She killed a man to save herself and her mom. Now she’s locked up for the rest of her life

by Harry Shukman and Katie Way

It was still morning in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, when Skoop shot and killed a man outside Number 46 on South 8th Street, where she lived with her mom and grandmother.

The SUV pulled up to Skoop’s apartment building around 11 AM, and five or six people came out of it, looking for a fight. Skoop, 16, watched in horror as a woman brawled with her mother, beating her to the ground. A man named Steven Santiago approached her, saying the words that haunt her daily, even after eight years: “You’re just gonna let Brittany beat the shit out your mom.”

As the man kept walking towards her, Skoop pulled out her pistol. He kept advancing, so Skoop shot him once in the chest. He fell to the ground and died of his wounds that day in 2009, leaving Skoop with a sentence of 39 to 75 years. Even if she serves the minimum of her sentence, she’ll be 58 when she is eligible for parole.

Now Skoop is 24. Every year a new missed milestone passes: finishing high school, going to college, getting a job, meeting the love of her life. Babe visited the State Correctional Institution at Muncy on a snowy day last week to ask her: What went wrong?

Her story is the tale of a teen who was pressured into pleading guilty to save her mom from doing more time. It’s about a white town in Pennsylvania, which made a habit out of incarcerating minorities. It’s about a Hispanic girl who was locked up and forgotten about.

Skoop – on a visit from her mom

Inside Muncy

She’s known as Skoop, but her real name is Sasha Hernandez. She likes to explain how she got the nickname back in school – “because I scoop up all the girls.” She told her story to babe in bits and pieces, first when we contacted her by letter earlier this year, then with messages on a secure prison communication system, followed by phone calls with her friends, family and former lovers, and then a visit to the place where she is one of 1300 inmates at State Correctional Institution – Muncy.

SCI Muncy is a collection of squat, flat buildings next to a tiny, sleepy town in central Pennsylvania and far away from anywhere else. We arrive on an icy morning and see inmates in red uniforms behind the razor wire, trudging through the snow. As we get out of the car, a guard monitoring the parking lot barks at us not to take photos and watches as we walk over to a hut filled with visitors.

A woman with freshly-applied cat-eye makeup drove two hours through the dawn to see her fiancé; a man drove three to see his. They’re waiting to be buzzed into the visitors’ center nextdoor. It looks like a hospital waiting room – sad and quiet. A dad has two vile-looking sandwiches unwrapped and two bottles of Pepsi ready for his daughter. He cries when he sees her come through the door, and she bursts into tears.

Then Skoop walks through – we exchange our short hug and sit down. We’re there for the 8.30 AM start of visitors’ hours, and Skoop jokes that she’s not a morning person. “People say good morning to me and I say: ‘What’s good about this morning?’” We talk about what she’s listening to (Gucci Mane and Migos’ I Get The Bag), what she’s reading (Gone Girl) and her latest crush (she’s trying to figure out if they’ll make a good couple). She tells us about her post-prison plans to work as a speaker and mentor to kids like her – to help them out of the situation she found herself in. Then she launches into the story of why she’s here.

Skoop and her mom

How it happened

Back in 2009, when Skoop was just 16, she lived with her grandmother, Ana, who had custody over her. The family didn’t have much money – her mom Rosa worked (and continues to work) shifts at a nearby food factory. Attracted by the money that came with it and rebelling against her stricter grandmother – she turned to dealing drugs herself.

“I can make a lot more money with them to buy the things I want,” was her reasoning. First she sold weed, and then spotting an opportunity, she stepped up to dealing crack, buying a handgun for protection when working late at night. Things were going well – except for her business partner Emily, who Skoop says was volatile.

“She had a lot of drama going on, she would always be sleeping with someone else’s man,” Skoop says. Emily slept with the wrong woman’s boyfriend – a woman named Brittany Ritter.

Skoop asks herself a lot where things really started to go wrong for her. Was it with her life at home, with her family? Was it when she started selling drugs? Was it when she bought a gun? She’s still mulling it over. But one clear link in the long chain of events that landed her in Muncy began with a phone call in the middle of the night.

What followed on the call between Skoop and a local woman named Brittany Ritter was an argument over a love triangle, and later, a $20 bag of weed. It began pettily, escalated quickly and ended violently. Before Skoop knew it, she told us she was jumped by a former friend of her family named Jennifer Hernandez (no relation), along with Brittany, who had come over to her apartment in the early hours on July 31st 2009, driving an SUV. In a strange and humiliating slight, Brittany beat Skoop and took her pants off, leaving her to go back inside in just her briefs.

Skoop called her mom, who was working a night shift. “We’re gonna go get your pants,” Rosa said, enraged, when she returned to the apartment after work. A trip to Jennifer’s home was unsuccessful – Skoop recalls young children being in the house – so they left.

“We went back to our house, and were smoking a cigarette outside. And I happened to see the same Jeep from last night.” Among the group of people who came in the car was Steven Santiago, a 20-year-old friend of Brittany’s. Local news stations at the time reported how the origins of the fight were unclear. A court document seen by babe writes how the official 2009 record contains “very few facts regarding the incident in question,” as Skoop waived her right to a preliminary hearing.

