Crime Crisis: Despite tighter laws, scourge of domestic violence rolls on

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 07, 2022 2:13 PM CT | Published: June 30, 2022 4:00 AM CT

When Kathy Walsh founded the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual Violence, she had no employees — other than herself — and all of $5,000 in the bank.

That was in 1983. Since then, she says, the coalition has helped write and pass some 200 pieces of domestic violence-related legislation and trained more than 10,000 police officers in assessing domestic violence dispatch calls.

For the first installment of this series: 

Crime Crisis: Four domestic violence survivors recount their abuse — and how they survived

Today, Walsh, who is executive director of the Nashville-based nonprofit, has a staff of 27 and a $3 million annual budget. Nationally, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 was just reauthorized this year and strengthened in several areas.

It all rates as significant progress, albeit toward an impossible goal.

“We’ve come a long way,” Walsh said. “But there’s still a long way to go as long as there is even one domestic homicide.”

Common threads

So, there is no shortage of sobering facts:

  • On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.
  • In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic for several months closed off the outside world, Tennessee alone had 90 domestic violence-related homicides.
  • More than half of all female homicide victims in the United States each year are killed by a current or former intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Seventy-two percent of all murder-suicides involve intimate partners and 94% of the murder victims are female.

In Shelby County each year, there are “15 to 25” intimate-partner homicides, says Greg Gilbert, chief prosecutor of the office’s domestic violence unit.

The biggest factor we see is suspected infidelity. ... About a third of our arrest tickets start with, ‘He looked at my phone.’

Greg Gilbert
Chief prosecutor, domestic violence unit

Among all these statistics are common threads.

“The biggest factor we see is suspected infidelity,” Gilbert said. “Whether there’s evidence or not, they will accuse their partner of infidelity. About a third of our arrest tickets start with, ‘He looked at my phone.’”

The desire for power and control — and a man’s belief that this is an inalienable right — is an old cultural story, Walsh says.

“For a long time, women and children were simply the possessions of the males,” she said. “For example, if a woman was not married she was the possession of her father … then when she gets married, she becomes the property of her husband.

“It’s historical, how women and children have been viewed as property.”

A nightmare coming true

Taffi T. Crawford was treated as property. Her former fiance, a Memphis firefighter named Frank Graham, held a common view:

If I can’t have her, nobody can have her …

This is why the Taffi T. Crawford Domestic Violence Foundation exists today.

One night, Graham was angry when Crawford wasn’t ready to leave a dance party where she was celebrating her graduation from nursing school. They argued in the car on the way home, and he broke her finger, says Evette Porter, who was Crawford’s best friend since their days at Mississippi State.

For Crawford, that incident was enough. She called off the engagement. Broke up with Graham.

But over time, Porter says, he slowly worked his way back into Crawford’s life.

“We can just be friends,” he told her.

When Thanksgiving came around and he said he had nowhere to go, Crawford felt sorry for him, Porter says, and invited Graham to spend the day at her aunt’s house.

He came and they got along; they even agreed to exchange Christmas gifts — just as friends.

Soon, however, Graham was angling for more than friendship.

One time, Porter says, he showed up at church and sat behind and made sure she saw that he was carrying a gun. (The presence of a gun in a domestic situation raises the risk of homicide 500%).


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He also came to her house in DeSoto County on at least two occasions and destroyed a door and broke out a window. Police took reports after the fact, Porter says, but nothing really came of them.

One day when Crawford was working at a Memphis-area hospital, she walked out into the parking lot to find her tires had been slashed. Another time, she left a restaurant and found a threatening note waiting for her on her windshield.

Porter said her friend’s fear was growing, with her saying, “I just keep having these dreams where someone is shooting at me and I’m running from them.

“But I can’t see who the person is.”

A piece of paper is not enough

On the morning of Feb. 12, 2010, Crawford was heading to work at Delta Medical Center. Unbeknownst to her, Graham had borrowed a car she would not recognize and was waiting for her.

He confronted her, they argued, and he shot and killed her.

Later that day, Porter says, Crawford had a scheduled court appearance seeking an order of protection.

It might or might not have made a difference.

