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Stevi man facing homicide, elder abuse charges

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Homicide charge

Ronan Elias Sterling-Shanahan, aka Justin Joe Whitfield

A Stevensville man is being held on charges of deliberate homicide and elder abuse in the death of his mother, Eda Lyn Karr. Karr was 63 at the time of her disappearance.

Ronan Elias Sterling-Shanahan, aka Justin Joe Whitfield, 46, was charged in Ravalli County District Court on Tuesday, Nov. 15 with deliberate homicide, theft, exploitation of an incapacitated person and tampering with physical evidence, all felonies. Whitfield was initially arrested on Oct. 16 on charges of theft, exploitation of an older person and exploitation of an incapacitated person, also felonies.

Whitfield is accused of neglecting his mother’s medical care, allowing her to deteriorate and die, and then using her retirement funds for his personal use after concealing her body. Karr, who had lived in Stevensville for more than 15 years, was retired from the California Teachers Union and suffered from multiple health issues that were managed through regular care. Whitfield was her sole caretaker and relative in Montana.

Karr’s body was found wrapped in plastic, under a large amount of trash, in the back corner of the garage during a search of the residence she shared with her son on Oct. 18. She had been the subject of a missing person investigation and had not been seen by anyone other than Whitfield since August of 2020. Autopsy information has not been made available at this time.

A search of the residence also led investigators to the room in which Karr had been confined on the bottom floor of the split-level home. The toilet was broken and unusable, and the bedroom reportedly had a large amount of staining on the floor from bodily fluids. The mattress and box springs were also deeply stained from bodily fluids, but had been moved to the garage.

According to court documents Karr had been hospitalized on Jan. 25, 2020 for repair of a broken hip sustained in a fall. She had previously fractured her arm in a different fall earlier in the month. Karr was admitted to a skilled nursing facility for rehabilitation after the surgery. She was released to her son’s care on May 29, 2020. At the time of her release a social worker noted that Karr had described safety concerns but chose to return home.

An Adult Protective Services investigator reported that during her stay at the skilled nursing facility, Karr had lost her Medicaid coverage, as neither her, nor her son were able to get the necessary paperwork organized. Multiple attempts where made by a Medicaid specialist to get it re-instated but Whitfield allegedly delayed providing the information. The nursing facility offered to let her continue care while they worked to re-instate her Medicaid, but Karr and Whitfield reportedly declined, as “it would make her son at risk for losing too much income for their household for him to support himself.” The social worker reported to Adult Protective Services that Whitfield was hiding Karr’s pension and Medicaid would not pay. The social worker reported that she attempted to convince Karr to remain at the nursing facility but that Whitfield wanted Karr home. After waffling a bit, Karr eventually decided to return home with her son.

Reports from the nursing facility and Adult Protective Services show Whitfield was counseled multiple times on the steps needed to be taken in order to get Karr’s Medicaid re-instated. Documents indicate those steps where not taken.

During a meeting with the Adult Protective Services investigator, Whitfield said he was Karr’s “full caregiver,” transporting her to all appointments, assisting with all care, including meal and medication preparation. He admitted that he relied on Karr’s income and did not have any income otherwise, and that he received Medicaid insurance for himself.

After Karr’s discharge from the nursing facility, Whitfield allegedly cut off all contact with Karr’s health care providers and failed to take her to her scheduled appointments and that a prescription for one of her conditions had subsequently lapsed.

An Adult Protective Services investigator made a visit to the home on Aug. 14, 2020. It was the last time the retired teacher was seen alive by any person other than Whitfield.

Deputies conducted welfare checks at the residence on Feb. 24, 2021, Aug. 20, 2021 and Oct. 29, 2021. During each visit, Whitfield reportedly told officers that Karr had left for Washington State with an unidentified male she had met online. Deputies were never able to make contact with Karr.

During the Oct. 29, 2021 welfare check a Ravalli County Sheriff's deputy conducted a walk-through of the residence, confirming that Karr was not present. Whitfield reportedly told the officer that he had not heard from Karr since she left and that he had no contact information for her. He also admitted to the officer that he did not have his own source of income, and that without Karr’s retirement he would be forced to get a job.

According to court documents, Whitfield has used more than $60,000 of Karr’s retirement funds for his personal use since the last time she was seen, in August of 2020. A review of financial records show that a retirement payment of approximately $2,300 was deposited direct into Karr’s account monthly. The account was jointly owned by her son, and retirement payments had continued to be deposited into the account after her disappearance. Bank records show that Whitfield had spent the funds on his own personal expenses.

During an interview with law enforcement after his arrest, Whitfield attempted to maintain his story that Karr had left the state until he was confronted with the evidence of Karr being missing by officers. Whitfield allegedly said to the officer, “Right…well what do you want me to say?” The deputy responded, “I want you to tell me where you put her.” After thinking for a while longer, Whitfield reportedly said, “What I want to know is how long am I f--ing lookin’ at sittin’ in f--ing’ jail.”

Whitfield is expected to be arraigned on Thursday morning at 9 a.m. in Ravalli County District court via video from the Ravalli County Detention Center.

Jessica Abell is the editor of the Ravalli Republic. 

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