Teacora Thomas did everything she could think of to protect herself from her estranged husband, who had beaten her bloody in an obsessive campaign to do her harm.
She changed the locks on her Richland County home. She armed herself with pepper spray and a stun gun. She filed charges against him after body blows and a kick to the head put her in the hospital. And she got a court order barring him from making any attempts to contact her.
None of this made a difference on the morning of Oct. 15, 2012, when Thomas returned home with her mother to gather belongings so she could move away. Dexter Boulware lay in wait for her in a closet. He had broken in while she was gone.
“You all going to die today,” he hissed, leaping from his hiding place, a pistol gripped in his hand.
She tried to escape, but Boulware grabbed his wife, aimed the gun at her and made good on his promise. She died before reaching a hospital.
Thomas’ case illustrates the problem with South Carolina’s fractured approach to dealing with domestic violence. A number of people, from police to social workers, have a hand in protecting women from abuse, but a lack of resources, communication and coordination leave dangerous gaps in the web of support.
Police arrest abusers. Magistrates set bail. Doctors tend to wounds. Counselors shelter victims. Judges issue restraining orders. Prosecutors prepare for trial. But often, these players work independently from one another, passing the baton back and forth without sharing information, assessing potential risks and working on collaborative solutions.
This failure of communication helps explain why South Carolina leads the nation when it comes to the rate of women killed by men.
Two years after Teacora Thomas’ death, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott acknowledged that she took almost every step available to protect herself. But as for his department, he said, “I don’t know if we could have done anything differently.”
Therein lies the problem: Even in an urban county such as Richland, which boasts one of the state’s better law enforcement operations, the missed opportunities to save Thomas were numerous.
Boulware’s increasing violence toward Thomas triggered no special response from deputies or court officials, even after he beat her so ferociously that she ended up in a hospital. No one took the time to evaluate the danger he presented. Once he was arrested for that assault, a judge let him go almost immediately on a personal promise to appear for his court hearing. She obtained a protective order, but no special efforts were made to keep tabs on Boulware until he left threatening messages on her phone the day before her murder.
Thomas was left to save herself at a time when she was most vulnerable.
Jacquelyn Campbell, a Johns Hopkins University professor who is one of the nation’s leading experts on domestic violence, said Thomas’ case illustrates a complete failure in the fight against domestic violence.
“If there was a community-wide strategy to address high-risk domestic violence cases, there are several things that could have been done,” she said. “Everyone has to get on board. It has to be a coordinated response.”
Richland County clearly is not alone in this plight. Examples abound of similar tragedies across the state.
There was Cindy Koon, who was beaten, strangled and stabbed, allegedly by her husband, in 2012 following a three-year stretch in which Newberry County deputies had been called to the couple’s Prosperity home 24 times for domestic disputes. Or 46-year-old Donna Parker, blasted with a shotgun in a North Myrtle Beach parking lot in 2008 after seeking a restraining order and calling police on her estranged husband a dozen times in a two-month period. Or Susann Burriss, 51, who was left to fend for herself in Anderson after her estranged husband beat her with a baseball bat in 2008. He then returned home three months later and killed her with a shotgun, stuffing her body in a trash bin, where she bled to death.
In each case, and many others like them, warning signs were clear, but the victims were ultimately left to their own devices.
A better way
That’s not the way it should be, or has to be, based on the experience of other states employing far more aggressive approaches to curbing domestic violence.
In Maryland and several Massachusetts communities, police, prosecutors, domestic advocates and probation officers work in teams to identify high-risk domestic violence cases, share information and rapidly connect abused women with services to help them escape harm.
The teams employ numerous techniques to calm the situation and alter the dynamics at play, including placing the abuser under surveillance, removing guns from his home and getting him counseling.
The Massachusetts effort, spearheaded by the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in the small coastal city of Newburyport, got its start after the 2002 murder of resident Dorothy Giunta-Cotter, who died trying to escape a husband who had abused her for two decades.
After years of enduring beatings and threats, fleeing to shelters and getting restraining orders, she took a stand, returned to her home and got an order of protection. He broke in anyway, held her hostage and shot her dead.
