Growing up, Rhoda Penmark was my spirit animal.
In an attempt to achieve the proper mindset to write about Mary Bell I re-watched The Bad Seed,
Mervyn LeRoy’s 1956 camp classic about a fictional juvenile serial killer;
today the dialogue is dated and the acting is hammy as hell but as a child it was one of my favorite films.
As an adult my girl-crush on Rhoda makes perfect sense; she was everything my younger self longed to be.
I was fearful; she was fierce.
I felt awkward and unattractive—Rhoda was nattily attired and perfectly poised in every situation.
Her ability to dispatch her enemies was handy, certainly,
but looking back what I really I coveted was her confidence.
Pondering Rhoda’s hubris brought to mind the Mary Bell of the Pacific Northwest,
little-known juvenile murderess Michele Gates.
At an age at which I couldn’t successfully lie to my mother about completing my homework Michele was lying to homicide detectives and getting away with murder—for a while, anyway.
[A not-so brief note on sources, spelling, and segues:
“Some sources say.” Get used to that phrase—“some sources say”—-because you’re going to see it in every paragraph. Since the juvenile proceedings in the Matter of Gates have been expunged there is no official case record, and the available media reports differ in myriad details. I’ve reconciled the facts as best I can, but when the stories are too disparate all iterations will be noted.
Minor details aren’t the only discrepancies in the Michele Gates media coverage; the spelling of the participants’ names varies widely. Is her legal name Michele Gates? Or Michelle? Are her neighbors the O’Neils, or the O’Neills? There’s one doomed little boy— Naytah Ottino, Natyah Ottino, Nahtyah Ottinio, Nahtyah Ottino—gifted with more varietal spellings than years of life on earth. Despite the expungement two Gates-related pretrial reports are still extant, and I’ve opted for the iterations used therein; as for the ill-fated Nahtyah Ottino, I utilized the (presumably correct) spelling etched on his grave.
Finally, as is appropriate for a story about bad seeds this tale has innumerable tendrils: there will be segues and asides, and the occasional peripheral factoid—all non-essential minutia will be added in bold and brackets throughout. The progress of Michele Gate’s criminal career reminds of me of the germination of a poisonous jungle vine—inching along, curving and curling and so beguilingly pretty you’re completely unaware as it loops itself round and round into a hangman’s noose.]
Where does the story begin?
Some might say it begins with the fatal excursion to Washington Park Zoo,
where three-year old Nahtyah Ottino—Michele Gates’ cousin and babysitting charge—met his maker in the wildfowl pond on November 8th, 1978.
Almost exactly one year before this unfortunate occurrence, however, there was another unnatural death in eleven-year old Michele’s purview: at 2am on August 21st, 1977
a Portland resident named Norman Reese shot a twenty-eight year old woman named Diane Gilchrist Gates in the face with a shotgun.
An unnamed lothario who had been in flagrante delicto with the victim managed to flee out a bedroom window unscathed.
Norman Reese was Michele Gates beloved step-grandfather;
he and his wife Deletta, her maternal grandmother, had raised her since birth.
The woman he shot, Diane Gilchrist Gates, was his stepdaughter—Michele’s mother.
At trial Norman would claim he killed Diane because he feared she’d been drawn into a life of prostitution—a fate worse than death, apparently.
He evaded a murder charge but was convicted of menacing and first degree manslaughter and sentenced to five years behind bars.
[Although some recent accounts claim Michele witnessed her mother’s murder this does not appear to be the case: the crime happened at Diane’s home at 216 S.E. 32nd Avenue, not at the Reese residence at 1535 S.E. 35th Avenue; and it happened in the wee hours of the morning, a time an eleven-year old child is unlikely to be stirring. More importantly, no contemporaneous media accounts mention the presence of a child at the scene, and witnessing this traumatic event is never proffered as mitigating evidence in any of Michele’s subsequent legal proceedings.]
The fateful trip to the Washington Park Zoo capped an eventful period in Michele’s life—her grandfather’s imprisonment and the loss of her mother and cousin transpired in just over a year.
Concerned about the impact of these traumatic events on her granddaughter’s psyche
Deletta Reese sought counseling for Michele:
“The psychiatrist said he had never heard of anybody with as many tragedies as our family,” Mrs. Reese will later tell a reporter from the Oregonian.
