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Beaten and Blamed

One local woman struggles with both abuse and an arrest record. In New Orleans, that's not unusual.

Second of a three-part series

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When Octavia hits the play button, the tiny speaker can barely hold the big voice. "This is it," yells the man on the telephone-message tape. "Bottom line -- pack your f--kin' bags and get the f--k out of my house. This shit is about to come to a mother-f--in' head."

That message is followed by others that are equally angry and loud. Then the tone changes. "The best thing for you to do is to make a phone call to me," he says calmly. "[Because] you are going to have see me and you're really going to have to talk to me one day. You will have to leave that place sometime. And you will have to return sometime."

There are a dozen or so messages on the tape. She says all of them were recorded on Mardi Gras Day, when the man -- her soon-to-be ex-husband -- had begun phoning her at 5:13 a.m.

Octavia says she could make a similar tape every day. She and her husband have been separated five months -- but she estimates that he still calls her an average of 20 times daily.

("Octavia" is not this woman's actual name. Out of concern for her safety, Gambit Weekly did not contact her husband for this story. Her recollections have been corroborated wherever possible through her own documents and New Orleans Police Department incident reports.)

Octavia files the audiotape in a three-ring binder that she uses to chronicle their year-long marriage. It contains arrest records; drafts of divorce papers; invoices marking each time she's had the locks re-keyed or the car-alarm replaced; and two sets of color photographs, taken by a girlfriend, of Octavia covered with bruises.

She leafs through the book and shakes her head. Her marriage has become a thicket of intertwined finances and back-and-forth allegations. Early on, a deft attorney might have resolved everything -- if she had consulted one. But she was too embarrassed. "It took me a long time to admit that I was a battered woman," she says.

That's common, says Merni Carter, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Almost all women who are beaten think it's their fault," she says.

But Octavia has other reasons for her feelings of shame. She says they stem to the time when she called the police, only to be led away in handcuffs.

Her first arrest came in January 2001, 20 days after her wedding.

Octavia and her husband were staying at his house, about an hour's drive from New Orleans. Octavia overheard him speaking intimately with a girlfriend on the telephone and slapped him across the face. He responded, she says, by punching her several times with such force that she fell onto the floor, where he began to kick her.

She says that she ran to a bedroom, locked the door, and called 911. By the time the police arrived, she says, her husband had splintered the bedroom door and ripped the phone out of the wall. Octavia told the cops that she wanted to drive back to New Orleans. They told her to get in her car and leave, which she did.

But later that night, she ended up back at his house. When the beating resumed, she says, she called 911 again. This time the police took both Octavia and her husband to jail.

"In a way, I started it," says Octavia glumly about her slap. He had never hit her before that day. She never hit him again, she insists. He, however, began beating her frequently.

He could, for weeks at a time, be absolutely charming and sweet, "the husband everyone would want." But then something would trigger him. Like the night he saw her hug an ex-boyfriend at a nightclub. "That was April 29th. After that, he fought me every day."

At this point, he was unemployed and they were staying at her house in downtown New Orleans. "I would be in the bathtub and he would pour ice-cold water all over me. I would be standing somewhere and he would take his body and slam it into me. That just wrecked my back, to the point where I could barely stand up in the morning."

If Octavia was sewing or had the air-conditioning on, he would flip the circuit breakers, leaving her without power. Sometimes he would lock the gate or the doors and then take Octavia's keys, leaving her trapped.

Then, on May 10, she says, the police made two visits to her house. No NOPD report exists for the first stop, but Octavia says that it was around 10 a.m. She says that the responding officers instructed them to stay apart: Octavia in the house, her husband in the slave quarters.

That didn't work. She says that around 5 p.m., they had an argument over telephone use. So he walked into the house, gathering up phones and the fax, and piled them in the bathroom. When he saw her on the bedroom telephone, she says, he became furious. "He snatched the phone out of my hand, and he pushed me onto the bed. Then he stretched out that phone cord like he was going to strangle me."

Octavia reached under her pillow for her gun, which she fired into the air. He backed off and looked straight at her. "That's it," he said. "Your ass is in prison." Then he ran out the door, down to the corner pay phone.

While he was dialing 911, Octavia ran out the door and drove away. The police arrived, snapped photos, retrieved the bullet and the casing, and interviewed her husband, who according to the NOPD incident report, "said he was in the rear apartment ... when he realized that he did not have a phone and went into the main house to retrieve [one]." He told the officers that he had gotten a cordless phone from the bedroom and was walking toward the back door when he saw his wife pull out a black revolver and fire a shot at him.

The NOPD issued a warrant for Octavia's arrest, for aggravated assault. She surrendered to authorities a few days later.

The court put a temporary restraining order in effect, as it does in all domestic-violence cases. Octavia could now receive up to six months in jail if she had contact -- by telephone, letter, in person, or through a friend -- with her husband, the victim.

Still, when it came time to make bail, her husband was the one who drove to Tulane and Broad to put up her bond. Despite the warnings of a court advocate, they got into the car together and drove downtown to her house.

