NORTON SHORES, Mich. (WOOD) — A Norton Shores woman has been charged with murder in the death of her teenage son, who authorities say had been abused, with the Muskegon County prosecutor calling it “one of the more sadistic” cases he has ever seen.
The Norton Shores Police Department said officers were sent Wednesday morning to a home on Marshall Road near E. Hile Road to investigate a suspicious death. There, they found 15-year-old Timothy Ferguson dead.
Prosecutors said the medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, listing the cause of death as a combination of multiple factors including malnutrition and hypothermia.
Prosecutor D.J. Hilson told News 8 that Timothy had “some sort of incapacity or mental incapacity,” though he did not have precise details.
“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.”
Shanda Vander Ark, Timothy’s mother, was taken to the Muskegon County Jail. She was charged Friday afternoon with open murder and first-degree child abuse.
Appearing at arraignment via video, Vander Ark leaned forward, complaining of nausea as the judge explained her rights.
“I feel like I’m going to throw up,” she said.
When the judge said she was charged with open murder, she exclaimed, “Oh, God,” and rocked back and forth.
Muskegon County Chief Trial Attorney Matt Roberts told the court that Vander Ark “engaged in an number of punishments” of Timothy that were “beyond the pale,” saying she denied him food, fed him only bread or bread soaked in hot sauce, poured hot sauce down his throat and placed him in an ice bath the day before his death — believed to be the cause of the hypothermia.
Roberts said that Vander Ark should not have had custody of Timothy.
“This is a tragedy that could have and should have been prevented,” Roberts said.
He said an investigation by Oklahoma Child Protective Services between 2009 and 2012 yielded a recommendation that her parental rights should be terminated. In 2012, she agreed to leave the home and not have custody of her children to avoid a court order terminating her rights. Her four children, including Timothy, were left in the custody of their father, court documents from Oklahoma showed, and Vander Ark was ordered to pay child support. The other three are now adults.
Reached by phone Friday, Timothy’s father declined to comment to News 8.
Hilson said Vander Ark had a fifth child with a different man. That child, age 7, has been taken into the custody of the state of Michigan.
He said Timothy arrived in West Michigan in May 2021.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the state’s Children’s Protective Services, told News 8 that if a court in another state issues a final order and closes a case, Michigan would not know about a parent moving and having a child with them. When cases are still open, there are protocols to ensure another state’s orders are being followed. MDHHS said it could not release information about specific cases.
Asked about her employment, Vander Ark told the court she was a law clerk for Newaygo County Circuit Court, and the county confirmed to News 8 she was an employee. Vander Ark said she had passed the bar but had not yet received her license because her husband suffered a stroke.
Citing “grave concerns” about the safety of the community and the seriousness of the allegations against her, Muskegon County Judge Maria Ladas Hoopes denied Vander Ark bond.
Fred Johnson, the Muskegon County chief public defender, said while the allegations are horrific, she should have been released.
“(The judge’s decision) was probably correct under the law, it just wasn’t the one I think was appropriate to this young lady,” Johnson said. “She has no criminal history. She has no place else to go. She has family here in the community. She’s not a run threat. She’s not a threat to hurt anyone else. Even given the allegations, they’re all directed toward a specific group of people. All those people are now protected.”
Johnson said she could have been placed under house arrest.
“That would have served the interests of justice in terms of making sure she shows up for court and making sure she isn’t around other children,” he said.
He met Vander Ark two years ago when she was a law student.
“When you hear these allegations, they’re shocking if you know a person or not,” Johnson said. “That I actually know her and would never have thought this of her, that added to the surprise.”
Vander Ark, 43, was granted a court-appointed attorney and is expected back in court July 21 and July 28 for hearings. However, Johnson said there may be a mental health evaluation before that, which could delay the process.
“I can’t imagine any parent treating a child like that, let alone doing it over a period of time that ultimately, allegedly, caused this young man’s death,” Hilson said. “As a parent, I can’t even put into words how I feel about another parent treating a child like that.”
Timothy would have turned 16 in August.
—News 8’s Matt Jaworowski contributed to this report.