Most dangerous time for battered women? When they leave.

Many therapists urge battered women to leave those abusive relationships. Statistics warn, however, that the greatest violence often follows their departure.

In fact, the Justice Department says the majority of domestic assaults reported to law enforcement take place after the couple separates.

“The statistics are that women in abusive relationships are about 500 many times more at risk when they leave,”said Wendy Mahoney, executive director for the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Domestic violence is all about power and control, and when a woman leaves, a man has lost his power and control.”

This phenomenon most recently was illustrated in the case of Mississippi native Felix Vail, a suspected serial killer who was convicted more than five decades after the fact of murdering his first wife.

For men like Vail, power and control are intoxicating, “like heroin,” said Kit Gruelle, a domestic violence survivor turned advocate for battered women.

GONE: One wife dead, two others missing

Those who know Vail say he verbally abused women, controlled them and beat them, shattering one girlfriend’s eardrum. Women who died or disappeared considered leaving him.

His first wife, Mary Horton Vail, a victim of domestic violence, told her mother she wanted to divorce him. Her mother encouraged her to stay and work things out.

On Oct. 28, 1962, Felix Vail told deputies she accidentally fell out of the boat and drowned while they were laying trotlines in the Calcasieu River that snakes beside Lake Charles, Louisiana. Months earlier, he took out two life insurance policies on her, naming him as the sole beneficiary.

Asked later by his sister why he had married her in the first place, she said he told her, “So nobody else could have her.”

Brian Hensley witnessed the power and control Felix Vail exercised over his sister Sharon when the pair visited Bismarck, North Dakota, in the summer of 1972. Before she ever made a decision or even spoke, she would check with Vail, he said.

In 1973, Vail wrote in a letter that she had “met a man with a boat” and that he had sent both of them “off to the ocean and each other with my good wishes and blessings.” He later claimed she was traveling around the world.

She hasn’t been seen since and is believed dead.

Mary Rose witnessed the power and control Vail exerted. Months after her daughter married him in 1984, Rose said, “Annette told me, ‘Felix is the wisest person in the world, and I can’t make decisions without him.’”

At one point, Vail tried to slug Annette, but she dodged his blow, and he broke his fingers, Rose said.

She believes her daughter deeded a Tulsa home to Vail because she was planning to leave him. Vail told Tulsa police Annette wanted to leave him and go to Mexico and that he put her on a bus in St. Louis on Sept. 16, 1984.

But Vail’s family members said they saw him with Annette weeks after that when they visited the Cal-Cam Fair in October 1984. They said the couple left days later, and Vail returned alone days after that.

Annette hasn’t been seen since and is presumed dead.

Last August, a Lake Charles jury convicted Vail of the 1962 murder of his first wife. He is now serving a life sentence in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Training and counseling 

Mississippi is no stranger to domestic abuse and violence, with 3,559 protection orders issued against that violence in fiscal 2016 alone, said Paula Broome, director of the attorney general’s Bureau of Victim Assistance.

That violence may not stop with beating. A year ago, a man torched the Sims House, which Stewpot Community Services operated as a transitional home for women.

“He was mad at a woman in the facility,” said Frank Spencer, who was Stewpot’s executive director at the time.

Sims, which provided about 24 beds for women and their children, has been shut down since. Stewpot officials say the nonprofit still needs $20,000 to rebuild and reopen the house.

In an effort to crack down on domestic violence, Mississippi requires those arrested for violating a domestic abuse order to appear before a judge before being bailed out of jail. Judges can order those given suspended sentences to receive counseling or treatment.

Across the state, Broome’s office provides extensive training to officers on handling these cases.

But domestic violence still isn’t grounds for divorce in Mississippi, and those guilty of domestic violence can still keep their guns under state law.

“The Mississippi Legislature is looking at making it a felony to beat or abuse an animal, which we are in support of,” said Sandy Middleton, executive director of The Center for Violence Prevention in Pearl, which provides an emergency shelter for up to 17 women. “However, a man can beat his wife or girlfriend in Mississippi, and it’s just a misdemeanor. That gives us a little heartburn.”