But according to Skoop, the people who came out of the SUV meant business – the argument between them had continued to amp up. Next, a fight kicked off outside Skoop’s apartment building, where her mom and grandma lived. Rather than watch her mom get beaten by Brittany, as she later said in court proceedings, she tried to intervene, and ended up shooting Santiago once in the chest.

The visitors’ room at Muncy has grown busier. Skoop starts talking quietly and quickly, and we lean in close to hear her.

“I pointed the gun at him but he didn’t move, he kept coming towards me” says Skoop, recalling a messy fight around her. “Before he could get any closer – he wasn’t far, just 10 feet away – I pulled the trigger one time. Oh shit. I just shot the guy. I see everyone running, and I run too.

“I ended up going back to my mom’s apartment. I remember pacing, pacing, not knowing what the fuck to do. I put the gun in a potted plant and left. I ran to my grandma’s apartment on another floor – she didn’t answer. I ran to the basement and my hat came off. I run back upstairs and knock on my neighbor’s door – their son is a friend of mine but he isn’t there.

“I’m waiting in his room, and see a bunch of people outside the building. I call my brother and I told him what happened. ‘You should turn yourself in,’ he said. I’m scared to death. I call Emily and she says to turn myself in. I smoke five cigarettes back to back. I left and went to the exit. A cop is in the building and says: ‘Excuse me sir, go back inside,’ because I’m dressed like a boy. I say: ‘I think I’m the one you’re looking for,’ and he says: ‘Freeze! Get on the ground!’”

Skoop sighs, perhaps relieved to have made it through this part of her story to the moment she was arrested. She allows herself a pause and leans back in her chair.

How often does she think about shooting Santiago?

“Every day.”

And how does she think about the incident today?

“I’m not saying I’m innocent – I’m really not. I made a mistake and I’m trying to fix it. I didn’t expect to kill him. It’s not like I emptied a full clip on him. I was young and impulsive. I was a 16-year-old facing a 20-year-old man.”

Skoop, aged 16, before prison

Life inside

Back in the visitors’ room, an enormous inmate with a bald head and tattoos coiling up her muscular forearms rushes to greet her fiancé – the woman with the cat-eye makeup from earlier. They find a quiet spot in the room and sit down, giggling. An older inmate with grey hair hugs her elderly husband, who walks with a hunch. She fusses over him and brings over trays of food from the vending machines for both of them.

The youngest inmate Skoop knows is 15, the oldest is 94. She tells us about Berg and Mabe, two inmates in their 70s or 80s, who have been a couple for 23 years. “They live together and go everywhere together.” Couples can arrange to share cells, she says – for 10 months, she lived with her ex-girlfriend, Krystal – their happiest time together. Then Krystal finished her sentence and was paroled. So they broke up. Skoop still has Krystal’s name tattooed on her arm.

In her eight years of prison, Skoop has been able to adjust to prison life with its strict rules, daily indignities (she is strip-searched before and after meeting us) and ceaseless boredom. She has friends but not many of them – too much risk of putting herself at risk of manipulative inmates. “The more friends, the more bullshit,” she explains. “You have to learn to stand your ground. Sometimes, if you don’t have a mind of your own in here, you’ll be easy to target for money, favors, theft, being a laundry bitch…” So she mostly keeps to herself, preferring to confide in her celly, Melissa, and her mom, Rosa – they talk every day on the phone when she gets off work.

39 and a half to 75 years

When they speak on their daily calls, Skoop updates her mom on her legal battle, which is by turns complicated and distressing. She is in a tough position as a minor tried and convicted as an adult – all juveniles charged with homicide must be tried as adults under Pennsylvania state law. This is a stance that has drawn criticism in recent years, following high profile murder cases involving young children. Prison reform advocates point to neuroscience findings that the area of the brain that affects impulse control does not fully develop until age 25, which they say makes young offenders “capable of both aging out of bad behavior and more receptive to therapy.”

Skoop was one of the 250,000 kids tried, sentenced or locked up as adults every year, according to figures from the National Center for Juvenile Justice. As Skoop remembers it, after her arrest, she was taken to the police station in Lebanon. There, she claims she was interrogated without her lawyer or her mother present. Upon being told by the detective interrogating her that Steven Santiago had passed away, she confessed to shooting him.

“I owned up to it. Mom was allowed in, and I cried.”

That was the last time she was allowed to see her mom over the next few months, which played a key part in what happened next. Skoop was told by her public defender Juliette Zaengle that despite Skoop’s wish to take her case to trial, she would never win.

Zaengle told her, as Skoop recalls, that she would be found guilty of first degree murder if her case came to trial. So she urged her to enter a guilty plea for a charge of third degree murder – one of the 12 charges that she was initially served with, alongside aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy and possession of firearm by a minor.

Skoop was insistent on a trial. But Zaengle came back to her with another public defender and told her the news that would seal her fate. Skoop says Zaengle and her colleague told her that her mom’s sentencing deal (10 months to two years for riot, corruption of a minor and disorderly conduct) depended on her pleading guilty. If Skoop didn’t accept the deal on the table, she was told, her mom’s freedom would be in jeopardy.

