‘Sadistic’: Woman convicted of starving, torturing special needs son to death


Shanda Margaret Vander Ark. (Image via the Muskegon Sheriff.)

Shanda Margaret Vander Ark. (Image via the Muskegon Sheriff.)

Shanda Margaret Vander Ark, 44, appeared deeply distraught in court after being shown a picture of her dead son, Timothy Ferguson, 15, but prosecutors say it’s her fault he ended up like that in the first place. Jurors agreed, convicting her Friday of first-degree murder and first-degree child abuse after seeing evidence that she withheld food from the special needs boy, forced him to eat scorching hot sauce, made him sleep on a tarp in a small closet, and in his dying moments, called him “pathetic” and clamped his mouth shut, according to Grand Rapids Fox affiliate WXMI.

Vander Ark reportedly took the stand Thursday in Muskegon County, Michigan. She would apparently vomit or dry heaving after being shown a picture of her son’s body. Her lawyer, Fred Johnson, trying to comfort her, asked Judge Matthew Kacel to end court for the day. Vander Ark did not return when the trial picked up again Friday just before 11 a.m.

“She’s unable to be here for a medical issue,” Judge Matthew Kacel said. “We will continue the trial in her absence.”

Vander Ark had already finished most of her testimony, telling the court of personal challenges, such as her husband, already wheelchair-bound, suffering a stroke in January 2022 and having to move into his parents’ home. The defense maintained she had trouble remembering the events surrounding her son’s death on July 6, 2022, due to an array of mental health challenges: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, sensory processing disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Vander Ark also claimed to have PTSD from after her husband’s stroke.

Her professed lack of memory played out in cross-examination, as prosecutor Matt Roberts pressed her on why she wondered in a text message about dropping hot sauce on Timothy’s genitals.

“I wonder how it would feel to have that hot sauce on your private parts,” Vander Ark reportedly wrote. “I’m not saying touch him there, not at all, but dripping a little bit there, is that horrible.”

Roberts confronted her about this in cross-examination, saying,  “It just popped in your head to say, I wonder what hot sauce on your private parts would be like.”

“I have no idea,” Vander Ark told him.

The recipient of that text was an older son, Paul Ferguson, then 19. Charged with first-degree child abuse in an ongoing case stemming from Timothy’s death, he testified against his mother. He described the situation as being like Stockholm Syndrome.

“I desire to find a role model that, due to my own low self-esteem, I would do anything to make them proud of me,” he reportedly said. “That’s not an excuse, I know, but I feel like I’m glad I was at least able to realize it, so I could correct it.”

On the stand, Vander Ark also claimed not to remember texting Paul the day before Timothy’s death, instructing him to possibly feed Timothy frozen pizza rolls.

“Tell him if he actually sits up by himself and stays sitting up, he’ll get some pizza rolls,” she said. “Don’t tell him it’s only two, and I’m okay if they are frozen rather than cooked.”

This text stood in contrast to her testimony that she locked up the fridge, freezer and pantry not to abuse Timothy, but to stop him from inappropriately sneaking food. For example, he one time took a full bag of frozen chicken.

The autopsy determined that Timothy died of a combination of malnourishment and hypothermia. Authorities at the time of his death said she only fed him bread and hot sauce.

Prosecutor DJ Hilson reportedly told Grand Rapids NBC affiliate WOOD-TV last year that Timothy’s death was “the most disturbing case he has seen in his career.”

“I’ve been at this job for over 20 years,” Hilson said. “The things that walk through this door on a day-in-and-day-out basis are horrific and traumatic. But I can safely say that within my career, this is probably one of the more sadistic and tragic events that I’ve ever seen and witnessed and been a part of.”

Vander Ark had installed cameras, motion sensors, and alarms throughout the home. She had placed one of those cameras in Timothy’s “room” — a small closet under the basement stairs. Judge Matthew Kacel ruled it would be prejudicial to show the footage of Timothy’s final moments for the jury, though Lt. Joel Hoeksema did describe it in court.

In the footage, Vander Ark dragged her son, who was apparently wearing an adult diaper, into the closet, according to testimony. His eyes were open, but he appeared largely unresponsive.

“Very thin, bones protruding,” Hoeksema said. “In particular, he wasn’t wearing any pants, so I could see his hip bones and his knee joint very prominently displayed as she positioned him in front of the camera.”

Vander Ark berated the child.

“I could hear Miss Vander Ark tell Timothy he is pathetic, then say ‘but I already knew that’ when she drags him in, and she also makes a comment about him owing her the biggest apology in the world,”  Hoeksema said.

She stepped out and returned 15 minutes later.

“He was taking short shallow breaths through his mouth, kind of picture how a fish out of water would breathe, and she clamps his mouth shut and tells him he doesn’t need to breathe like that, and holds his mouth shut for a period of time… and tells him, ‘See you didn’t need to breathe through your mouth like that; you’re being a dummy,” he said.

Hoeksema noted a moment in the video in which he believe Timothy died — the teenager’s chest stopped moving.

Authorities said that after finding Timothy unresponsive, it took Vander Ark and Paul Ferguson 18 minutes to call 911.

Jerry Lambe contributed to this report.

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