Victim's family stunned by murderer's release

sbowman@islandpacket.comAugust 18, 2013 

Jean Marie Tahan, known as Annie, with her sons, Jamie and Shaun.

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Every year on May 1, her sister's birthday, Jody Weston lights a single candle.

That candle burns the entire day, not in celebration, but in memory.

Her sister, Jean Marie Tahan -- everyone called her Annie -- was murdered almost 24 years ago in Charleston.

But May 1 now has a different meaning for Jody and her family. That's the day her sister's best friend, Kathy French, found out Tahan's killer was to be released from prison and transferred to a halfway house.

"I wrote the parole board every year to beg people to keep him behind bars, and then my mother and I got a letter saying he had exhausted all his parole appeals, so we thought it was done," Weston, 48, said. "But little did I know."

Michael Paalan was charged with premeditated murder in 1996, in addition to some gun and drug charges, and sentenced to 30 years to life in prison. He served about 17 of them at Fort Leavenworth U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Kansas, as he was a navy chief petty officer.

But on Aug. 14, Paalan was transferred to a halfway house in Savannah, where he is set to be released Feb. 4.

Tahan's family and friends don't know why.

"I'm not saying he hasn't served time, but he hasn't served enough," said French, who grew up with Tahan.

"Sixteen years and four months is not enough time for the horrific and awful thing he did," French said. "Not just to Jean, but to her family, to her kids, taking their mother away from those children."

Tahan is survived by three of her children, Jamie, Shaun and Jade, who has a child of her own. Weston said her sister would have loved being a grandmother.

Jamie and Shaun were in foster care and just toddlers when Tahan was killed, and Jade was just a baby.

"He robbed me of my childhood and ripped my family apart," said Shaun, who turned 27 on Aug. 14, the day Paalan was transferred. "I don't know what her demeanor was, what her voice sounded like, I don't know anything, and now they're letting him out and not telling us why."

Tahan, of Portland, Maine, was murdered in 1989 in Berkeley County. A stabbed and beaten body was found in a burning duffle bag near Ridgeland in Jasper County. The body wasn't identified so it was given the name Jane Doe.

It looked as though her death would remain unsolved, but in 1995 the Naval Crime Investigation Service found a lead and tied the murder to Paalan, who was an old boyfriend and Jade's father.

"My mother called and told me they found my sister and I was ecstatic. And then she said, 'Jody, the coroner's office called,' and then it hit me," Weston said. "I refused to believe that she was gone, and I always had hope and did not think it was going to end like that."

French, who was the last person to speak to Tahan, said she spent every day of the six years between 1989 and 1995 trying to get someone to listen to her: Her friend was missing and something was wrong.

It took six years to put Paalan behind bars, and French said she can't understand why he's being released after serving a little more than half of his sentence.

"When you kill someone, you don't just take their life, but their life also ceases to exist to every person they've touched: children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends," French said.

Weston said she has started writing letters again, and she even wrote one to President Barack Obama, asking him to put Paalan back in prison.

Several national TV crime news shows have highlighted Tahan's murder, and Weston said she watched one of the shows more than 10 times after finding out he was being released. She kept trying to find anything she might have missed to put him back in jail.

"After watching that show, I just can't understand how they are letting him out," Weston said. "I keep asking myself, 'What planet am I on, is this a dream, is this real? I need to wake up,' and I'm still trying to wake up."

Shaun said he keeps hearing on the news that the government is letting inmates walk because of prison overcrowding, but he doesn't understand why Paalan is being released.

He said he's asking for a call to action from senators in South Carolina, in Maine where his family is from, and across the country.

"Not just for me, but for others who have suffered the same fate as my family," he said.

Weston said she carries her sister with her always, and that motivates her to keep fighting.

"I cannot sit here and feel like I'm doing nothing. Right now already, I feel like I'm failing, failing my sister, my mother, my family," Weston said. "I'm going to keep going and keep writing, and I'm not giving to give up."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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