In the spring of 2010, Peter Shanley, then age fifty-nine, lived with his wife Debra, age fifty-four, in Dumont. They had two sons. Their oldest son was in his late twenties and away in the military. Their younger son, in his middle twenties at the time, lived in their basement with his girlfriend.
Debra Wants Out
By the time spring had rolled around in 2010, Debra Shanley had lost interest in Peter and in their marriage. In February of that year she had begun to spend a lot of her free time at a Harley Davidson dealership in Rochelle Park. She purchased a motorcycle in March and became a member of the Harley Davidson owners’ group (HOG) sponsored by the dealership.
While attending these HOG gatherings and functions, Debra befriended other members, and quickly became close friends with many of them, three in particular. When she was home, Debra would spend long hours on her laptop computer.
Debra Was Pushing Peter’s Buttons
According to their younger son, Debra’s behavior was taking it’s toll on Peter and he became seriously depressed. Finally Debra just told Peter she wanted a divorce.
During the second week of March, eleven or twelve days before Debra’s death, her younger son tried to use one of computers and discovered it was damaged. Peter told his son that he had put the computer through the dishwasher and likewise had slashed up Debra’s motorcycle. When his son asked why, Peter said he believed Debra was cheating on him.
Two Wrongs, No Rights
The young man went into the garage and used his cell phone’s camera to photograph the bike. The bike’s frame had been cut through in several places. Both of the handlebars had been cut and left hanging and the seat and tires had all been slashed.
Debra reported the damage (over $10,000) to her laptop and her motorcycle to the Dumont police but would not file a domestic violence complaint or seek a temporary restraining order. She believed Peter intended to move out so she did not take her complaint any further.
But it was in fact Debra who moved forward with their parting of ways and so on April 2nd, she made a deposit on an apartment, intending to move out on April 15th and into her new apartment and her new life.
Somewhere along the way however, it came about that Peter would in fact be the one who would be moving out of the family home. So Peter went to see the apartment and confirmed that he would be the one moving in on April 15.
Plans Can Change
During the week of April 5th, Peter Shanley and Debra drove to Pennsylvania and purchased a used Harley motorcycle for Debra. On Friday, April 9th, the younger son and his girlfriend left for a weekend at the shore.
The next morning, Saturday, April 10th, Debra went on a dealership-sponsored three-hour “Saddle Up” HOG ride with three of her friends. Afterward, they all had dinner together at a local restaurant and made plans to meet the next morning at 9:00 for another motorcycle ride. After dinner, she and two of the others went to a coffee shop where they stayed until 10:30 p.m.
It was the last time the men saw Debra as she did not show up for the ride the following morning as planned.
Where Was Debra
The morning of April 11th, Debra’s youngest son was unable to reach her on her cell phone so he called his father. Peter Shanley told his son that his mother was out and that he himself was suffering with a broken ankle.
That same afternoon one of Debra’s two riding friends from the night before finally called the Dumont Police Department and informed the police that Debra had not shown up for their planned ride earlier that day and they were quite concerned about her.
Officer Steven Brown dispatched Sergeant Michael Murphy and another officer to Shanley house with the intent of doing a wellness check on Debra. In the meantime, Officer Brown repeatedly called Debra’s cell phone as well as the family house phone.
Eventually, Peter Shanley answered the landline. He told the Officer that Debra was not at home nor did he know where she might be. He also said he had hurt his ankle but he would get a shower and stop in at the station to talk with them as soon as he could. Satisfied, Officer Brown hung up from Peter and relayed this information to Sergeant Murphy, who was, by now, already right outside the Shanley house.
When Peter Shanley did not respond to the police officer who was standing at the door of his house, Dumont Police Chief Brian Venezio simply opened the unlocked front door and called out to Peter, asking him to come out. Peter told the officers they would have to come in because he had hurt his ankle and could not come to the door.
When the officers entered, they found Peter Shanley lying on the floor of a small bedroom. His ankle was indeed obviously broken but more visible was all of the blood on his hands, neck, face and clothes. He had a deep gash on his neck and he was not able to stand.
