Judge rejects higher prison term for Oregon woman who killed her abuser


When her stepfather moved across the street from her in late summer 2021, Skylar Faith Crowe got scared.

She said she had endured years of sexual abuse from Richard Higheagle starting in grade school but hadn’t reported it, afraid it would tear apart her family and no one would believe her.

At age 22, Crowe decided to confront him, hoping if she could get an admission from him, she could overcome the pain and terror she continued to endure.

When she implored him to be honest, he called her delusional. They scuffled and she stabbed him once in the chest with a kitchen knife, killing him.

On Tuesday, Crowe stood before a federal judge for sentencing after pleading guilty in November to voluntary manslaughter. She initially was charged with first-degree murder. She was prosecuted in federal court because the stabbing occurred on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

In a letter submitted to the court, Crowe said she detests what she did to Higheagle, 40.

“A lot of people have told me they understand what I did to Richard. While I appreciate their support, I want people to know that I don’t think what I did was right or justified,” Crowe wrote to the judge. “What I did was wrong and I will spend the rest of my life making sure I never hurt someone again.”

The prosecution urged a sentence of six years for Crow – in the mid-range of sentencing guidelines that called for five years and three months to six and a half years — but U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon granted a departure far below the range.

Simon said he was convinced by Crowe’s defense lawyer, Crowe’s psychological evaluation and letters in support of Crowe that Higheagle’s years of abuse contributed significantly to Crowe’s crime.

But he said he struggled to decide how to “quantify” how much her circumstances should impact the sentence.

In the end, he accepted the defense’s recommendation of three years.

“It was wrong what Mr. Higheagle did to you and your sister,” Simon told Crowe. “It was very wrong. It never should have happened, but the law should have dealt with it, not you. He never should have done what he did. You never should have done what you did.”

The judge said he recognized that Crowe took responsibility for her crime from the outset. He encouraged her to continue mental health and substance abuse treatment and said he’s convinced she’ll have a successful future.

“Please understand that I’m imposing the sentence because no matter how bad it was what was done to you, we can’t take the law into our own hands,” Simon said.

It is rare for children to kill a parent or stepparent, accounting for less than 2% of all homicides in the U.S., according to experts who track the offenses. While women killing men also is a rarity, such crimes often follow a history of sexual or domestic violence, researchers have found.

Vanessa Timmons, executive director of the Oregon Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said keeping such a volatile, disturbing secret becomes unbearable.

“It’s pressure building of this need for some sort of accountability or to be witnessed,” Timmons said. “So you can imagine when you finally have the opportunity to have the story witnessed and you get the courage to tell the story — and for that moment to be denied, must be incredibly painful physiologically and painful emotionally.”

Crowe, seated beside her lawyer, looked down at the defense table and responded in a faint voice to questions from the judge.

The courtroom was filled with her family and supporters as well as a group of Higheagle’s relatives.

Crowe, now 24, began to cry when her aunt – Higheagle’s sister – said she was torn between love for her brother and for her niece.


About 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 29, 2021, Crowe spotted Richard Higheagle drive up in a blue van with his girlfriend. As they got out to take groceries into their home, Crowe started screaming from her front porch, “Pedophile!”

She urged him to be “honest” and admit what he had done to her, according to court records.

Higheagle yelled back, “Go to bed” and “say it to my face” and grabbed his groceries and carried them into his home.

Crowe grabbed a kitchen knife from her house, stuffed it in the pocket of her hooded sweatshirt and walked across the street and banged on Higheagle’s front door.

When he answered, she continued to demand that he admit what he had done to her. He kept calling her delusional.

One witness said Crowe slapped Higheagle. Another said Higheagle was about to push his hand in Crowe’s face when she pulled the knife from her pocket and stabbed him in the chest.

Crowe ran back home, dropping the knife in the street and immediately drove herself to the Umatilla Tribal police station to confess what she had done.

Meanwhile, Higheagle stumbled from his front door to a couch, sat for a minute, got back up and collapsed as he tried to walk toward his bathroom. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he died later that night, according to court records.

Umatilla tribal police found Crowe sitting on the curb outside their office, distraught and shaking.

Once they took her inside, she told them what she had bottled up for years:

Higheagle had been married to her mother and abused her from elementary school through the start of high school, according to court records. He fondled her and would go into her room at night, she said. She would wake up naked, watching him leave her room or see him masturbating next to her bed, she told police.

In middle school, she went to see a school counselor because she started to cut her wrists and said she wanted help, according to court records.

The counselor told her that her behavior was “normal” for teens and dismissed it, Crowe said. At that time, Crowe didn’t report the sexual abuse to the counselor.


Crowe had experienced trauma throughout her childhood. Her mother was an alcoholic and drug addict who was rarely at home, according to Crowe’s lawyer, Conor Huseby, an assistant federal public defender. Her biological father was in prison much of her childhood for burglary.

Her parents separated when she was 6 months old and her mother began dating Higheagle and soon married him. Her stepfather was violent and the family experienced periods of homelessness, according to Huseby.

By late August 2021, Crowe was raising her younger half-brother as his legal guardian. They shared the same mother. Higheagle was her brother’s father.

When Higheagle moved into a house across the street from hers on the reservation, Crowe said she became afraid to leave her home.

She stopped going out to retrieve the mail. Two days before she confronted Higheagle, she tried to harm herself again, pushing a knife into her wrists but was too afraid to push hard enough to die, according to her lawyer.

Crowe had recently talked to her older sister, who also was sexually abused by Higheagle, according to court records.

Crowe learned that Higheagle had acknowledged abusing her older sister after she confronted him several weeks earlier, according to Huseby.