The psychological help didn’t seem to take; on December 13th, 1979,
a year after Nahtyah’s death Michele was expelled from Catlin Gabel, a tony private school where she shone on the synchronized swim team.
She had been accused of theft after stealing another student’s purse.
[Catlin Gabel alumnus of note: hipster auteur and Pacific Northwest gateway drug Gus Van Sant.]
Purse theft wasn’t the only crime in Michele’s milieu that December;
just before Christmas a burglary occurred at 1543 S.E. 35th Avenue, located a few houses down from the Reese residence.
The home was occupied by Gail O’Neil and her daughters Bethany, age six, and Ruth Anne, age four;
Michele was a frequent babysitter.
In fact, the youngest O’Neil—familiarly known as Ruthie—was the child Michele was allegedly chasing after while Nahtyah drowned.
Gail O’Neil will later tell an Oregonian reporter her initial impression of Michele was “the sweetest, best-mannered, (most) well-dressed, best-behaved girl I have ever known.”
Oddly, the only items stolen during the break-in were Christmas presents intended for Ruthie—Michele had helped Gail select some of the gifts.
The theft marred what was scheduled to be the O’Neils last holiday in Portland;
their home had been sold and the family was set to move out of state in two weeks—a short span of time, but not short enough.
[Overlapping crime: the O’Neil family will suffer its share of tribulations—in 2006 Ruthie’s first cousin Joseph Raymond O’Neil will murder his mother (Ruthie’s aunt) Timmie O’Neil and stepfather Craig Stumpf. Joseph O’Neil is currently serving life without parole in the Oregon State Penitentiary.]
There are three different versions of the precipitating events of January 4th, 1980:
1) According to the Associated Press Ruthie had gone alone to Herfy’s, an ice-cream parlor located three doors down from the O’Neil home.
2) According to the Portland Mercury Michele stopped by the O’Neil residence and took Ruthie out for a treat.
3) According to the Oregonian Michele surreptitiously lured Ruthie out of the home while her mother Gail was distracted on the telephone.
The precipitating events may be in dispute but the ensuing chaos is indisputable:
when her daughter failed to return home Gail went to Herfy’s and discovered Ruthie’s boots in the dumpster—she immediately notified the police.
As the child’s babysitter Michele was superficially questioned by detectives;
then the sweetest, best-mannered girl Gail O’Neil had ever known joined in the hunt for the missing child.
Later that evening a volunteer searching the backyard of a residence at 1534 S.E. 34th Avenue found Ruthie’s body discarded on a rubbish heap.
Although she was fully clothed her underpants and socks were missing—in some accounts her stolen Christmas gifts were scattered nearby.
According to Portland historian JD Chandler Ruthie’s scanties were later discovered in a nearby shed, possibly in an attempt to frame the homeowner for murder.
The coroner will later determine Ruthie—who exhibited no overt indicia of sexual assault—had drowned shortly after leaving home.
Curiously, the rear of the property at 1534 S.E. 34th Avenue abutted the backyard of 1535 S.E.35th Avenue,
the home Michele shared with her grandmother Deletta.
When detectives compared notes about Michele’s statements during the search some discrepancies were noted,
and two days after Ruthie’s murder investigators called then-thirteen year old Michele to the station for clarification.
When asked to theorize about the motive for Ruthie’s murder Michele suggested the child been slain in a sex crime,
or perhaps Gail O’Neil had accidentally killed her daughter with a drug overdose.
When pressed about the inconsistencies in her earlier statements Michele’s story began to morph—she eventually admitted she had been with Ruthie on the day of her death.
Michele initially claimed she’d happened upon Ruthie’s corpse in the midst of a spirited game of hide-and-seek,
but kept mum as she feared she’d be blamed.
Sensing detectives’ skepticism her story again changed.
Michele’s home had an aboveground pool which despite being drained retained ten inches of water;
she told detectives she and Ruthie had been splashing around when the child slipped,
hit her head and drowned.
According to the Portland Mercury Michele’s interrogators then appealed to her ego by claiming Ruthie’s killer had been “brilliant”—and finally Michele revealed the true course of events that culminated in murder.
She had lured Ruthie to the backyard pool with a new swimsuit and the offer of a swimming lesson,
Michele told detectives—she then purposely held the child’s face underwater until she drowned.
