THORNTOWN, Ind. – It sounded too good to be true: A woman called the parents of a girl who vanished 17 years ago and said she might be their daughter. In the end, it was only a cruel hoax.
William Michael Sherrill, the father of Shannon Marie Sherrill (search), collapsed in tears at a news conference Wednesday, just minutes after he learned of the prank.
"I wasn't expecting this at all. I thought they were going to bring Shannon in here," he told reporters.
Police issued an arrest warrant for Donna L. Walker (search), 35, of Topeka, Kan., who faces a felony charge of identity deception (search) and a misdemeanor charge of false reporting. She remained at large Thursday.
Court records and police interviews indicate Walker has had brushes with the law in California, Kansas, Virginia and Nebraska involving offenses such as making crank calls, writing bad checks, making a bomb threat and using stolen credit cards to run up long-distance charges, according to an affidavit filed by Indiana State Police Lt. Jeff Heck.
State police say it was Walker who called Sherrill on Saturday and told them she might be the girl who disappeared in 1986 while playing hide-and-seek in Thornton, about 30 miles northwest of Indianapolis.
The woman said her name was now Beth Ann Harris and she lived in Virginia Beach, Va.
She may also have contacted news organizations to spread word about the possible break in the case, said state police 1st Sgt. Dave Bursten.
But police in Virginia Beach couldn't find anyone who knew of the woman at the local addresses she had given, department spokesman Jimmy Barnes said.
They came up with Walker's name after other details in the case started sounding familiar.
"We were trying to figure out what kind of person would do this, and it just matched something we had in the past," Barnes said.
Barnes didn't know exactly when Walker lived in Virginia Beach, and police don't think she is there now, he said. Indiana authorities found an address for Walker in the Midwest, he said.
Neighbors have given varying dates when they last saw Walker in the red-brick condominium in a middle-class Topeka neighborhood where she lived. Her landlord said she moved in in April, and neighbors said she came from California.
Bursten said Walker had given three different fictitious names to investigators in recent days.
"We don't know what her motivation was and it is impossible for us to guess," Bursten said. "We live in an age today where people like to receive attention."
The caller began postponing meetings with authorities, who wanted to conduct DNA testing. Authorities think Walker even called and posed as the caller's husband, offering more excuses on why a meeting had to be postponed, Bursten said.
At Tuesday's hearing to charge Walker in Boone County, Heck said a 1992 homicide investigation report from Virginia Beach indicated Walker might have "multiple personalities and is capable of talking in a male voice."
Both Bursten and William Sherrill said the caller appeared to have researched Shannon's case.
Topeka police Lt. John Sidwell said officers there were helping in the search for Walker. Indiana State Police have said they expect her to be arrested soon.
"We know who she is; she can't hide forever," Bursten said. "Now the rest of the country will know what she's accused of and what she's done."