HomeNewsHow two people she once loved committed the ultimate betrayal
How two people she once loved committed the ultimate betrayal
September 24, 2022
The teenager trudged up an overgrown path, shovel in hand.
Beating back brush that partially hid the trail from the street, she climbed over a fallen tree trunk and exited into a cul-de-sac at the end of Old Cooch’s Bridge Road, near Newark’s Sobieski warehouse.
Annika Stalczynski was wet and dirty, mud from the soft clay banks of the Christina River clinging to her clothes. But that was to be expected, given the 17-year-old had spent the last two-or-so hours helping conceal the body of Madison Sparrow — her childhood friend — near the edge of the river under an Interstate 95 overpass.
Stalczynski wasn’t alone on this cloudy October afternoon, where temperatures reached into the upper 60s. Accompanying her, court records detail, was Madison’s ex-boyfriend, 18-year-old Noah Sharp.
HOW WE REPORTED THE STORY
Two years ago, Madison Sparrow’s death rocked the Newark community. While police released basic information soon after the murder — following the arrest of Madison’s ex-boyfriend — details about how and why the 17-year-old’s close friends lured her to an ambush, and the way they claimed to have killed her, have been largely unknown.
Through court documents detailing confessions to police, hearing transcripts, search warrants and interviews with family and friends, as well as multiple trips to the locations where Madison was killed and buried, Delaware Online/News Journal reporter Isabel Hughes has reconstructed the events leading up to the killing.
While one of Madison’s friends has since pleaded guilty to murder, it remains unclear exactly what the defense strategy will be for Madison’s ex-boyfriend. Despite confessing on several occasions to killing Madison, he has pleaded not guilty and is set to go to trial next month. Still, a psychiatric evaluation is scheduled for later this month – less than two weeks before jury selection is set to begin.
This piece details the day Madison was killed, the communications between the two people accused of murdering her, their statements to police and the aftermath of the killing – including what Madison’s loved ones have lived with since Oct. 2, 2020.
Sharp and Stalyczinski had driven to this site together after beating the 17-year-old to death at R. Elisabeth Maclary Elementary School, about 15 minutes north of here. On a woodsy trail behind the school, Sharp told police, they brutally attacked the teen, killing her in just minutes.
Stalczynski, who lured Madison to the school with the promise of ice cream, pleaded guilty to murder and conspiracy earlier this year. Despite confessing on multiple occasions to attacking and disposing of Madison, Sharp has pleaded not guilty and is set to go to trial next month.
Neither responded to Delaware Online/The News Journal’s mailed request for comment. Their lawyers also did not comment.
Court records, transcripts and interviews with Madison’s family and friends reveal how her classmates planned her death, what weapons they used and how they disposed of her body.
By the time Oct. 2 rolled around, they had already decided that once Madison was dead, Sharp would load her body into the back of Stalczynski’s car and they would head south toward the Sobieski site. They would sink her body in the river with brick paving blocks, but if that didn’t work, they planned to dig a shallow grave.
That’s the route they ultimately took this Friday afternoon, more than a week after they began plotting Madison’s death. And just two hours after arriving with the teen’s body, they were done.
The girl they both once loved was gone.
There are no statistics tracking how many teens plan and execute their friends’ murders, as it’s a relatively rare occurrence. But when it does happen, it’s typically a very personal act, according to several forensic psychologists Delaware Online/The News Journal, a part of the USA TODAY Network, spoke to for this story.
There’s also often no single reason why — nor one that can be explained rationally. Yet that hasn’t stopped the teen’s family, friends and the community she touched from wondering how Sharp and Stalczynski, once so close to Madison, could harm the quiet girl who selflessly loved those around her.
“I don’t think these kids even know why, but I fully anticipate if they were to come up with a new story like they’ve done several times, it wouldn’t be accurate,” said Madison’s mother, Heather Sparrow Murphy.
“There is no doubt in my mind that I’ll never get an explanation as to why.”
Sharp’s iPhone pinged, a message from Stalczynski lighting up the screen.