The back-and-forth nature of domestic violence makes such cases the pariah of the justice system, says one attorney. "I'd rather die than work another D.V. case," he says. Any legal work is often useless, he says, because "the victims always go back anyway."

Octavia did return to her house with her husband, but left after a few hours, fearing both him and another arrest. For the next month, she stayed with friends and relatives, and at a battered women's shelter. Then an Orleans Parish civil-court judge put Octavia back into her house. She returned home and immediately had all the locks changed.

The next day, she says, her husband broke the front lock, walked into the house, and grabbed her new set of keys off the desk. NOPD doesn't have a report for this incident, but Octavia swears that two officers responded, scrutinized her court documents, and then refused to pat down her husband for the keys. A month passed before Octavia could afford to change the locks again. During that time, she says, she would return home only to smell his aftershave or find that things had been moved or broken.

There were other frustrations. Someone convinced both the phone company and the Sewerage & Water Board to cut off her service. Entergy had, on its own, refused to turn off her power. In fact, they told her, they had a man on tape, threatening that if the house had an electrical fire, he'd hold them responsible.

Octavia heard that and panicked. She ran all around the house and found what she had feared. In the unfinished second floor, two bare wires were twisted together, a positive to a positive. She's certain that it was her husband's handiwork. But she had absolutely no proof.

Abusers can be incredibly clever, says M. Thomas Gordy, who worked on civil cases on behalf of domestic-violence victims during more than two years as an attorney for the New Orleans Legal Aid Corporation.

"When you think of domestic violence, you're always thinking of physical beatings," Gordy explains. "There is often physical abuse, but a proficient abuser is not going to give a woman broken bones or black eyes. He's going to shove her, give her a slap in the back of the head, threaten her."

Everything is extremely calculated, says Gordy. "If the woman 'messes up,' the abuser will go out and crush the garden or shoot the dog. He'll target anything that's important to her -- the kids, pets, the garden, her hobbies. The biggest threat of all is, 'I'm going to take the kids away from you.' For a mother, that's it."

Police officers are often called to play the diplomat. Some nights are spent sorting through bitter allegations about infidelities and children. Other times, the arguments revolve around petty things like keys, telephones and houseplants.

Yet Lt. Mark Wynn, a retired Nashville police officer and an international expert in domestic-violence investigation, sees all these calls as opportunities.

"When we talk to cops," says Wynn, "we talk about the golden hour -- the first time and maybe the only time you have a chance to intervene for this family. If you mess it up, there may never be another chance. The victim may stay longer, you may see a homicide, a suicide, or child abuse."

Wynn cautions that most battered women will not pack up their things and go -- at least not right away. "Leaving a violent relationship is not an event, it's a process," Wynn says. "That's what people don't get."

"What battered-women advocates do is called safety planning," says Wynn. "They say, 'Let's deal with the next time, since you're going back.' And lots of women do go back -- for lots of good reasons. There's money, religion, family, children. Then there's the big one -- fear."

Abused women have good reason to be afraid. Most domestic-violence victims are killed as they're trying to leave or after they've separated from their partners. A U.S. Department of Justice survey found that the rate of intimate-partner violence for women separated from their husbands was 25 times higher than the rate for married women in general.

Poor police response may actually make that separation more difficult. Women staying at a local shelter say that they had called 911 for help, but instead were met with indifference and animosity, even arrest.

To local battered women and their advocates, it's an assumed fact -- the NOPD often arrests the victim instead of the offender. One problem is that skilled abusers often leave no obvious marks, whereas women frequently bite or use fingernails in their defense. "The police just look to see who's bleeding when they arrive," says one women's advocate, and the investigation stops there.

One shelter resident puts it this way: "If a woman scratches her husband with her nails because he's choking the life out of her, she runs a good chance of spending time in O.P.P. (Orleans Parish Prison)."

A glance at Orleans Parish statistics confirms that NOPD is arresting an incredible number of women at the felony level. Over the past few years, women have typically comprised 40 percent of the defendants in the parish's Domestic Violence Monitoring Court. Similar courts across the country typically have anywhere from 5 to 12 percent women.

To Wynn, the local court's numbers do not look good. "Each case is different," he says, "but when you start to see this many women being arrested, either you in New Orleans have got that lost tribe of Amazon women that they've been looking for forever, or you've got something askew."

In some cities, Wynn hears people say that women in their town are more violent. Wynn, who has trained police around the world, disagrees. "There's no difference between domestic violence in Moscow and New Orleans," he says. "The difference is the police approach."

Very few New Orleans women are actually convicted of domestic-violence charges. Last year, in 89 percent of such cases, the charges were not even pursued by the prosecutor.

But an arrest can cost a woman days of work, attorney's fees, a steep bail bond, and babysitting bills. Her label as an aggressor makes her ineligible for some legal-aid services. Perhaps worst of all, she is unlikely to seek help from police. "If a woman is arrested after having fought back in self-defense, the chances are about zero that she's going to call [911] again," says Wynn. When victims are arrested, he says, other abused women become more reluctant to call the police.

