By ERNIE BROWN JR.
On Jan. 20, I received a letter addressed to The Vindicator Attn: Mr. Ernie Brown. It was stamped “Inmate Correspondence.”
In most cases, I pass along letters from inmates to our police reporter. Most of those letters usually want newspapers to do “investigative reporting” on their cases, either claiming their innocence or abuses they are subjected to by deputies or corrections officers.
This letter, however, was sent to me by Shain Widdersheim, 33, convicted last year for her role in the death of her son Teddy Foltz, 14. Teddy died in January 2013. She received 15 years in prison.
Her letter said she wanted me to interview her, specifically to tell the community about the events that took place in her life that led to her relationship with Zaryl Bush, the man convicted of killing Teddy.
Bush, 44, is serving a 33-years-to-life prison sentence for fatally beating Teddy, subjecting Teddy’s twin brothers to abuse, and trying to get the brothers to cover up the crime.
I had been recommended to her by an individual she said respected my work as a columnist.
Widdersheim, who was sent to the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville after her conviction in September, is back in Mahoning County jail to deal with custody issues involving her twin sons.
I met Widdersheim in one of the jail’s interview rooms. We spoke face to face for about 45 minutes.
I asked why she thought it was important for her to speak with me now.
“The 15 years I received [in prison] is just 15 years,” she said. “My sentence really has no effect on me. What has an effect on me is that I have a lifelong sentence as it is because of the loss of my son, and I would hate for any other woman or father, grandparent, whatever the case may be, to feel the heartache I feel. If there is something I can say, or something that I can do, to show them there is a way to get out, I want that to happen.”
What follows is an edited portion of our taped conversation.x
Q. So what would you say to the public who views you as the worst mother on the face of the planet?
A. I couldn’t pull the trigger myself [on Zaryl] because I’m not a killer. I don’t have that in me. My nature is to help people. My nature is to be good to people and try to overcome things that have been given to me in life. I have been abused my whole life, sexually, physically, verbally and mentally. I never really received the proper treatment that I needed to overcome the abuse I’ve endured. I want people to realize that this could have happened to anybody.
I just pray that these girls in jail can get the help they need, and that we can help one another.
There are so many people that have knowledge about different things in this world, and all it takes is for one person to step up and help another. It’s the Golden Rule, one person helping another. I’m not seeking sympathy. I’m not seeking pity in any aspect. All I ask for is a fair understanding that the circumstances in my life, from the time I was a child until now, unfortunately resulted in this situation that I now find myself in.
Q. When did your relationship with Zaryl Bush start?
A. The relationship started in August 2008.
Q. Did your sons ever come to you and say, ‘Mom, he isn’t treating us very well’?
A. Zaryl Bush is a violent man with everyone. By the time I had realized how bad things were, I was too far in to get out. The abuse originally began with me and not my children.
Q. What was it about Bush that attracted you to him in the first place?
A. He appeared to be, at that time, a nice man. I had fallen into some family issues and was put out of the home I was living in at the time. We were living homeless in a car for 10 days. There was a road to where I said do I continue to live in a car with my kids or do I take this man up on his offer for a place to live until I can get back on my feet.
So with no family, no friends to support me, living with my kids in a car, I chose to live with Zaryl until I could get back on my feet. Once I left to be with Zaryl, there was no turning back [to her family]. My family made that very clear. I did eventually get my own home [28 Creed St. in Struthers]. This all transpired from 2009 to 2010.
Q. What was the nature of your agreement with Bush?
A. I would stay with him just until I could get on my feet to get my own place, which didn’t take long at all. I had got my own place on a land contract and moved in July of 2010, so it wasn’t very long that I had stayed with him.
Q. So when did the episodes of the abuse against you begin?
A. About a year after that in 2011.
Q. So, the question most people would ask is, if he’s doing this to you, why didn’t you leave? Especially since by that time you had your own place?
A. Zaryl is a very controlling man. Very abusive. He exposed me to things I knew about him that potentially put more harm in the way instead of me trying to get out of the situation. Had I known then what I know now about homeless shelters and different organizations that could have helped me, like [Mahoning County] children services that could have provided funding, a place to stay and a way out, I would have taken alternative routes.
Q. Did you feel that, even though you had your own place, you couldn’t get away from Bush? Did he threaten you?
A. Yes. His favorite line was, ‘I own you. And I’ll kill you.’ There was, at this time, people telling me what a monster he could be, and he was. Life with him was not easy at all. The beginning part wasn’t bad. Progressively, over the years, it [the abuse] just got worse.
