It's just five days after 60-year-old Sharral "Sherry" McDonald was shot in a quiet Eureka neighborhood in a mother-in-law unit tucked between H and G streets. Her husband and two daughters are sitting in the North Coast Journal office, trying through their grief to convey who she was.
She was a caregiver, they say, both officially as an in-home supportive services aide and unofficially as the primary provider for an aunt with dementia. Phil McDonald, 54, who'd been married to Sherry for more than two decades, says she'd be "dirt tired" some nights but if one of her charges called needing something — even just a candy bar and a 7-UP — she'd hop in the car and head to the store, then drive out to Hydesville or wherever. Sometimes, he says, if someone called hungry she'd just clean out the home refrigerator, put the food in a box and drive it over.
She worked late nights cleaning a couple of Fortuna laundromats after they closed. When it was cold, she'd invite the neighborhood homeless people inside to keep warm while she cleaned. Often, they say, when heading to work she'd stop to pick up food for them and a bag of chow for their dogs.
"She just genuinely cared about people," her 23-year-old daughter Shelsey McDonald says, adding that whatever you had to do, her mother would volunteer to help, no matter how much she had going in her own life. "She was just that person."
Shayla Verbich, 40, jokes that whenever she had her mom over for a barbecue she knew she had to make extra food and have plenty of Tupperware on hand because Sherry would pack up whatever was left over and take it to seniors in the neighborhood.
Sherry lived for her five grandkids and would spend as much time as she could with them, whether babysitting or coming over for all-night movie binges, even though she didn't care much for television or movies. She loved wolves, Verbich says, which makes sense because she was the family's "protector," constantly making sure everyone had what they needed.
Verbich pauses and looks out a window down onto Eureka's F Street, searching for the words. She says she has a vivid memory from when she was little, just 7 or 8, and she and her mom went to the Fortuna Rodeo, which was prone to get a bit rowdy in those days, with people tailgating and drinking all day. She recalls she and her mom were walking up to the grounds when they saw a crowd of people watching a fight. A group of "girls" in their late teens or early 20s were beating up another young woman.
"She didn't even hesitate — and she didn't know this woman from Adam. She stepped in, picked the girl up and took us out of there," Verbich recalls, adding that she and her mom later took the girl home to her parents. "She just wasn't going to stand around while someone was being hurt. She told me later, 'You don't watch someone hurt someone else. That's not OK.'"
With all that in mind, they say what Sherry McDonald did on May 6, when she put herself between a dear friend and a felon with a gun, does not surprise them, even though it came with fatal consequences. Police report that Ronald Allen Crossland, a 52 year old with a long rap sheet who'd been released from jail just a few weeks earlier, showed up at that H Street home armed with a small caliber pistol and tried to kidnap Jane Doe, his on-again, off-again girlfriend. Sherry McDonald put herself in front of Jane Doe and Crossland shot her once in the head. She died before police arrived on scene. Jane Doe was uninjured.
"She would protect anyone from harm," Verbich says. "I know my mom didn't even put a second of doubt in her mind because that's what she would do for anyone."
Jane Doe, a 42-year-old nurse at St. Joseph Hospital, started dating Crossland in September, according to court records, though the circumstances of their courtship aren't clear. (It is the North Coast Journal's policy not to identify victims of domestic violence and multiple phone messages for Jane Doe went unreturned.)
What is clear is that things quickly soured in their relationship and Crossland was arrested Dec. 26 after Jane Doe alleged he'd shown up at her work, thrown her to the ground, pulled her hair and punched her with a closed fist before taking her car. But this wasn't the first alleged instance of violence in their relationship, according to a domestic violence restraining order application Jane Doe filed with the court Jan 9.
The first such instance occurred in early December, according to court records, when Crossland had been drinking all day. Jane Doe alleges that Crossland was upset about a "truck deal that had fallen through" and demanded that she take him to a friend's house. When she told him she was tired, he allegedly headbutted her, demanded her keys and ordered her into the car. When Jane Doe slumped in her seat on the drive, Crossland allegedly called her a racial slur and pulled her up by her hair. After stopping at his friend's house, Crossland told Jane Doe, "You're driving, bitch," and ordered her into the driver's seat.
"I move to the driver's seat and drive us towards home," Jane Doe wrote in the restraining order paperwork. "Ronald then punched me on the right side of the face. I instantly braked and pulled over to the side of the road. I get out of the car and attempt to run but I fall on my knee and my nose is bleeding. Ronald gets out and yells, 'Get back in the car, bitch!' Neighbors come out because of the commotion. I told Ronald to 'just leave.' Ronald gets back in the car and leaves. I deny the neighbors' assistance because I don't want to involve them. I walk the last few miles home."
