he says.
Shrubsall, now 48, is currently on trial for bail jumping and could be out of prison in fewer than five years for the sexual assault and bail jumping offences. The trial is expected to happen in June. He now goes by the name of Ethan Simon Templar MacLeod; MacLeod is his mother’s maiden name.
Schoonover says his feelings toward Shrubsall will never change. “I still regard him as a friend and I always will regard him as such regardless of what he has done … I’m hoping that he gets the help that he needs to get back into shape emotionally. Billy will always have me as a friend.”