“’This is the best that I could do,” Skoop remembers Zaengle saying. “They told me, ‘If you don’t take this, you could get life, your mom could get life. Her plea is gonna get pulled off the table.’ And that dwelled on me. I wasn’t allowed contact with my mom until it was all done, so I couldn’t speak to her about it. But if I could save my mom, if I could protect her, I’m gonna do it. I can’t take this all in at once. That was the day I signed it off. That meeting was about 20 minutes.”

So she entered a guilty plea, to save her mom from a similar fate. Skoop was served with 39 and a half to 75 years in prison. She’s done eight so far. While Skoop says her mom felt an immense amount of guilt over the whole affair, they have become far closer in the intervening years than they were before. Both Skoop and Rosa told us how much they depend on one another now from afar, making up for lost time. Still, it pains Rosa to think being apart from her daughter for so long. “She went in a baby, and now my daughter’s 24,” she said. “I missed all those years.”

Determined that she had been wrongly sentenced, and working with a new public defender, she filed to withdraw her plea under Pennsylvania’s Post Convention Relief Act in 2014.

A court heard how back in 2009 Skoop was afflicted by “psychological and emotional pressure,” to plead guilty which overshadowed “her ability to make a conscious choice of the best option for her own welfare.”

Her appeal was accepted, and she was allowed to withdraw her guilty plea. She is now awaiting a new sentence. The court ruled: “We cannot help but feel that her ability to consider what was in her own best interest was clouded by her youth and devotion and that she should have been able to make such a momentous decision without shouldering responsibility for her mother’s welfare.”

A top young offenders campaigner told babe she thinks Skoop’s treatment – the pressure to take the deal – was “harsh and unfair.” Melissa Sickmund, the director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, explained that particular practise can be compared to other prosecution tactics that don’t have to be truthful.

“There isn’t a requirement that the justice system has to tell you the truth,” she said. “Law enforcement can say: ‘This person already confessed so you might as well come clean,’ and that doesn’t have to be the truth.”

For her part, Zaengle says Skoop’s charges were “excessive.”

“She didn’t deserve it,” she told babe. But she was unable to get Skoop’s charges merged or pursue a better deal for her. “I made sure I gave her the option to go through with the trial. I told her what would happen if she went ahead with the plea and what the outcome of the trial would be.”

She explained how Robert McAteer, the Assistant District Attorney, pushed for a first degree murder charge, before allowing her to plead guilty to third degree murder. “Sasha was between a rock and a hard place. She was 16 years old. The district attorney insisted on charging her mom.”

As Skoop was sentenced in 2009, McAteer told reporters: “This entire situation could have been avoided had [Skoop’s mom Rosa] acted like a mom and not a thug” – a word with an unpleasant racial connotation. He emphasized how Rosa had “failed miserably” as a good role model.

At the time, white Lebanon residents praised McAteer’s tough stance on her and her family. Comments on news articles and on local forums reveal just how happy they were to see Skoop locked up:

“I was born and raised in Lebanon, and so were my parents & grandparents. I can only imagine what my grandparents would say if they could see what has become of this town. It is sickening.”

“Unfortunately, both this girl and her mother are part of the same trash that has taken over Lebanon and many other communities. While the sentence may seem excessive, murder is a serious crime, and it is doubtful that this girl would ever be “rehabilitated” into becoming a good citizen.”

“You’ve done this community a service by helping remove this element from our streets. Now let’s get the DA to move to the next step and round up everybody else involved in this fight and send a clear message that this behavior will no longer be tolerated in this community.”

“This town has become ‘Piece of Shit Central’ for the criminal minority garbage from other towns.”

“I go to the store and the ambient conversations make me feel as if I was somehow transported to San Juan without my knowledge. Do Latinos have any other hobbies besides shitting out kids they ignore?”

As a county, Lebanon has a sordid history of race-related crimes. Since 2016, a black resident was refused service in a restaurant by a KKK member. A local church was named a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center after advocating for racial segregation. A white woman was called a “race traitor” in public for having a mixed-race daughter.

Did this play into Skoop’s case? We tried contacting Robert McAteer, and left him repeated messages at his place of work, but he did not respond to us.

As for Skoop, she’s awaiting her revised sentence. In January 2016, she was offered a reduced sentence of 20 years by the DA, which she refused. An offer of 18 years came two months later. “I still don’t feel like I’m getting the proper sentencing,” she said. She maintains that she can get a better deal than the extra 10 years of prison time she’s being offered.

Our time at Muncy was coming to an end, visiting hours were nearly up. Most of the visitors said their goodbyes, leaving their loved ones to be processed back into the prison. The woman with the cat-eye makeup hugged her fiancée ahead of her long drive home. The old couple were still talking together.

Skoop told us about the hardest thing she’s had to face in Muncy – being away from her mom. Despite their love for one another, there are things about being in prison that Skoop doesn’t feel like she can tell Rosa – tough stories about the tedium and occasional violence that hangs over every inmate. But she’s all Skoop has, despite everything. “She’s my strength when I’m weak.”