MUSKEGON, Mich. — Testimony began Wednesday in the trial of a Norton Shores mother accused of neglecting her 15-year-old son with special needs so severely that he died in the basement of their home.
Shanda Vander Ark faces first degree murder and child abuse charges, after her son Timothy Ferguson was found dead on July 6, 2022.
Timothy’s older brother, Paul Ferguson, was also charged in his brother’s death. Currently, he is sitting in the Muskegon County jail on charges of child abuse of a family member.
Prosecutors said in court Wednesday that Ferguson will testify in his mother's trial.
Together, the pair is accused of orchestrating a campaign of terror on Timothy, who moved in with them and a younger son in May 2021.
Timothy was previously living with his biological father in Oklahoma.
Public defender Fred Johnson, who is defending Vander Ark, said that his client received a call from the boy's dad in early 2021 telling her that she needed to take him or he was going to give him up to state child services.
“She takes him to her home and then the wheels start to fall off in her life. Her husband gets seriously ill, and she is now struggling with the expenses of the home and the three children,” Johnson told the jury.
He explained that Vander Ark's current husband had a stroke in January of 2022, forcing him to move out of the family home and in with his parents, as he is not able to go up and down stairs.
Johnson's opening statement hammered on the fact that a guilty conviction on the charges she is facing would require Vander Ark and her son to have had the intent to kill Timothy.
"They don't figure out they're hurting Tim until he’s dead," Johnson said.
"That's the first time it occurs to them, 'hey, we have a problem,' and they panic, try to make up stories."
Initially, when police arrived at the Vander Ark home on July 6, Shanda allegedly told officers that Timothy was injured after falling out of a bunk bed he was sleeping in.
Prosecutors explained that Shanda was attempting to cover up months of abuse.
Muskegon County's Chief Trial Attorney Matt Roberts said Timothy was often forced to sleep in a small room under the basement stairs without a blanket or pillow.
“As if part of some demented version of Harry Potter, there is a small closet with an alarm on the door, inside that closet is a blue tarp just laying on the floor, and a small box."
Prosecutors say when Timothy was found dead he was severely malnourished, as a result of his mother and older brother restricting his access to food.
"Locks on the freezer, locks on the fridge, an alarm on the pantry door," Roberts told the jury.
He spoke of times before his death where Timothy was only allowed to eat slices of bread covered in hot sauce.
Prosecutors brought two people up on the stand late Wednesday to read through a series of text messages sent between Shanda and Paul.
"He's already pressing ever [sic] one of my buttons," Paul texted his mom.
"What is he doing?" she responds.
Paul allegedly shoots back, "the whole shaking and 'I need support' crap. I'm ready to slam him into the ground. He also wet the bed and is covered in urine."
In the hours leading up to his death, the pair is accused of forcing Timothy to spend prolonged periods of time in an ice bath.
"For roughly the last nine hours that Timothy Ferguson was alive, he was in an ice bath," Roberts said.
Several text messages read in court Wednesday refer to placing Timothy in an ice bath.
Testimony will continue Thursday morning.
If convicted of both charges, Vander Ark could spend the rest of her life in prison.