Abuse inflicts years of fear, oppression

A Columbia woman tells the story of her ex-husband, her pain — and her escape
Monday, November 22, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:14 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Part two of three in a series on domestic violence

Nettie Hisle of Columbia left her boyfriend in 2000. He abducted and murdered her. Charlotte Harris, another Columbia resident, left her husband, Dannie, in July 1997. He kicked in the door to her new apartment and shot her point blank with a shotgun.

A 1994 Canadian study showed that women who left their abusive husbands were as much as six times more likely to be murdered than those who continued to live with them.

“I could just pack my bags tonight when I go home and walk out the front door,” says Merilee Crockett, an assistant prosecutor in Columbia. “Nothing’s going to happen to me if I do that. But in an abusive relationship, he sees her pack her bag — he’s going to track her down.”

What follows is the story of one woman who got away. Now living in Columbia, her name and her ex-husband’s name have been changed so he can’t identify and find her. She’s afraid he’ll track her down and this time she won’t survive.

“Love is where it starts. It doesn’t just start off with somebody treating you badly or the relationship would never happen,” says Shari, a woman in her early 40s.

She sits at her kitchen table smoking a cigarette. Morning glories cover the deck outside her back door, and an American Indian-style sweat lodge is tucked in a corner of her yard. She grew up in New Mexico and has dusky tan skin that darkens as the sun goes down and she tells her story.

“He was beautiful, he was gorgeous, you know. And he was very, very attentive. He loved me. We loved each other. And very passionate, very expressive about that. We didn’t fight at all.”

Michael’s family raised horses. Shari met him while skipping school to go to the races.

He was her first boyfriend, and from the moment they met, they had a magical connection.

“We really in this crowd of people zeroed in on each other immediately.”

She was 16 and Michael was 19. It was 1977.

Shari lived at home, so their mission became to find a way to be together. He called her at least once a day. Shari stopped spending time with her friends.

Now, she says she realizes she was already becoming a little isolated, but at the time it just seemed romantic.

“I graduated from high school, and I moved into an apartment with some girls. That’s where his neediness started to show. I just occasionally wanted to do some other stuff sometimes. And the reaction was pretty overwhelming on his part, an emotional kind of breakdown.

“He didn’t say he was going to kill himself back then; I don’t think he ever said that before we got married. It turned into his anthem later, but in the beginning it was just this ‘I’m crushed, I can’t live, I will lay on the ground and die and I won’t get up until you’ — you know. I couldn’t kick him when he was down.”

But when she had to move out of the apartment, her choices were to live at home again or move in with her boyfriend.

Home was dysfunctional, lots of alcoholism there. She chose Michael. Her mom agreed, but only if they got married, so they did. “And I remember thinking the night before, you know, should I really do this?”

She was 18. She had been with Michael for two years with no major arguments. Petty jealousy stuff, but that was all.

When they went on their honeymoon, everything changed. They went swimming at some hot springs, and some people were skinny-dipping. Shari knew better than to go naked herself, fearing her husband’s jealousy. But he became furious anyway, accusing her of looking at the other naked men. They left, and on the drive home he got drunker and drunker and began to throw beer on her, hit her with a beer bottle and call her ugly, obscene names.

She told no one.

“Then the next day, there’s the utter total remorse. He can’t get out of bed for two days. He’s so upset that he could possibly do such a thing, and he’s just begging me, he would get almost like in the fetal position. ‘Oh my god, I don’t remember, I don’t even remember saying that, I was so drunk.’”

She was freaked out. Jealousy persisted. It was a year before the next assault.

“There were lots of times he came home drunk and we had arguments and fights, but not physical fights, about him drinking, staying out, him coming back and being jealous of me. ‘I was here by myself, and I didn’t do anything,’ that kind of thing. But one of those just turned violent.”

She was ready to pack up and leave, but this time he went to Alcoholics Anonymous and got sober.

“The next several years he was in and out of rehab. And that’s what you want, you want him to quit drinking. He was pretty much fine when he was sober. Even with the jealousy and stuff, he was funny. That was like the only good part of him left, when he was sober.”

By now the passion was gone. All the connection, the electricity was over. There were periods of sobriety for Michael, when they seemed like a normal couple. He could never stay sober for more than three months. During one of his drinking bouts, Shari left and went to her parents’ house. Michael stood in the yard and cried, said he’d kill himself, until her parents pleaded with her to take him home and get him out of their yard.

“Then I got pregnant about four years into it.”

Michael stayed sober until after the baby was born.

“It was great. We had the midwife, had the baby at home, the whole thing, he was perfect, OK? About four weeks later he went out and started partying again.”