“I have the bricks and rope already in my bag,” the message read. “Had the gun, I was set.”
It was the first day of fall, but Sharp and Stalczynski weren’t thinking about pumpkins or Halloween or the soon-to-be changing color of leaves.
Instead, Sharp was focused on his ex-girlfriend and himself, text messages obtained by prosecutors show.
Madison was just over 5-foot-4, and while there was almost no athletic bone in her body — she had quit nearly every sport she ever tried — she was thin. Sharp wasn’t good at estimating weight though, so he had to guess.
“How many bricks, because Madi is heavier than me so you’re gonna need a lot of brick,” Sharp replied, his message cutting off early. “Unless we bury her.”
Stalczynski had grabbed paving blocks from the front wall of her home, but she only had two. If Sharp was worried that wouldn’t be enough to submerge Madison’s 104-pound body in the Christina River, maybe they should bury her.
Plus, Sharp said he could dig a hole “really fast.” He also knew where they could get shovels, court records show, so that was one less thing for Stalczynski to worry about.
“OK,” the 17-year-old agreed. Now they had a plan for the body — and a plan B.
Five days later, the two began brainstorming how they’d kill Madison.
“We can stab her in the heart,” Stalczynski wrote, following up with a photo of a knife. After all, many of the teens who have killed their friends over the years have used this method.
Though there is no data on the number of premeditated murders or attempted murders by friends, a Delaware Online/News Journal review of a number of high-profile cases dating back to 2006 found that in more than a half-dozen cases — and three in 2021 alone — the victims were stabbed.
In other instances, the teens were strangled, beaten or otherwise killed at close range. Guns are used much less frequently in these kinds of crimes.
In part, this is because teens who kill their friends or classmates “need to feel the emotion of it,” said Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist and professor at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.
A teenager’s brain is “highly attuned” to “very emotional-based events,” Ramsland said. By using a weapon that gets a person close to the victim, “it really shows the bruising and blood and broken bones and whatnot, and that’s visceral.”
“And that’s part of the motivational schema,” she said. “They really want to see this person suffer.”
Sharp wanted to make Madison hurt, court documents detail. He told police after his arrest that “he felt pain” when they broke up and “wanted her to feel the same pain.”
But he didn’t love the idea of stabbing the girl, the records show.
Eyeing Stalczynski’s message, he began typing a response.
Maybe they could use a gun, he suggested — Stalczynski had mentioned her father had a shotgun.
What about a baseball bat, the teen pushed back. She knew Sharp owned one. “We can bear the shot outta her with the bat,” Stalczynski replied, her message rife with typos.
“I’m not hitting her with a bat,” Sharp answered quickly. “I like my bat and it’s not gruesome enough.”
OK, Stalczynski wrote. “I guess we’re not killing her then,” she typed.
No, Sharp still wanted to, court documents show. He just couldn’t understand why they couldn’t use a gun or “jab a knife” into Madison’s spine.
But Stalczynski was fixated on the bat. It would be quick, she texted Sharp — “all you gotta do is hit her really hard in the head and boom, dead,” she wrote.
Sharp wasn’t convinced, records show, even as the two texted again several days later to finalize their plans. Stalczynski had made it clear that the shotgun wasn’t going to work — it was too loud, she said, and would be too messy. Now, it seemed they’d have to knock her out.
By the time Sept. 29 rolled around — one week after Stalczynski confirmed she had the paving bricks — the two were ready. The next day, a Wednesday, they were going to kill Madison.
“I’m so excited,” Sharp wrote. “I want this done so badly.”
But text messages show Stalczynski may have briefly gotten cold feet. When asked by Sharp if she was OK, she replied “Ya, kinda.” The following day, after their plans fell through, Stalczynski sent only a series of short, unenthusiastic replies to Sharp, who claimed his focus was no longer on torturing Madison.
All he wanted to do was “finish this so bad.”
Yet any second thoughts Stalczynski might have had faded by the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 2. By 2:45 p.m., Madison was in the passenger seat of Stalczynski’s car, headed for Maclary Elementary.