Q. When did either Teddy or the twins first come to you and say, ‘Mom, he’s hurting us?’
A. About a year before my son passed away, late 2011 or early 2012. My son [Teddy] was a pre-teen, and he didn’t like the fact that Zaryl put his hands on me and he stood up for me a lot, and ultimately that also caused him to be put in harm’s way.
Q. So you saw him turn his abuse from you to Teddy?
Q. You still felt at that time you didn’t have the knowledge or resources to get away?
A. There was nowhere else I felt I could turn. The situation with my parents was bad. I had no relationship with my siblings [she has a brother and sister]. We don’t speak.
Q. Did it ever occur to you to try to report him to the police?
A. I was too afraid to. ... He made it very clear that Struthers [PD] would not help me. He said he knew the police chief very well and his brother, being a businessman, knew a lot of police and some of the upper powers in the city. [Ed. Note: Struthers Police Chief Tim Roddy said he does know Zaryl Bush’s brother, who is a local businessman, but he did not meet Zaryl Bush until the day Bush was arrested.]
Q. Did you try to go to other jurisdictions like Youngstown, Boardman or Poland?
A. I was under the impression that you couldn’t file anything outside your city limits. He [Bush] made it very clear about how people were connected to him, and he had the upper hand.
Q. Did you ever try to find a way to at least get your boys out?
A. Actually, in the summer of 2012, we had a plan I had spoke to my sons about. Zaryl hadn’t been working, and his unemployment had run out in the summer of 2012, so he had to get a job. Summer time is always busy for side work, and with his connections with businessmen, he would be able to get a job like that. He would make more money in summer time and he would want to work. Our ultimate goal, which obviously we didn’t get to, was to wait until he went to work, then the kids and I would put whatever we could get in the car and leave. Unfortunately, we didn’t get there. My heart is broken.
Q. So from, let’s say May until September 2012, the summer, you never had another opportunity to put your escape plan into motion?
A. No. We were followed. I made police reports that people would throw stones at the house and somebody actually broke the basement window. He had people that would follow us. He had people that would sit in front of the house [her house] and watch our every move when he wasn’t there. So it was very difficult to put our plan in action. So if we were all going to go, we were all going to go together. I felt the only way out of the situation was death, and I wish every day it was me and not my son.
Q. So now we head to January of 2013. The reports you were telling police at that time, was that an attempt to cover up for what happened to Teddy?
A. I had to lie. He [Bush] had my other two kids [twin boys], so I couldn’t come out and say what had happened because I wasn’t home when it happened. I left for a period of time, about 10 to 15 minutes, and when I came home I found my son [Teddy] unresponsive. He basically would hold one of the kids at all times, like a hostage, to make sure I would come back.
Q. What is it you would like to tell other women who have a similar situation? What would you tell them to extricate themselves from a similar situation?
A. I want girls out here, these young women, to realize there is help. I wasn’t aware of the help that I could have sought at that time. I want them to understand that the police aren’t always the bad guys. Children services is a great resource. I know now that there are different shelters you can go to where your whereabouts wouldn’t be known. You would be anonymous. No one can call and say how’s so-and-so doing, and those shelters are strictly for the abused. All of these things were blind to me. I didn’t come from a background of trouble with drug or alcohol abuse. So all of this [help] I was unaware of, and I tried to do it on my own and do the best I could with my kids. I found if you are in an abusive relationship you can leave and get out. And you need to get help.
Q. I just want to make sure you are saying you didn’t know about the resources available to help you get out. Correct?
A. Yes. We were petrified. We all were. And ultimately what he [Bush] said would happen, came true. Teddy died.
Q. One of the things I read in a report was that Teddy had run away. But you helped to get Teddy back. Why?
A. I found Teddy walking. But he [Bush] had my other son, so I had to go back. I want people to know I failed to get out. I did. But ultimately I was putting my other kids in trouble’s way. I’m not saying that’s an excuse or not an excuse. What I’m saying is I made a mistake, and other people can learn from my mistakes so they don’t have to live it. If what I went through helps one mother, one child to save one life, that’s all that matters.
Q. Have you been able to see the twins?
A. Yes. They would come here over the summer through October at the jail. I’ll be able to see them when I go back to prison.
Q. What do the twins think of you?
A. The twins tell me they love me. They tell me they are playing sports. They are active.