A new perspective on domestic violence

Editor’s note: Pete Wilkerson, the chief investigator in the Hood County Attorney’s Office, was a Department of Public Safety highway patrolman for 30 years and a highway patrol sergeant for another 10. About 18 months ago, Hood County Attorney Lori Kaspar hired him as an investigator in her office. Here, he shares what he has learned about domestic violence since he started seeing so many cases, as told to Sarah Wolf, TDCAA’s communications director and the editor of this journal.

How long have you been at the county attorney’s office?
I started in January of 2013. Our county has about 70,000 residents, and I’m the only investigator in our office. I work 60 to 70 hours a week.

What kind of police work had you done before?
I used to do mostly traffic-related crimes—traffic stops, which led to narcotics investigations. Stuff like that. And we also did investigations on accident reconstruction. I knew there was family violence, but as a law enforcement officer I was never involved in those cases.
    But when I came over to this office, Lori Kaspar, the county attorney, wanted me really involved in investigating family violence. When I walked in the door, Lori started handing me files. “Oh my gosh,” I thought. “All of these are family violence! Man, this is bad.” I just really didn’t imagine, for the life of me, how much family violence there is in a small county like Hood. But everyday we get more cases. And we’re handling just the misdemeanors! I know the DA’s office gets felony cases at least every other day.

What did you used to think about family violence cases? You can be honest.
For all those years, I’d always downplayed family violence. I thought that maybe women must’ve liked getting whipped on because why else would they not leave an abuser? But that’s not the case. Now I feel sorry for the victims. I’ve gone from being sort of hardened toward family violence to really getting to know the victims. They need extra attention to get them away from their abusers. It’s hard for them to leave. And these abusers are professionals. They know exactly how to put a wedge between their victim and their families and friends—to isolate them. Because when an abuser isolates his victim, he has control; he uses that control over his victim.
    I just talked to one gal—she’s in our office right now filling out a PO (protective order). Her boyfriend told her he would jump off a bridge if she left him. This poor gal thinks he’s going to kill himself! But nine times out of 10, it’s just his way of keeping her there. We have a great gal from the local advocacy center, Deanna Derrick, who can explain that to a jury.
    I was picking her brain one day when she came up from Cleburne for one of our cases. I had asked her why alcohol and drugs show up in every one of these family violence cases. She said that drugs or alcohol take the victims out of the real world and into another one where it doesn’t hurt as much. I had never thought of it that way. Having been an officer on the road for so long, I got used to putting up a wall and dismissing everything a person says when they’re high on drugs or drunk on alcohol. But with these domestic violence victims, there’s no wall there. We might have to filter through what they’re saying to get to the truth, but the truth is there. It was helpful for Deanna to explain it that way, and it makes me think we need to build in an extra step with our investigation, to talk to our victims more and find out a little bit more information to get them to understand this cycle of violence.

What are some of the ­challenges you face?
I’ve seen a lot of things in my career. The Luby’s massacre in Killeen—I was there. Also at the Branch Davidian deal in Waco. I’ve seen a lot of terrible stuff in my life, and you harden yourself so it doesn’t really affect you. But these domestic violence victims, you feel sorry for them. You really do because it’s a way of life for them. That’s why they don’t leave. When I found that out, that victims stay with their abusers because violence just seems normal to them, I began really working on getting these cases to court because these crimes will escalate. If we dismiss these cases at the county court level, it’ll just escalate to felonies later. But when that guy, that abuser, has to spend some time in jail, has to really think about what he’s done and that somebody’s watching him, he might get to thinking that he doesn’t need to commit this crime again.
    But even when we take cases to court, it can be hard. We had one case where there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was guilty. Well, except the jury’s. We brought the victim in from Oregon—that’s how far away from the defendant she’d had to move—and she testified about how he’d slapped her around. We had photos of her bruises and everything, but the jury found him not guilty. I talked to one of the jurors, a retired state police officer, and he said to me, “Hey, we knew she was assaulted, but she just wasn’t assaulted enough.” I wouldn’t expect that from a peace officer! But I think that’s the way the public sees these cases. They want to see blood, an ambulance ride, stitches, a cast, something like that. This gal, her face was all puffy and red from where this fella had hit her, but “she wasn’t assaulted enough.” We couldn’t believe that. After that case, the attorneys and I sat down and talked about it. From now on, they are explaining at voir dire and during opening statement what pain is and what serious bodily injury is.
    Family violence is a very hard thing to get across to a jury. Sometimes abusers will hit their victims on the top or the back of the head where their hair will cover any bruises, or maybe they’ll hit them on the chest where clothes will cover it up. And sometimes I look at that jury of men and women, and I wonder if some of those women have been whipped or abused and they think it’s all right.

What resources have been helpful?
Deanna Derrick from the advocacy center in Cleburne, she does a great job explaining the dynamic of violence in these relationships to a jury. She will testify as an expert witness about how these abusers work—by isolating their victims from their families and moving them from one town to another to keep control of them—and then when the victim testifies, she will confirm a lot of the things Deanna said on the stand. This one time, Deanna had testified that on average, women return to their abusers seven times before they leave for good (though she has since told me that that number has increased to eight times). When the prosecutor questioned the victim on the stand, asking her how many times she had left her husband, the gal replied, “Seven.” And here she was, testifying in court after she left him for good.

What might you want to tell folks in other offices?
I have learned not to talk down to the victims. They really are victims of crime, though some of them don’t know it. I find that I often have to convince them that they are. The first thing I usually tell them is that there is nothing they did to deserve what they got. They’ll often look at me like, “Really?” And I reply that a person couldn’t do anything to deserve what they got. We get to know each other a little bit—I ask what they do and whether they have children. I get them to calm down and realize I’m not there to browbeat them but just to get some information.
    That usually breaks the ice because they realize that I really am going to try to help them. They get comfortable around me. They get really comfortable around me! I had one gal drop her pants in front of me to show me some bruises! (I always keep my door open and have a female colleague keep an eye on us.) But these victims, believe me, they always want to talk. And the main thing is just to listen to them. To listen to all of what they say. There might be some little things in there that you can pick up and follow up on. And don’t ever stand up over the top of them. If she’s sitting down, find a place to sit across from her so you’re not standing over her so that she’s having to look up at you—that might be how her abuser used to treat her. If you sit across from her, you’re at her level and you can look her square in the eye and talk to her.
    I’m a father and a grandfather and I’ve been in law enforcement a long time, about 42 years now. I’m an old, gray-haired man, and these victims are young women. They think of me as an old man, and they’ll often talk to me. And I’ve sort of got the gift of gab.