That morning, Madison had woken up earlier than usual and done well on a French test. She’d also cleaned her room without her mother asking — a pleasant surprise, and something every parent of a teenager knows is a rarity.
With chores and schoolwork out of the way, Madison approached Murphy about getting ice cream with Stalczynski.
The teens had been friends for years and Murphy knew the girl well. Between sleepovers, carpool and Girl Scouts, Murphy was, and continues to be, a second mother to many of Madison’s friends. It was no different with Stalczynski, Madison’s longtime classmate at Newark Charter School.
Murphy had thought it was a little odd when Stalczynski and Sharp began dating — their relationship developed after Madison and Sharp broke up in late spring or early summer 2020 — but Madison didn’t mind. And as long as her daughter was OK with it, Murphy was satisfied too.
“I would be like, ‘Are you sure that’s an OK thing,’ because I wouldn’t be OK,” Murphy said. “But she really was, and the kid couldn’t lie. That’s just who she was.”
This Friday, Murphy couldn’t help asking once more: “Annika is dating your ex-boyfriend, are you sure … ?”
Madison was. She had moved on, Murphy said, so much so that “it wasn’t even a thing anymore.” Plus, she was thrilled about the prospect of ice cream.
Murphy understood why — before Madison and her friends had their licenses, she would have to shuttle them to Dairy Queen, not that she ever minded. Now they could now drive themselves.
In the height of the coronavirus pandemic though, with virtual school and business shutdowns, there hadn’t been many opportunities for the girls to go. Finally, they could.
With her mother’s OK, Madison hopped in the shower. Then she made a sweetly surprising request: for her mom to dry her hair.
Standing in her bathroom, Murphy combed through her daughter’s dark hair, dryer in hand. Once it had been tamed, she dabbed concealer atop a small blemish on Madison’s face. Then, she walked downstairs to print out COVID forms needed for her younger daughter’s carpool as Madison finished getting ready.
Six miles away, Stalczynski was also preparing.
Just after 2 p.m., she pulled into the front parking lot of Maclary Elementary and made her way to a rear parking area. Five minutes later, she and Sharp sauntered toward the nature trail that winds through the woods behind the school.
Video surveillance shows Sharp with a baseball bat in hand.
Soon after, Stalczynski walked back to her car, leaving the school at 2:23 p.m. By 2:30 p.m., she had messaged Madison on Instagram: She was on her way.
Madison headed downstairs to slip on a pair of gray boots over her black tights. Walking to the computer where her mother sat, she kissed Murphy’s forehead as the woman glanced up and said goodbye. Stalczynski had just pulled up.
From a large bay window that faces the street, Murphy watched her daughter get in Stalczynski’s car. As they drove away, Murphy glanced at the time to ensure she and Madison’s younger sister, Molly, wouldn’t be late for carpool.
It was 2:44 p.m.
Molly saw the text message first.
She and her mother were headed to pick up Girl Scout prizes before carpool when Murphy’s phone pinged at 3:23 p.m.
With her mom focused on the road, Molly scanned the text, which had come from Madison’s phone. It was bizarre, and Molly didn’t understand why her sister would have typed something like that. Confused, the 9-year-old put the phone down.
By the time Murphy reached the woman’s home and picked up the prizes, she’d forgotten about the message. Just before pulling away, she read the jarring words herself.
“I’ve always wanted to tell you you’re a bitch,” the message said. The text also claimed Madison hated Murphy and was leaving the country.
Her daughter couldn’t have possibly sent this, Murphy thought. Madison never cursed — the one time she did hear a swear come from the girl’s mouth, “it was like three syllables that should have been one.”
This was a prank, Murphy decided as she typed out a response.
“Well, good luck with that,” she wrote back. “You left your passport, it’s probably in the safe at home.”
By the time Murphy got to Western Family YMCA where Molly and a friend had swim practice — they’d picked up the friend on the way over — Madison hadn’t replied, despite Murphy texting her again and then calling her. This wasn’t funny anymore.
Murphy rushed inside and asked a swim mom to keep an eye on Molly and the friend. She didn’t know exactly what was going on, but she needed to get home.