“A piece of paper, an order of protection, is not going to save people,” said Alex Youn, whose sister, Marie Varsos, and mother, Debbie Sisco, were shot and killed by Marie’s husband, Shaun Varsos, on April 12, 2021, in Lebanon, Tennessee, near Nashville.

Since then, Youn, who lives in San Francisco, has pressed the Tennessee legislature on several domestic violence laws that might have made a difference for his sister and mother. While two of the bills advanced, one that might have made the most impact — mandated GPS tracking of offenders with a history of serious domestic violence actions — failed to even get out of committee.

“I know the technology is there,” said Youn, 37, who appeared before the legislature this spring and has no intention of giving up the fight. “The people in power … it just needs to be a priority.”

In fact, Shelby County had a GPS pilot program from 2016 through 2019 that allowed judges to put tracking devices on high-risk domestic violence defendants while out on bond.

Of the 2,051 monitored defendants, 391 (19.1%) were arrested 511 times, primarily for “exclusion zone violations” tied to orders of protection. So, potentially, there were 511 less victimizations.


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The program was briefly extended, but later dropped.

“It just ran out of funding,” Gilbert said. “It’s really expensive to administer.”

Nationally, it’s estimated that it costs anywhere from $4 to $15 per defendant, per day, for a GPS monitoring program — depending on the types of devices used and oversight involved.

“A lot of victims (who were outfitted with a device to warn them the offender was near), didn’t want the device,” Gilbert added. “We took them off in court every day.

“And defendants would contact victims and say, ‘You need to do whatever you have to do to get this device off my leg.’”

Despite those obstacles, Gilbert says prosecutors would welcome a permanent GPS monitoring program. Improved technology would enable victims to receive notifications via an app on their phones.

“It definitely made victims safer,” Gilbert said.

‘Violence’ by any name

In 1983, the state had just five programs serving domestic violence victims. Today that number is 60. The metro area has several such programs, including Family Safety Center of Memphis and Shelby County.

Amy Weirich, Shelby County District Attorney General, has been on Family Safety Center’s board of directors since it opened. She can’t imagine where victims would be without FSC, and yet there is a gap between services provided and services needed.


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“If we could wave a magic wand,” Weirich said, “we’d have a facility that is 24-7 and that provides everything that these victims and their children need to get their life back on track.

“But that’s very resource-heavy.”

Beyond the fiscal reality, Weirich wonders if there is a basic problem in the way domestic violence is described, categorized.

“There are many that say we need to stop calling it domestic violence and just call it violence,” she said. “And maybe there is some merit to that, that putting that adjective in front of it leads to, ‘Oh, it’s not my problem … why do I need to be concerned about it’?”

Alex Youn’s sister and mother were murdered, he says, after various law enforcement agencies failed to communicate with each other on multiple occasions, including about the offender’s outstanding warrants and arrest status. And despite his family members taking many precautions to protect themselves.

Youn’s sister, Marie Varsos, who was a 31-year-old pharmacist, even had a gun for protection when her husband, Shaun Varsos, chased her and shot her.

“She shot him three times,” Youn said, adding that his brother-in-law killed himself after he made good on his threats to kill Marie. “I don’t know what more she could have done.”

But he wonders: What if this had not been a “domestic violence” situation?

Would law enforcement, in the days preceding the murders, and the day of the murders, have reacted with more urgency?

“If this is a home invasion and my brother-in-law is an unknown individual,” Youn said, “it would have been different.

“But this was just a ‘domestic dispute’ between a married couple.”

Questions in search of answers

The first point of contact in most domestic violence incidents that result in a report, if not an arrest, is with police after a 9-1-1 call.

Police answer about 50,000 domestic violence-related calls annually, according to the Family Safety Center.

From July 1 of 2021 through April 15, 2022, the Memphis Police Department had investigated 10,455 domestic violence cases, and made 4,854 arrests for a clearance rate of 46%, said Major Tony Cox, MPD’s Domestic Violence Bureau commander.

One of the significant changes over the years has been the use of a lethality assessment questionnaire to help determine immediate risk level.

