Minister's murder arrest was 'unexpected news'
BIRMINGHAM, Ala., (BP) -- After more than five months of near silence, Alabama investigators in the Karen Shahan murder case made a bold move Jan. 1 with the arrest of her husband, Richard Shahan, at the Nashville International Airport.
Richard Shahan, former children and families pastor at First Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was attempting to board a flight to Frankfurt, Germany, reportedly on his way to work with Bible Mission International (BMI) for three years.
The Alabama Baptist and other news sources previously had reported Richard Shahan's plans for departing the country to develop teaching materials and discipleship resources through BMI to be distributed throughout former Soviet countries.
But on Dec. 31, 2013, the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office had signaled enough recent developments in the case to obtain a murder warrant for Richard Shahan, according to the myfoxal.com news website. Homeland Security ICE agents then arrested Shahan the next day before he boarded his flight, out of a concern that he may try to avoid murder charges by fleeing from Germany to Russia. Officials did not say why they believed he would flee Germany but they did note that there is no formal extradition treaty between the United States and Russia.
Charles T. Carter, interim pastor of the Birmingham church, said Shahan "was not 'fleeing' the country. His plans had been known and publicized ever since early November … to provide leadership to BMI's children's ministry in Kazakhstan" where he had served on two missions trips while at First Baptist.
On Dec. 29, Carter said the church held a public commissioning and prayer time for Shahan at the conclusion of the morning worship service.
"At my suggestion early on, he received a written statement from his legal counsel that in their opinion he was free to leave/return to the USA," Carter said. "He was not fleeing; he was en route to assume a new position as a missionary."
But Police Chief Jim Roberson of the Birmingham-area Homewood municipality said he is confident police have obtained the warrant for the person responsible for the murder.
Details as to why Shahan was arrested at this point in the investigation are limited but Roberson did confirm in a news conference Jan. 2 that investigators had established a motive and have physical evidence.
"It will become readily apparent as we move into the trial process," Roberson said. "There are very few new details of which we can go into great elaboration because it is an ongoing investigation."
Shahan's attorneys Wendell Sheffield and John Lentine said statements about their client's fleeing the country were misleading.
"Some of the inferences that were put out there in the news conference made it sound like Richard was trying to leave the country and never come back," Lentine said, according to al.com.
"The chief is saying, 'We've got our man,' then saying it's an ongoing investigation. … The reality is they've always looked at Richard, and they didn't bother to look any further than that," Lentine said.
Karen Shahan's body was discovered last July 23 around 11:15 a.m. inside her home in Homewood. Police still have not confirmed how she was killed although some reports state she was stabbed to death.
Richard Shahan was jailed for investigative purposes on Aug. 7 and released Aug. 9 without being charged.
First Baptist in Birmingham released a statement Jan. 2 that read:
"All of us were saddened by the unexpected news that Richard Shahan was arrested by Homeland Security just moments before his planned flight departure for Frankfurt, Germany. There he was to assume his new role working with the Children's ministry of Bible Mission International, primarily in Kazakhstan.
"As we know, on November 29 Richard announced his plans to pursue this mission ministry. His resignation from First Baptist Church of Birmingham was effective December 31, 2013.
"Our Prayers go out to Richard and his family. We trust that eventually truth and justice can prevail."
Shahan, who has been held without bond at Davidson County Sheriff's Office in Nashville, waived his extradition in a hearing today (Jan. 7).
Roberson said he does not have a timeline for Richard Shahan's return to Alabama but estimates within a week to 10 days. He also emphasized the purpose of the news conference was to reassure Homewood citizens that their neighborhood is "a safe place to live and work" and to bring some closure to the family of Karen Shahan.
Neisha Fuson writes for The Alabama Baptist (www.thealabamaptist.org), newspaper of the Alabama Baptist Convention.