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'I feel like a complete failure': Mom accused of killing son testifies

Shanda Vander Ark is charged with first-degree child abuse and the murder of her 15-year-old son Timothy Ferguson.
Posted at 10:16 AM, Dec 15, 2023

Testimony in the murder trial of Michigan mother Shanda Vander Ark continued Thursday, with the accused taking the stand in her own defense.

Vander Ark is accused of neglecting her 15-year-old son, Timothy Ferguson, so severely that he died in the basement of their home. In court Thursday, Timothy was described by his mother as having high-functioning autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder and several other mental ailments.

The teenager was found dead on the morning of July 6, 2022, after police were called to their home in Muskegon, Michigan.

“When your brother died, were you surprised?" Vander Ark's defense attorney Fred Johnson asked Timothy's brother Paul Ferguson on the stand Wednesday.

"I was surprised, shocked, horrified,” he replied.

At the time of Timothy's death, he lived with his mother and two of his brothers — 19-year-old Paul and a 9-year-old brother referred to in court only as "G."

Paul faces a charge of first-degree child abuse himself, accused of carrying out punishments on Tim dictated by his mother.

"I haven't had it diagnosed and I don't know how to explain it, but I'd say it's something close to Stockholm Syndrome," Paul explained of his relationship with his mother.

"I desire to find a role model ... Due to my own low self-esteem, I would do anything to make them proud of me. That's not an excuse, I know, but I feel like I'm glad I was at least able to realize it so I can correct it."

Paul Ferguson (Scripps News photo)

Prosecutors allege that Timothy's access to food was cut off almost entirely. Vander Ark had placed locking mechanisms on the fridge, freezer and pantry.

On the stand Thursday, Vander Ark claimed that this was only to protect her son.

"I had just purchased a 2-pound bag of chicken nuggets, put it in the freezer. I guess he got around the motion detectors," she said.

"He said, 'I ate them...' I said, 'Did you cook them?' 'No,' he said he ate the whole 2-pound bag frozen."

Prior to January 2022, Vander Ark's husband Adam was living in the home. He suffered a stroke and had to move in with his parents in West Olive, Michigan.

Vander Ark pointed to Adam's stroke as a catalyst for Timothy to start acting out.

“There was a couple situations when Tim actually intentionally kept everyone in the house awake. He would intentionally set off the motion detectors, he would make noise," she said.

Paul explained in his testimony that Timothy had been sleeping in a small room under their basement stairs in the time leading up to his death. Inside was just a blue tarp.

Cameras and motion alarms were affixed all around the house. According to Vander Ark, they were there to monitor both Timothy and "G."

Vander Ark was in the process of becoming an attorney when she was arrested for murder, passing the bar on her first try.

She was clerking for a judge at the same Muskegon County courthouse her trial is now being held at, before getting a job in Newaygo County.

Because Vander Ark struggled to maintain proper blood sugar levels, she was using a Great Dane as a service dog. For a time, she would create and post YouTube videos about her dog and their daily activities.

As of December 2023, she had 380 subscribers to her channel. Her last video was posted on March 18, 2021, about four months before Timothy died.

Muskegon County's Chief Trial Attorney Matt Roberts pressed Vander Ark during her cross-examination as to why she was able to accommodate her own health problems, and not Timothy's.

“How could you not know he was that bad?" her defense attorney asked.

"Honestly, I was just barely functioning, I missed a lot. I hate it because I feel like a complete failure,” Vander Ark replied.

She explained that because she worked during the day, she had to trust Paul to watch over Timothy and to dole out any punishments.

"Was this outcome expected by you?" her attorney asked.

She responded, "Absolutely not, no."

While the prosecutor's office is adamant that Vander Ark should be held legally responsible for the death of her son, citing continued abuse, her defense stands on the notion that she never intended to hurt Timothy.

The prosecutor's office rested their case Thursday afternoon, giving the defense a chance to call Vander Ark to the stand.

Testimony will continue Friday morning. Once Fred Johnson is done presenting his witnesses, each side will give closing arguments before the case goes to the jury to render a verdict.

This was originally published by Michael Martin at Scripps News Grand Rapids.