Defenders of 12-year-old Kathryn Tomassoni say she is a horribly mistreated waif, driven by years of violent abuse to kill her adoptive mother, Lydia Tomassoni. Prosecutors claim that Kathryn wasn't abused, but is, in fact, a calculating killer who coldly planned the murder of her mother, shot her while she napped, then raided her purse to go on a shopping spree.

It's hard to know whom to believe. Since February 5, when Lydia Tomassoni was allegedly shot dead by her daughter in the family home north of Sun Lakes, the spin-doctoring has been fierce.

Investigators hired by defense lawyer David Theut have led TV cameras through the filthy, urine-soaked Tomassoni home to show the squalid conditions under which Kathryn was forced to survive.

At the same time, officials from Arizona's Child Protective Services, which compiled numerous reports of turmoil in the Tomassoni household during the past five years, have insisted that Kathryn and her sister, 11-year-old Tammie, were only mildly neglected.

CPS has sought to avoid blame for failing to recognize that the sisters were abused and not taking immediate steps to stop it. Such action, critics say, could have prevented the shooting. Last week the agency issued a press release disavowing responsibility for the killing.

Out of this cacophony of accusations and denials made in the media court comes the impartial voice of Ron Schuler, an unassuming Chandler hairdresser who isn't on anyone's side. He says he has no reason to put a spin on the bitter confrontation he witnessed between mother Lydia and daughter Kathryn a few hours before the shooting.

He says he only cares about what he saw--a mother abusing her child.
Schuler, a 31-year-old manager of Classic Beauty College in Chandler, says Lydia Tomassoni dropped Kathryn off outside the college at 9:30 a.m. on February 5. The little girl asked one of Schuler's students for a cut and a permanent wave, only to be told that the student couldn't oblige. It's company policy, Schuler explains, not to perm a minor's hair unless a parent signs a release form.

After an hour of trying to reach the mother by telephone, Schuler contacted Kathryn's father and got permission to start work on the little girl.

"She was filthy," Schuler says. "Her hair had to be washed two or three times, and the water was still coming out of it all brown and murky. She smelled, too."
Finally, the girl's locks were transformed into clean, curly tresses that fell just below her shoulders. "She looked pretty good," Schuler says, "especially compared to how she looked when she came in. She was smiling, and seemed pretty happy about it."

But Lydia Tomassoni, who appeared about 1 p.m. to collect her daughter, was clearly displeased. According to Schuler, when she saw Kathryn, she erupted, screaming that the hair wasn't short enough.

"She said, 'I want her to look like a very little girl so she will start acting like a very little girl,'" Schuler recalls. Lydia Tomassoni then ordered one of Schuler's students to cut the hair into a short "Afro."
As the student worked on the cut, Schuler says Lydia Tomassoni began to fume. Finally, she roughly grabbed Kathryn's arm and tried to pull her toward the door.

"She told me, 'This is taking too long, I'll just finish it myself.' I believe she just wanted to get the girl out of there with her hair half cut and looking like slop so she could punish her by making her wear it that way," Schuler says.

"I've never heard a mother talk to a child with such venom in her voice."
As the girl recoiled from her mother, pressing back into the barber chair, Schuler stepped in and said he would quickly finish the cut. As Kathryn sat stoically, Schuler made her hair "presentable" before Lydia Tomassoni gruffly led her away.

Six hours later, Lydia Tomassoni was dead.
Schuler doesn't believe Kathryn killed her mother over a bad haircut. "You could see that things like this went on between them quite a bit. [Kathryn] was showing signs of what you might call long-term abuse. Even though she handled herself well, you could tell she was upset."

Schuler says Kathryn didn't cry, and her mother never hit the girl while in the salon. "Nevertheless," he says, "there was a sense of conflict in the air.

"The mother was, quite frankly, a terrible bitch to the child."
Theut, Kathryn's attorney, says he can't comment on Schuler's account. "All I can say," he says, "is that the truth about abuse will come out in the trial," which is set to begin this week. Deputy county attorney Bob Shutts, who is prosecuting Kathryn for murder, did not return calls.

It has been widely reported and documented that both girls were subjected to beatings and other abuses--including incidents where Tammie's head was held under water and Kathryn was given a fat lip. But those events, investigated and deemed to be "isolated" by Child Protective Services, are unlikely to convince a court that Kathryn was forced, out of desperation and a will to survive, to shoot her mother.

That's why the case might hinge on the weight the juvenile-court judge gives to testimony from observers like Schuler.

"What it comes down to is what objective people with no ax to grind, like [Schuler], say," one source says. "The judge will be looking to see if there was a long-term pattern of abuse that would drive a child to do what she did."
Schuler says he can't provide the judge with any special insight on child abuse. He can only testify as to what he saw. "All I know," Schuler says, "is that I wouldn't want my child treated that way. No child should be treated that way.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Darrin Hostetler