In the 15-or-so minutes it took to get to the house, Madison’s friends had begun contacting Murphy. They’d also received bizarre texts from Madison’s phone, which was now shut off, and wanted to know what was going on.
Murphy didn’t have an answer, even as she pulled up to the house and raced upstairs to Madison’s room. As she scanned the teen’s purple walls, nothing looked out of the ordinary, but Murphy also didn’t know what she was looking for. This was the only thing she could think to do.
Opening the drawers of Madison’s black dresser, Murphy tore through the bedroom, which had been tidied just hours earlier. Finding nothing there, she targeted Madison’s desk and closet.
Again, nothing. Even the money Madison had received for her birthday several weeks earlier was still in her room, untouched.
Murphy froze. What had happened to her daughter?
Several miles away, a handful of Sobieski employees out for a smoke break glanced at Sharp and Stalczynski, somewhat disinterested.
The teens had just emerged from the cul-de-sac and were headed toward Stalczynski’s car, which she’d parked in the warehouse parking lot after Sharp had unloaded Madison’s body from the trunk.
It’s not unusual for people to venture the 200-or-so feet down to the river, as evidenced by the well-worn path and colorful graffiti spray-painted on the metal beams of the overpass. Some even bring snacks down, leaving their trash along the cool, concrete walls that hold up I-95.
Individuals also park in the cul-de-sac and sit quietly in their cars, some stopping only briefly while others pause to nap. Those who do stop here keep to themselves, knowing it’s better to keep their heads down.
The Ultimate Betrayal: Madison Sparrow’s Final Days
Court documents, police transcripts and interviews with family members shed light on the last moments of Madison Sparrow’s life.
Damian Giletto, Delaware News Journal
Sharp and Stalaczynski, though, were an interesting pair. They were young, the employees thought — maybe even as young as 16. And they carried shovels back towards Stalczynski’s car, along with something that resembled a bucket.
The duo’s exchange was odd, too.
While she wasn’t exactly yelling, the employees recalled Stalaczynski loudly telling Sharp to make sure he brushed the dirt from his clothes before getting in the car, court documents say. She didn’t want mud in her white Lincoln sedan.
Stalczynski and Sharp were still together when Murphy called, though she didn’t know it at the time.
Where was Madison, she asked Stalczynski as she waited for Molly in the YMCA parking lot. The teen had been the last one to see her daughter.
Stalczynski began crying, her story jumbled. Madison had called her a bitch, the teen claimed, and she’d dropped her off at a Wawa in Hockessin, Delaware. It wasn’t clear why.
Hockessin? Murphy thought. Madi doesn’t even know where Hockessin is.
Call Sharp, Murphy told Stalczynski — he might know something. She had tried him, but he didn’t pick up. Maybe if his girlfriend called, he would answer and they could have a three-way conversation.
Somehow the teens managed the call, even given their proximity. But the conversation didn’t produce any useful information and Murphy headed home.
There, she frantically dialed her best friend, then another friend. Then she tried Sharp’s mom, to see whether he or Stalczynski had said anything to her.
Finally, she realized she needed to call 911.
The rest of the night was a blur.
After speaking with police, Murphy continued making calls. One of Madison’s best friends came over with her mother. The two spent the night with Murphy and Molly.
Murphy’s parents, who live in Virginia Beach, raced up to Newark, arriving just before 5 a.m. Murphy dialed her ex-husband — Madison’s father — who lives in Colorado. She posted a flier on Facebook.
By morning, it was “like Grand Central station” in Murphy’s house. But she still hadn’t heard anything from the police, who she would later learn had already spoken with Stalczynski.
And her daughter was nowhere to be found.
Stalczynski sat in an interview room at Delaware State Police Troop 2 in Newark, Delaware, a defense attorney by her side.
This was the fifth time in four days she’d spoken to police, and the jig was up. Sharp had led detectives to the location of Madison’s body early that morning and had since been charged with murder. It was only a matter of time before Stalczynski, too, was arrested.
How had it come to this?
