By Paul LaRosa
Was an unusual death on beautiful Orcas Island a suicide or something else entirely?
Carla Jean Shaffer’s death has always been a mystery but was it a murder?
That’s the question haunting her friends and family nearly 14 years after her passing. Many theories abound, everything from ‘dark forces,’ a conspiracy, mind manipulation and, yes, murder. But with all of that, there also is talk of suicide and a mental breakdown.
“I don’t tell that many people about it,” says Shaffer’s younger sister Lecia Shaffer. “It’s truly an unbelievable story. Do I think it was suicide? No, it’s very hard to believe that. Was it murder? I don’t know. Mind manipulation, some type of cult activity? I don’t know what happened to her.”
It was in the early morning hours of January 5, 2006 that Shaffer was found dead in a small pond on Orcas Island, perhaps the most beautiful of all the San Juan Islands. It is certainly the most posh island in the chain. Various celebrities have had a second home on Orcas over the years and even Oprah Winfrey purchased one for $8 million back in 2018.
But the island also has drawn a fringe element to its shores. For many years, a spiritual group had its headquarters in what is now The Outlook Inn. The Louis Foundation chose the spot because it looked out onto a supposed energy vortex across the harbor.
And there is an eerie quality about the island. There is a Native American burial ground not far from the center of Eastsound, the same town that for months was under siege by the so-called Barefoot Bandit, the teenager Colton Harris-Moore who taught himself how to fly and crashed five single engine planes. Harris-Moore used the island as his personal playground, breaking into homes and stealing boats and planes while on the run from the law.
From the beginning, nothing about Carla’s death made sense. The cause of death was listed as drowning and yet she was a strong swimmer her entire life.
But to understand just how unusual and seemingly evil Carla’s death was, one must look back at an attack she suffered three weeks earlier on December 14, 2005. It was then, again early in the morning, that Carla was found naked and bloody after she had crashed her Volvo on the side of one of Orcas Island’s small roads.
Carla—an artist who lived alone in a 3-bedroom house with a separate sleeping cottage in the island’s Opal community--had suffered a savage attack totally at odds with the island’s reputation as a peaceful landing spot place for aging hippies, New Age Mystics and “woke” millionaires.
Carla’s face, neck and body were covered in bruises and she had been stabbed repeatedly in her neck, chest and abdomen. There were lacerations across her lip; a tooth was missing. She was unable to open one eye. There were multiple stab wounds to her torso so serious that a hospital report stated: “When the patient does attempt to answer questions, it is clear that she has an open chest injury with fluttering air through these wounds.”
Carla also had strange slit wounds to the upper and lower lid of her right eye and the upper lid of her left eye. She was unable to provide police or hospital workers with a coherent story of what had happened to her. When her younger sister Lecia, who lives out of state, finally reached her and asked what had happened, Carla was evasive. “I tried to pin her down,” Lecia told me, “and she said: ‘It was a fight between good and evil and evil won.’”
Reportedly, Carla made several statements to one of the first responders. Among the things she said:
-- “Don’t let them get me.”
-- “Just let me die.”
-- “Do you know about mind control?”
She also reportedly said something about “two men.”
But because Carla would not name whoever attacked her, doctors began to suspect her injuries might have been self-inflicted. “It makes no sense,” Lecia said, “My sister was someone who cared very much about her appearance. She watched what she ate and she exercised and she was a very put-together 52-year-old.”
Carla was treated for her injuries and given a day or two of psychiatric care before she was released to friends from the island. She lived in their house on Orcas for a while but eventually returned to her cottage. Not long after, she was found “drowned” in that small pond.
Randall Gaylord, the San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney, said the drowning was a “finding of exclusion.”
“Her death was declared a drowning,” Gaylord told me, “because she was found face down in a pond of water. There was no other cause of death from an anatomical standpoint. The lungs were inconsistent with drowning. One lung had more weight than the other. I engaged a doctor to help me out—Dr. Norman Thiersch from Snohomish County--he’s the one who declared it a drowning.”
“Accordingly, I conclude the death was an accident,” Gaylord wrote in a memorandum.
But even Gaylord says of the earlier attack, “To this day that stabbing incident has a lot of unanswered questions due in part that she never identified anybody who was with her or who may have stabbed her.”
Carla had been divorced from her husband Jim Shaffer-Bauck for a long time but he still cared for her and, like her two daughters Lyria and Karina Shaffer-Bauck, he wondered what the hell had happened?
“It still seems surreal,” he told me in an interview.
Jim believes his ex-wife was murdered and bases that assessment on his gut and his familiarity with Carla: “She loved to swim and she was very proud of her teeth.”
Carla was not a native of Orcas Island, Washington, but then few people are. She was born and raised in Spencer, Iowa, one of five children. She met her husband Jim in Kansas and, after they visited Orcas Island, decided to live there. Both daughters were raised there. Jim still lives there and so does daughter Karina.
Back in 2006, daughter Lyria was in college and on a trip to Equador and got a message to call home immediately. “I called from one of these plexi-glass phone booths and I was told my mother was dead,” she say. “I thought my life was over.”
For a time, Lyria, who is a graphic designer in Seattle, wanted to put her mother’s death behind her but, as the years have passed, she says she’s come to understand how strange it truly was, and now wants answers. Especially in the past year, Lyria began digging and got as many records as she could. The police report gave her many more details about that first brutal attack in December, 2005.
In police reports, Carla’s attack was listed as “attempted murder/rape” because that’s precisely what it appeared to be. Carla had no romantic involvement with anyone and lived alone.
