One murder, many victims

Woman says her mother’s death erased any chance she had of having a childhood

Barb Sweet
Published on February 22, 2014

Shirley Sharpe holds three photographs of her mother, showing Mary O’Brien as a child, a teenager and a 1970s fashionable, smiling woman unaware her life would soon be gone.

“Many days I sit and wonder,” Sharpe said, sitting in her St. John’s apartment.

“What would she think of her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren?”

O’Brien, 32, was found dead in her Cabot Street apartment on Oct. 21, 1975.

Her then 41-year-old common-law spouse, Allan Richard Penney, was charged with second-degree murder, but was acquitted in his first trial in 1976.

In 1980, he stood trial again, after a new trial was ordered by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Penney was convicted of second-degree murder — strangling O’Brien with a bra — and sentenced to life in prison.

He was granted full parole in 1990.

Sharpe contacted The Telegram after a co-worker passed on a newspaper article about a vigil earlier this month — organized by non-profit groups — to remember women and girls who are missing or have been killed.

She was only 11 when her mother was murdered and knows only what family members have told her.

By that time, she and her three siblings were in foster care — O’Brien and their father had split up years earlier.

“We were so young, and after it happened everything was kept from us. Nobody from social services even spoke to us,” Sharpe recalls of the murder.

“I can remember the day. The Salvation Army, actually, they brought Dad into the school and told us. I can remember that day like it was yesterday.”

In the days following the murder, the children went to their grandmother’s during the day and back to their foster homes at night, Sharpe recalls.

“I can remember the police coming out to my grandmother’s house, her screaming, saying, ‘My daughter was murdered,’” she said.

“That stands out, and from that it just goes to the gravesite. Everybody was around, but I was alone. … She was buried and that was it. It seems like — poof! — and it was all over with.’”

Telegram court coverage of the time suggests the couple had a fight. Penney denied strangling O’Brien, and pathologists testifying for the Crown and the defence differed on the cause of death. The defence expert said she fell.

Her blood contained small amounts of tranquilizers, sleeping pills and diet pills and the couple had some alcohol, according to the news coverage.

Penney claimed in court that he found her on the floor a few times that night and at one point had attempted resuscitation.

One description of his account in the court coverage seems chilling.

“The third time he woke and found her on the floor, Penney said he decided to leave her there,” the story read.

“He got up to get a coffee and stepped over her. On his way back some of the coffee spilled on her back. He stopped to wipe it off and when he turned her over, noticed her lips were blue.”

Penney also reportedly had said to an officer that he didn’t think he had applied that much pressure, the Crown suggesting that was an admission to the strangulation and Penney claiming it was a reference to emotional pressure.

Sharpe is appalled at the length of time he served.

“Ten years seems like nothing to me,” she said.

Sharpe wouldn’t know him to see him now.

Her mother and Penney had been together a few years, and while she didn’t notice any disagreements, she doesn’t recall the kids ever spending a night in their small apartment.

O’Brien would cook Sunday dinner for them or take them for a drive. Sharpe last saw her about a week and a half before the murder.

Sharpe said the children went into foster care when she was around age nine. At the time of their mother’s death, Sharpe’s siblings were 13, nine and six.

She said the home she was placed in was uncaring and abusive, although she dodged the worst of it and never pursued charges.

Sharpe recalls Christmases — her mother’s birthday — watching her foster parents’ children open numerous gifts while foster kids in the house might have a sweater or something small under the tree.

“It was basically, ‘You are there. We got our cheque coming in. You can do what you want, stay out of my face,’” she said.

“Social services, every six months they would come in and do a house check and sit down with the foster parents and ask how everything was. They’d ask us, but the foster parents would be sat there. If something happened, you’re not going to say. You would be frightened to death they would just leave you there anyway.”

At 16, her then best friend’s parents took her in and life changed. Her other siblings had gone back to live with her father, but Sharpe, now with a supportive foster family, chose to stay in care so she could graduate from the high school she had been attending.

“They were very nice. They helped me as much as they could, helped me get my car, cosigned for the loan and helped me get my first job,” she said of the couple that took her in.

Now with two children of her own and two grandchildren, Sharpe said she isn’t close to her siblings and still wonders what life would have brought if her mother had lived.

“From the best understanding of what I was told, she had saved some money and was in the process of purchasing a trailer home,” Sharpe said of family accounts of O’Brien planning to leave Penney and reunite with her children. She is not sure where that information came from, but cherishes the possibility.

“It was just a relief knowing she did want us back,” Sharpe said.

“I would like to believe in the chance of having a childhood.”

The vigil  — which was held

Feb. 3 — and compilation of a database remembering nearly 70 women is a project of the  project organized by Marguerite’s Place, the Coalition Against Violence — Avalon East, the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre and the Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre.

For Telegram stories on the subject, go to