Sweet and quiet — that is how friends, family and former teachers of Janessa Shannon described her on Tuesday, three days after a hiker discovered her decomposing body in a Hillsborough County nature preserve.
“She was a sweet little girl. She was one of mine,” said Verdya Bradley, the principal at the former Sara Scott Harllee Middle School in Bradenton, where Janessa attended most of seventh and eighth grade. “She didn’t deserve to die the way she did.”
Janessa’s death is being investigated as a homicide by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
The discovery of Janessa’s body came nine days after her parents reported her missing from her father’s Riverview home on July 3. She had been staying with her father, Nahshon Shannon, who said she had been grounded after she was caught sneaking out of her mother’s home in Manatee County.
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She didn’t deserve to die the way she did.
- Sara Scott Harllee Middle School principal Verdya Bradley
On Monday, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Col. Donna Lusczynski said Shannon had left the state shortly after the girl’s remains were discovered. Lusczynski said this was “unusual,” and that Shannon had stopped cooperating with detectives and had retained an attorney. But, she said, he was not a person of interest.
Janessa’s mother, Michelle Mosley, said her daughter had three loves: horses, eating and her three sisters, ages 12, 15 and 19.
“Her sisters were her best friends, her life,” Mosley said Tuesday. “She didn't have that many friends besides them.”
Janessa spent most of her childhood years in Hillsborough County with her father and his long-term partner, Katrina Doichinov. When Doichinov and Shannon split up last year, Janessa returned to live with her mother and sisters in Manatee, where she attended middle school at Harllee.
Aliyah Shannon, 12, said Janessa was like a sister to her. She and Janessa, who are not related although they share the same last name, would talk about school, friends and typical middle school issues at Aliyah’s house in Palmetto.
“She was really nice to people,” Aliyah said. “She always was quiet, and she never really talked much, but she had a lot of fun.”
Heather Felton, an English teacher at Harllee, said Janessa would always hug her when she saw her in the hallway.
“Even when she was in eighth grade, when she would see me, she would get a hug,” Felton said.
Felton said she remembers Janessa being excited about reading “The Outsiders,” a young-adult novel about two dueling gangs in Oklahoma.
“I do remember her face just lighting up when she got something,” Felton said. “Her face would just light up. One of the pictures they keep showing on TV where she has this little smile and her eyes are kind of creased, that's the smile she’d get. She wasn't exuberant, it was just a quiet happiness.”
Questions about the investigation
After Janessa was reported missing July 2, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office did not issue an alert, including no Amber Alert, because the sheriff’s office considers mental health issues, suicidal tendencies, medication and a previous history of running away when deciding whether to issue an alert. Lusczynski said Janessa’s case never met the threshold for issuing an alert.
“Year to date, we have over 500 runaway juveniles. If we gave you five alerts a day, I just wonder, would they really get publicized?” Lusczynski said. “Our fear is if we send the media five alerts a day, it will overwhelm and it will lose its value to you.”
Family members in both Manatee and Hillsborough have questioned why Janessa’s absence didn’t trigger an alert. Doichinov said authorities heard that Janessa had run away before and instantly decided not to issue an alert.
“I think both sides of the family are just angry that there was very little urgency from the police until it was too late,” Doichinov said. “The media didn’t help us too much, either. We are all very angry.”
I think both sides of the family are just angry that there was very little urgency from the police until it was too late. The media didn’t help us too much either. We are all very angry.
- Katrina Doichinov
Lusczynski said while Janessa was missing, the Hillsborough sheriff’s office had been coordinating with both Bradenton police and Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, investigating tips. Manatee County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that they assisted in the search for Janessa. None of the leads were successful.
Bradenton Police Department spokesmen Lt. Brian Thiers said they had not been involved in the investigation, and their only involvement with the girl had been in February when they found her in the Bradenton Riverwalk after she had been reported as a runaway.
“We never stopped looking for Janessa,” Lusczynski said. “We continued to work the case.”
A vigil is being planned for Janessa on Thursday evening in Manatee County. At this time, the location has not been disclosed.
Aliyah, standing outside her Palmetto home and talking about her friend, said she never believed Janessa had run away, despite having a history of leaving home. Janessa’s step-grandmother, Barbara Shannon, said no one in the Bradenton Shannon clan believed Janessa’s absence was just teenage rebellion.
“None of us did. She and her sisters were like this,” she said, holding up two crossed fingers. “She would always come back.”
Herald staff writer Jessica De Leon contributed to this story.