As a former cop, Wynn understands how victim arrests happen. But he also is clear about how to avoid them -- by taking every investigation beyond the initial scene. A true abuser will often be calm, even if the woman is screaming and seems out of her mind, says Wynn. "In those cases, the offender has nothing to say but 'Listen to her. If you do, you'll see why I'm doing what I'm doing.'"

An officer trained in domestic-violence response will see through that manipulation, says Wynn. "The longer you stay on the scene, the more thorough your questions are, the more agitated the offender is going to get, and the more likely it is that you're going to make an arrest of an offender rather than a victim."

When police don't protect victims, victims protect themselves, says Merni Carter of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "By the time a woman is using guns and knives to fight back, she's given up," Carter explains. "She thinks there's no other way out."

In the domestic-violence field, guns and knives are known as "equalizers," because women use them to compensate for their often-smaller size and lesser strength. Carter says that, nationwide, more women seem to be leaving before they pick up an equalizer. "Since we began opening battered women's shelters," says Carter, "the incidents of domestic violence-related homicides has dropped, but not among women." According to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, between 1976 and 1998 the number of men murdered by an intimate partner fell 60 percent.

A study from the National Consortium on Violence Research might further explain this statistic. Researchers found that the more services a city provided, the more intimate-partner homicides fell, but only among men. The study concluded that shelters and other services provide alternatives for women who might otherwise kill their partners.

"In other words," Carter says, "far fewer batterers are dying. But the same number of women are being killed."

Octavia has two overriding fears. She's afraid that her husband will break into the house and hurt her. And she's terrified that he and his attorney will be able to take her house away.

The two are interrelated because both are ultimately about control, says former legal-aid attorney M. Thomas Gordy. Child-custody battles are by far the most litigated segment of domestic-violence cases, he says, but disputes about housing are also quite common.

Octavia had closed on her cottage four years ago, long before she'd even met her husband. The house was nothing more than a shell -- it had lacked floors and even the most basic of wiring and plumbing. With the help of friends, she brought the house back to life.

But then, early in 2001, a few months into her marriage, Octavia signed the house away. She says her husband had shown her some figures to prove that it made financial sense to re-finance her house -- in his name.

"This sort of thing happens all the time," says Gordy, because a true batterer wants to control everything, especially the finances. One scenario is extremely familiar, he says. "When they're buying a house, the abuser has his wife sign a waiver declaring that the house is his separate property, not community property, and it's been bought with his funds. That way, if the woman wants to leave, she's basically out on her own -- she doesn't have a house."

Of course, any offenders arrested for physical abuse end up in criminal court. But, Gordy asserts, civil-court results are perhaps more important to victims. Research bolsters his assumption. A 1991 study in Indianapolis found that victims are often less concerned with the criminal prosecution of their cases than they are with civil matters -- surviving economically, protecting themselves and their children, and convincing their partners to enter counseling.

Orleans Parish Magistrate Chief Judge Gerard Hansen, who since 1999 has overseen the parish's Domestic Violence Monitoring Court along with Commissioner Magistrate Joe Giarrusso, recognizes that battered women need intense legal help from the moment they're arrested.

As a result, Hansen recently completed an arrangement with the Tulane University Law School. Students from Tulane's newly formed domestic-violence law clinic will work directly with the Orleans Parish court to defend victims in both criminal and civil matters.

For weeks, Octavia had been sleeping fitfully. She was nervous, exhausted, and her spirits were low. Then, on Mardi Gras night, she stayed over at a friend's house.

After 12 straight hours of sleep, Octavia woke up and got to work. She played a tape of her husband's messages for an NOPD officer and obtained a temporary stay-away order. Her husband appeared in civil court to fight the order and also to get her thrown out of the house, but two judges ruled in her favor.

In their latest civil-court appearance, in mid-May, the judge ordered Octavia's husband to return his wife's $5,400 straight-stitch sewing machine. Until the machine is returned she'll continue to pay her bills by cleaning houses and waiting tables.

Still, her husband is never far away. Neighbors often tell Octavia, "I saw him in a green car today." Or "Watch out. He's in a truck this time. I saw him riding by twice this morning."

Recently, an old girlfriend of her husband's called. She told Octavia that she also had been jailed for shooting at him and they compared notes. Octavia also has heard that one of her husband's two former wives was arrested for stabbing him.

She does wish that she could warn off the next woman he dates. Yet she can hardly wait until he focuses on someone else.

Well, sort of. A few weeks ago, just before their last court appearance, her husband's messages began begging Octavia to reconcile. When he showed up at the door, she let him in. It's a decision she now regrets, especially because he told the court they'd spent the night together. The judge was not happy, she says with a grimace.

Octavia readily admits that she still cares for her husband. That disturbs her. "I'm getting counseling," she says, "because I want to know what's wrong with me."

SUSAN ADCOCK
  • Susan Adcock

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