A year earlier, Stalczynski had sat beside Murphy, watching the sun rise over Ocean City, Maryland.
She was one of about a half-dozen girls Murphy took to the coast to celebrate Madison’s 16th birthday, but the only one who woke up early enough to see the sunrise.
Now Stalczynski was here, sitting before two detectives in the same pair of jeans she’d worn when she helped murder Madison. After days of lies, they hoped she would finally tell the truth.
Three days earlier, not long after Murphy called 911 to report Madison missing, a patrol officer had reached out to Stalczynski. She told him the same story she’d given to Murphy — that she and Madison had gotten ice cream at Dairy Queen and then she’d dropped the teen off at the Hockessin Wawa.
That’s where Madison met a man in a white pickup truck, Stalczynski claimed.
The following day — a Saturday — with still no sign of Madison and no leads at the Wawa, another trooper reached out to Stalczynski. This time, her story evolved to include additional details about the man.
She also allowed the trooper to view her phone, where text messages contradicted some of her tale. The texts suggested that people wanted to harm her and Madison, but she told the patrol officer she didn’t have much information about who they were.
Sharp might know more, she said — including the identity of the man in the truck.
The trooper knew this had become more than a routine missing persons case. She phoned the on-call criminal investigator, who later spoke with Stalczynski at Troop 6. Meanwhile police, along with Madison’s grandparents, were searching Hockessin for the 17-year-old.
In the second interview, Stalczynski’s account of Friday’s events changed again, as did the location of the Wawa. It may have been a Wawa in New Castle, Delaware, she said, before altering her story once more.
It wasn’t a Wawa at all, but a location within Newark city limits. There wasn’t just one man, but three. And the truck was no longer a newer-model Chevrolet, but an older-model Chevrolet with rust on the lower portion and a 4-inch lift kit.
This latest story seemed plausible, but why had she lied, the detective asked Stalczynski. She claimed she was scared of Sharp. Then she fainted in the interview room.
As police re-focused their resources to the new location, detectives met with Murphy.
It had been 29 hours since Madison left home and they were going to issue an alert, they told her. It would give a description of the teen, as well as what they believed her last known location was. None of this calmed Murphy, but at least it was progress.
One day later, after the search no leads, the same detective spoke with Stalczynski, this time accompanied by another investigator at Troop 2.
At first, she stuck to the story. Then she admitted that she and Madison had ended up on the nature trail behind Maclary Elementary — walking distance from her house.
There, Sharp jumped out from behind a tree and hit Madison several times in the head, she said. He then told her to “shut up or you’re gonna be next,” Stalczynski claimed.
The detectives were finally getting somewhere. Stalczynski had acknowledged she was “gonna go to jail for this,” and they read her a Miranda warning. She declined to continue the interview and left the barracks with her mother.
Hours later, Sharp was also at Troop 2.
In the time between when Stalczynski left and Sharp voluntarily arrived, police had scoured Maclary Elementary. There was blood on the trail, not far from a blue-and-white neighborhood crime watch sign.
“We immediately report all suspicious activities,” the sign reads.
Police also found a silver aluminum baseball bat nearby, which had blood on it.
On the path, police found a pair of gray boots, the same ones Madison had slipped on just before getting into Stalczynski’s car Friday afternoon. Her glasses had been left in the dirt.
When he spoke to police that night, Sharp claimed he had no involvement. Then, much like Stalczynski, said he only played a small role. Confronted by detectives, he ultimately confessed to killing his ex-girlfriend, saying he’d hit her several times in the head with the baseball bat.
Stalczynski had then beat her with a tire iron, Sharp told police.
Still, detectives needed Sharp to show them where they’d buried Madison’s body. Secured in a patrol car, he directed them to the cul-de-sac, about 10 minutes from Troop 2.
It was dark, just after 2 a.m. on Monday when the 18-year-old walked detectives down the trail and through river reeds taller than he was. There, below the I-95 overpass, he pointed them to an area covered by dirt.
Later that morning, police told Murphy her daughter’s body had been found. They were charging Sharp with murder, but they needed to talk to Stalczynski one more time.