A bill making domestic violence grounds for divorce has been reintroduced this legislative session and has cleared the first hurdle. The Senate Judiciary A Committee passed Senate Bill 2703 on Tuesday.

Middleton and Gwen Bouie-Haynes, division director of adult services for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson’s Catholic Charities, which provides residential shelters for domestic violence victims in Jackson and Natchez, agree that whenever women decide to leave is one of the most dangerous times.

Gruelle said up to three-fourths of all domestic violence killings happen when partners decide to leave or have left. “It happens at least three times a day in this country — women are killed by their abusive husbands or boyfriends.”

On Christmas Eve in Pearl, Heather King, 17, went to break up with her 22-year-old boyfriend, Matthew Wilson. King took along her father.

According to police, Wilson killed King, shot her father and then turned the gun on himself, taking his own life.

Gruelle said this is why she urges safety planning for the women.

She recently trained officers to give the Lethality Assessment Protocol in Utah, where 33-year-old James Dean Smith shot to death his estranged 39-year-old girlfriend, SueAnn Sands, The protocol involves an assessment by law enforcement to determine risks. If it identifies risks, it collaborates with community-based victim service providers for counseling, housing, medical, financial, legal and other needs.

Sands, who had moved out, received a restraining order on Nov. 9 against Smith. When police in American Fork, more than an hour south of Salt Lake City, served the restraining order against Smith on Nov. 21, they also charged him with possession of a controlled substance and driving a vehicle with an expired registration. He wasn’t required to give up his gun.

The next day, Sands’ family told police in American Fork that someone had smashed the windows of their family car, and they believed it was Smith. Later, the family reported to police that Smith had been stalking Sands.

At about 7 p.m. on Dec. 4, Sands received a telephone call at work and walked to her VW Beetle, where she drove to a nearby business and met with Smith.

An argument reportedly ensued, and eyewitnesses told police they heard shots fired. Sands fled in her Beetle and dialed 911 on her cellphone at 7:26 p.m.

Smith followed in his Chevy Tahoe, chasing her through a retail shopping area.

He caught up with her in the Wal-Mart parking lot, where he rammed into the back of her Beetle. Then he smashed into the passenger side of her Beetle, shooting repeatedly through her window as she screamed.

He fled in his Tahoe. Police caught up to him and confronted him in a mall parking lot. When he ignored their commands to drop his handgun, they opened fire.

Smith and Sands both died.

'Preventable homicides'

Each year, domestic violence costs the U.S. about $6 billion, which is more than the gross profits of all the “Star Wars” movies combined, but experts say the spending to address the problem is lacking.

The U.S. government spends more than $27 billion a year to fight HIV, which affects 1.2 million Americans, and spends less than $1 billion a year to curb domestic violence, which affects more than 46 million Americans.

Gruelle said domestic violence killings are “preventable homicides because they follow a reliable trajectory. Society just has to learn to listen to and then value women.”

Too often, she said, “we look for black eyes and broken noses, but the cases that turn into murder-suicides are the ones where the abusers exercise extreme control.”

Take the example of Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, who made his wife, Crystal, step onto the scales each day to make sure she hadn’t gained a pound.

When she finally filed for divorce in 2003, she complained that he had pointed a gun at her, tried to choke her and told her he could snap her neck.

In response, he portrayed his estranged wife as unstable, with a horrible temper.

After picking up their two children on April 26, 2003, he shot her to death in front of their two children before turning the gun on himself.

“We call it domestic violence, but what it’s really about is what I call malignant misogyny,” Gruelle said. “The abuser sees his wife and kids as personal property so he’s exercising his sense of entitlement and superiority.”

A 2000 Michigan State University study interviewed 135 women who left abusive partners and found that, for more than a third of them, the violence didn’t stop when their relationships ended.