Michele subsequently re-dressed Ruthie—socks and underpants excepted—and tossed (some sources say carefully laid) the child’s body over the backyard fence into her neighbor’s yard.
Michele’s recitation of her criminal brilliance didn’t dead-end at Ruthie’s demise;
she also admitted Nahtyah Ottino’s fall into the wildfowl pond at the Washington Park Zoo hadn’t been a tragic accident—she’d intentionally pushed her cousin into the water and watched (some sources say held him down) while he drowned.
Michele’s interrogation—lasting ninety-minutes and conducted without a Miranda waiver or guardian present—was over;
but the criminal case against her would stagger on for the better part of a decade.
The Matter of Gates—-the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce of the Oregon courts—was reportedly the single longest juvenile proceeding in state history.
After her arrest Michele was moved to the Donald E. Long Detention Center;
upon her arrival she reportedly confessed to several residents.
Eventually diagnosed as a narcissistic sociopath,
the Oregon Youth Authority ultimately decided it lacked a proper venue in which to confine her—the homicidal tween was then dispatched to the Élan School in Maine,
where she tarried for three (some sources say two) years on the taxpayer’s dime.
[Élan alumnus of note: Michael Skakel, the Kennedy-adjacent murderer of Martha Moxley.]
Michele’s stay at Élan was not fruitful;
citing her “consistent pattern of manipulation,” school authorities shipped her back to Portland circa 1984.
As Élan psychiatrist Dr. Gerald E. Davidson would later testify: “Michele, in our experience with her, demonstrated that she is still more interested in getting even than in getting ahead.”
Five years and counting after Ruthie’s death Michele was still in pre-trial limbo;
her initial confession was tossed out of court for Miranda violations—then it was tossed back in.
At one point she was found incompetent to assist her attorneys due to her psychiatric diagnosis,
but was eventually deemed compos mentis.
The Oregonian sued to open up the Matter of Gates (and all subsequent juvenile proceedings) to the public and won,
a rare victory in a case which seemed to slog on with no end in sight.
Strangely, for a case so minutely examined a definitive motive for Ruthie’s murder has never been established.
It’s unclear if her motivation is referenced in Michele’s initial police statement,
but according to the Oregonian Ruthie’s mother Gail O’Neil believed Michele—who frequently bragged about her superior only-child status—murdered Ruthie to free the elder O’Neil daughter Bethany from the indignity of sisterhood.
[Oregonian quote of note: “(Michele said) wouldn’t it be really weird if somebody grabbed Ruthie and killed her? Bethany would then have all these toys and everything she wants would be hers and she wouldn’t have to have a little sister anymore.” Gail O’Neil, February 10th, 1985]
Although the motive for Ruthie’s murder remains nebulous subsequent legal proceedings revealed Michele’s murder of Nahtyah Ottino was prompted by jealousy: in court her attorney D. Lawrence Olstad described his client as “programmed to kill” to avoid competition for her grandparents’ affections.
[Oregonian quote of note: “She doted on her grandfather so he could do no wrong; and that was the lesson. Her grandfather had killed her mother, and that was just fine…..after she had been taught by her grandfather that the way to improve your condition is to kill somebody, when the next generation of little ones came along and started to attract the grandparents’ attention (committing murder) was obviously the logical thing to do.” Michele’s lawyer D. Lawrence Olstad, February 10th, 1985. Attorney Olstad was eventually disbarred for narcotics violations; the role the glacial pace of Matter of Gates played in his descent into addiction is unknown.]
For masochists and the minutia-obsessed here is a timeline of Michele Gates’ byzantine journey through the juvenile justice system:
While back in Portland awaiting trial Michele became romantically involved with a man named Eric Meiier;
unaware of her past,
he helped her obtain a job as a swimming instructor for handicapped children at the local YMCA.
When word leaked of Michele’s complicated history with water the community outcry was deafening.
As it happens, fellow volunteer Dorothy Graber had long suspected things weren’t quite right with the Y’s new swim instructor;
Michele once ignored repeated directives to rescue a flailing five-year old swimmer adrift in the pool’s deep end—she would later claim she let the child struggle in order to gain confidence.
