published Monday, April 22nd, 2013

'Her name is Megan': Mom wants people to know that murder victim was a person (with video)

Mother, artist erect memorial for woman kill in 2012
After her daughter Megan was killed July 2, 2012, Kelly Sharpton asked Moore County artist Bob Clemens to create a memorial for her. The memorial, a seven-foot-tall spinning star sculpture, was erected at the site where Sharpton's daughter's burned body was found just off Awalt Road near Tims Ford Lake. Donnie Jones Jr., was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for her death, but he recently filed paperwork alleging his legal counsel forced him into the guilty plea.
Kelly Sharpton talks about a memorial Moore County artist Bob Clemens made for her daughter on Wednesday. The memorial, a seven-foot tall spinning star sculpture, was erected at the site where Sharpton's daughter Megan's body was burned just off Awalt Road aside Tims Ford Lake. Sharpton's daughter was killed July 2, 2012. Donnie Jones Jr., was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for her death, but he recently filed paperwork that his legal counsel forced him into the guilty plea.
Kelly Sharpton talks about a memorial Moore County artist Bob Clemens made for her daughter on Wednesday. The memorial, a seven-foot tall spinning star sculpture, was erected at the site where Sharpton's daughter Megan's body was burned just off Awalt Road aside Tims Ford Lake. Sharpton's daughter was killed July 2, 2012. Donnie Jones Jr., was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for her death, but he recently filed paperwork that his legal counsel forced him into the guilty plea.
Photo by Patrick Smith.

HOMICIDE CASE

From his prison cell in Morgan County, Donnie Jones Jr., 37, filed paperwork Feb. 25 claiming his lawyer coerced him into pleading guilty in the slaying of Erika Megan Sharpton.

The Feb. 4 plea earned Jones a sentence of life without parole, but there is a window of time for Jones to attempt to withdraw his plea.

Jones, of Bel-Aire Drive in Tullahoma, initially was charged with first-degree murder, especially aggravated kidnapping and aggravated rape in a Nov. 5 indictment by the Franklin County grand jury.

In a motion filed in Franklin County Circuit Court, Jones contends that his lawyer, Joseph Ford, of Winchester, Tenn., got him to plead guilty by telling him "the fact he could prove he was in another location when the crime occurred would mean nothing -- the jury would find him guilty anyway based on the mere word of the prosecutor."

The motion also states that he was "told by authorities that if he did not plead guilty, they would find a way to convict his wife as well." Jones contends he pleaded guilty "to protect his innocent wife."

Court officials say no date has been set to hear the motion hearing.

It's where her body was found.

It's where the earth beneath the grass is still charred.

It's where a daughter's short life was marked by her violent death.

It's where a grieving mother kicked the ground in anger when her daughter's confessed killer tried to withdraw his guilty plea.

Today, 24 shiny metal stars spin quietly near the shore of Tims Ford Lake in memory of a 24-year-old nursing student from Tullahoma.

Her name is Megan.

Megan Sharpton.

That's what Megan's mother, Kelly Sharpton, told police when they spoke with her July 2, 2012, about the shocking discovery of a young woman's body burning at a lonely spot on Awalt Road.

"Her name is Megan. Her name is Megan."

The moment was fresh behind Kelly Sharpton's haunted eyes as she stood at the site Wednesday where Moore County artist Bob Clemens erected a memorial he created for Megan.

The sculpture has 24 stars, one for each year of Megan's life. Clemens had no notion of Megan's age before he fashioned the piece that easily stands 7 feet high, topped with a solar-powered light that can be seen from a distance by people driving on Awalt Road or sailing on Tims Ford Lake.

Those stars are significant because Megan Sharpton had star tattoos on her ankle representing her six siblings.

Kelly Sharpton wants people to know Megan: that her favorite color was purple, that she was drawn to people who needed a friend.

Megan was a natural-born caregiver. While living near Ann Arbor, Mich., where she graduated from Chelsea High School in 2006, she would take blankets and food to a couple of homeless people she befriended, much to her mother's worry.

If Megan saw someone eating alone, she would invite them to her table, her mother says.

After high school, Megan toyed with the idea of being an artist, a veterinarian, but she didn't land on a nursing career until the family returned a couple of years later to Tennessee.

Megan had a job in high school working at a dry cleaner and most recently had taken a job waiting tables that accommodated her nursing school schedule.

When Kelly Sharpton spoke to her daughter last July, she didn't know it was for the last time.

"She was supposed to be coming to my house," Kelly Sharpton recalls, her voice tight with emotion. "She said she just woke up. She said, 'I've got this interview.'

"We told her we loved her, and she said she loved us, and we never spoke to her again."

But her "stars" still shine.

Clemens' work has gained him the moniker "star man," but he laughs at the nickname.

Clemens believes something drew him to the family and the spot.

When Clemens met with Kelly Sharpton to find the place for the sculpture, he scouted for something telling, something significant.

  • photo
    Erika Megan Sharpton, 24, of Tullahoma, Tenn., was killed around July 2 and her body was found burning off of Awalt Road by a paassing motorist in Franklin County, Tenn.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

On almost the exact spot where police found Megan Sharpton's body, a small swirl -- apparently a fossil -- looks almost stamped into the surface of a large rock. Next to it, a whitish splash of minerals in the rock creates a not-so-crude, five-pointed star.

Clemens that day declared the spot chosen by its honoree.

As he listened to Sharpton talk about her loss and the site last Wednesday, Clemens, a 72-year-old native of Canton, Ohio, stepped away several times to shed his own tears.

"I didn't make one of these until about four months before this," Clemens said of the memorial and other star-themed works he's made lately. "It's all hand-done."

When Sharpton prepared to leave the site last week, Clemens took off one of the starry bracelets he was wearing and gave it to her to match the memorial.

A painting by the grieving mother accompanies the memorial. Starting out on a white canvas with a yellow star, Sharpton painted 24 scenes, one over the next, illustrating something of that year of Megan's life. As time wears away the layers, the girl's life will play out in reverse to the beginning.

Over time, the place Sharpton visited as a child and as a mother will become something more than a place of tragedy. It will be a beacon of hope and energy, like Megan, she says.

"It's just her. It's just perfect," she said, looking up through the metallic stars to the sunny skies above.

"It spins when it needs to, and it stops when it should."

And it's more appropriate than a roadside cross.

The site now belongs to Megan's legacy in life, not the story of her death, Sharpton said.

"Crosses remind you of sadness," Sharpton said.

"This is perpetual motion. This is the light in life. It lights up the night, lights up the day. And that was Meg."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@times freepress.com or 423-757-6569.

Subscribe to his Facebook posts at facebook.com/ben.benton1 and follow him at twitter.com/BenBenton on Twitter.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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