As counselors and authorities sorted through the events that led to her death, they came up with a strategy aimed at shifting the onus for protection away from victims. Instead, offenders are held more accountable for their behavior. The strategy includes using GPS technology to track the offender’s movements, making sure he doesn’t go near the victim. It also includes “preventative detention” to hold high-risk offenders without bail until trial.
This creates a cooling-off period in which a victim can get help without being in imminent danger. And she can do so without having to uproot her life and seek sanctuary in a shelter, said Kelly Dunne, operations chief for the Geiger Center.
“Going to a shelter literally means ripping them from their jobs, forcing them to pull their kids out of school and going to a community they may never have been to — and they have to do this sight unseen,” Dunne said. “It always seems so unfair what we are asking these women to do. They were the victims of a crime, yet they are the ones whose lives have to be completely disrupted.”
Maryland’s system went statewide in 2003 and reports a relatively steady decline in domestic killings since that time, dropping from about 70 to 80 each year to between 40 and 50.
The Massachusetts group has intervened in 129 cases in the greater Newburyport area since 2005 with not a single killing occurring among the women it served. Another 25 high-risk teams have been created across the Bay State to replicate this strategy in their communities.
Last year, the U.S. Justice Department awarded a $2.3 million grant to help the two groups train others in their methods, and North Charleston is among 12 communities under consideration to get that help.
South Carolina’s third largest city, has led Charleston County in domestic violence incidents in recent years. It is participating in a year-long review to determine ways it could improve its response to the problem, whether through better reporting of crimes, reforming the court process or holding offenders more accountable. Six cities will eventually be chosen to receive additional training and aid in putting those plans into action.
The Lexington County Sheriff’s Department in South Carolina’s Midlands has already implemented a system similar to those in Maryland and Massachusetts.
Lexington employs a special investigative unit that tracks domestic violence cases and coordinates prosecution, court action and services.
The Sheriff’s Department said the effort has been so successful that the county can go a year at a time without a domestic homicide. And it’s rare for any abused woman to be killed if the special unit has identified a problem and begun working with the couple, sheriff’s officials said.
The odds of murder
These programs are rooted in pioneering research that Campbell, the Johns Hopkins professor, conducted back in the 1980s. Her study showed domestic violence tends to follow predictable patterns as it intensifies toward a deadly conclusion.
Violence moved along a continuum, escalating from harsh words and threats to physical abuse. Acts such as choking proved to be key signs of a potentially lethal outcome. Campbell also determined that these women faced the greatest danger during times of change, when they tried to leave their abuser, got pregnant or started a new job. The threat was greatest during the first three months after the life change occurred but dropped dramatically after a year’s time.
These findings led Campbell to develop the “Danger Assessment Tool,” a 20-item checklist of risk factors that gauges a domestic violence victim’s likelihood of being murdered. Some of the risk factors include past death threats, an intimate partner’s employment status, and that person’s access to a gun.
“Victims need knowledge,” Campbell said, “and this shows them the danger they are in.”
The assessment can be used to persuade a victim to go to a shelter or seek other help. It enables police and counselors to know when to be extra watchful with both the victim and the abuser. It also provides prosecutors with an ability to know which abusers should be jailed or released only with strong restrictions.
In the Teacora Thomas case in Richland County, such an assessment might have prevented the killing from occurring, Campbell said.
“Teacora could have worked with a domestic violence agency to understand her danger better, using the Danger Assessment or some other tool to assess risk, and safety plan accordingly,” she said. “She should have been working with the police instead of her mother in gathering her belongings because evidence has shown that one of the most dangerous times for domestic abuse victims is when they take steps to leave the abuser.”
That lesson has been demonstrated many times in South Carolina. Last year in February, 34-year-old Kendra Nakeel Johnson was shot dead in Florence, her ex-boyfriend accused of killing her because he couldn’t deal with her leaving him. Five months later, Robert Hurl, 44, of Anderson was charged with killing his estranged wife when their marriage disintegrated. Then in December, 18-year-old Sierra Landry was shot dead in Lancaster about six months after a court told her estranged boyfriend to stay away from her. He’s now awaiting trial on a murder charge.