But Where Was Debra
The officer quickly asked where Debra was and Peter Shanley gestured toward the room across the hall. He stated plainly that he had killed her. He added that after he had stabbed his wife he had turned the blade on himself, slashing his own throat. The officer read Peter his Miranda rights.
Sergeant Murphy found Debra Shanley. She was lying in a large pool of blood on the floor next to the bed. She was wearing a t-shirt and underpants with a pair of black stretchy pants down around her ankles. A towel and a pair of pajama bottoms were covering her head and shoulders. Debra Shanley was dead.
A wooden billy club with a metal plug and a broken lamp were on the blood-covered bed. The room was covered in blood.
The Medical Exam
Dr. Mary Ann Clayton, the Bergen County Medical examiner, arrived at the scene and noted that Debra Shanley had sustained numerous blunt and sharp force injuries to her head, face and upper body. Debra had a “gaping wound” to the left side of her neck. The blunt force injuries could have been caused by a bat or the club on the bed, while the sharp force injuries had been inflicted with a knife. Based upon the temperature of Debra’s body, Clayton estimated that Debra had died at approximately 10:30 or 11:30 p.m. the previous night.
Peter was transported by ambulance to a hospital where he received treatment for his injuries, including a laceration on the left side of his head. Detective John Frazer briefly interviewed Peter at 8:00 p.m. while he was waiting to have surgery on his ankle and neck.
During this interview, Peter told the detective that Debra had been cheating on him for the last two months. When she came home the night before, they had a “little disagreement” and she hit him with a lamp. He said it was at that point he “lost his mind” and hit her with a “black jack.” After that he “cut her” with a fishing knife.
Peter Shanley Describes The Situation
The next day Detective Frazer spoke with Peter again. Peter explained that Debra “had changed” during the last two months. She had begun fighting with him and her mother and generally “abusing” the whole family. She told him she was having a midlife crisis, had not loved him in a year and no longer wanted to be married. Peter Shanley described the situation as a “fuckin’ nightmare.”
Debra Just Kept Pushing His Buttons
Peter Shanley said Debra had left the house at 8:00 on Saturday morning to go for a motorcycle ride with her “cronies.” He said he had expected her home by 1:00 p.m. However, she never returned and later called to cancel their dinner plans, telling him that she was going out to dinner with her HOG friends instead. He said “she had canceled a lot of plans with him lately just to “needle” him, and he was reaching his “boiling point.”
When Debra finally arrived home at 11:30 that night, Peter Shanley was waiting for her. While she was undressing in their bedroom, he confronted her about not coming home that day and then “flipped out” and started yelling when she told him she’d had a nice evening out. Peter Shanley said he “might’ve pushed her,” and she then hit him in the head with a lamp. He believed Debra thought he “was gonna go after her.”
He also added that when Debra hit him with the lamp, “that was it,” and he took his “black jack” out of a drawer by the bed and “whacked her in the head” several times. “Unbelievably” Debra was still conscious after he finished hitting her so he walked across the hallway and retrieved a knife he used for filleting fish. When he returned, Debra began to beg for her life. Peter used the knife on her but claimed he could not remember exactly what he did.
Peter Shanley Knew He’d Killed Debra
When he finished, Peter Shanley shut the door to the master bedroom, made no attempt to summon any help, and never went back into the room. He knew, “without a doubt,” that he had killed his wife.
A short time later Peter cut his own neck, wanting to kill himself, thinking it would be “easier than going to jail.” The following afternoon, he fell over a family dog, broke his ankle, and was unable to get up.
Dr. Jennifer Swartz of the Bergen County Medical Examiner’s Office performed the autopsy. According to her, Debra Shanley was five feet, four inches tall and had weighed 202 pounds. She had first been struck in the head at least eight times, resulting in fifteen to sixteen non lethal blunt force injuries.
Thereafter, she had been stabbed with a knife twenty-six times. These sharp force injuries were sustained while she was alive and were predominantly to her face, neck and upper torso.
Another wound, six inches wide across her throat, severed her left jugular vein and left carotid artery and also cut into her trachea and the left side of her cervical spine. This wound caused Debra to bleed to death.
Peter Shanley Gets Life
In the end, a jury convicted Peter Shanley of the murder of his wife, as well as two weapons offenses. A judge sentenced him to prison for the rest of his life.