The next instance came Christmas Day, when Jane Doe showed up at Crossland's home after not having seen him for a couple of days. Crossland answered the door drunk, Jane Doe writes in the application, and started crying, asking where she'd been and if she'd been with another man. His demeanor then switched to anger, Jane Doe writes, and he demanded the keys to her car and left. A couple of hours later, Crossland returned and ordered Jane Doe into the car. She writes that they drove around for "several hours" and that Crossland slapped her several times and "yanked her hair a few times, as well" as they drove around, eventually arriving in Kneeland, where Crossland "said he was going to bury (Jane Doe) at one of the ranches."
At one point, Crossland stopped at a ranch, got out of the car and spoke to an unidentified man for a while. When he got back in, he allegedly "backhanded" Jane Doe on the side of the face and chastised her for leaving him alone on Christmas Eve. Crossland then allegedly drove the pair back to Eureka, where he stopped at a liquor store.
"I get out of the car when he is inside and try to run away," Jane Doe writes. "Ronald comes out, catches me, pulls me across the street by the hair, yelling profanity. 'Get in the car, bitch,' and I do. He goes back inside the liquor store to buy his alcohol. Ronald drives us back to his place and drinks himself to sleep. Barefoot, I gather my belongings and tiptoe out of his house. I get in my car and leave."
Things allegedly continued the following day when Jane Doe arrived at work to find Crossland waiting for her. "Oh, you think you will get away from me?" he allegedly asks before again demanding her keys, Jane Doe writes, adding that he smelled of alcohol. "Give me the keys now or you will see what transpires."
Jane Doe writes that she tried to calm Crossland down but he punched her with a closed fist, leaving her "disoriented and dizzy." He took her keys and drove away, after which Jane Doe walked into the nursing department and told a co-worker what happened and the co-worker contacted her supervisors. "I was scared of calling the cops myself but was also afraid for my life," Jane Doe writes, adding that a supervisor called the police.
Eureka police officers arrived some time later and found Crossland in the parking lot in Jane Doe's car. They arrested him without incident, according to court records. During an interview with police he initially conceded that he had argued with Jane Doe but "denied any physical altercation." Later, while being transported to the jail, Crossland "made the spontaneous statement, 'We got into an argument and I grabbed her hair and pushed her but I did not slap her,'" according to court records.
Two days later, on Dec. 28, the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office charged Crossland with carjacking, robbery and misdemeanor domestic battery. If convicted of the charges, he would have faced more than 10 years in state prison.
Jane Doe's restraining order application ends with a chilling warning: "Ronald is a violent man with a very violent history ... I don't feel safe having any contact of any sort with him. He has repeatedly threatened my life and stated that he fears no law or person."
On Jan. 31, Jane Doe was scheduled to appear in court for a hearing on her restraining order application. She didn't show up and the order was dismissed.
A couple of weeks earlier, Jane Doe had met with members of the district attorney's domestic violence unit after their repeated attempts to contact her. According to District Attorney Maggie Fleming, she told an investigator and prosecutor that the charges Crossland was facing were "too harsh" in relation to his behavior. Based on Jane Doe's "express wishes and the fact we had no other way to prove the case except her testimony," prosecutors agreed to a deal: Crossland would plead guilty to taking a vehicle without its owner's consent — a felony — and misdemeanor domestic battery, leaving him facing about three years in county jail, according to Fleming. (While the sentence for the felony would historically have been spent in prison, the state's realignment bill Assembly Bill 109 shifted that to a county jail term.)
So on Feb. 21, just as Jane Doe was to be called to the stand to testify in a hearing to determine if there was enough evidence to hold Crossland to stand trial in the case, Crossland agreed to the deal. A few weeks later, on March 13, Crossland sat down with a probation officer for a pre-sentencing interview that would become part of a report in which the probation department would make a sentencing recommendation to a superior court judge.
In the interview, Crossland reportedly admitted that he "fucked up," but said he "did not put hands on" Jane Doe. Crossland also told the probation officer that he had been working for Will Adams Construction for the "last few years" and that the company "had already returned to work for the season and he is hoping to be released early enough so he can go back to work."
The pre-sentencing report states that Crossland was born in San Pablo and his parents divorced when he was young. He was largely raised in Humboldt County by his mother and his stepfather, who both died by his 20th birthday. Crossland dropped out of school before finishing 10th grade, according to the report, began smoking weed at the age of 12, and started drinking and using methamphetamine when he was 16.
Crossland's first conviction came for drug possession in 1992 but it was quickly followed by others for assault with a deadly weapon, possession, tampering with a vehicle, assault and battery, vandalism, theft and more. In all, Crossland's record contains 21 convictions, including four felonies and four stints in state prison, according to the report. But it's worth noting the report only includes convictions, not the 36 times he was contacted by Fortuna police officers since January of 2013 or the 14 times he was arrested by the agency over the same span.