South Carolina’s Criminal Justice Academy teaches elements of the danger assessment to officers. It’s part of a retrenched focus on domestic violence that boosted training on the subject from four hours to 40 a few years back. Brian Bennett, a domestic violence instructor at the academy, said it’s important for officers to be keen observers and understand the warning signs that more violence may lay ahead.
“A lot happens with words, but once they start putting hands on intimate partners in an attempt to do harm, that shows the control most normal people have over their behavior is starting to be lost,” he said. “And for that to move to an even higher level is not that far off.”
Perhaps so, but few police departments around the state use the assessment. Some agencies contacted by The Post and Courier had never heard of the tool.
The Spartanburg Police Department is the only law enforcement agency in the state that has received formal training in use of the Lethality Assessment Program, an adaptation of Campbell’s research for use by police and other first responders. The Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence developed the program, which has been taught to police agencies in 32 states.
Spartanburg Police Capt. Regina Nowak said the department began using the program, with some local alterations, about a year ago to “give officers another tool in their belts.”
In the past, she said, officers often left the scene of domestic calls frustrated because the couple refused to cooperate when they arrived, or the woman was too afraid to press charges. With the assessment, she said, the officers can question the victim more effectively and help her see the danger she is in.
If the victim answers “yes” to any one of three critical questions, Nowak said, the officer immediately calls a 24-hour phone line staffed by a trained “lethality screener” who attempts to intervene to help the woman get to a shelter.
With this, Nowak said, officers get a chance to do something constructive, and the victim gets help.
In the secrecy of home
While these tactics have made a difference, they still don’t reach an untold number of women who endure beatings in the privacy of their homes and never tell anyone.
Women such as Alicia Alvarez.
She kept quiet for years about the verbal trashing, body blows and choke holds she received from the man she once lived with. It was embarrassing, shameful, too hurtful to share. That didn’t change until she saw something the last time he assaulted her.
As she slipped toward unconsciousness, his hands tightening around her neck, she caught a glimpse of her terrified 5-year-old son, trembling as he helplessly watched the attack.
Alvarez vowed that if she survived she would take her two children and run. Her last thought as she passed out: “I can’t let my kids see this.”
Shortly after she recovered, the Charleston woman told her abuser she was taking the kids on a shopping trip to Wal-Mart. She drove instead to a safe haven out of state and stayed away.
That was several years ago, and Alvarez and her children have since returned to the Charleston area. She’s happier now, but vividly recalls the “psychic hold” that made her stay with her abuser without ever reporting anything to police.
Now, Alvarez wants to reach out to other victims so they know they can get out. People also need to “be nosy” and pay attention to relatives, friends and neighbors because domestic abuse thrives in secret inside the home, she said.
Aside from scattered billboards and some proclamations during Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, South Carolina has no comprehensive effort to reach silent victims. The state lacks a coordinated campaign to address a social epidemic the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “a serious, preventable public health problem that affects millions of Americans.”
Michaele Cohen, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, contends that major outreach is necessary if a state is to make serious strides against domestic abuse. Her group runs a statewide campaign that includes taking brochures and other information to hospitals, clinics and salons. To reach these silent women, they emphasize some alternatives to seeking haven in a shelter, such as counseling, legal assistance, safety planning, a help hotline and follow-up visits.
“It’s hard to know how many people are saved,” Cohen said. But she said studies show that women who use domestic violence services are almost never the victim of murder or attempted murder.
Dunne, from Massachusetts, agreed: “I truly believe that many of these homicides that occur are preventable.”
‘Zero tolerance’ approach to domestic violence leads to drop in deaths
Cpl. Steve Gamble watched from a second-floor window in the old county courthouse as people charged with criminal domestic violence arrived to attend hearings on their cases.
The Lexington County sheriff’s deputy waited to see who might show up with a wife, girlfriend or ex-lover they had been ordered to stay away from. It didn’t take long.
A man soon walked in with the woman he’d been accused of assaulting. Big mistake. He’d been barred from contacting her as a condition of bail.
When Gamble confronted him at the front door, the man told the deputy he and the woman just happened to arrive at the same time. It didn’t work, and the man soon admitted she drove him to the courthouse.