Crowe became obsessed with the idea of getting Higheagle to confess his abuse of her, Huseby said.

Then Higheagle mocked Crowe.


In court, prosecutor Pamela Paaso argued that the government already had considered Crowe’s circumstances in agreeing to allow her to plead to voluntary manslaughter instead of murder.

Paaso said she also took into account Crowe’s difficult upbringing and background but believed a six-year sentence was appropriate after consulting with Higheagle’s family.

“It reflects the seriousness of the offense, and provides just punishment for defendant’s conduct, and perhaps, deter similar conduct from others,” Paaso wrote to the court.

But the judge pointed out that prosecutors in the federal district typically recommend the low-end of the guidelines and Paaso’s six-year recommendation was above that.

“We felt like mitigation was taken into account with the change of the charge,” Paaso said.

A federal presentence officer recommended a sentence of four years and two months, citing Crowe’s “diminished mental state” and how Higheagle’s abuse contributed to the killing.

In seeking three years for Crowe, Huseby said the case before the judge was manslaughter, not murder and involved a defendant who had experienced 10 years of “frightening and frequent” sexual abuse. The police investigating Higheagle’s death only learned a “small sliver of the truth” behind Crowe’s stabbing, he argued.

“The real truth was buried behind 10 years of trauma and silence,” Huseby said.

He noted Crowe has no prior criminal record and confessed right away, expressing deep remorse. She also isn’t likely to reoffend, he argued.

“While Skylar was tortured by Richard for most of her life, she struggles to accept that she took Richard’s life,” he wrote to the court.

When Crowe turned 18, she received a standard payment from tribal industry revenue and moved out of her family’s house and became the guardian of her 15-year-old half-brother because of their parents’ dysfunctional lives.

“She was the only one there for me,” her brother wrote to the judge.

Crowe worked full time at various jobs at McDonald’s, a coffee shop and at the reservation’s casino to provide for him and helped him become the first member of the family to graduate high school, Huseby said.

Caring for her brother also kept Crowe from following her sister’s path off the reservation, Huseby said. Her older sister, who had told their mother that Higheagle had abused her to no avail, had moved out of the state as soon as she turned 18.

On the night of Crowe’s confrontation with Higheagle, Crowe “became intensely emotionally dysregulated and reactive” and acted on impulse when he mocked her and moved to put a hand in her face, said Andrea Merg, a psychologist who evaluated Crowe.

She stabbed him blindly, unaware of what part of his body she struck until she heard him yell, “She stabbed me in my heart,” according to court records.

Higheagle, who was 6-foot-1 and about 280 pounds, had methamphetamine in his blood at the time of his death, according to a toxicology report. Crowe is 5-foot-5 and 130 pounds.


Crowe declined to address the judge in court, relying on the letter she submitted.

She looked straight ahead at first when her aunt told the judge that Richard Higheagle’s life “didn’t have to end this way.”

“I always will have love for my brother and nothing will change that,” Nicole Higheagle said.

She had responded to the hospital the night of the stabbing but didn’t know her brother had died until she received a phone call from an FBI agent. She was the one who then told the rest of her family, she said.

Then Nicole Higheagle, 38, spoke to Crowe as her niece began to cry.

“I want you to keep focusing on your healing and your sobriety,” she said, through tears. “I love you, Skylar. I believe in you.”

“I will always be praying for your healing, your heart and your spirit. I want you to know that I forgive you,” she said.

The judge told Crowe her that she will be welcomed back into society after she completes her sentence.

“Do you understand?” Simon asked. Crowe responded with a barely audible “yes.”

Simon ordered Crowe to voluntarily surrender to prison on May 2. He recommended she serve her time at a federal prison camp in Dublin, California, noting she doesn’t pose a security risk.

“From everything that I read about you, you are a very good person, a caring person who wants to help others, who can and will help others,” Simon said. “I’m confident that you will succeed in that. Get the treatment that you need, whether it be on the prison or under supervision afterwards. It’s not going to be easy, but I believe you can do it and you will have a successful future.’’

After the hearing, Higheagle’s supporters filed out of the courtroom. Crowe turned and hugged her lawyer and family members who filled several rows in the downtown courtroom.

Deirdre Bowen, director of the Family Law Center at Seattle University School of Law, said sentencing law needs to be finetuned to make it clear that prosecutors and judges, as Simon did, account for the psychological impact that years and years of abuse can have on a survivor.

“This is a decade or more of abuse, building up and having a traumatic effect that results in post-traumatic stress disorder,” Bowen said. “There’s nothing in the law that says, ‘OK, this is how you should think about those mitigating circumstances.’”

Under the law, a judge can depart from a sentencing guideline range if “the victim’s wrongful conduct contributed significantly to provoking the offense behavior.”

Judges should consider, according to the provision: The size, strength, and physical characteristics of the victim and defendant, persistence of the victim’s conduct, and danger presented to a defendant, among other things.

Bowen said the law should recognize a special “category of mitigating circumstances” dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder specifically associated with sexual assault or domestic violence.

Most importantly, she said, children and women need better support to encourage them to come forward without worrying whether they will be believed or that they will ruin their family’s economic stability.

“It’s really important to shine a light on a case like this so that we can educate the public at large about the nature of the experience of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, how they might get to a point where they feel they have no choice but to react in the most extreme way possible,” she said.

Crowe has undergone counseling and treatment since her arrest. “Ms. Crowe knows now today she can ask for help in a way she never knew before,” Huseby said.

Crowe’s biological father, Gregory Crowe, acknowledged in a letter to the judge that he had failed his daughter.

He wasn’t around to protect her, he said. He gave her the middle name “Faith” “because I had faith things would get better than they were at that time. And I swear it’s a lifelong prayer.”