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'Battered Son' Defense Likely in Fatal Beating of Valedictorian's Mother

April 30, 1989|JOHN F. BONFATTI | Associated Press

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — To his valedictory address to the LaSalle High School Class of 1988, Billy Shrubsall added a tribute to his mother, Marianne (Marge) Shrubsall:

"On a personal note, I would like to thank my mother, who taught me my reach should exceed my grasp. Thank you, Mom."

The words of gratitude to a mother who pushed a son toward academic excellence were never spoken, however. Just 12 hours before he was to give the speech, police say, Shrubsall bludgeoned her to death with a baseball bat.

Instead of crowning a high school career that brought him to the top of a class of 250, Shrubsall found himself in jail, charged with second-degree murder.

And this city, known for spectacular waterfalls, found itself trying to understand what had happened.

"When I heard, the first thing I said was, 'No way; it wasn't Bill,' " said Billy Hartman, a classmate who knew Shrubsall for six years. "It still doesn't seem true to me now."

Another friend, Terry Adamec, added: "He had everything going for him. A class valedictorian wouldn't do something like that. He was the smartest guy in the whole school."

When the case comes to trial, probably this summer, defense attorney Paul G. Cleary won't deny that Shrubsall clubbed his mother several times with a baseball bat in the early morning hours of June 25, 1988.

Although an automatic plea of innocent has been entered, Cleary will likely reprise a defense he used successfully in another highly publicized case in nearby Allegany County several years ago.

That client, Leslie Emick, was convicted of second-degree manslaughter for shooting her common-law husband while he slept in the family motor home.

Cleary argued that she was a "battered wife" who had finally snapped after years of brutal sexual torture.

"The 'battered woman syndrome' applies also to other types of violence or abuse within a household," Cleary maintains. The scenario, he says, is physical and-or mental domination "in which the abusee develops almost a total dependence on the abuser."

The Shrubsall case has elements of both physical and mental domination, Cleary says. Although Shrubsall is a sturdy six-footer, his mother outweighed him by more than 100 pounds.

The evidence of mental domination is clearer. Marge Shrubsall was always a strict authority figure in the home, according to friends, and she became even more so after the death of her husband, William, three years earlier.

Her goal for her son was academic excellence.

"We all knew how the mother pushed him," said a neighbor, Tony Kobler. "She expected him to be a whiz-bang."

Cleary would not permit Shrubsall to talk with a reporter, but in a statement he gave police following the killing, Shrubsall said he had begun to rebel against his mother's strict house rules and she had responded with violence.

"The more you so-call brow-beat her, the more you argue your point, the worse she gets, until she gets to the point where she starts to hit me, and I mean I have been hit several times," he told police. "Her hits ranged from slaps to backhands."

David Zacher, a friend of Shrubsall's since junior high school, said, "He had bruises on his arms and I never really thought about it much."

The situation grew more tense when Shrubsall entered his first serious romantic relationship, with 15-year-old Gretchen Rowe. Marge Shrubsall was not happy about it, according to a statement Rowe gave police.

"She has also accused him of loving me more than her, but that's wrong, because he did love his mother very much," she said.

The night before the commencement, Shrubsall was at Rowe's house. Told to be home by midnight, he was late after going back to retrieve some things he'd left at the girl's house.

Marge Shrubsall was in her car in the driveway ready to drive to the Rowe house to get her son when he arrived, according to his statement to police.

Back in the house, a heated argument ensued. Marge Shrubsall called Rowe "a slut" and him "slime," according to Shrubsall's statement. She started to phone Rowe to demand that the two end their relationship. When Shrubsall tried to stop her, she elbowed him and he pushed back.

Shrubsall told police his mother then threatened to kill him and backed him down a hallway.

Feeling she was going to strangle him, Shrubsall said he "turned around and picked up the first thing and I hit her a lot of times. So many times out of fear, and then, after that, I don't know. I was genuinely scared and I was protecting myself."

Cleary said that while others might have fled the situation, state law "does not impose upon a person the duty to retreat when confronted with a threatening situation in his or her own home."

Niagara County District Attorney Peter Broderick, whose office will prosecute the case, doesn't think that a defense patterned after the Emick case will work.

"I would think that's an awfully tough defense to establish, even in a spousal situation, never mind a mother and son," he said.

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