Family Murder Plot in Custody Battle

Mary Slover may never face formal charges in an elaborate family murder plot that enabled her to become a mother. But she may lose her parental rights anyway.

An Illinois judge is expected to decide Friday whether to terminate the Slover's parental rights over her 10-year-old nephew because of Slover's alleged involvement in the 1996 death of her sister-in-law Karyn Hearn Slover.

Mary's brother Michael and parents are serving 60-year prison terms for first-degree murder in that slaying.

Mary has never been arrested in connection with the case. But authorities say she at least knew about the murder and may have been involved in an attempt to conceal the crime. Charges against her continue to be considered.

"The matter of a criminal case against Mary Slover remains an ongoing issue," said Scott Rueter, Macon County district attorney. "Criminal charges are a possibility."

Yet it may be simpler for authorities to take away her parental rights. To bring criminal charges against Slover, prosecutors must believe they have evidence beyond reasonable doubt that proves her guilt.

By contrast, to find her unfit as a parent and terminate her rights, they only have to present clear and convincing evidence — a lower standard of proof.

Family Feud Rooted in Custody Battle

In 1996, Karyn Hearn Slover was shot seven times in the head, dismembered, and then dumped in a lake before being found by authorities.

A custody dispute prompted the slaying: Karyn had won a custody battle with Michael Slover Jr. over their son, identified as "KMS" in court papers. Michael Jr. and his parents feared she was about to accept an out-of-state modeling job and move out West with KMS. So, prosecutors argued, they hatched an elaborate plot to gain custody of the child.

But was Mary Slover part of the plot? After her brother and parents were charged in the slaying in 1999, she legally adopted KMS. Last year, 12 days after the trio's murder conviction, authorities took KMS away from Mary and placed him in foster care after speculation surfaced over her alleged involvement.

Mary has denied any involvement in the murder case. Her attorney believes the slain victim's family's grudge against the Slover family, not concern over KMS, has fueled the drive to terminate her parental rights. Larry and Donna Hearn, Karyn's parents, are seeking guardianship of their grandson.

"My client has never been charged with a crime. She has never been charged with murder, aiding and abetting, concealment, not even jaywalking," said Dan Davlantis, Mary Slover's attorney. "There is no evidence whatsoever that she had anything to do with the murder."

Added Davlantis: "What this is about is the undoing of an adoption, a legal adoption. … I don't know what the family of the victim [the Hearns] have against Mary other than family ties, that they don't like the fact that a Slover has been raising the boy."

Suspicion over Mary Slover's alleged involvement in a murder cover-up was sparked partly by her co-workers, who said in court hearings that she admitted not liking Karyn Hearn Slover. Co-workers testified that Mary believed that she could be a better mother to KMS than Karyn and that she wished death on her sister-in-law.

"This was an ongoing conspiracy to retain a child," Assistant State's Attorney Jack Ahola said during closing arguments in a hearing to determine whether Mary Slover is a fit parent. "Common sense dictates she is into this murder and cover-up of this murder up to her eyeballs. We're not saying she pulled the trigger. We're saying it's her assistance that allowed this crime to almost succeed."

Judge Finds Substitute Mother Unfit

Mary denied making some comments during heated divorce proceedings between Karyn and her brother, but admitted to others. State child psychologists also expressed concern over Mary's alleged attempts to eliminate Karyn from KMS' memory.

However, another psychologist said KMS and his aunt have a very close relationship, that he wants to live with her and that separation could cause him irreparable harm.

Based on this evidence, Judge Scott Diamond, who is proceeding over Slover's parental custody case, decided in August Mary played a role in the concealment of her sister-in-law's slaying and ruled she was a depraved and unfit parent.

"The court can think of no greater immoral acts than to murder an ex-spouse to become a sole custodian of a child, and to be complicit in the concealment of a homicidal death of a mother in order to become the minor's mother. The fact that Mary Slover may have been a good, loving substitute mother is totally irrelevant," Diamond wrote in his decision.

The Bottom Line: The Child’s Best Interests

Parental rights laws vary from state to state. Under Illinois law, parents can be ruled unfit and depraved if they are convicted of first- or second-degree murder of a child or of the mother or father of the child at the center of the custody dispute.

After a parent is found to be unfit, the court must decide whether the parent's rights should be terminated and that involves determining what's best for the child.

"The court must determine what's in the best interests of the child. A parent can be deemed unfit but still maintain their rights if it's determined that it wouldn't be in the child's best interests to be separated," said Bruce Boyer, director of the Child and Family Law Clinic at Loyola University.

"Maybe the child has a strong bond with the parent and doesn't want to be separated," he added. "But sometimes that doesn't matter; we've taken many kids from their parents before."

Perhaps one factor that could help save Mary Slover's parental rights is that she never denied the family of Larry and Donna Hearn visits with KMS.

The Hearns and Michael Slover Jr. were involved in visitation disputes when he had custody of KMS. But Mary Slover made sure that KMS' maternal grandparents were able to see him, even after she moved to Tennessee for a time.

"That is not relevant to the area of fitness [as a parent], but it could play a role in determining what's best for the child," said Boyer. "It could work in her favor."

Perhaps an Uphill Custody Battle for the Defense

But given Judge Diamond's conclusion that Mary Slover's was involved attempted concealment of Karyn Hearn Slover's slaying, it seems likely that he believes her parenthood was fundamentally flawed.

Davlantis said he plans to challenge the procedure the judge used in reaching his ruling and stresses there is no evidence of Mary's involvement in the killing. Davlantis said he will also stress KMS was better cared for under his client's custody and that the boy wants to be reunited with his aunt.

"The boy is doing well. … He's doing better than I think I'd be doing under the circumstances," Davlantis said. "The boy is extraordinary by any definition. I don't know how I'd be handling those kind of conditions."

Judge Diamond will also decide Friday whether to terminate Michael Slover Jr.'s parental rights. Given that he has been convicted of his wife's slaying, it seems certain he will lose them.

And if Judge Diamond terminates Mary Slover's parental rights, KMS will become a ward of the state, which will then determine his permanent home. Mary Slover has the option of appealing, but Davlantis said that decision will lie with his client.

"She has a mounting legal bills, and I don't know how she's going to pay for them," he said. "If the judge rules against her, I'll let my client decide what our next move will be."