It was Molly’s 10th birthday. How could Murphy tell the girl that her big sister was dead — or why?
As Stalczynski sat in the Troop 2 interview room, a bloodstain on the thigh of her jeans, she couldn’t explain why Madison had been murdered. Nor could she bring herself to tell the whole truth.
She claimed she took Madison to Maclary Elementary so the teen and Sharp could discuss their past relationship. She said she never attacked the girl. And she argued that she never saw Sharp with the bat — something later contradicted by the school’s surveillance video.
A little more than a month after this final interview with police, a New Castle County Grand Jury indicted Stalczynski for Madison’s death. During a case review in May of this year, she quietly pleaded guilty to murder and conspiracy.
She faces a minimum of 25 years in prison. Her sentencing will take place sometime after Sharp’s trial.
Gathered in Murphy’s living room on a recent summer afternoon, three of Madison’s closest friends, longtime family friend Andrea Lenzini and Murphy laughed as they remembered that trip to Ocean City for Madison’s Sweet 16.
The second day they were there, Lenzini had overheard the girls talking about sneaking out that night. It was BikeFest weekend — a time when motorcyclists descend on the city for several days of rock concerts and other events — meaning the area was busy as ever. And the house was in a prime location.
Though Lenzini didn’t really think the girls would sneak out, she wasn’t going to take the chance. She sat on the porch the entire night, waiting for the teens to eventually go to bed.
“The next morning, she was like, ‘I’m out, goodbye,’” Murphy recalled, mimicking Lenzini’s irritated goodbyes. “She’s got to get her eight hours to be functional.”
As quickly as it began, the laughter in Murphy’s brightly-lit living room died down as the group thought more about the trip — and who, specifically, they’d traveled with.
Exchanging glances, it was clear Madison’s friends didn’t want to talk about Stalczynski or have their memories of her 16th birthday tainted by Stalczynski’s attendance on the trip.
But it’s also been impossible for them not to ask in the nearly two years since the murder: What changed in a year that would drive Stalczynski and Sharp to do what they did?
Murphy doesn’t think they will ever get an answer, and she is probably right.
It’s well-established that the brains of teenagers are far from being fully-formed, which means they’re prone to more impulsive and riskier behaviors. This is compounded when they’re in a group setting — even if it’s with just one other person, said forensic psychologist Naftali Berrill, executive director of New York Center for Neuropsychology and Forensic Behavioral Science.
Yet this alone doesn’t explain the desire to kill, given the overwhelming majority of teens don’t. Madison’s premeditated killing is more indicative of a personality disorder in one or both of the teens, Berrill said — and perhaps one exerting influence over the other.
Ramsland, the DeSales professor, echoed Berrill, saying when these kinds of crimes occur with multiple people, one of the perpetrators is often more “malleable.” Typically, she said, it’s the younger or less mature teen
Ramsland said a romantic interest also often plays a role in these kinds of killings.
“The brain in love is certainly susceptible to influence,” she said. “If someone has a crush or has some hopes about a relationship, they’re so much more vulnerable to going along with a potentially delusional partner.”
Still, Ramsland acknowledged there are “so many factors” that go into a premeditated murder that it’s impossible for most people to understand the mindset of a killer.
“Unless you’ve been in those situations where you’re deeply wounded, you would not be able to fathom how this happens,” Ramsland said. “You cannot understand without having been in the position of, ‘I’m going to get that person for dating my boyfriend or dissing me or humiliating me in some other way.’”
In part, this is why Madison’s loved ones will likely never get the answers they seek.
While Murphy expects to learn more at Sharp’s trial next month, she’s not holding her breath. After many sleepless nights spent trying to understand, she’s concluded that “there’s just really no explanation.”
How could there be one, when a year before Madison’s death she and Stalczynski drank up the sunrise in Ocean City, the water glimmering in the early morning light.
For those brief moments, it was just the two of them: a girl on the cusp of adulthood and a mother who loved her daughter’s friends as her own.
And as the waves crashed on the sand, the dawn signaled a new day — and endless possibilities on the horizon.