Questions include, but are not limited to:

  • Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?
  • Do you think he/she might try to kill you or your children?
  • Does he/she have a gun, or can he/she get one easily?
  • Has he/she ever tried to choke you?
  • Have you ever left him/her or separated after living together or being married?
  • Has he/she ever tried to kill himself/herself?

Weirich also mentions another element in determining if an accused abuser is high-risk: gang affiliation.

“Being in a gang is about power and control,” she said. “And domestic violence is very much a power-and-control crime.”

But the question about non-fatal strangulation might be the most important in assessing predictive behavior.

Shaun Varsos had put his hands around Marie’s neck on March 7, 2021, Marie passing out. He also pointed a gun at her, threatened to kill her and family members, and that same day also threatened to take his own life. In that incident, he was charged with aggravated assault and false imprisonment.

Barely a month later, he murdered her.

According to the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention: “A woman who has suffered a nonfatal strangulation incident with her intimate partner is 750% more likely to be killed by the same perpetrator …

“With a gun.”

Assessing the situation, and risk, is not always easy

Police answering a domestic disturbance call might find just about anything. And in most cases, police have no way of knowing what weapons are present.

“People are already angry when they come in contact with officers,” MPD’s Tony Cox said. “So, now you provide a police presence, and you might get somebody that doesn’t like the police, and they’re already pissed off because their life is not going well with their partner.

“That becomes very dangerous.”

Then, there’s the matter of trying to sort truth from fiction on the spot.

“If we see proof of a domestic violence situation, i.e., wounds, signs of a struggle, then that’s a ‘shall arrest’ by state law,” Cox said. “We have no choice once we figure out who the primary aggressor is.”

Cox says every precinct is set up to help with starting temporary orders of protection while they connect a domestic violence victim with services and help finding another place to stay.

But, he says, it isn’t always possible to determine the primary aggressor. And if the people share a home, police cannot by law force one party to leave — though “we strongly encourage” it, Cox said.

At Family Safety Center, Memphis Area Legal Services attorney Shannon Mason sometimes hears victims say they don’t feel like police did all they could, including not always making a detailed risk assessment. MPD and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office have been formally using a lethality assessment program for several years.

“I definitely have some clients tell me that it’s not happening,” Mason said. “The law is there, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean everyone is following the law.


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“What I try to tell my clients is that officers are human beings. And you’re going to have different levels of dedication and experience. I’ve had some that they were very impressed with the officers’ response and how they handled it, and I’ve had many that were not satisfied.”

‘Whiplash’

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation domestic violence victim data for 2018 in Shelby County showed that out of 13,369 reports taken, the vast majority were for misdemeanor simple assault: 9,016, or 67.4 %.

There were 1,650 felony aggravated assaults, or 12.3%.

While the incidence of an abuser choking a victim now qualifies as aggravated assault (it didn’t always) and is a strong indication for the risk of a future homicide, Gilbert says when authorities speak with a victim they are nowhere close to getting all the information they need to truly assess risk levels.

“You’re just scratching the surface of an iceberg,” he said.

“In fact, I’ve noticed over time, the cases with the most dangerous offenders, the victim will never respond to us. The case is quietly dismissed, very quickly, and we never reach them.

“Those are the ones that wake me up at night.”

Eventually, police arrested Shaun Varsos on the outstanding warrants and served him with an order of protection, Youn says. By law, there was a 12-hour “hold,” but Varsos, Youn says, was released early after posting $3,000 on a $30,000 bond.

“He was unrestrained by any of the acts he did,” Youn said. “It was almost like he felt empowered to do what he was going to do.”

His sister, Youn adds, was neither notified of her husband’s arrest nor his early release — even after she called authorities to verify they still had her number.

Not setting a bond for a domestic violence offender, even if he has a long and violent history, is not an option.

“Unless it’s a capital murder case,” Gilbert said, “a judge has to set a bond.

“In domestic violence cases, the argument (from the prosecution) is there is a greater risk of harm, and the bond should reflect that,” Gilbert continued. “But you get a lot of vandalism cases that get dismissed, where the victim doesn’t come to court, and judges kind of get whiplash.

“They tend to set bonds on domestic violence cases lower because they’re so desensitized.”

William Turner, the Shelby County General Sessions judge who hears the vast majority of intimate partner domestic violence cases, points out that judicial commissioners set the “original bail” on cases.

