LEBANON, Ind. -- A woman who pulled a cruel hoax on a couple by claiming to be their long-lost daughter pleaded guilty but mentally ill yesterday and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Donna Walker, 36, of Topeka, Kan., also was ordered to undergo any mental health treatment recommended by authorities.
Last summer, Walker telephoned the family of Shannon Sherrill -- who was 6 when she vanished in 1986 while playing hide-and-seek outside her Indiana home -- and claimed to be a now grown-up Shannon.
She continued the ruse for days, calling not only Shannon's family but police and the news media, sometimes pretending to be other people.
The family soon learned it was a hoax, and Shannon's father broke down in tears during a news conference.
Walker pleaded guilty but mentally ill to attempted identity deception and false reporting.
Dorothy Sherrill, the missing girl's mother, testified yesterday that the episode has "torn my family apart."
"I don't see how someone could do this," she said. "I feel like I've lost my daughter three times in 18 years."
Walker declined to speak in court when Judge Matthew Kincaid asked whether she wanted to address the Sherrills, and said nothing as she was led away. She has said she was adjusting to new medication for mental illness when she pulled the hoax last July.
Prosecutor Todd Meyer said that Walker suffered from a mental disorder that compels her to perpetrate "grand hoaxes" to gain attention.
Court records and interviews indicate Walker has had brushes with the law in California, Kansas, Virginia, and Nebraska. Charges included making crank calls, reporting a false fire alarm, writing bad checks, making a bomb threat, and using stolen credit cards to run up long-distance charges.
William Sherrill's stepdaughter, Kelly Clark, read a statement for him yesterday saying the family endured "emotional torture."
"There needs to be a law in the future to protect families from the type of pain Donna Walker has inflicted," Clark said.