Living

Tall, dark and homicidal: She married a brutal murderer

Shannon Moroney’s husband was a handsome, charismatic, charitable man who deserved a second chance. Or so she thought — until he turned her world upside down

Jason Staples, Shannon Moroney

Jason Staples, Shannon Moroney

One month after Shannon Moroney’s wedding day, in November 2005, when she was out of town for work, she was interrupted by a knock on her hotel-room door. On the other side was a police officer. Her mind began to race, leaping from one disaster scenario to the next. Was her brother hurt? Were her parents okay? She was in Toronto attending a four-day conference, about 150 km away from her home in Peterborough, Ont. “I’m not here because someone has died or been in an accident,” said the policeman. “I’m here about your husband. Are you Jason Staples’ wife?”

What the officer told her next would destroy both her marriage and life as she knew it: The night before, her new husband had turned himself in to police, and he was being charged with kidnapping and sexual
assault. When Shannon asked for details, the policeman lowered his voice to a whisper: “I think you’d better expect that it was ‘full rape.’”

“I felt my stomach flip,” says Shannon, whose memoir, Through the Glass, will be published this month by Doubleday Canada. “I felt like I was going to be sick.” Desperation filled her body as she struggled to stay calm in front of the police officer. This can’t be happening, she thought. But it was. Standing in that hotel room, digesting the enormity of the situation, Shannon remembered she’d called Jason the night before—part of the regular “talk at 10” ritual they stuck to when apart. She told him she believed she might be pregnant.
“That would be great,” said Jason. “We’ll take a test when you get home.”

At the time of the call, he had abducted two women and had them bound with duct tape in the basement of their marital home. He had brutally sodomized one of them, and sexually assaulted the other with his hands. The police later told Shannon they believed her phone call helped to keep Jason from killing them.

Jason had snatched his victims, one 46 and the other 26, from the local health-food store where he worked part-time. When the older woman came in, he held her at knife point and took her to the backroom, where he bound and sodomized her. Then he saw there was a second, younger woman in the store, and became afraid she’d heard him. He grabbed her at knife point, too, and she fought back, but he cut her hand with the knife and then choked her unconscious, carried her to the basement, bound her with tape and rope and sexually assaulted her. After the attack, he drove the women to his house, where he carried them to the basement. There he flipped between regret and anger, eventually became quite remorseful and openly debated suicide. At one point he even went back to the store to get a ladder and rope to hang himself with. Astonishingly, his victims managed to talk him out of it. “They looked at photos of us on the wall and tried to engage him in conversation,” says Shannon.

He later left the house and called 911 from a pay phone to ask the police to rescue the women. He drove to an adjacent street and waited for the police to arrive; when they didn’t appear, he called again, then gave a full confession at the police station.

Shannon met her husband in February 2003, while volunteering at Martha’s Table, a non-profit restaurant in Kingston, Ont., where low-income diners pay $1 for a good meal and quality service. Jason, the head cook, was working in the kitchen, rolling out pastry dough for quiche. She was instantly struck by his wavy dark hair and blue eyes, and his kindness—he’d set a small bowl of soup aside to cool before serving it to a five-year-old customer. Two weeks later, they met for a cup of tea, over which Jason told her that there was something she needed to know about him before they went any further: He was on parole, serving a life sentence for second-degree murder.

Jason grew up in Ottawa. His adoptive father died when he was six, leaving Jason with an adoptive mother who was bipolar. When he was a teenager, his mother moved to Quebec with her boyfriend, abandoning Jason to a roommate—an older woman who became his lover. A few months after his 18th birthday, Jason and the roommate had a fight. He became enraged and brutally beat her to death. He called the police from
a pay phone and said there was an intruder, but eventually he confessed. He pleaded guilty to second-degree
murder, served 10 years in prison and was now living in a halfway house and also had his own apartment.

After Jason told Shannon his story, he walked her to her car and gave her a hug goodbye. She took a step away, then, on instinct, turned and opened her arms for him again. “We later coined the term ‘the come-back hug,’” she says. “Jason said that was the moment he fell in love with me. I didn’t know it yet, but I loved him too.”

