Almost 30 years ago members of a small tight knit community in Arleta, CA were to learn one of their own committed the unthinkable. Missy Avila a pretty outgoing high school student at San Fernando High School was found dead on October 4th,1985.
She was found in a stream in Big Tujunga Canyon in Angeles National Forest in Southern California. Two hikers happened by the stream to rest and get some water, there they discovered Avila’s body, lying face down in the water, with a heavy log on top of her midsection. The girl was last seen by her mother Irene Avila, when she left her house to go hang out with her long time friend Laura Doyle on October 1st. Avila’s mother Irene was inconsolable, and could not understand who could have done such a thing to her much loved daughter. Avila was being raised by her divorced mother and had two brothers. Missy seemingly had no known issues with anyone. The coroner ruled that Avila died as a result of forceably being drowned. Her long waist length hair was also cut off and found at the scene of her death.
There were suspects that were interviewed, but no arrests were made for three long years. In the time after Avila’s death her friends rallied around her family to offer their support, one friend in particular Karen Severson, would drop by the Avila home and share her fond memories of the girl she had known for the last ten years. So it was extremely shocking when this same friend, and the last girl seen with Avila were arrested and charged with her murder. Laura Doyle,21 and Karen Severson, 20, were arrested three years after the death, and went on trial for Avila’s murder. Both were charged with first degree murder, and found guilty by a jury of their peers of second degree murder. Neither girl testified during the trial, it was a third friend that was there the day Avila died, Eva Chirumbolo that went to the police, and told the tale of how Avila actually died. She was granted amenity from prosecution in return for her testimony against her two former friends. The case generated plenty of attention from the national glare of publicity. It spawned, a highly rated and acclaimed movie that stared Academy Award winning actress Patty Duke as Avila’s mother, and actress Tiffany-Amber Thiessan as Avila. The movie originally aired on ABC in 1992 and was based on the book, ‘Missy’s Murder’ by Karen Kingsbury. Doyle and Severson were squired away serving their sentences in a California prison when the movie first aired. Each young woman would go on to spend over two decades in prison. Avila’s family would faithfully attend their parole hearings to voice their strong opposition to either woman being set free. Much to the families dismay each woman was eventually paroled, Severson in 2011 and Doyle in 2012. Now they are both free, in the community and living their lives. Doyle has remained silent. Severson on the other hand has not. While in prison she found god, and earned a master’s degree in theology. Both women are on parole, and now Severson has written two books about the case and her life. The first was written under a pen name, but her current book, ‘My Life I Lived It’ is written by her, and she is talking out, about her life, her time behind bars, reconnecting with her family after spending 23 years incarcerated. She is speaking exclusively to fandaily.info and she has a lot to say!
Severson is cautious about where she lives exactly, she is very protective of her daughter. Her daughter Stephanie was five years old when Severson was arrested and sent to jail and then prison. Her parents raised the child and religiously took Stephanie to visit her mother behind bars the entire 23 years she was incarcerated. The child is now a woman of 32 and Severson, said she’s doing “very well and she’s beautiful, and we have a wonderful relationship.” The Avila family is outraged, that despite their protestations Severson is out of prison and is able to write books and profit off of her crime. The ‘Son of Sam Law’ is only active in four states, and California is not one of them. So Severson can legally write books, make movies and profit per the law. She did have to get permission from her parole officer to write this book, and participate in a forthcoming documentary about her life. Severson works in telemarketing after a long period of unemployment, she says being a felon has really taken a toll on being able to get her life back on track. However she is persevering and looking ahead. Severson said she harbors no ill will towards anyone, but is quick to point out, that the portrayals of her life have been anything but accurate.
Interestingly, Severson saw the 1992 movie in prison when it first aired on ABC. She said “I was shocked, at the way they were able to portray me, it was complete lies, just about the whole movie was not true.” When asked exactly what about the movie was not true, Severson replied “Most of it, I never lived with Missy’s family, not one day. We didn’t all go over there and hang out at her house. It was dark there, and there really wasn’t anywhere to hang out. I had the pool at my house, and I had a great family, that loved me then, and the entire time I was in prison, they have always been there for me. They suffered terribly as a result of all the mistakes I made. They had to move constantly, they were ridiculed by the community, and they had to give up a lot to raise my daughter.”