The report notes that probation's Static Risk Assessment, an evidence-based tool for determining a defendant's likelihood of re-offending, found Crossland's risk level to be "high," noting past failures in probation and parole programs.
In its ultimate recommendation to the court, the probation department seems to rely heavily on Crossland's indication that he may have a job waiting for him if released.
"Given defendant's employment it will be recommended he serve an eight-month term, with the balance on mandatory supervision, so he can return to his employment," the report states.
The trouble is Crossland didn't have a job waiting for him. Will Adams told the Journal that his company's records show that Crossland hadn't worked there since 2011 and that he had no knowledge of a job offer made earlier this year.
Humboldt County Interim Chief Probation Officer Shaun Brenneman declined to discuss the details of Crossland's case with the Journal but said generally that pre-sentencing investigations are based on the defendant's statements but the probation officer "will verify portions of the statements when they feel it is relevant to the sentencing recommendation." Crossland's report makes no mention of any attempts to verify his employment claims.
Still speaking generally, Brenneman indicated there's a balancing act when sentencing people under the state's realignment law, noting that defendants will re-enter the local community after their sentences are complete, so "it is generally better to have them under supervision with a search clause and access to services then let out with nothing in place."
Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Dale Reinholtsen ultimately took the probation department's recommendation and sentenced Crossland to eight months in jail and 28 months of community supervision.
With credit for time served and good conduct, Crossland was released from the county jail April 15. It's unclear if he had any contact with the probation department between then and when he showed up at Jane Doe's home with a pistol 21 days later.
Regina Millot, who lives across the dirt alley that splits the block between H and G streets from Jane Doe, says she came home the afternoon of May 4 to find Crossland "camped out" on Jane Doe's porch with a box of stuff. He struck up a conversation with her, introducing himself and saying his friend lived in the small home.
Millot says she didn't know Jane Doe well at the time, having only talked to her briefly as she and Sherry McDonald moved some things in about six weeks earlier. But she says she had a bad feeling about the situation with Crossland on her porch and kept an eye out for signs of trouble, having remembered Crossland from years earlier, when he dated her sister back in junior high.
"I know he always seemed like a troubled soul to me," she says.
Another neighbor says she was taking out some green waste at about 4 p.m. on May 6 when she saw Jane Doe and McDonald pull up in Doe's black Honda Accord. Both women were laughing and in good spirits, she says.
At about 5 p.m. Millot says she heard a popping sound followed by screams and looked out her window in time to see Jane Doe run out the door, across the alley and toward her driveway. She stepped onto her porch to ask if everything was OK.
"She was saying, 'Help me, help me, he just shot my friend,'" Millot says.
Jane Doe was on the phone with police with Crossland chasing behind her when Millot says he looked up and said, "Don't listen to her." She says she could clearly see his hand on a gun in his pant pocket.
"I think if I didn't come out, he probably would have shot her, too," Millot says.
Crossland then took off and drove away in Jane Doe's Honda. In the time between the shooting and when the vehicle was found abandoned on Fern Street near Redwood Fields, Eureka police received at least two reports of a man driving a black Honda and brandishing a handgun.
"It was scary," Millot says. "I was really, really nervous."
While waiting for officers to arrive, Millot's son Kyle went with Jane Doe to check on McDonald. Millot says she could hear Jane Doe pleading, "Sherry wake up. Sherry wake up. Sherry," from across the street. Kyle came back almost immediately, saying there was no hope. McDonald had suffered a gunshot to the head.
It's still unclear how Crossland got from where he dumped Jane Doe's car in Cutten to Fortuna. But about four hours later, as Fortuna police officers approached a dilapidated trailer in a rundown park off Fortuna Boulevard, where about 50 trailers sit cheek-to-jowl amid rusty cars and debris piles, they heard a single gunshot. Inside a trailer they knew to be associated with Crossland, they found him dead from a single self-inflicted gunshot wound to the mouth.
Having spent 33 years in local law enforcement, Humboldt County District Attorney investigator Lynn Soderberg knows both the dangers and prevalence of domestic violence better than most.
Sure, it's easy to look at the Crossland case or so many others — Humboldt County averages about 50 percent more domestic violence-related police calls for service per capita than the state average, with more than 40 percent involving some kind of weapon — and ask why the victim didn't just leave or cooperate with authorities. But that's missing the point and unproductive, according to Soderberg.
"A lot of people say, 'Why doesn't the victim leave?'" she says, "and I say, 'Why doesn't the batterer stop beating? The accountability is on the batterer. Always."
