Crime Crisis: Domestic violence offenders not all the same

Part III of III

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 07, 2022 2:12 PM CT | Published: July 06, 2022 4:00 AM CT

In the iconic 1950s TV sitcom “The Honeymooners,” bus driver Ralph Kramden would raise a closed fist at his beautiful bride and promise:

For the first installment of this series:
Crime Crisis: Four domestic violence survivors recount their abuse — and how they survived
Crime Crisis: Despite tighter laws, scourge of domestic violence rolls on

“One of these days, Alice – pow! Right in the kisser!”

Or more simply, “To the moon, Alice!”

They were idle threats. The American viewing audience laughed.

Crime rates increase in Memphis, Shelby County despite some decreases in violent crime

But by the letter of the law, his words and actions met one of the criteria for domestic violence and simple assault: “Intentionally or knowingly causing another to reasonably fear imminent bodily injury …”

Not easy to categorize domestic abusers

Abusers who start with threats too often graduate to striking their victims.

And yes, even killing them.

“Domestic violence offenders are not all the same,” said Robert Holdford, who served as director of the Domestic Violence Assessment Center at Kindred Place in Memphis from 1999-2021. “They pose different levels of risk. Even if they might be charged with the same crime, they still pose different levels of risk ...

“There’s a whole range of offenders, not any real classifications,” said Holdford, who before treatment was mandated by the courts ran the first volunteer group for abusers in the city. “There have been attempts to classify offenders, but at a practical level it’s not very effective.”

The exception that proves the above rule is any case were an offender has choked a victim and she survived — for the time being.

“We used to think all abusers were equal,” wrote Casey Gwinn, co-founder of the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention. “They are not.”

Hispanic victims of domestic abuse find emotional, legal support at CasaLuz

Their research shows once a perpetrator attempts to strangle a victim, he is 750% more likely to later kill her with a gun.

Nationally, there are about 4,000 domestic violence homicides each year. Locally, Shelby County’s chief domestic violence prosecutor, Greg Gilbert, says there are “15 to 25” intimate-partner homicides each year.

Although an incident of non-fatal strangulation is a clear warning, Gilbert says you can’t always see the tragic endings coming: Previously violent offenders do not escalate to murder, while much less-violent offenders go from pushing, shoving and vandalism to killing.

“It’s really hard to predict,” he said. “You can think the most evil things in the world, but there’s only a crime when you take action.

“You can’t preemptively stop everybody.”

‘You know how women are …’

For a long time, American society didn’t much concern itself with even trying to stop domestic violence offenders.

The Atlantic, in a 2020 article on domestic violence, reported that as recently as 1975, police in Oakland, California, used a training bulletin that instructed officers to avoid making arrests and instead “encourage the parties to reason with one another.”

Memphis Police and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office in 2018 began using the formal set of questions still in use today to make on-site risk assessments. Assessing risk of future violent acts continues when an offender moves though the justice system and/or winds up in treatment — most often as a condition of not going to jail.

The pandemic within the pandemic: An explosion of domestic violence

“Since they pose different levels of risk, their treatment needs to be different,” said Holdford, who noted that initially treatment was provided in group settings only. Over time, he says, it became clear that a combination of group and one-on-one counseling was more effective.

“We tried,” he said, “to set up programs so the court could make informed decisions about how to proceed with a particular defendant.”

Rachael DeSaussure is an assistant clinical director at Kindred Place and has worked with both victims and offenders. A core tool, she says, is an ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) questionnaire.

“The first question, basically, is tell me about your childhood,” she said.

The answers that come back might surprise the lay person.

“They’ll say their neighborhood wasn’t a problem,” she said, “but then they start telling you that gangs were everywhere and, ‘Yeah, there was a shooting on the street,’ but they normalize that.

“Like, ‘That was just our neighborhood. I knew not to go down Peach Street because that was So-and-So’s territory. I never had any problems.’”

The majority of offenders don’t have high school diplomas, she says, but she also sees people with advanced college degrees. Regardless of education or income level, it is not uncommon for them to at some point explain themselves in a way that makes clear they aren’t considering that they are presently speaking to a woman.

“It’s that mindset that women are less than and ‘she didn’t listen to me,’ and ‘she got in the way when I was trying to watch the game,’” DeSaussure said, adding the men often tell her:

“You know how women are …”

Power and control by any means

National statistics long have shown that being raised in a home with domestic violence gives children about a one in three chance of becoming abusers themselves as adults.

“I have not seen that correlation for the most part,” DeSaussure said. “It’s just really interesting that it’s what most of the research shows. What I see are a lot of separated and divorced families.

“It’s very uncommon that these (offenders) I’m doing assessments for have Mom and Dad in the home all the way through 18.”

DeSaussure identifies control as the primary driver in domestic violence, present in about 80% of offenders.

“Sometimes it’s some bizarre ideas about masculinity,” Holdford added. “And being in control and in power. But when you actually talk to an offender, they don’t feel like they have any power.

“They feel powerless.

