To neighbors, 51-year-old Shirley Ann Allen was a harmless loner who sometimes talked of spies in helicopters or sprang from ditches to surprise people. Outside this rural community, she was unknown.
But that was before Allen took up her shotgun and threatened sheriff’s deputies who had been sent to take her away for a court-ordered psychiatric exam.
In a standoff that has gone on for a month now, she has fended off a tear gas attack by slathering petroleum jelly on her face, withstood beanbag bullets by wearing heavy layers of clothing and ignored the Barry Manilow songs blared through loudspeakers.
Now, the widow is in the national spotlight, the darling of right-wing groups who feel she is the latest example - after Ruby Ridge and Waco - of innocent civilians being bullied by overzealous law enforcement.
Radio talk show hosts across the nation have used the case to engage callers in a debate over property rights, mental health laws and the right to bear arms.
“The American people are not going to take this lying down,” said Thomas Wayne, a spokesman for a Michigan-based “patriot” group.
Wayne said the woman’s cause is compelling because she has not been charged with any crime, yet must live under the 24-hour surveillance of state police.
The standoff began with a court order obtained by Allen’s family, who had begun to worry about her increasingly bizarre behavior and depression since her husband died of cancer in 1989.
Allen holed up in her home in Roby, about 20 miles southeast of Springfield, Ill., after telling sheriff’s deputies and her brother to get off her property.
She fired at officers twice during the early days of the standoff. No one was injured. The second shotgun blast came after troopers had pummeled her in the chest with beanbag bullets.
When deputies tried to drive her out with tear gas, she stuck her head under running water and used petroleum jelly to prevent her pores from absorbing the gas.
Weary police speculate that the avid canner has enough food in her cupboards to last several more weeks.
Allen’s family issued a statement last week expressing support for police and saying, “We’re just trying to get her some help.” Otherwise, family members have been quiet.
But as the standoff drags on, sympathies in Allen’s wooded neighborhood have shifted decidedly in her favor.
Last week, about 150 protesters gathered in the county seat to demand that police leave Allen alone. Many said it was inhumane for troopers to cut off her water and power, particularly as temperatures dropped near freezing.
A woman was arrested after she sneaked past police barriers and tried to sprint to Allen’s door with a bag of groceries.
“It’s a surreal experience,” said Shellie Jacobs, one of Allen’s neighbors.
Jacobs, like other residents in about a dozen houses in the wooded area, must check in with troopers who have set up roadblocks at entrances to the neighborhood. She must get clearance for visitors and only recently got her family’s mail and garbage service restored.
“The other day, my 4-year-old said, ‘Mommy, when are the policemen going to be out of our yard?”’ Jacobs said.
That’s a question Illinois State Police Director Terrance Gainer gets asked almost daily. He insists that the dozens of troopers and hidden tactical agents who rotate duty on 24-hour watch - at a cost to the state of almost $500,000 so far - will stay until the standoff ends.
Gainer conceded that the waiting game and the criticism are frustrating. But he said mental health experts have assured him that this is the way to bring the standoff to a peaceful end.
“We are not in this woman’s face,” Gainer said. “We are there for this woman’s protection and for the protection of her neighbors.”
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