Shannon Pepper was brutally beaten into a coma in 2013 by an abusive live-in boyfriend who bit her so violently her lip was nearly torn off, and then punched and kicked her until her jaw and ribs were broken.
After enduring all that, and after helping prosecutors put the attacker in state prison for 20 years, Pepper became an outspoken public advocate for tougher laws to protect women from domestic abuse.
But Pepper’s life ended in tragedy Saturday, as fire of unknown origin heavily damaged her apartment in the Village of Cuba, Allegany County.
“I was heartbroken when I heard about it,” said Cattaraugus County District Attorney Lori Pettit Rieman, who called Pepper one of the “toughest, most courageous” crime victims she has ever met.
“Shannon suffered so much. She survived so much; it’s just very sad to see her life end this way,” Rieman told The Buffalo News on Sunday. “It’s just tragic, so tragic.”
Police in Cuba – about 75 miles southeast of Buffalo – said the fire was under investigation Sunday but declined to discuss their investigation or to speculate on the cause. Police Chief Dustin T. Burch told the Olean Times Herald on Saturday that “we don’t believe foul play was involved, but we can’t rule it out, either.”
Flames erupted early Saturday at a 48-unit low-income apartment complex called the Erin’s Isle Apartments on Bristol Street. Although several other people required hospital treatment, authorities said Pepper, 37, was the only person killed.
An autopsy was conducted and the cause of death was smoke inhalation, said Cleon W. Easton III, a county coroner.
Because the fire did not occur in the county where Rieman works, the district attorney said she had no information about the fire investigation. But she added that, from everything she knows about the case, she would be surprised if anyone close to her attacker would carry out an act of retribution against Pepper. She said the convicted attacker, Anthony Nevone, has been incarcerated since July 2013, when he put Pepper into a coma.
Pepper’s mother, Linda Randolph of Cuba, said she and her husband, Thomas, will be closely watching to see what comes of the investigation.
“I have a suspicious nature. … I’m waiting to hear more from the police,” Linda Randolph said. “We’ve been told that her apartment was very heavily damaged, and that her body was found in the bedroom.”
She described her daughter as a warm, intelligent, charitable and fun-loving woman who struggled at times with alcohol and bad choices in men.
“After all she had been through, Shannon was coming back. She had her own car, her own apartment … She was making a comeback,” Randolph said.
A native of Cattaraugus County, Pepper grew up in Franklinville. She lived in Portville when she was assaulted, but she moved to nearby Cuba, in Allegany County, after the beating.
Nevone, now 47 – was sentenced to state prison for 20 years last year, after pleading guilty to a felony charge of assaulting Pepper.
Pepper’s cooperation as a witness against Nevone was a key factor in the case, said Rieman. The district attorney called it the worst domestic case of domestic violence she has ever handled. She added that Nevone’s 20-year prison term is the longest she has ever seen for a nonfatal incident of domestic violence.
According to Rieman, Pepper “almost died” as the result of a marathon beating that went on for two straight days, with Nevone repeatedly punching and kicking Pepper and hitting her with hard-edged household objects, such as a DVD player, until she was unconscious. The Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office investigated.
Rieman said Pepper was in a coma for nearly a month after being flown to the Erie County Medical Center in the Mercy Flight emergency helicopter.
“We didn’t know if she would survive, but she did, and she helped us build a case against Nevone,” Rieman said. The prosecutor said Pepper told investigators that her life with Nevone had been “like living with the devil.”
Some facts she learned about Nevone after the beating prompted Pepper to become a public advocate for tougher state laws to protect women against abusers, Rieman said.
“Before Nevone even met Shannon, he had spent time in prison for beating another woman and almost killing her,” Rieman said. “Shannon had no idea about his previous conviction when she met him.”
According to state Corrections Department records, Nevone was imprisoned for felony assault from April 1998 until February 2011. After his conviction for assaulting Pepper, he re-entered the state prison system on August 15 of last year. His earliest possible release, if he qualifies for parole, would be Sept. 2, 2030.
After Nevone’s sentencing, Pepper and her mother became outspoken advocates for a proposed domestic violence prevention law that would create a statewide registry of violent offenders, similar to the state’s sex offender registry. Rieman said Pepper and her mother spoke in favor of the proposed law and circulated an online petition.
The proposed law is called “Brittany’s Law” and is named after Brittany Passalacqua, 12, who was murdered in Geneva in 2009. Passalacqua and her mother, Helen Buchel, were stabbed to death by John Edward Brown, who had previously served time for assaulting his infant daughter.
“I believe that, if that law was in effect, Shannon never would have been victimized” by Nevone, Linda Randolph said. She added that Nevone was not the first man who abused her daughter.
Randolph said her daughter is survived by a former husband, Dean Pepper; a daughter, Cheyenne Pepper, 17, and a son, D’Artgnan Pepper, 14. “She loved her two kids more than anything,” Randolph said.
She said her daughter was a graduate of Franklinville High School and Jamestown Community College. She had worked at a Walmart, a Pizza Hut and had helped a friend set up an Internet sales business for his antique shop in Cattaraugus County.
“Shannon would tell people, ‘If you become my friend, you have a friend for the rest of your life,’ ” her mother recalled. “If a friend needed help, she was there.”
Rieman said she hopes Pepper’s death will inspire state legislators and crime victim advocates to work harder for the passage of Brittany’s Law.
“Shannon didn’t deserve any of the bad things that happened to her,” Rieman said. “Hopefully we can do some good things in her name.”