Now nineteen-years old and living with her paternal grandmother Jean Gates,
Michele’s dance-marathon with justice finally ended with a whimper—the case had outlived poor Ruthie O’Neil by more than a year.
On January 15th, 1985 Michele was convicted of the juvenile equivalent of murder after stipulating to the facts in the police reports implicating her in Ruthie’s death;
she was then released into her grandmother’s custody.
The convicted murderess never spent a single day in the Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility, Oregon’s juvenile version of Alcatraz.
Despite her confession Michele was never tried for drowning her cousin Nahtyah Ottino—her extreme youth at the time of the crime precluded the possibility of prosecution.
[Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility alumnus of note: Nirvana-adjacent rock star and provocateur Courtney Love.]
And then the record falls silent.
For approximately five years after her 1985 conviction Michele is absent from the media, but in 1990 she came roaring back into the news—exploiting a loophole in Oregon law,
she filed a court petition seeking to expunge her juvenile record.
Ruthie’s mother Gail O’Neil was understandably outraged.
Although the law would eventually be amended to prohibit the erasure of juvenile homicide convictions
in 1991 her criminal record was expunged,
the interminable Matter of Gates funded by taxpayers for naught.
[Salem Statesman Journal quote of note: “I feel that to close the record is to say that it didn’t happen. It completely invalidates that my daughter ever existed.” Gail O’Neil, November 9th, 1990]
1991 was an eventful year for Michele;
now twenty-five years old, she legally assumed her boyfriend’s surname and became Michele Dee Shorthouse.
Joe Shorthouse—previously married to a woman named Lisa Mackie—was the father of a five-year old son.
Michele, according to some sources, is infertile—and she was allegedly very interested in obtaining custody of her boyfriend’s child,
who just happened to be the same approximate age as Ruthie O’Neil when she breathed her last.
On April 21st, 1991, Lisa Mackie’s home in Vancouver, Washington burned to the ground.
Officials determined the fire had been deliberately set.
Approximately one year later, on February 6th, 1992,
a reporter at the Bellingham Herald received a telephone call from an anonymous source.
The caller claimed he’d participated in the arson of Lisa Mackie’s home and received 3K of a promised 10K advance payment for her murder.
The Herald reporter contacted authorities;
a phone trace ultimately revealed the tipster to be one Anthony J. Johnson, ex-boyfriend (some sources say longtime friend) of Michele Gates Shorthouse.
The no-longer convicted (but confessed) murderess was arrested on February 20th, 1992, eligible for adult court at last.
Unlike the serpentine progress of Matter of Gates Michele’s adult proceedings hustled along at a rapid clip;
on June 10th, 1992 she pleaded guilty to procuring the use of fire to commit arson
and travelling in interstate commerce with the intent to commit murder.
No longer a cute little girl, there would be no avoiding justice this time—she was sentenced to ten years for solicitation and five for arson, the terms to be served consecutively.
[For legal reasons I should note Joe Shorthouse was never implicated in the plot to murder his ex-wife. Shacking up with a child killer while parenting a young child is criminally unwise, certainly, but such behavior is not currently prohibited by state or federal statutes.]
Michele Gates Shorthouse’s release from custody received no fanfare;
I can find no mention of the date online, but as there is no parole in the federal system I assume her cell bars swung open sometime in 2007.
Ruthie O’Neil and Nahtyah Ottino are almost forty years gone,
fashions have changed and circled back, but still Michele is with us.
Over the last decade there has been nary a peep or a snicker from Portland’s most infamous babysitter-gone-bad,
although sightings of her are frequently logged on various message boards.
It’s possible the bad seed has finally matured into a benign oak—she’s currently managed to stay out of the news for ten years, twice as long as her flirtation with anonymity in the late 1980s.
Of course, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition) narcissistic sociopaths are notoriously resistant to treatment;
the afflicted can learn to conform their behavior to societally accepted norms
but even the priciest psychiatrist can’t confer empathy or a conscience.
Diagnostically speaking, even with the passage of almost half a century there’s a good chance Michele Gates Shorthouse is still more interested in getting even than in getting ahead.
Only time will tell if her storied criminal career has reached its final chapter,
but if I lived in the Pacific Northwest I’d take a good long look at my child’s swimming instructor—and if even the sweetest, best-mannered stranger offered my children free swimming lessons
I’d immediately contact the police.