Shannon was wary, but she began to spend time with Jason. “I was struck, from the outset, by how normal Jason was. There was no way that I would have known he’d been institutionalized for a decade.” He loved movies and books and even worked out at the same gym as she did. At the end of their second date, Jason suggested Shannon meet with his parole officer and psychologist. She did—a few times—and was assured he was completely rehabilitated and posed no threat. “On an intellectual level, I could grasp everything the doctor was saying, but the murder remained a senseless act of violence that was impossible to imagine occurring at the hands of the man I was getting to know,” she says. “By Jason’s own account, and according to his case-management team, he was a responsible, remorseful 33-year-old who was making the most of his second chance at life. The question was: How much a part of that second chance did I want to be?” His first offence had been classified as a one-time incident of “adolescent rage resulting from narcissistic injury,” and because Shannon worked with teenagers, this was something she could get her head around. No one, not even his psychologist, thought there was a possibility he would reoffend.

This was how Shannon Moroney fell in love with Jason Staples—a kind, gentle man with a horrific past who, unbeknownst to her at the time, was doomed to attack again, earning himself a “dangerous offender” designation and an indeterminate life sentence. This time with almost zero chance of parole. Jason was given his second chance and would not be getting a third. His wife, on the other hand, was left to put her life back together, one shattered piece at a time.

Shannon couldn’t go home—it was a crime scene; instead she went to her parents’ in Burlington, Ont. In a fog of shock, she began the process of sifting through the ashes of her life with Jason, a man she thought she knew but clearly did not. One of the first things she did was take a pregnancy test. Mercifully, it was negative.

Exactly one month earlier, Shannon and Jason had married in an outdoor ceremony on Thanksgiving weekend at a friend’s farmhouse. During their cottage honeymoon they’d cuddled in a hammock and fantasized about their future children. They’d enjoyed a blissful first few weeks of married life, entertaining friends, renovating the house they’d contentedly cohabited in for over two years and going for long walks. Their sex life was active and healthy, typical of the first blush of marriage. Jason was a gentle, playful lover (though he did sometimes have difficulty reaching orgasm—a problem for which they’d seen a doctor, as they planned to start a family). He was an avid cook and liked to recreate Shannon’s favourite dishes. Recently, when Shannon got home, Jason (who was trying to launch a career as a children’s-book illustrator) would meet her at the door. “Hello, my wife,” he’d say with theatrical pleasure, and he’d give her a kiss and a big hug. Often he’d have prepared dinner. The day the police knocked on Shannon’s hotel room door, they’d been planning a casual one-month-anniversary celebration for when she returned.

One thing that confounds Shannon to this day is why Jason didn’t tell her something was wrong. She — like Jason’s primary victims — could not have known what lurked beneath his gentle facade. “As women, we don’t always know where danger is. We’re taught to fear scary men in alleys at night, not handsome men in health-food stores in the afternoon.” In this, she is not alone.

Last year, when Colonel Russell Williams, commander of CFB Trenton and a decorated military pilot, shocked the world by confessing to the murder of two women and the sexual assaults of two others, it was unlikely anyone was more stunned than his wife, Mary Elizabeth Harriman. By all accounts, the couple had a close and loving relationship, holding hands on walks and going golfing. Indeed, when Williams finally broke under police interrogation, he asked how he might minimize the impact of his crimes on his wife.

“When I read that story, my heart broke, both for the victims and for his wife because she is one of the victims, too,” says Shannon. Following Williams’ case, she found herself reliving her own grief and the ensuing years of post-traumatic stress. “Eventually it was just too much. I had to have a news blackout.”

In the annals of crime history, stories of unknowing spouses are astonishingly common. In the ’70s, John Wayne Gacy murdered 33 young men and boys and buried most of them in the crawl space of the suburban-Chicago house he shared with his wife, Carole Hoff. When she complained of the terrible smell emanating from the basement, Gacy would insist that it was moisture buildup. Hoff took him at his word. More recently there was Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who imprisoned his daughter in the basement for 24 years, abusing her and fathering seven of her children while his wife, Rosemarie, lived upstairs in apparent ignorance of the living hell beneath her feet.

Such horror stories are the extreme, but they beg the obvious question: How could she not have known? “The natural reaction when a crime like this happens is to look for character flaws in the innocent party,” Shannon says, with the patience and openness of the guidance counsellor she is trained to be. “Some people
thought I must be delusional or naive or damaged in some way, but the truth is, I’m not and I wasn’t. I didn’t
know about Jason and I couldn’t have, because Jason gave me no clues. It’s easy to say now that this was
a pattern or that I should have seen it coming, but at the time I had so much reassurance from the professionals, I had every reason to believe he was well.”

