Tausha Lee Lanham
August 16, 1990  - April 19, 1998
Find A Grave Memorial

Anyone who wanted to know where Tausha Lee Lanham was, only needed to ask her three year old half sister, Ashley Tharp, who was only three years old, who would have said "Under a rock, near some water". A search was taking place to find Tausha who had been reported missing from a mall where her mother, 29 year old Michelle Tharp and her boyfriend, 25 year old Douglas Bittinger Sr., had been shopping with Tonya, who was nine years old and Douglas Bittinger Jr., who was only six months old. The truth was about to come out, thanks to Tonya being brave enough to speak up. Throughout the night and into the early hours of the next day, a search was done of the mall and surrounding areas, Tausha was never found.

When Police arrived at the mall that day, something didn't seem right. Other people felt the same way:

"Pretty much as soon as I got to the mall, I could tell something wasn't right. Doug was more upset
Michelle, even though Tausha was her baby. Their stories just weren't right"
Audrey Hython - Aunt

Audrey said that she and her fiancÚ, Harold Bittinger, brother of Douglas, had spent the day shopping and running errands. Upon returning home the phone rang about 10:30 p.m.. and it was Michelle telling her that Tausha had gone missing, she had either wandered away or was abducted while they shopped at the mall and Michelle wanted to know if she could come and get Ashley, Tonya and Douglas, the other three children. Audrey was stopped by detectives who wanted to question the children before they were taken home. Audrey and Harold were asked by Police to go to the station to be interviewed, so another couple, Ron and Barbara Huggins, were called to come and get the children.

At some point, Ashley let the adults know that her sister was not going to be found in the mall because she was laying beneath a rock somewhere by a stream. Douglas had been baby sitting and when Tausha stated crying, he couldn't handle it so he hit her. Tausha laid in bed that night on a sagging mattress in her room. The home was dirty and flies flew all over, clothing was spilling out of the drawers and lights had no covers as they dangled from electrical cords.

While questioning them, Police learned that Audrey and Harold had not been shopping with the couple that day, as they had been told and Audrey was getting more suspicious and worried about the fact that Douglas and Michelle had lied about what had happened that day. Audrey had heard Ashley tell someone with the search party that she knew her sister was under a rock. At 4:30 a.m. Audrey and Harold were released and Police asked them to bring in a current picture of Tausha if they had one. Returning to the mall, they found no one was there:

"We got back to the mall between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m. and there was nobody there. We about fell over.
So we went back to the Steubenville Police Department and asked what happened. They wouldn't
tell us where Michelle or Doug were. They wouldn't tell us anything"

They couple drove to pick up the children and found them still asleep. When they woke up about 9:30 a.m., they drove to their home, which was above the home of Douglas and Michelle:

"We pulled up outside the house and the whole place was fully of State Troopers and news reporters.
We hurried up and took the kids to our apartment so they wouldn't see anything and get upset all again"
Audrey Hython

During a Police interview, Douglas said that he had made a trip to the store to buy garbage bags. Doug and Michelle wrapped Tausha's body in a sheet and then used two of the garbage bags to wrap her up again. Douglas loaded up the car with the children and Michelle and they all drove to West Virginia where Tausha's body was dumped over a hill, then they drove off and went to the mall.

While Douglas was being questioned, Police and reporters were at the home of his brother where his mother, Billie Bittinger had been busy feeding and helping take care of the children. The news had apparently spread that Tausha had been found dead and relatives kept calling, though the television was off in the home so that the children would not have to see what was happening. Audrey's father got there asking if they had everything they needed for the baby and even though they didn't, Police would not allow them to go into the home downstairs and get what they needed. Larry Tharp gave them some money to go buy what the children needed.

Audrey was going up the steps with the groceries at about 4:30 p.m. and when she opened her door, she saw a case worker from Children And Youth Services hanging up the phone. The case worker told them that she had been told to remove the children from the home and place them in foster care. Audrey and the others begged that the children be allowed to stay with them, Police told them that they would be arrested if they tried to stop the children from leaving.

News photographers captured images as the children were being lead from the home and placed in the car. Ashley was crying as she and her siblings were taken from their family and driven away by CYS. There was nothing more any of them could do, they went inside and waited for the official word of the death of Tausha and the arrest of Douglas and Michelle.

