It was the 1st of July, 2012, when guests at a Best Western hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, heard a woman screaming as she ran down the hallway. The woman was 33-year-old Sharon Flanagan from Inwood, West Virginia. Dominic Netti, who was staying on the same floor, came to her assistance.
Upon entering Sharon’s hotel room, he found the lifeless body of Sharon’s two-year-old son, Steven Flanagan, in the bathtub. He was “lying face down alone in the bathtub… the look of disbelief that was frozen on his little face, with his eyes wide open and glazed over.” He said that while Sharon certainly appeared to be distressed, she didn’t indicate while in the hallway that her son was barely alive in the hotel room. She simply screamed: “My baby! My baby!”
Paramedics arrived on the scene and rushed Steven to Pittsburgh hospital in critical condition. Due to Sharon’s peculiar behaviour at the hotel, police were also called to the scene. Sharon claimed that she had placed Steven into the bathtub with around a foot of water so that he could play. She said that she had become lost in thought and hadn’t realised that Steven had gotten into trouble in the bathtub. In another version of events, she said she had been with Steven in the bathtub but had somehow failed to hold his head above water.1
Police would become so suspicious of Sharon that she was arrested at the hotel and charged with attempted murder. In the criminal complaint, they wrote that her version of events “appeared fabricated and untruthful.” Even more peculiar, Sharon never once inquired as to her son’s condition nor did she try to see him in the hospital. According to Sharon, she and Steven had travelled to Pittsburgh for a short getaway. At the time, her husband, Steven, who was the father of Steven, was at home in West Virginia.
Following Sharon’s arrest, she changed her version of events once more. She said that Steven had been “swimming” in the bathtub while she sat on the lid of the toilet. She said he either fell while climbing on the edge of the bathtub and ended up face-down. She then claimed that when she went to pick Steven up, she “pulled on both of his arms and at one point on his arm and left leg” but said that he was somehow “stuck.” She stated that it appeared as though “something was actually pulling him towards the bottom of the tub.”2
Steven only weighed 32 pounds and very easily could have been lifted from the bathtub by a 150-pound adult. When questioned about this, Sharon claimed that she sometimes suffered from back pain so she left the bathroom while Steven was drowning to retrieve an ACE bandage to help her support her back. She said she put it on before returning to Steven, who was still face-down in the bathtub.3
Sharon went on to say that at the beginning of the event, Steven still “had life in him” but when she returned to the bathroom after putting on the bandage, he was “lifeless.” She said she panicked, grabbed her keys and cell phone and left the hotel room to summon help. However, she had locked herself out of the hotel room, ran to the front desk and retrieved a second key. She returned to the hotel room with the other guest, Dominic, and a security guard.
A couple of days later, Steven tragically passed away at hospital. Following his death, Sharon would be charged with his homicide. Steven’s autopsy would conclude that he had died from complications of drowning. According to court documents that were filed when Sharon was charged with the murder, she had threatened to kill herself and Steven in the past.
At the time of the murder, Sharon and her husband, Steven, had been going through a divorce. Despite the fact that Sharon had threatened to kill him in the past, a judge had allowed her to have partial custody of their son and even travel alone with him. Steven would describe his son as a “miracle baby” and said that he had been conceived after two earlier miscarriages. He said that Steven was a vibrant and happy little boy. When Sharon had threatened to kill Steven and take her own life, he had attempted to get Sharon committed to a psychiatric hospital for the second time. After a review, however, Sharon was allowed to go home. Just three months after she was granted partial custody of Steven, she would be charged with his murder.
Sharon would be ordered to stand trial for the murder of her son. Before then, however, she was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether she would be competent to stand trial. According to two psychiatrists hired by the defence, her mental state had deteriorated since being arrested. Dr. Robert Wettstein would diagnose Sharon as suffering from borderline personality disorder. He also said that despite this, she understood the charges against her.4 Ultimately, she would be determined competent to stand trial and assist in her defence.
The murder trial began in September of 2013. The prosecution would be arguing that Sharon had planned and then committed the murder while the defence would be arguing that the drowning was an accident. According to the prosecution, Sharon had wanted to get back at her husband during their bitter divorce.
It would be revealed during trial that in the week leading up to Steven’s murder, Sharon had researched items relating to drowning children on the internet. She had googled: “leading cause of toddler death” as well as “why is Casey Anthony so popular?”5
Sharon would be called to testify during her own murder trial. She claimed that she was so panic-stricken upon finding Steven facedown in the bathtub that she never attempted to rescue him. She said: “I wish I could have. I pulled the plug. I ran for help. It is something I’ll regret every day of my life.” She relayed her final version of events from that fateful day, claiming that she put Steven in the bathtub with his firefighter’s helmet and a green ball to play with. She said she filled the bathtub with around a foot of water and let him play while she went into the bedroom. She claimed she got “distracted” and was lost in her thoughts when she realised she couldn’t hear Steven playing. She said that she ran into the bathroom to find him face down in the water.
Sharon went on to say she had lied to investigators about trying to rescue her son and said she had done so because she was afraid she would lose custody of him. She accused her husband, Steven, of molesting their son and said: “I lied to them because I cold not bare the thought of losing baby Steven to his father. Prosecutor Lisa Pellegrini would tell the court room that they had investigated the allegations into the sexual abuse but found that they were untrue. By all accounts, Steven was nothing other that a doting and hands-on father.6
The jury would ultimately find Sharon Flanagan guilty of the murder of Steven Flanagan. As the verdict was read aloud by Judge Jeffrey Manning, Sharon shouted out: “Please, I’ll serve any sentence. I can’t be abused in that prison. Judge Manning, please!” The judge would order Sharon to be removed from the courtroom.7
The sentencing phase would follow. Sharon refused to provide a statement or call on any witnesses to testify on her behalf in an attempt to receive a more lenient sentence. Her ex-husband, Steven, however, would provide a victim impact statement. He said: “I cannot fully express my joy that this horrible person who killed my son will never hurt another child. We were as close as close could be. Our home was a true place of happiness. There was no cursing, no hatred, no bitterness, no hitting and no mistreatment of any kind.”8
Sharon Flanagan would receive a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
- Associated Press, 3 July, 2012 – “Woman Tried to Drown Son, 2, in PA. Hotel”
- Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 23 July, 2012 – “Mom Charged in Drowning of Son, 2”
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4 July, 2012 – “W.VA. Mom Charged in Tot’s Near Drowning”
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 20 February, 2013 – “Mother Accused of Drowning Son to be Evaluated”
- Associated Press, 18 September, 2013 – “Lawyer: Woman Searched Online About Child Drowning”
- Pittsburgh Tribune-Hotel, 19 September, 2013 – “Woman Regrets not Helping Drowning Son”
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 21 September, 2013 – “W.Va. Mother of Drowned Toddler Found Guilty”
- Associated Press, 9 December, 2013 – “W.Va. Woman Gets Mandatory Life in Boy’s Drowning”