Even those in court hoping for the cause of Jason’s behaviour were left with questions, including Jason. “They were innocent strangers to me when I invaded their lives,” he said. “I am still unable to fully understand
how I could commit these crimes.” Judge Barry MacDougall also commented on Jason’s two sides. “His likeable caring side fooled many, many people.”

Jack levin , a professor of criminology and sociology at Northeastern University in Boston, studies the psychology and behaviour of violent offenders and the women who love them. He says the stereotype of the needy, insecure or otherwise damaged offender’s wife is a myth. “Rather than focusing on the women, we need to focus more on the men,” he explains. “Most of these men are extremely manipulative. They use the same skills to lure victims that they use to lure romantic partners. Often the women they choose have an inordinate sense of altruism and empathy.”

Further compounding matters is that Jason, like Williams, doesn’t fit the textbook profile of a sociopath (a person incapable of empathy or love). His last official diagnosis was “sexual sadist” combined with the unhelpful label of “personality disorder not otherwise specified.” Shannon was later told his sexual dysfunction was likely linked to sexual sadism, as he needed to connect the idea of sex with violence to reach orgasm. But it’s easy to draw such conclusions after the fact. As Shannon points out, “If those diagnoses don’t make the case for putting further resources into psychiatric care for violent offenders, I don’t know what does.”

Shannon feels there needs to be more psychiatric attention paid to offenders like Jason who are somewhere
in the middle between sociopath and decent human being. After the murder, he was never designated a sex offender at all, and the fact that he managed to keep those tendencies hidden through 10 years of incarceration is a failing of the system. Shannon feels society has come a long way in destigmatizing mental illnesses so that advances in treatment can be made, but sexual deviance has such a heavy stigma that most
offenders are just called monsters and locked up.

After the trial, Jason revealed a potentially critical fact to Shannon that he had not shared with anyone, including his prison psychologist: He was sexually abused as a child by his adoptive mother and her
boyfriend and physically abused by his grandfather. While sociopaths are experts at compartmentalization
and cynical manipulation, Shannon firmly believes the Jason she knew and loved was — and is — real. “I don’t condone his crimes, but it’s important to look at the whole person, in all his complexities, rather than dismissing him as a monster.”

Shannon’s close friend Rachael Pritchard, a Colorado-based teacher and mother of three, describes Jason as a caring, decent man whom she never considered capable of unkindness, let alone his heinous attacks. “We knew about his previous offence, but I never saw that side of him. I never once feared for Shannon and I never feared for myself,” she says.

For Shannon, coming to terms with her husband’s hidden sadistic streak was made doubly difficult by the stigmatization she faced from the penal system and the community. “The most frustrating part of knowing or loving someone who has these two stark sides is the judgment you feel as the innocent party in the relationship. While prisons protect society, they also protect the prisoner from facing up to the consequences of their actions — while Jason was on the inside, I was left to deal with the consequences of what he’d done.”

In her book, Shannon tells the story of being shunned in her community and school (the board transferred her on grounds that she “represented something terrible” and some friends blamed her for unknowingly exposing them to danger). To the dismay and bafflement of many, Shannon continued to visit and advocate for her husband while he awaited sentencing, a process that took up two and a half years of her life. Her decision to maintain a relationship with Jason was based in compassion and a need for answers, rather than in forgiveness for his crimes. They separated in 2005 and divorced in 2009 and now have what she describes as “a very distant relationship.”

Today Shannon lives in Toronto with her new husband, Mike, who works in banking on Bay Street. They married last New Year’s Eve after meeting at a mutual friend’s Valentine’s Day party. When they started dating, he printed off a full credit and background check just to put Shannon at ease. Learning to trust again wasn’t easy, she says, but over time the wounds have healed. Asked how her new husband feels about her first marriage and her forthcoming memoir, Shannon’s pretty face breaks into a huge grin. “He’s threatened to get a button made up that says, ‘Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m fine with everything!’” She fills her time
as a substitute teacher and restorative-justice facilitator. They hope to start a family soon.

“What frustrates me enormously is the oversimplification that everyone he loved was fooled. I don’t believe that’s true,” she says. “What Jason did was horrible; he had this dark, sick side, and the other part of him was also real, and the challenge for me was coming to terms with that.”

Hard won as her happiness has been, Shannon insists there have been valuable lessons along the way. During the trial she met and heard impact statements from Jason’s victims. The process of confrontation and communication, she says, was transformative. “When I think about those victims, how agonizing it is that our
lives became connected in this way, it’s very difficult,” she says. “But the fact is, when we did come together
and engage it was incredibly healing.”

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