North Coast Rape Crisis Center Community Coordinator Paula Arrowsmith-Jones says it's important for the community to understand that abusers are often very adept at "zeroing in on the vulnerabilities" of the person they are harming and using specific tactics to control them and keep them in the relationship.
"The person who's in it knows what they can or can't do and it gets very complicated," she says, noting that many people have children together, mixed finances or overlapping social circles. "Lives get entangled."
And because domestic violence is about power and control, batterers also become more abusive if they feel their control over their victims slipping.
"It's also very dangerous for victims to leave," Soderberg says. "That's one of the most dangerous times for a victim because that's when the power and control is being lost. And someone participating (in a prosecution) is akin to leaving."
Humboldt County's high domestic violence rates are not only troubling but represent a real challenge for law enforcement.
First and foremost, Soderberg said there's the fact that domestic violence is often a private crime that generally occurs behind closed doors. Then there's the fact that victims often feel they put a lot at risk by cooperating with prosecutions, including their own physical safety.
Soderberg and Arrowsmith-Jones say the community can help by supporting those around them without judgment and by stepping forward when they see something happening.
"We're in a community where a lot of people don't want to get involved," Soderberg says. "But we need witnesses willing to step forward and report what they see."
But Soderberg adds that law enforcement can get better at handling these types of calls, pointing to a recent training she put on for first responders asking them to do more — to get more corroborating witness statements and collect physical evidence — "so we're not putting the case to be prosecuted solely on the word of the victim when the victim may not feel free to cooperate."
"We do all that all the time with homicide cases," she says. "We've never put a homicide victim on the stand."
In Jane Doe's case, it appears EPD never took steps to interview her co-workers, who could have offered corroborating statements about what they saw after the alleged attack in the parking lot. And while Fleming says a district attorney investigator and prosecutor asked her questions designed to explore the "full history of actions and behaviors of the accused" and Jane Doe "did not mention to our people any prior incidents of physical domestic violence," it seems they never followed up to pull her restraining order application, which was signed under penalty of perjury.
On May 18, the Fortuna Fire Hall was filled to capacity with the friends and family of Sherry McDonald, who gathered to share stories, to cry and laugh over paper plates filled with food from a pot-luck buffet of offerings. Music hummed softly under the din of conversation as a photo slideshow played on a projector against the back wall. There was a shot from her and Phil's wedding day, with Sherry's smile broad and her blond hair long and curly, and others through a smattering of family events, Sherry almost always with a child or grandkid in her lap. Hundreds of people stopped in to pay their respects.
A week earlier, back in the Journal office, Sherry's daughter talked about a life well-lived. Sherry McDonald was born in San Diego but her family moved to Humboldt when she was little to return to its roots. Swain's Flat out on State Route 36, they say, was named after her grandfather, who owned a mill, a restaurant and a store there. Sherry grew up in Bridgeville, went to grammar school in Hydesville and high school in Fortuna. She went on to work for more than two decades at Bayleysuit, a wet-suit manufacturer, and traveled around the world helping the company set up new stores.
But mostly Sherry's life was about family and connecting with people, they say. They laugh, describing how it was a family rule not to send her out for any last-minute needs before dinner because she was likely not to return for an hour or more, having gotten caught up talking with an old friend or having met a new one. They talk about how she loved her dog Sammy and to read — mystery books especially — how she'd bring books down to Campton Heights Market to pass on to the clerk's mom when she was done with them.
Verbich recalls her mom's competitive streak and how she played softball well into her 50s and refused to stop sliding into bases or diving for balls, admonishing her daughters to stop "embarrassing me" when they urged caution. Phil McDonald talks about how sometimes his wife would just pull into a McDonald's drive-through without saying a word, order a bag full of burgers and hand it to the homeless people sitting on the curb out front.
The conversation turns to Jane Doe and they note that she lived at Sherry's home for a month or so while getting back on her feet before moving into the place off H Street. Verbich says she talked to her about domestic violence restraining orders, victim witness services and the importance of "pressing charges."
"I know my mom wouldn't want me to be bitter," she says. "But this domino effect has impacted so many lives — all our lives — and it could have been prevented. But if my mom were here she wouldn't want anyone to be hurtful or negative."
"She never had a bad thing to say about anyone," Shelsey McDonald adds. "My mom believed in forgiveness. She believed there was good in everyone."
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson. Kimberly Wear is the Journal's assistant editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.
Local Domestic Violence Services
If you need to talk to someone or connect with services, call Humboldt Domestic Violence Services' 24-hour support line at
443-6042 or (866) 668-6543. If you are in immediate danger, call 911. For more information, visit www.hdvs.org.
The North Coast Rape Crisis Team also has a 24-hour hotline, which can be reached at 445-2881. For more information, visit www.ncrct.org.