Skull trial moves to District Court

A Carson City woman accused of buying a skull removed from the crypt of a prominent Carson City lawyer was back in judicial court Thursday for the close of her preliminary hearing.

Nanette Birdsell, 36, maintained her innocence against charges that she bought a skull removed from the crypt of Patrick Henry Clayton and his wife, Susan. She said she remained hopeful that the charges against her would be dismissed by Judge John Tatro. Instead he gave her a scathing speech on the social influence of methamphetamine.

Kay Ellen Armstrong, Birdsell's lawyer in the case, questioned Detective Steve Johnson, the deputy sheriff who coordinated the investigation and subsequent arrest.

Johnson said he first learned of the skull theft while questioning David Shaughnessy in July. During the taped interview, Shaughnessy admitted to breaking into the crypt in Lone Mountain Cemetery with his then girlfriend, who he said did the actual skull removal with a chisel and a hammer.

Shaughnessy was sentenced to five years probation and 100 hours community service for his part in the theft. The sentence was part of a plea bargain where he agreed to testify for the prosecution.

When Shaughnessy told the detective that he had been contracted by Birdsell to commit the robbery for the sum of $400 cash and $400 worth of drugs, Johnson testified he brought Birdsell down to the station.

During his interview with Birdsell on July 14, Johnson said, she "denied having it (the skull), but stated she had paid for it but had not received it." The skull in question, believed to belong to Susan Clayton, has not been recovered. Patrick Henry Clayton's skull was in Shaughnessy's possession at the time of his arrest.

While Johnson was on the stand, Armstrong questioned him about how much information was exchanged while the recorder was turned off and whether Shaughnessy, at the time of his taped testimony, was visibly under the influence of methamphetamine.

Johnson said the signs of visible intoxication, such as dilated pupils in the eyes, were not present, but he added that hardcore users sometimes don't display the typical symptoms.

Alexander also questioned the detective about Shaughnessy's access to legal representation during questioning.

Johnson said he made it a point to constantly remind Shaughnessy, who had waved his legal right to counsel, that counsel could be made available at his request. He said he made the offer four times during the interview.

Near the end of the preliminary hearing, Armstrong moved to have the case dismissed because, she argued, there was not substantial evidence that she had knowledge that the skull had been removed from the crypt when she bought it.

Deputy District Anne Langer, in her rejection of that argument, said testimony from Shaughnessy and Birdsell's own admission of payment in her interview with Detective Johnson, was evidence enough to proceed with a trial.

Judge Tatro, in his judgment to send the case to District Court for trial, said the bizarre behavior surrounding this grave robbery can be attributed to the crippling influence of methamphetamine. This case, he said, shows as well as any other what methamphetamine can do to people.

"To me the whole underlying issue is crank," he said. "How it just takes people over and makes them crazy."

If convicted of the grave robbery charges, Birdsell could be sentenced to between one and six years in prison.


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