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Dawn Marie Vercauteren was a hard-working single mother of four who turned heads with her good looks and magnetic personality.
“She had the kind of smile that when she walked in anywhere, people gravitated toward her,” her former husband, Larry Wagner, told “Snapped,” airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
So it came as a complete shock to loved ones when Dawn was brutally murdered inside her own home, and investigators had to sort through a web of lies to track down her cold-blooded killer.
Dawn and Larry began dating in 1999 after meeting through work in Largo, Florida. The couple married two years later and soon relocated to outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his parents lived.
Dawn and her youngest daughter, Sarah Vercauteren, were close. “Dawn and Sarah were like best friends,” Sarah’s friend, Catlin Merritt, told “Snapped.” “They were more like sisters than mother and daughter.”
Sarah was a popular, outgoing student, but she started running with a bad crowd in high school. Her new friends introduced her to drugs, and by 17, Sarah was using heroin, according to “Snapped.” Although she completed a stint to rehab, she began using again once she got out.
Dawn and Wagner struggled with Sarah’s addiction, but when she gave birth to a son, Skyler, in 2011, Dawn was happy to be a grandmother. Dawn worked hard to keep the family together and support her grandson.
The stress of helping Sarah, however, took a toll on the Wagners’ marriage, and they separated. Dawn, Sarah, and Skyler moved out of the family home and into a trailer park in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.
Wherever they went, it seemed Sarah’s troubles followed, and in 2012, she was arrested for stealing money from her job to buy heroin, reported the Huffington Post.
“Dawn Marie dearly loved her grandson, Skyler, and her daughter, Sarah, but she told me she couldn't take Sarah's behavior anymore, and planned to tell her they had to move,” neighbor Donna Meyer told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper in 2014.
On New Year’s Eve 2013, Sarah asked her mother if she could borrow her car. Suspecting Sarah was going to buy heroin, Dawn said no — and that’s when Sarah picked up a hammer and hit her mother in 18 times.
Sarah then dragged her mother into the bathroom, where she tried strangling her to death. "I tried to choke her because she was gurgling, and I didn't want her to be suffering,” she later told the Pennsylvania State Police, according to Pittsburgh ABC affiliate WTAE. The entire time, Skyler was asleep in the next room.
After binding Dawn with duct tape, Sarah withdrew $600 from her mother’s bank account, according to WTAE. She spent the next week shooting heroin in a motel room while her 2-year-old son sat on the edge of the bed watching cartoons. She also used Dawn’s phone to answer text messages from concerned loved ones.
Sarah was arrested after robbing a bank in Versailles, Pennsylvania on Jan. 7, 2014. She had passed the teller a note claiming she had a gun and made off with $320, according to Pittsburgh CBS affiliate KDKA.
Earlier in the day, she had unsuccessfully tried to rob a Subway sandwich restaurant in the same shopping center.
After missing work for four days, Dawn’s employer contacted Wagner. He went to her mobile home on Jan. 9 and found her dead on the bathroom floor. She was 51 years old.
The following day, investigators questioned Sarah about her involvement in her mother’s death. She ultimately made a complete confession and was charged with criminal homicide, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Sarah pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the death of her mother, and she was sentenced to life in prison in April 2016, reported the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “That was my mother,” she said at her sentencing. “I feel like I should spend the rest of my life in prison because of what I did to her, and I should not get out.”
Now 31, Sarah is currently incarcerated at State Correctional Institution Cambridge Springs, a minimum-security women’s prison.
Though a 2019 appeal of her sentence was denied, Sarah claims she has turned her life around and speaks to fellow inmates about the dangers of addiction. “Even if my story about drugs and heroin can help one person, my mother would be very happy,” Verca said, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
To learn more, watch “Snapped” on Oxygen.
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