In the majority of killings of ex-partners, there was “a documented history of abuse,” the study said. “It is not uncommon for women to report their batterers telling them, ‘If I can’t have you, nobody can.’ Homicide, then, becomes the ultimate final control.”

Blaming the victim

Sometimes people ask why battered women don’t leave.

“That’s the wrong question to ask,” Gruelle said. “The question should be, ‘Why does he feel he has the right to abuse, control, terrorize and intimidate her?’”

When a bank gets hit multiple times, “we don’t blame bank presidents when they’re getting robbed,” she said, “but the very first thing society does is blame the women who get raped or beaten. ‘Why are you wearing those clothes?’ ‘Why didn’t you leave?’”

As long as society seeks to blame a woman for what her abuser has done, “we’re driving the getaway car for him,” she said. “And as long as that happens, the problem continues to expand and affect generations of families.”

She compares battered women to hostages, saying she always returned to her then-husband because he had vowed to hunt her down and kill her like prey.

She became distressed and even attempted suicide.

While working offshore, he died in an accident. In the wake of that tragedy, she began to work with women’s shelters.

“Your own home is so dangerous, you have to flee, leave your job, your family and your friends, and you have to run and hide in this refugee camp called the battered women’s shelter,” she said.

Under the current system, the battered woman is forced to leave everything behind, while the abuser stays in the same home, she said.

More than a decade ago, the Israeli city of Tel Aviv took a hard look at domestic violence, she said.

Instead of forcing abused women and their children to leave their families, friends, jobs and schools, authorities now send abusers to a facility for four months, where they must change or face consequences, she said.

Under Mississippi law, judges have the option of treatment for domestic violence offenders if they receive suspended sentences. The Center for Violence Prevention in Pearl treated 161 offenders and witnessed a less than 5 percent recidivism for those who completed the program.

In High Point, North Carolina, police used an early intervention program developed in Boston, "Focus Deterrence," to help cut gun violence in half.

But when they realized how many homicides were caused by domestic violence, police turned their focus to that as well.

Gruelle said police “bring in guys charged with misdemeanors and say, ‘We are monitoring your behavior. You’ve got a chance to change your behavior, or you’re going to have consequences like you can’t imagine.’”

The program, she said, has “almost eliminated domestic violence homicide.”

High Point had been averaging up to five intimate partner homicides a year. Since 2009, it has seen only three such homicides, none of them permanent residents.

"Of the homicides we’ve had since 2009, there were no warning signs to us," said Police Capt. Timothy Ellenberger, who runs the program that curbs domestic violence.

Nationally, those who commit domestic violence repeat their behavior 20 to 34 percent of the time. In High Point, that percentage has fallen to 9 percent.

“In the past, we put so much pressure on the victim,” said Police Chief Kenneth Shultz, “but we pretty much let the offender get away with it.”

Now, he said, police put the pressure on these violent offenders to stop — just as authorities did in their pursuit of gangster Al Capone, finally convicting him of tax evasion.

“We used larceny charges against one offender,” he said. “We told him, ‘We’re not doing this because you’re a thief. We’re doing this because of your domestic violence.’”

Contact Jerry Mitchell at (601) 961-7064. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Domestic violence

  • Every year, more than 3 million women in the U.S. are abused, and more than 1,600 are killed by their abusers.
  • Women are 70 times more likely to be killed in the two weeks after leaving than at any other time during the relationship.
  • In fiscal year 2015, Mississippi law enforcement officers responded to 10,411 domestic violence calls
  • 3,559 protection orders issued against domestic violence in fiscal 2016 

Sources: Justice Department, Violence Policy Center, Domestic Violence Intervention Program; Mississippi Attorney General's Office 

Number of intimate partner homicides in High Point, North Carolina

  • 2008: 4
  • 2009: 0
  • 2010: 0
  • 2011: 0
  • 2012: 0
  • 2013: 1
  • 2014: 0
  • 2015: 1
  • 2016: 1 

 Sources: High Point Police Department, which began its program to curb domestic violence in 2009.

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