After she was air-lifted to St. Joseph’s Hospital in nearby Anacortes, WA, police went to her residence where they found one of her neighbors, Deborah Martyn, cleaning up the crime scene. It was, to say the least, very unusual. Except that Martyn claimed she did not know Carla’s three-bedroom home was a crime scene.
Martyn said another neighbor Molly Roberts, who corroborated Martyn’s story, had been leaving for work early on December 14 when she saw the door to Carla’s home was open. Looking inside, Roberts told police she saw “a large pool of blood and broken glass in the kitchen” (from the police report). Martyn said Roberts asked her to clean up because Roberts believed that either Carla or one of her cats had been sick and had vomited blood all over.
Martyn said she was just being neighborly by cleaning up. She then went to work picking up broken glass, cleaning four bloody knives and mopping the blood off the floor. She may have been a good neighbor but she also destroyed the crime scene and contaminated any evidence that may have been found there.
Immediately, theories about what had happened to Carla spread across the island and are even in the police reports. They only increased in intensity 20 days later when Carla was found dead. If it was a suicide, she did not leave a note.
To understand some of the theories, one must understand Orcas Island. It is a gorgeous place but, to quote Lecia Shaffer, “It has quite the cast of characters. The people there are very artistic and spiritual. One of the reasons you end up on Orcas is you’re spiritual. You’re not a 9 to 5 law firm kind of person. The people there are nice but they’re artistic and eclectic.”
In fact, that sums up Carla Jean Shaffer. Earlier in her life, she was a dancer and so small that some refer to her as “a tiny dancer.” Later, she worked in the food service industry and did some art work. At the time of her death, she also was working with something called a Rife Machine which uses electronic impulses to kill or disable diseased cells.
Carla also had been a member of the Baha’i faith for many years. Toward the end of her life, she had become friendly with members of other spiritual groups on the island. Although there is no proof that any group or individual was involved in her death, some islanders have proposed theories that suggest a connection.
Her ex-husband Jim is one of those people. “There’s no question she was killed,” he says. “What made me really suspicious is that I was in a restaurant and Carla came in and she railed at (the group’s spiritual leader). She was really disturbed about something.”
But there’s no telling what that argument was about and was that argument precipitated by the leader or was it simply more evidence of Carla’s precarious mental state? More than one person has suggested she suffered a breakdown. Even Jim admits Carla “had psychological issues. She always needed someone to fix her life. She was always searching.”
What is certain is that murders don’t happen in a vacuum and there seems to be no motive for anyone to have wanted to kill Carla. She apparently did not have a lover and was not wealthy and that removes the two leading causes of murder. People say she was campaigning against cell phones towers on the island but that seems like a very thin motive, especially since she was one of many.
The police declared the wounds from the December incident to be self-inflicted which greatly bothers her family. Her sister Lecia insists that, at the hospital, “she spoke to me in the articulate manner, the way she always spoke to me.”
Daughter Lyria believes something happened to her mother that involved “foul play” and perhaps “mind manipulation.”
Carla’s sister Lecia says “Do I think it was suicide. No, it’s very hard to believe that. Is it murder? I don’t know. Maybe it was mind manipulation. I don’t know what happened to her.”
The police are no longer investigating.
Because there are too many theories out there without any proof, I decided to seek answers from a trained professional. I submitted Carla’s autopsy and hospital reports to a well-regarded Medical Examiner who is prominent in the field.
He had no reason to believe one theory over another but, after reading everything and looking at the cold hard facts, here is what he had to say:
“I’m stunned that they called this an accident. There’s no evidence that a third party was not involved. I did a pysch internship and I have seen self-inflicted wounds but I’ve never seen anything this extensive. I’ve never seen anyone do this to themselves, not to say it couldn’t happen.”
This doctor found the finding that the drowning was “accidental” to be problematic. “There’s an old saying, ‘it’s a homicide until proven otherwise’ but there’s no way I could call this a homicide. For God’s sake, why not say ‘undetermined?’ It’s suspicious and unusual enough that we don’t know what this was.
“I have no way of proving this but in my gut, this is a homicide and I don’t say that lightly. Bizarre things present themselves bizarrely. This is beyond the pale. She could have been delirious because of shock. It doesn’t add up and I am a fan of saying I don’t know when I don’t know.
“I think what happened was the cops and prosecutor wanted to put this in a box and it looks like the medical examiner wanted it to be a suicide. Why not just call it ‘undetermined?’ A diagnosis of exclusion by drowning means you’ve ruled everything else out but in this case you have not done that. Could she have been asphyxiated with a pillow? There’s no way to rule that out.
“Why not just say, we don’t know and keep it undetermined and keep it open. It sure smells like somebody killed her. This case stinks of something. If you put me on the witness stand I’d say she could killed herself but I’ve never seen this extent of self-inflicted injuries.”
As I told Lyria after hearing these comments, I’m not sure this makes things better or worse. Carla’s death and the earlier attack still seem as mysterious as ever, as mysterious as the beauty of Orcas Island itself.
Copyright 2019 by Paul La Rosa. All Rights Reserved.
Paul La Rosa has worked in broadcast television for CBS News, mostly as a producer for the newsmagazine “48 Hours.” He’s won four national Emmys, one of them a Primetime Emmy for the highly-praised CBS documentary “9/11.” LaRosa was one of the producers of that documentary and in 2003 he was awarded a Peabody Award, a DuPont Award, a Christopher Award and an Edward R. Murrow Award. He’s also won two Gracie Awards and a New York Press Club Award for different segments. He is also the author of five books.