Douglas and Michelle were charged with child endangerment, concealing a child's death and abusing a corpse and Douglas was also charged with aggravated assault. The charges could change after an autopsy and a cause of death could be determined.

Though they tried to get custody, the family learned that the children had been placed in separate foster homes and would remain there for at least ten days. Larry Tharp wanted to know why the story had not been made clear and why people in charge just didn't know or wouldn't say what had happened:

"The media is killing me and my family. I've lost a daughter and now my granddaughter. I've lost
enough. Just let us bury her"

Tausha's body showed that it was very possible that Tausha had been starving for months before she died. It was said that it was very rare for a seven year old child to weight less than 12 pounds, Tausha weighed only 11.77 pounds and was three feet tall. Before an autopsy was done, a physician with a special team at the Children's Hospital that handles complicated and difficult cases said that due to being born premature, Tausha must have had some developmental delays and multiple medical problems:

"I have trouble believing a normal six year old would suddenly waste away to 12 pounds
unless something
else was going on. Just the skeleton of a normal seven year old would come
close to weighing that. Without
having performed and autopsy, I would suspect that whatever
caused this wasting away went on for longer than
a year. Someone with this degree of growth
retardation and malnutrition and special needs would require
intensive medical care. Had
anyone ever taken her to a doctor"

Dr. Basil Zitelli

Dr. Zitelli said that he had seen other families where one child was abused while the others were never touched at all:

"Children with special needs are at higher risks for neglect and abuse. Thank goodness the vast
majority of families who have special needs children are diligent to their care. It's very uncommon
to overtly starve a child"

In November of 2000, the trial was beginning by then Michelle had given her version of what happened. Michelle said that she had gone in wake up Tausha and she knew immediately that something was not right. Tausha was laying with her head half way off of the bed, her eyes were open and glassy and she was foaming at the mouth. Tausha's was stiff and she was ice cold. Michelle said she went to get a thermometer and tried to take Tausha's temperature, she could not get her mouth open, it was then that she knew Tausha was dead. Michelle kept talking to Tausha, telling her to blink if she could hear and to squeeze her fingers, none of that that happened. State Trooper James McElhaney told the jury that Michelle had then found Douglas and spoke to him asking of he thought they would find Tausha if they disposed of her body. Douglas told Michelle that if Tausha's body were to be found, it would be considered murder.

Michelle had been charged with with homicide as well as the other charges and Douglas was expected to show up in court to testify against her. District Attorney, John C. Pettit, was Prosecuting this case and was seeking the death penalty for Michelle, in his 15 minute opening statement, he let people know that this was not going to be a typical murder trial:

"We have somewhat of an unusual case here. Not too often does our society come to grips with
homicide by starvation"

Glenn Alterio, the Public Defender, told jurors that Michelle was not guilty, though he said he knew she wasn't the best parent, she was not a murderer adding that Tausha suffered from a failure to thrive saying that Tausha had an inability to process nutrients, causing delays in her growth. Glenn said that medical professionals would testify that Tausha had not been murdered that she had been born prematurely and had a history of liver and thyroid trouble. Glenn also said that he would present medical records for visits to the Doctor and they would show that Tausha had been born with a weight of only between 1 to 2 1/2 pounds:

"It is our contention that this is not a homicide case. Miss Tharp did not kill her"

In the court room that day were very few people besides the Lawyers, Judge Paul Pozonsky and the media. Michelle sat still, other than a bit of rocking in her chair and a few times she would wipe away a tear. Testimony was given about the mall search and how Tausha's body was found. Witnesses had stated that Tausha had been forced to go without food for a day or more while she was locked in her room because she would sneak out and look for food, even in the garbage can. Tausha was so sick that she was receiving a monthly check from the state for $539. and would get money for life from them.

A high school friend testified that Michelle had said to her that Tausha belonged in a body bag, six feet under that the she hated her so bad that she felt like killing her.

In November of 2000, Michelle Sue Tharp, who was by then 31 years old, was found guilty of first degree murder, endangering the welfare of a child and abuse of a corpse. The jury deliberated for about three hours before convicting her. When she heard the verdict, Rhonda Lanham, Tausha's aunt, punched the air and started to cry. The only thing left was the sentencing of either life without parole or the death penalty.

