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Tuesday, October 27, 1998

Parents of slain student sue city, 2 police officers

They say Shannon Schieber was still alive when
police knocked on her door the night she was slain.

By Clea Benson,

For a few crucial minutes on the night Shannon Schieber was strangled in her Fitler Square apartment, there was a chance the Wharton School doctoral student could have been saved by police, her parents say.

Vicki and Sylvester Schieber believe their 23-year-old daughter was still alive and her killer was with her when two police officers banged on her door in response to a 911 call from neighbors who heard her distinctive, deep voice call for help. Getting no response, the officers left, telling the neighbors Schieber was not at home.

The Schiebers filed a federal civil-rights suit against the two officers and the city yesterday, alleging that police should have forced their way into their daughter's apartment May 7 after a neighbor told a 911 operator he heard her call for help and heard choking sounds when he went to her door.

Schieber's nude and beaten body was discovered 13 hours later by her brother, who broke into her apartment after she missed a lunch date with him. Her killer is still at large.

The Schiebers are asking for changes in police guidelines governing how officers should handle reports of people screaming for help.

The suit also seeks unspecified damages.

``If Shannon had died in an accident or because of some reckless behavior, we undoubtedly would have still been devastated,'' Sylvester Schieber said yesterday at a news conference in the Center City office of attorney David Rudovsky. ``But we are even more devastated at the shocking knowledge that police stood outside her apartment door while the killer was undertaking his assault.''

Police Commissioner John F. Timoney said yesterday that he could not comment on the lawsuit or the Schiebers' allegations. ``The belief that something or anything could have been done to save [their daughter] must be a great source of anguish for [the Schiebers], and my heart goes out to them,'' he said.

``I can say that the Philadelphia Police Department is committed to solving this case.''

Mayoral spokesman Kevin Feeley said there would be no comment from the Mayor's Office because city officials had not read the lawsuit. ``Ever since this tragedy occurred, we have kept in close contact with the Schieber family and their representatives . . . and have kept them updated on the status of the investigation regularly,'' Feeley said.

The day after Schieber's murder, Timoney said an internal review found that the two veteran officers who responded that night, Officers Steven Woods and Raymond Scherff, had acted properly. Timoney said at the time that it was not clear that the screams had come from Schieber's apartment. Timoney described the officers as being ``devastated'' when they learned of Schieber's death.

The Schiebers, of Chevy Chase, Md., said that they were not satisfied with the internal review, and that their requests for additional investigation into the police response have been rebuffed by city officials.

The complaint filed by the Schiebers asserts that neighbors were awakened by noises coming from their daughter's apartment in the 200 block of South 23d Street. About 1 a.m., Parmatha ``Parm'' Greeley, a neighbor across the hall, and a downstairs neighbor, Amy Reed, heard noises, including objects falling, feet running, and voices calling out, the suit states.

About an hour later, Greeley heard Schieber cry out for help, the suit alleges. He immediately banged on her door and said he was calling police, according to the complaint. There was no response.

Greeley went back to his apartment, dialed 911, according to the suit, and told the operator that he had heard his neighbor yell for help. ``I knocked on the door and I just heard like a choking sound,'' the complaint states Greeley told the operator.

Ninth District Officers Woods and Scherff, dispatched by a 911 operator who told them there was ``a report of a female screaming inside,'' arrived in about five minutes. They were met by Reed and Greeley, who told them they had heard cries for help and a commotion inside Schieber's apartment.

In their suit, the Schiebers charge that the neighbors were ready to break down their daughter's door, but police refused to let them. The police placed their nightsticks against the door, knocked several times, and called out, but did not enter, according to the suit. After about five minutes, the officers left, telling the neighbors to call 911 again if they heard anything else, the suit says.

The officers, noting that Schieber's apartment was dark and the sliding glass door on her balcony was closed, assured the neighbors that she was not at home, the suit states. Having been reassured by police, the suit says, Greeley and Reed went back into their apartments and made no further efforts to force their way in.

Though Schieber's balcony door was closed when police checked it at 2 a.m., it was open the following afternoon, when her brother arrived. This is evidence, the Schiebers say, that the killer was inside when police arrived and escaped through that door once everyone had left.

The Schiebers said they were pleased with the efforts of homicide detectives, who have mounted an intensive search for the murderer, interviewing more than 100 people and checking DNA evidence from numerous crime scenes against evidence found in Schieber's apartment. Homicide detectives are also visiting the scenes of similar crimes committed in the area, in the hope that evidence from one of those crime scenes will match the killer.

``We are convinced that the police believe the greatest likelihood of their capturing her murderer will arise when he attacks again,'' Sylvester Schieber said. ``For Shannon, that is no consolation. For the next family victimized, it will be a pitiful shame. You cannot fully appreciate what a family goes through in this situation unless you have experienced it.''

The Schiebers described their daughter as the kind of person who had always campaigned on behalf of others, a student leader and a volunteer with an incredible capacity for reaching out to other people.

One friend told Schieber's parents that Schieber had begun helping an elderly man in her neighborhood get to church every Sunday, a man she had met one day while he was having trouble getting his groceries into his apartment.

``She spent three hours helping him in the middle of all the other stuff she had to do,'' Sylvester Schieber said.

She was also interested in politics. She was student body president in high school, president of her freshman class at Duke University, and active in trying to improve life for doctoral students at Wharton, her parents said.

The day before she died, Schieber went to school administrators to urge them to organize an orientation program for doctoral students, who often felt socially isolated, a program that the school has now implemented.

Schieber was the kind of person who stood up to problems, not the kind of person who would be a victim, her parents said.

``If threatened, she would go directly at the threat and try to resolve it,'' her father said. ``The police have told us it was clear that she struggled. . . . We knew she was concerned about security and safety. If we had had an inkling, we would have had her out of here in a minute.''

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