He often came home drunk, and when she didn’t respond to him sexually, he’d kick her or throw cold drinks at her, whatever he had in his glass.

She was 25 years old. After having the baby she decided to go to college to become a physical therapist. A woman at Shari’s work encouraged her, but told her she had to get a 4.0 grade point average to get into school for physical therapy. So she worked full time during the day and went to school at night. It was a big threat to Michael, but she didn’t care.

“I had a kid, and I’m married to a psycho alcoholic and I’m maintaining a 4.0 average, which I did for six years going to school at night. At that point now he’s staying out, gone for two or three days. Good! Go! Great! I didn’t tell him I loved him for probably the last four years. I would just tell him, ‘I don’t. Why don’t you leave?’ I would take his stuff and put it outside. He didn’t have a key to the house for the last two years. He was like a cockroach, he could get in somehow, always, no matter what.

“So, at this point I’d taken, over the years, some hair-pulling, some kicks in the back, lots of verbal abuse, maybe a slap upside the head. He’d never done anything that I’d called the police on him about, until — I decided, OK, I have to get a divorce.”

She didn’t want to fight him. She promised not to withhold their child from him. She just wanted out.

“With somebody who talks so much about suicide, in the back of your mind you always know when the day really comes, it’s going to get ugly. As in, I’m going to die. I’m going to get hurt. Because this is such an irrational person, this is such a high-voltage person.”

She got a lawyer and divorce papers, but she told Michael she wouldn’t file them if he didn’t drink.

“This was one of my many plans. My scheme to try to pull it off without getting hurt.”

He did get drunk. It was late winter of 1991. He called her to come and pick him up at his sister’s house. She went to tell him to forget it; she wasn’t taking him back. He attacked her. She fought back, but he was bigger and stronger. His sister called the cops, and they arrested him.

Shari filed for divorce. She says the next weeks were harrowing.

“He called me 20 or 30 times a day. He was like a little time bomb ready to explode. Then he starts getting threatening about it. Now he’s going to come shoot me. He’s going to kill me. I went and got a restraining order. I called the cops probably five times a week reporting, ‘He says he’s coming.’”

Shari worked at a Montessori school. She says she was afraid he would do something that would hurt the kids. If he called and said he was coming after her, she would go outside while her co-workers called the police.

“This goes on for another few weeks, this high-intensity stress. Always listening for every little thing. Calling the cops all the time. The phone ringing, ringing, ringing; he violated that restraining order so many times with phone calls, with threats.”

She lived out in the desert, with no neighbors near. There was no 911 service, so she had the police emergency number on speed dial on her phone. She felt like a sitting duck.

“And then one night, it was May 18, 1991, I was asleep. My (7-year-old) son was asleep with me, I heard the kitchen door handle. I woke up, and then I heard boom! And he kicked in the kitchen door. I called star 25, I still remember the number, and I waited and I heard the click click and by that time he was in the bedroom.”

He had gone from alcohol to cocaine use, and on cocaine he was like Superman, she says.

“He grabs the phone away from me, he jerks it out of the wall. And he just starts in on me. He beat me and beat me, and I knew I could scream all I wanted to, the neighbors’ house was too far away, they wouldn’t hear me. I tried to fight back, I tried, he was just like bionic.

“I only had a nightshirt on when he first came in, and he pulled it off me. I mean, it’s bad enough to be beaten, but to be beaten naked is even worse. Especially in front of your kid. And my son, at first he tried to get in the middle, and Michael pushed him really hard and he went up against a wall, and that so freaked my son out that he just backed off, and he went in the living room and he sat there by himself for hours.

“I tried to get out of the house, and he grabbed me by the hair and pulled me back in. There was this one point when I was on the floor, and I was sitting in the fetal position, and he’s just kicking me and kicking me and kicking me with his boots. I think I was kind of going in and out of consciousness at some points, too, and I can remember it hurt but it was like I wasn’t there anymore.

“And I could see this little room with a light on in it, and it was far away, with all this darkness and it was like if the door was open and I could see this little room with this light on. And it occurred to me at that moment that God didn’t put me on earth to die this way tonight. He wouldn’t have given me all the talents that I had. I’m not going to die. And I remember that’s all I was thinking at that time — I’m not going to die.

“He wants to move back in, that’s his whole point. ‘You f—-ing b—— I’m not leaving my family. You’re my wife! This is my family!’ This is why he’s beating me up, so I will let him come home.