Glenn Alterio had tried to get sympathy for Michelle by letting the court know that she had been the victim in many abusive relationship, had no transportation, no phone and though she had five children, none of the fathers helped her to take care of them. Glenn even told of a child, Benjamin, that Michelle had chosen to give up for adoption rather than have an abortion:

"What does that indicate to you about her feelings towards children"

John C. Pettit spoke for an hour in his closing argument saying that Michelle would not take offers of state help, she missed appointments and would not answer the door when they visited to offer assistance and that in October of 1993, Michelle stopped taking Tausha to the Doctor.

John Pettit said that Tausha was a fighter:

"Tausha was indeed a fighter and she overcame off these things. But she could not overcome
the act of all food, all nourishment being withheld from her for several days"

A magnet hung on the fridge in the home and John Pettit showed a picture of it to the jury, it read: "Home is where the heart is":

"There was no heart in that home when it came to Tausha Lanham"

Michelle Sue Tharp was sentenced to the death penalty on November 14, 2000.

In April of 2010 Michelle's Lawyers including Jim McHugh, the Assistant Federal Defender, were in court asking for her trial and conviction to be overturned on claims that she was wrongfully convicted and sentenced. Claims that certain details were left out of the trial included psychological evidence that Michelle is mentally unstable due to having an IQ that tested at 71 by Psychologist Michael Moran. Michael Moran had said Michelle was competent to stand trial though she had impaired logical thinking and analytical skills. Michael Moran did not testify in court, but had previously said that Michelle suffered from mental disorders that would have been mitigating evidence under the Pennsylvania death sentence statute in which is states that Prosecutors are not allowed to seek the death penalty for someone who meets the mental retardation criteria:

"She is very seriously dysfunctional"
Michael Moran

Michael Moran said that the court should have heard and considered information about about how Michelle had been abused as a child. How is it then, Michael Moran, that she was only singling out the child who was the weakest? The least able to defend herself? How it is that only ONE child died, this woman knew EXACTLY what she was doing and using her IQ as an excuse is totally ridiculous and unimaginable considering how the other children are alive and were taken care of just fine.

The Defense Lawyers accused John C. Pettit of making deals for false testimony, with people who would testify, that included Douglas Bittinger who did testify against Michelle. Michelle's Defense Lawyers said that Douglas gave false testimony in exchange for for a deal would allow him to plead guilty to criminal homicide, endangering the welfare of a child and abuse of a corpse,  charges he was convicted of and then given a sentence of only 15 to 30 years in prison for. Prosecutors said the only crime Douglas had committed was not preventing child abuse that Michelle was guilty of towards Tausha. Defense Lawyers also questioned deals that had supposedly been made with Dena Chandler, Junita Linley and Renee Sims for their testimony in court, against Michelle.

A death warrant had been signed by Governor Ed Rendell in 2004, however, the execution was stayed indefinitely until the appeals process could be ended. The U.S. Supreme Court had already refused to hear a request for a new trial.

In September of 2011, Judge paul Pozonsky dismissed the claims that Michelle did not receive a fair trial. Almost 4,000 pages of documents had been submitted for the Judge to analyze before he made a decision:

"It is clear from the lengthy PCRA petition, the legal briefs, submitted to the court, the testimony of
the evidentiary hearings and the voluminous exhibits submitted by the defendant's attorneys that their
goal is representing defendant is not simply zealous representation of their client. Instead, they are
litigation this case as part of a larger global cause: to impede and sabotage the death penalty in

Today is July 8, 2014 and I am unable to find any further information about this case.

Death occurred in the state of Pennsylvania
This page was created on July 8, 2014

If you do not like what you see printed on this page, please see my DISCLAIMER statement. THANK YOU!

For information about how to report child abuse, please click the link below and you will be taken to a page that has an alphabetical, state by state listing of how to report child abuse for which state you are looking for and for some other countries.

Visit my child abuse quilt to see other places about preventing child abuse.

This page will open up in a new window so you won't lose your place while
visiting the Angels on my site.

Call this number to report child abuse ANY WHERE in the United States!
1-800-4-A-Child  1-800-422-4453