Drinking and drug abuse fuel domestic violence, too. Deborah Robinson, 59, had a second husband who was a hard drinker, his bourbon binges often preceding his physical abuse and her trips to a Memphis emergency room.

She remembers the first time that he bloodied her nose and police came out to take a report.

“I didn’t do that,” he said. “She fell.”

He was seeking power and control — even after the fact.

Guilt in the eye of the beholder

While DeSaussure believes no two offenders are exactly the same, she also believes some are doomed from a very young age.

One guy, she recalls, was living on the street before he was a teenager and engaging in prostitution to survive.

“And in some neighborhoods,” Holdford said, “gangs do a more active job in parenting.”

The worst of repeat offenders — those who might have a dozen or more domestic violence arrests on their record — are very unlikely to have a sudden turnaround via counseling.

A recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California found that 60% of people with a domestic violence conviction are arrested again within two years; two-thirds of those offenders are re-arrested on another domestic violence charge.

“There are some people I have seen that I’m like, ‘You just need to be in jail for a while because that is the only thing that is going to wake you up to change,’” DeSaussure said. “I mean, you’re looking back, and every charge has been dismissed or no pross (not prosecuted) or they just did a year on probation.”

An offender’s financial means and status also will play into outcomes.

“I tried a pretty famous athlete (almost 20 years ago) who, more or less, confessed on the stand that he had slapped his wife, but that she was acting up and deserved it,” Gilbert said.

“The jury? Not guilty. The jury thought it was a waste of time.

“If the injuries are really severe, or there’s death, then the jury takes it seriously.”

The ‘Ray Rice incident’

Kathy Walsh, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual Violence, has not only trained law enforcement and court personnel, but college and professional athletes.

“What sort of started all this was the Ray Rice incident,” she said, referring to the Baltimore Ravens running back who in 2014 was caught on videotape punching his fiancée in the jaw and knocking her to the floor at an Atlantic City casino.

“When that occurred,” Walsh said, “we reached out to the Tennessee Titans, and we trained their football players, their staff, their cheerleaders, their families. For several years, we were training their rookie players.

“One year, I was training the rookies and I’m giving this scenario: ‘A girl comes into a bar, and she’s dressed a certain way, does she deserve to be raped?’ Well, of course you think the players are going to say no, right?

“But I was surprised there was dialogue around this issue, ‘Well, maybe she does …’ It became a pretty heated discussion.

“So, fast-forward one year (after an increase in domestic/sexual violence awareness training at universities across the county), I did the same scenario with players the Titans had just brought in, and oh, my gosh, the response of those players was 360 degrees.

“In professional sports,” Walsh said, “we have seen a big change the last few years. Now, do they get it right all the time? No.”

Presently, the NFL has a star quarterback, Deshaun Watson, who was the target of some two dozen civil suits alleging sexual misconduct and/or sexual assault. The Houston Texans traded Watson to the Cleveland Browns, who are committing $230 million to Watson over five years.

Browns general manager Andrew Berry, at the quarterback’s introductory press conference, said: “We feel very confident in Deshaun the person …”

Enormous egos

The wealthier, better-educated and more highly employed an offender is, the less likely he is to change his behavior — court-mandated batterer intervention programs or not.

“I’m going to make recommendations, but if they’re a narcissistic a------, they’re probably not going to change because they believe they are God’s gift to earth and everything they do is gold,” DeSaussure said.

In general, Holdford rejects the notion — made in some research — that domestic violence offenders lack self-esteem.

Rather, he believes they cling to an inflated sense of self and entitlement.

Consider Shaun Varsos, who shot and killed his wife, Marie Varsos, and her mother, Debbie Sisco, in 2021 in Lebanon, Tennessee, near Nashville.

Alex Youn, Marie’s brother, recalls that Shaun wasn’t necessarily prone to violent outbursts, but rather, was “manipulative, narcissistic, smart.”

After the murders, Youn went back and listened to conversations his sister had recorded. Sometimes, Shaun would raise his voice and other times he would speak to her in a measured, almost soothing, tone.

About a month before Shaun Varsos killed his wife and mother-in-law, and ultimately himself, he had choked Marie and threatened to kill her and her family members. That same day, he also used Marie’s phone to send text messages to her friends and co-workers saying that she was working on reuniting with him.

The day of the murders, Youn says, Varsos had in his possession all the tools for a horrifying kidnapping: a taser, duct tape, zip ties, a gas can, battery acid, a shotgun and a pistol.

“Premeditation,” Youn said. “He knew what he was going to do.”

This threat is just for you

When Penny Mickey told her abusive first husband that she was going to leave him, he played on her Christian faith.

“You can’t divorce me,” he said. “Or you’ll be an adulterer the rest of your life.”

While men abusing women in intimate relationships is by far the most common form of domestic violence, it occurs among gay couples, too.

“The dynamics are remarkably the same,” said Gilbert. “I mean, unless you look at the arrest ticket and notice their gender, the facts read the same.”

One difference, even in 2022: The abuser in a gay relationship has an extra card to play.