“It’s almost daylight by this time, and I have broken ribs. I’m beat to a pulp. I’ve got this thing, this sack of blood. It’s not broken, but it’s a hematoma that’s massive (hanging from my arm.) I’m beat everywhere. And I’m telling him, yeah you can come back home. Anything. I’m going to do anything at this moment to live. I will live through this night. ‘Yeah, you can come back home.’

“OK, now we have to have sex. That’s his pattern. I mean I’ve got broken ribs, but I gotta do what I gotta do cause I know when he’s done having sex he’s going to fall asleep. So, we did that for another couple hours while my kid sat in the other room.”

Finally he fell asleep.

“Within about five minutes I start listening to him breathe. I’m still sitting on the bed, I haven’t moved yet and I hear him starting to snore a little bit. And I start creeping to the edge of the bed. And I thought, ‘I could kill him. Right now if I got that serrated steak knife, if I got right on top of him and I stabbed him as fast as I could and as many times as I could, I’d kill him.’ I knew there was no getting away from this. Whatever’s going to happen to him now, he’ll be back.

“I stood up and I looked at myself and I’m backing off from the bed, I’m totally naked, I’m beat to just pulp. I thought, ‘Three years. They won’t give me more than three years.’ And then I thought, ‘I can’t do that to my kid. I can’t be the one who killed my kid’s dad.’”

She grabbed some clothes for herself and her son. She found the boy sitting in the living room with the TV on, in a kind of daze. They pulled some clothes on. And then they ran.

They raced across the early morning desert in bare feet, leaving the door open behind them. Finally, upon reaching the closest neighbor, Shari pounded on the door.

“They were a nice, older couple from Mexico who had been so really sweet to me during all this. And they brought me in the house, they called the police. The last thing, the last time I ever saw Michael, they were putting him in a police car and he was yelling ‘Shari! Shari!’ as they hauled him off.

“I went back home, my house was destroyed. I have a kitchen chair sticking through the wall still. The police come in. They start gathering up evidence, right? They’re just totally freaked, and plus the fact that I had called them so many times. They knew that this could happen, and it did — you know, we almost had a little rapport going. They felt bad.”

From jail, Michael’s first phone call was to Shari.

He seemed bewildered and asked her if she had called the police.

“And I told him ‘If I ever see you again I’m going to blow your head off.’”

The grand jury indictment issued on May 23, 1991, reads in part, “(the) defendant entered the dwelling of (Shari) without authorization or permission, to commit a felony, attempted murder or aggravated battery … did assault (Shari) with the intent to kill or commit a violent felony of murder … did confine (Shari) against her will … did so in a manner whereby great bodily harm or death can be inflicted …”

Her husband was charged with attempted murder, child abuse, breaking and entering, false imprisonment and contempt of court for violating a restraining order.

Through the next few months, with her husband in jail without bond, Shari’s friends and family learned of the private hell she had been living in.

“You get to where you don’t tell them any more because they think you’re stupid. ‘What’s wrong with you, move away! Get a divorce!’ Like if that were so damn easy. So you alienate people. You lose people. ‘If you don’t leave him, don’t come back over here to tell me about it.’ Well, you don’t want to lose what few friends you have so you just don’t tell them about it. You don’t want to suffer that judgment, you know?”

Her parents came from their new home in Missouri to help.

Because her divorce was still pending, she needed permission from the judge to leave the state with her child.

“My lawyer had his kid in my class at Montessori. After that kind of assault happened to me, I think he took it a little personally.”

The judge terminated her husband’s parental rights and granted Shari a permanent restraining order against him.

The order, dated May 22, 1991, also said Shari “may remove the parties’ minor child from the State of New Mexico and move to Missouri where her parents reside.”

At last she was free to leave. She moved with her parents to Missouri and began a new life.

“You can tell a chronological story, this is what happened, then I married, then I moved into — this beating, that beating, this happened, but you have to get into that feeling, that oppressed feeling.

“You live with somebody who constantly tries to control you. You constantly have to adjust yourself, so you don’t look like you might be doing anything that’s ‘improper.’ You’re always being scrutinized, you’re always being watched, you’re always being criticized. It’s being controlled, being oppressed, being dominated by someone. And there’re so many ways to do that. Fear certainly is one, you know, and fear of the physical, but you can fear the emotional assault just as much.”

Her husband plea-bargained and spent less than a year in rehab and jail.

“I haven’t seen him since,” Shari says.

“But he doesn’t know where I live to this day. And if he ever found out, I’d move again. I’d leave. If I ever thought for a minute he was in this town, even though it’s 13 years later. If he ever comes for me again, he’s not coming for fun. But last I heard he’s born again. I hope he lives happily ever after and I never see him again.”

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