Later that morning, Gamble detailed this story for the judge, who was not amused. The judge pronounced the man guilty of contempt and ordered him jailed for 20 days.
As the bailiffs handcuffed the stunned man and led him from the courtroom, he turned to the judge and pleaded, “Your honor! Please! Please!”
That got him nowhere.
Nicole Howland, Lexington County’s criminal domestic abuse prosecutor, said zero tolerance for abusers who violate the terms of their bonds is just one of the steps necessary to make them realize law enforcement and the courts take the crime very seriously.
“It’s the only way to deal with domestic abusers. Domestic violence is all about accountability.”
Howland is a key member of what the state Attorney General’s Office considers to be the finest criminal domestic violence unit in the state.
The unit has a no-tolerance approach that focuses on jailing batterers or putting them in a 26-week counseling session designed to curb their abusive behavior. Failure to successfully complete the sessions will land the abuser in jail.
People often mistake domestic violence for anger management problems, but it’s not, Howland said. Abusers are calculating and manipulative. To outsiders they can seem charming and fabulous. But at home they “use violence because it works.” With counseling, and the threat of a swift jail sentence, they can be taught not to use it, she said.
The Lexington County Sheriff Department’s special criminal domestic violence unit started in 1999 with a federal grant. It coordinates the efforts of the court, prosecutors, law enforcement, mental health workers and victim advocates. The goal is to increase the safety of victims and hold abusers accountable.
One of the tools employed is a “lethality assessment” to help determine when greater intervention, such as separation, counseling or jail, is needed because of an abuser’s escalating threat of deadly violence. The indicators include killing animals, forced sex, bite marks and strangulation.
Domestic killings used to account for four out of every five homicides, but now the department can go a year at a time without any, Howland said. And, she said, it’s rare for a killing to occur if the criminal domestic violence unit has had any dealings with the couple.
Last year, the Sheriff’s Department saw no cases of domestic homicide. The department’s success may even have some spillover impact in the county’s other police jurisdictions. All together, the county experienced an average of two domestic homicides a year since 2005.
A study conducted four years after the unit started also found results. Researchers from the University of Florida and the University of South Carolina found that the department’s arrests increased 10 percent and the odds of recidivism dropped by half.
The operation was so successful that when the initial federal grant ran out in 2002, the Sheriff’s Department absorbed much of the cost to keep it in operation. The unit currently operates on a $221,213 budget.
The system works because everyone involved is focused on dealing with the crime, the abuser and the victim. It builds experience, knowledge and collaborative capability, Howland said.
She is based at the Sheriff’s Department, working with two dedicated investigators and a full-time victim advocate. When cases go to Lexington’s criminal domestic violence court, the judge can call on advocates and mental health counselors to get victims the help they need. Sheriff’s Cpl. Gamble worked as a road deputy for eight years before joining the unit wanting to help put a dent in domestic violence. “I want to break the cycle,” he said. “I know some are alive today because of us.”
Faces of domestic violence
All of the life events Christan Rainey expected to celebrate with his mother and siblings — the graduations, the weddings, the kids, the grandkids — are gone now, wiped out by one man’s rampage.
Rainey was especially close to his mother, Detra, a tough single parent with five young children. But after Rainey left for college, Detra married Michael Anthony Simmons.
From afar, Rainey didn’t know much about their relationship.
When Detra was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent chemotherapy, it left her weak and vulnerable. Rainey wrestled with whether to come home to care for her.
“She needed me, and I wasn’t there,” Rainey said.
He was away at college in 2006 when it happened. Simmons, then 41, was charged with shooting and killing Detra inside their North Charleston home. Police say he then turned the gun on William Lee Rainey, 16; Hakiem Rainey, 13; Malachi Robinson, 8; and Samenia Robinson, 6 — all of Rainey’s brothers and sisters.
“For the first time, I really knew what hate felt like,” recalls Rainey, now a firefighter.
More than 2,000 people attended their funerals.
A judge later found Simmons mentally unfit to stand trial, and he was confined to a secure state mental hospital.
Shortly after the killings, Rainey got a dog, a female pit bull named Isis, who became his beloved friend. She’s almost 8 years old now, and Rainey dreads the day Isis will die, leaving him alone again.