“It can be very brutal,” said Charlotte Ray, director of navigation and client services at Family Safety Center.

“Someone may have not come out to their family and want to leave a partner who is abusive to them, but they’ll say, ‘If you leave, I’ll tell your family about you.’”

Vigilante justice

Penny Mickey feared that male family members would risk ruining their own lives to solve her abusive-husband problem.

“The men in my family (brothers and cousins) were furious,” Mickey said. “They were like, ‘Oh, he’s not supposed to be breathing.’”

Sometimes a battered woman takes it upon herself to assure that the abuser no longer draws breath.

“From 2018 to now, we’ve got more homicides where women are the offenders,” Gilbert said. “And it seems like women are carrying guns at a much higher rate than they did in the past.”

Tennessee’s new open-carry law could be part of that, but DeSaussure says when women reach their breaking point, it often happens in the house, spur-of-the moment.

“They will tell you, ‘I just got tired of being pushed around,’” she said. “Knives are often involved because fighting seems to happen in the kitchen a lot.”

One woman who spoke to The Daily Memphian, has been away from her abuser for several months now and is thinking more rationally. She has an order of protection on him and has not seen him for the better part of a year.

But at first?

“I stated to authorities that if I did see him,” she said, “I probably would shoot him myself and I probably would kill him.”

Change without consequences?

Walsh believes offenders do not have to be trapped in a repetitive cycle of committing violence.

“I do believe there are people out there that change their behavior,” she said. “Smoking, for example. Maybe they’ve smoked for 20 years, and they get with some program, and they no longer smoke.”

But she acknowledges this isn’t a problem that can be aided by an-over-the-counter nicotine patch, saying, “You want those first-time offenders, catch them early on.”

The Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic Violence & Sexual Abuse monitors batterer programs across the state, including in the Memphis area, but does not, Walsh says, track recidivism rates. She says that numbers captured in a small window of time never tell the whole story.

“Recidivism numbers are not always the best way to tell if a program is helpful,” she said. “Let’s say you’re looking at recidivism six months out. Well, it may take longer for them to reoffend.

“Or maybe the violence stops with that particular partner, but then (starts with a new partner).”

Said Memphis Police Major Tony Cox, who is commander of the Domestic Violence Bureau: “People tend to develop patterns, regardless of who they’re with.”

Holdford, who has counseled many abusers, added: “There’s not any real consequences at this point for offenders. There’s nobody holding them accountable.”

Too, some victims are in situations where they are dependent on their abusers and/or invested enough in the relationship to keep hoping the offender will change.

Samantha Wilder, 28, wants to believe her 66-year-old boyfriend can change — even though she has had two orders of protection on him after abuse that included threats to kill her.

Wilder has three children who are living with their father, and she is pregnant, she says, with this boyfriend’s child. Asked if she loves him, she said, “I mean, I do, I do.”

Asked if he loves her, Wilder laughed.

“He say he do, I don’t know.”

Is the system broken?

Whatever the odds her abuser will change, Wilder hangs onto hope.

“He was going to church with me,” she recalled, “and that was a good thing. Church motivated him in a way. And I think he wanted to change. I think he let people influence him, his so-called friends he got.

“I think,” she said, “he’ll eventually change.”

It’s uncommon, DeSaussure says, but she does see offenders who are remorseful and want change for themselves and those around them.

“We do have people who come in for counseling who didn’t get arrested,” she said. “Something happened and they can’t believe it happened and they want to make a change and make things different.

“It might have been what, for us, we’d call a minor incident —one slap, a push, a shove, maybe grabbed them and shook them a little bit. And those are the people who are like, ‘I can’t believe I hit that level. I never thought I’d hit that level. I saw my dad do that to my mom and I promised myself I would never do that to a woman and here I am doing it and I don’t want to ever do it again.’”

Said Shelby County DA Amy Weirich: “Let’s start asking the question, why are we raising boys – men – who commit domestic violence?’”

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Another fair question: Is our system for dealing with domestic violence broken?

“Everybody is doing their job,” Holdford said. “The DA’s office, historically, works really hard in this area. They try to get convictions.

“Police are constantly improving in how they deal with domestic violence.

“There are some highly motivated people in public service who have wanted to address this problem,” he said. “And there’s a lot of people concerned about victims and keeping them safe.

“The problem is there isn’t a whole, packaged, program to address it. There’s just no money for it, so we keep processing people over and over.”

What could change things?

Sometimes America responds best to a big moment, something that makes us see a serious problem in a new way.

Maybe that is what’s needed here.

Holdford considers this, then asks, “You mean, like O.J. Simpson?” 

For help with domestic violence:
Family Safety Center of Memphis and Shelby County, 901-800-6064;
National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-7233.


domestic violence Robert Holdford Rachael DeSaussure Greg Gilbert Kathy Walsh Penny Mickey Alex Youn Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich Memphis Police
Don Wade

Don Wade

Don Wade has been a Memphis journalist since 1998 and he has won awards for both his sports and news/feature writing. He is originally from Kansas City and is married with three sons.


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