When Severson was asked why she didn’t go to the police right away to report Missy’s death, she says, “I was a kid and I was scared. I was too far in at that point. I failed Missy, I could have stopped what happened to her, I could have saved her, but I didn’t. I have to live with that for the rest of my life. I didn’t kill Missy with my own hands, it was either Laura or Eva that did that, not me. I was there in the creek with them, but when they started bullying her and throwing her down, I went back to my car, when I left there, she was alive. Before I left, I saw Eva take out a knife and she started cutting Missy’s hair off, Missy locked eyes with mine, and that is when I made the decision not to help her, but I did not kill her. I’m not saying I had nothing to do with her death, I didn’t physically kill her.”
The film portrays Eva as the one that left the scene, and Laura and Karen, drowning Missy, and putting a heavy log over her body, to keep her underneath the water. The film also shows Karen threatening Eva to leave town and not say anything about the murder to anyone and leave town. Karen says simply “that never happened, it just didn’t.” Severson explained that the three years in between Missy’s death and her arrest, were the worst of her life. She said she was always drunk and high to blot out the pain she was feeling. She said, “I was a terrible person, messed up on drugs and alcohol and evil and lost, but that was 30 years ago, I’m not that girl now, thank god, I’m a good person, I’ve learned a lot about me and I did what I needed to do, to be a better person. I want to help bullies and teach them that it can escalate into the unthinkable if it’s not stopped.”
Severson says that the murder and the prison stint is not her whole life, it doesn’t define who she is. She’s a daughter, a mother, a sister, a woman of the cloth with a new lease on life. She was a model prisoner, who was never written up, not one time in 23 years, and taught other inmates to read and write. She said she wants to show people now that even if they made a mistake, or even the worst mistake possible, They can start over, and they can change themselves and improve and help others and matter in this world.” The Avila family was contacted for their comments regarding this article and Shavaun Avila, Missy’s sister-in-law said, “We don’t want to be involved in anything that features Karen, all she does is lie.”
The Avila family keeps the public informed about Severson’s movements now that she is out of prison. They are strongly advising people to boycott anything that has to do with her. The Avila’s are outraged that she is able to write books and make documentaries and profit from her crime. They are actively seeking a new law to be in place, named after their daughter. ‘Missy’s Law’ would be in place in all 50 states, it would be basically a new updated Son of Sam law, in that it would be illegal for any convicted felon to be able to profit from their crime in any way, in any state. They are also making a documentary about the crime from their point of view. When Severson was asked about the Avila’s position regarding her, she said ” That’s their daughter, and she has been lost forever, I understand that, no matter what I say or do, they will always be angry at me, and I do understand that, but I have to live my life, and not let any of this negativity define me.”
Severson said she never takes anything for granted now, and appreciates the small things in life. Like sleeping in a normal bed, “for 23 years I had to sleep on a steel 1 inch cold bed, anything now is like paradise. Having a glass with ice in it is huge, we never had ice, everything was always warm.” Severson knows that the public by and large have extreme disdain for her, and believes she and she alone masterminded and carried out Missy’s murder. Severson; “They are going to think what they are going to think. But that’s the big reason I wanted to write this book, I want to tell my side of the story. All these other people talked about me, and said a bunch of lies about me. I lived my life, I know the truth, not them. I want to reach bullies, to get them to stop, I was the worst bully back then, look at what my and others bullying did, look at the end result. I want to reach people and change their lives for the better, I believe I can do that.” Severson has taken on the prevention of bullying as her mission. A percentage of her profits from the book, will be donated in Missy’s name to the ‘Nick Lowery Foundation For Anti Bullying’.
Severson is 47 years old now, she never went to high school, she got pregnant at 14 and had to drop out. She was able to earn a GED on her own, before the arrest. She says some how she got through this and came out on the other side. Time is now on her side she says,” and there is a lot of room to continue to grow and help others.”