He says he now sees more “ROR” in domestic violence cases —released on their own recognizance — than he did when he came to the bench 12 years ago.

Turner added: “Many times the bonds are too low. Of course, you’ve got a movement across the country to get people out of jail, spend less time in jail.”

He also doesn’t deny that victims sometimes failing to show up for court has an impact.

“It’s more than sometimes — it’s most of the time victims don’t show up,” the judge said, adding that it is common for offender and victim to get back together even while an order of protection is in force. “It can be extremely frustrating for all of us.”

Victims repeatedly put at risk

Weirich has a different view: “The abuser hits the victim, makes bond, gets out, hits the victim, makes bond, gets out … up and down and up and down.

“It looks like an EKG chart.”

Mason, of Memphis Area Legal Services, is also frustrated — and her clients sometimes endangered — by bonds that might be as little as $500, thus requiring only $50 for the accused to post and be set free.

“I can’t stand it,” Mason said, “that respondents are entitled to a bond when they’ve already broken a bond.”

Evette Porter, noting that after her friend Taffi T. Crawford’s murder they discovered Frank Graham had been abusive toward his former wife, said: “The laws, a lot of times, really benefit the person breaking them.”

Graham was convicted of first-degree murder for killing Crawford and sentenced to life in prison.

It doesn’t make Porter miss her friend any less.

“Taffi had the most beautiful, electric, smile,” she said. “It just lit up the room.

“We remember her as a person who wanted to help people.”

The winds of justice

Walsh believes Tennessee’s domestic violence laws are among the best in the country.

And as of July 1, 2022, Tennessee’s new truth-in-sentencing law will go into effect. Weirich has been a huge proponent of it and believes it can help in serious domestic violence cases.

The changes mean those convicted will be required to serve 100% of a sentence for offenses including attempted first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and carjacking; and 85% for offenses including aggravated assault involving the use of a deadly weapon; aggravated assault involving strangulation; and aggravated kidnapping.

But there are still hurdles to reach the point where an offender is convicted and sentenced; and even Walsh has trepidation about how the wheels of justice turn.

“If you are poor, if you are Black, you are much more likely to go to jail with those mandatory sentences,” she said.

Walsh also does not advocate that prosecutors just seek the path of least resistance.

“Once these cases get to court,” she said, “sometimes DAs let these offenders plead down. I think they look at it and say, ‘If we can get them to plead to a lesser offense, at least that’s a victory, we’ve got something. If a jury doesn’t find them guilty, then we have nothing and that perpetrator walks.’”

Prosecutors, meanwhile, continually run up against the same challenges.

“In over 50% of our cases, the victim will not want to cooperate,” Gilbert said.

Said Weirich: “If we’ve got a domestic violence case victim pleading with us not to go forward because of the thought of having to take the stand and recite these things to a roomful of strangers, we’re going to give that great weight.”

Even if victims initially do agree to testify, there’s no guarantee that will hold.

“It’s fairly common for them to change back and forth,” Gilbert said. “That’s the sort of dynamic we have in these cases.”

Minds change more often than circumstances

One case in particular, from 2018, stays with Gilbert.

Video had captured the accused abuser of kicking in a door and intimidating a woman. She was clearly terrified but agreed to testify against the man.

“She came to court, and she recanted in front of the judge,” Gilbert said. “I tried to talk her down, but she was very aggressive that it was none of my business, and we had a really heated exchange, and she left court.

“In December, he murdered her. And so, I think about her all the time when I’m talking to these girls and women. She seemed so strong.

“But I realize,” Gilbert said, “she came to court and did what she did because she thought it was the safest option for her.”

William Turner, 75, is retiring in a couple of months. After 12 years on the bench hearing domestic violence cases — and he’s heard just about everything — he concedes there has been a toll.

“They wear on you,” the judge said. “But over time, it doesn’t bother you as much.

“Because you get this feeling it is what it is.” 

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

Topics

domestic violence Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual Violence Kathy Walsh Greg Gilbert Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich Shannon Mason Taffi T. Crawford Alex Youn Judge William Turner Memphis Police Major Tony Cox
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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