What happened to Shanna Halleran? Family fears police investigated too late
Shanna Halleran spent the last two days of her life awake in a St. John’s hospital bed, critically injured but capable of answering questions from police about how she got there, says her family — if only the police had shown up.
Halleran died on Aug. 17, 2019, without ever being questioned by police, her family says.
That’s left a huge void for the people who loved her and few clues to catch the person responsible for her death.
“I’m extremely angry about it,” said Stacey Halleran, Shanna’s younger sister.
“And it’s on both parts: the people who are involved and the police. It feels completely ignored and pushed aside, that’s how it feels.”
The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) says her death is “suspicious” and that it involved a vehicle. The force is declining to answer questions about its handling of the case or about the status of the investigation into her death.
The medical examiner’s office has determined the 36-year-old’s manner of death is inconclusive.
But Halleran’s family is convinced that what happened was no accident.
Misdiagnosis led to drug addiction
To understand why Shanna Halleran was on an isolated section of Minerals Road in Conception Bay South on Aug. 15, 2019, her family says you need to know about her life in the months and years leading up to her death.
Barb Houlihan says her first-born child was kind, funny and athletic. Halleran played basketball and baseball and was involved in cheerleading throughout school.
But when she was in her teenage years, Houlihan said, Halleran was misdiagnosed with social anxiety.
There was a time when Halleran begged her mother to bring her to hospital, Houlihan said, because she thought she was going crazy.
Halleran was given Paxil for social anxiety, but as the anxiety became worse, Ativan was added to the mix. When she couldn’t sleep, her doctor suggested sleeping pills, Houlihan said.
Misuse of those drugs and an untreated mental illness culminated in a full-blown opioid addiction.
Then, a year before her death and on her birthday, Halleran’s father died. That sent her into a tailspin — further into addiction and sex work to pay for that addiction.
“When she lost him, she felt utterly alone, and after that was when she started to disappear for a few days,” her sister, Stacey, said.
The day it happened
On the day Halleran was critically injured, the family says it has been told by the RNC, she was doing drugs in a truck with two other women and a man.
The family says it was informed by police about what they heard from witnesses: Halleran started to get sick on the drive out of Minerals Road, so they stopped the truck on the side of the road.
“[The police said] Shanna got out, got hit by a car and the car drove off. And it was a van,” Stacey Halleran said.
Asked if she believes that happened, she is quick to dismiss it.
“No, not at all.”
CBC News was unsuccessful in attempting to contact two of the individuals in the vehicle that day. According to the family, they are not considered suspects in the case. CBC News has also not been able to verify the identity of the third person.
The family’s search for the truth in Halleran’s death has been dizzying and frustrating, her sister said.
What is known for sure is that paramedics carried Shanna Halleran on a stretcher, with her pelvis crushed, from Minerals Road at about 1 p.m. that day.
‘It’s so hurtful to be treated that way’
Houlihan, her daughter’s next of kin, says she never received a call from the hospital or police, even though Halleran had her wallet and ID on her when she was admitted. (Eastern Health, the region’s health authority, said it doesn’t comment on specific cases but relies on information provided by patients.)
Houlihan learned that something bad had happened when her phone rang at 6 a.m. on Aug. 16, the day after the injury occurred. It was her daughter’s boyfriend with a chilling message: “Check the hospitals, Shanna has been struck by a vehicle.”
“When I went over, I didn’t know what to expect. She seemed fine in the bed. They let me in to see her,” Houlihan said.
“The nurse told me she had trauma to the belly, but I had no idea really what that meant or to what extent.”
Without knowing how serious her daughter’s injuries were, Houlihan figured she’d have lots of time to ask what happened.
But Halleran never got better.
A news release by the RNC around the time of Halleran’s death indicates officers responded to the incident on Minerals Road, but it’s not clear what happened next.
Stacey Halleran said she called the police and was told by an officer that he couldn’t find a report of an accident in the system.
“I was frustrated then because I was like, you can’t tell me anything, the hospital can’t tell me anything and my sister is in hospital with serious injuries — and nobody even bothered to even phone us to tell us she was there,” Stacey Halleran said.
After she explained to the officer that her sister was a drug user, she said she got a shocking response.
“He said, ‘I see. I think you should ask your drug addict sister what happened,'” Stacey Halleran said. “And I was just taken aback and didn’t know how to respond and ended the conversation there.”
Following CBC’s interview with Stacey Halleran, the family said an RNC officer handling the case called her to apologize for the comment.
Stacey Halleran said she was given the opportunity to make a complaint; she now plans to do so.
“I don’t know if they’re so tired with having to deal with all this stuff on a daily basis,” she said. “We understand, we dealt with Shanna her whole life, we understand how frustrating drug addiction is and how hard it is and how hard it is on the families … but it’s so hurtful to be treated that way.”
Police not answering questions
CBC News sent the RNC a detailed list of questions, including the time it took for the police to become actively involved and the force’s policy on hit-and-run investigations.
The RNC would not answer those questions and instead issued a statement.
“The investigation into the events surrounding the death of Shanna Halleran remains open,” Const. James Cadigan said in an emailed statement.
“We continue to request that anyone with information which may assist the investigation to contact the RNC or Crime Stoppers.”
The force also didn’t comment on whether an officer has since apologized to the family about the “drug addict” comment made two years ago.
The RNC sent a follow-up statement when asked for additional information saying it begins an investigation upon learning of a possible criminal act.
Family believes death not an accident
Neither Houlihan nor her surviving daughter believe Shanna Halleran’s death was an accident.
Roads were clear and dry the day she was injured. It was the middle of the day.
And the family says Halleran would have told them if it was an accident. Instead, they say she appeared to be afraid to talk about it.
The family believes people know what happened but fear coming forward.
“We just want to know what happened, and if we could find out who did it, that would be a bonus,” Stacey Halleran said.
The family believes the RNC reacted to the incident slowly because of Shanna Halleran’s lifestyle and that officers dismissed it as a drug matter.
Both women say they wonder how differently the case would have been treated had Halleran not been an apparent drug user.
“I guess they assume it’s drug-related, and with drug addicts you have to expect something like this,” Houlihan said.
“You hear it all the time: If there’s a hit and run, it’s on the news that evening asking people if they saw anything to call in with information. There was no request for information until well after the fact.”
At her home in the town of Paradise, Stacey Halleran keeps precise notes of what she’s been told about the investigation, a journal of what she remembers the day her sister died.
The ordeal has made her realize there’s more lip service than action when it comes to helping people like her sister, she said, and it’s a key example of why vulnerable people are reluctant to seek help.
“It’s a lack of compassion and empathy on everybody’s part. It needs to change, but it will never change, it will stay status quo.”