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When leaving is lethal: Recent murders show separation can be dangerous when partner is abusive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2009 - By piling her four children into the family van as usual on Friday morning, Sept. 18, 27-year-old Melissa Amerson of St. Louis made a deadly decision. According to police, amid Amerson's fastening of seatbelts and securing of car seats, her former partner Rodney Morris, 37, pulled the trigger of his gun and killed her before shooting himself -- all in full view of the children, three of whom were his.

Had Amerson altered her regular schedule, Morris might have had more difficulty tracking her down. "Changing her routine is an effective part of a safety plan for an abused woman who is in fear of her abuser," said Katie Wessling, an attorney for Legal Advocates for Abused Women.

Instituting new daily habits is a hassle for anyone, but it's far more difficult for those, like Amerson, who have children needing to get to school and other activities. Amerson did choose another safety plan option: filing for an order of protection. On Aug. 28, Amerson indicated on the form for the order of protection that Morris had stalked, coerced and harassed her, and had caused or attempted to cause her physical harm.

The circuit court issued a 10-day, temporary ex-parte order, but Amerson did not show up for a hearing the day before she died that would have likely reinstated the order, according to Mariano Favazza, St. Louis circuit clerk. It's not clear why Amerson missed the court appearance, But it's not uncommon that when a woman seeks to protect herself through legal means, it sends her abuser over the edge, escalating threats as well as violence.

"The overwhelming majority of domestic violence homicide happens when someone tries to leave, is getting an order of protection, or filing for divorce -- somehow resisting his control," noted Ellen Reed, executive director of Lydia's House, a shelter for abused women. "I can't tell you how many times I've had a woman say, 'I can't get an order of protection, he'll kill me'."


An order of protection was in place when John Donley, 68, allegedly stabbed and killed Willie Mae Crenshaw, 67, on Sept. 12 in their home in the 5900 block of McArthur Avenue in St. Louis. Friends since grade school, Crenshaw and Donley lived as a couple for most of their adult lives, raising four children, three of whom he fathered. For most of those years, Crenshaw lived in fear of Donley, who once served prison time for a knife attack on a former wife, according to Crenshaw's grandson Byron Hubbard, 20.

"She was very afraid of him. She would tell me every day, 'The man is crazy out of his mind'," Hubbard said.

While Donley had pulled a knife on his grandmother before, this was the first time he'd used it, Hubbard reported. After cutting off her hair at knifepoint, Hubbard said, Donley stabbed Crenshaw 20 times but even that brutal attack didn't kill her immediately. She died a short time later at a hospital. He was later arrested and charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action.

The hacking off of Crenshaw's hair is characteristic of domestic violence. "They go after an issue of pride or something that is of a particular vulnerability to them: 'This has personal meaning and I'm going to take it away from you,'" Reed said.


While an order of protection apparently did not deter violence in the Crenshaw case, it can be effective in certain instances such as in a call for law enforcement to intervene in a domestic dispute.

"It enhances police response," Wessling said. "If someone calls the police and says, 'I have an order of protection,' they have to respond right away and they have extra charges they can file against this person, as opposed to someone just calling and saying, 'I'm having a fight with my boyfriend.'"

Those who work with victims of domestic violence say the person who's being abused (usually a woman) should make the decision about whether filing for an order of protection would aggravate the situation. High-profile professionals will likely comply to avoid a police record, but they often exert their control through other methods.

"It can increase her safety but it almost always plays out in a different way like his controlling the kids, maybe upping the stakes in a custody situation," Reed said.


The excessive number of stab wounds suffered by Crenshaw is consistent with what those in domestic violence circles have seen during the past year: an increase in the severity of attacks. An economic downturn such as the current recession does not cause domestic violence, Reed emphasized, but its impact can elevate frustration levels and create more opportunity.

"Women are less able to leave if they've lost transportation, living wage jobs and day care -- or any of the services that are critical for being able to survive on their own," Reed said.

St. Louis city reported six of the 85 homicides committed so far in 2009 were domestic-related homicides. In 2008, nine of 167 homicides were domestic-related. St. Louis County does not break out homicide as a result of domestic disputes. Statewide, 54 died in domestic disputes of all types -- anyone related by blood or in a current or past intimate relationship -- last year, up from 35 the year before, according to the Missouri Statistical Analysis Center. In most of these homicides, women are killed by men.

According to Reed, the percentage of homicides that are related to domestic violence is actually much higher than it appears. For example, Reed cites the July 3 killing of Deborah Marsch of Union, Mo.

"According to media coverage, Ms. Marsch was a stranger to Timothy Shults, now under arrest for her murder. However, statements in the media indicate that Shults was lashing out at women in general because he was angry with his wife. While this killing will likely not be counted as a domestic homicide, there is, nonetheless, a direct and telling link to the recent spate of local homicides that have been fueled by the entitlement and control issues of domestic violence."

Every day in the United States, three women are killed by current or former partners. Preventing domestic violence starts with educating young boys about taking responsibility for their actions and effectively communicating with others, according to Janeen McGee, executive director of Raven, a local organization treating perpetrators of domestic violence. But not enough work is being done in this area, McGee said: "If anybody else was dying at that rate in a way that was fairly preventable, we would be much more focused on that."

Nancy Larson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

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