Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Expose - Did the System Fail Amy, Monica and Coty?

I received a call from a friend a week ago Monday. He phoned to tell me about a grave situation that was unfolding in the town 15 miles away. My friend reported that a local man named Steve Lake was holding his estranged wife Amy and his two children, Monica age 12 and Coty age 13, hostage in their home. 

I became gravely concerned for the safety of Amy and their adolescent children, Monica and Coty in hearing about this hostage situation. Although I didn’t know the Lake family I had heard of their family troubles. This was the second time in less than a year that Steve had reportedly held his family hostage. 

In June 2010 Amy called the police to report that Steve had held her and the children at gunpoint and had threatened to kill her, the children, and himself. Amy filed a police report and Steve was arrested and charged with criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon and domestic violence criminal threatening. He was released from jail at that time after paying a $2,000 bail. Under his bail conditions he could not have any contact with Amy. Shortly thereafter Amy filed for divorce and obtained a protection from abuse order against Steve. 

In November 2010 Steve violated the protection order and his bail conditions by entering a local store that she was in as well as driving past her home. Other than losing his rights to see his children there was no mention in the newspaper accounts as to what, if any, other punishment Steve received for these violations.
I watched for more news on the current hostage situation. It was reported that a local police officer went to the home to do a well being check on Amy and the children early the morning of June 13, 2011 because someone had reported seeing Steve’s vehicle parked in Amy’s yard. The officer was outside the home when he heard shots fired from inside the home. He immediately called for backup. Within a short time there were fifty police cruisers and an armored tactical vehicle on the scene. The police saw movement in the home after the shots were fired so they attempted to contact Steve by loudspeaker for two hours imploring him to talk to them. He never responded. 

Around 2pm the police used a battering ram to force an entry into the home. When they broke down the door they found the bodies of Amy, Monica, Coty and Steve Lake. The police investigator determined that each had died from gunshot wounds in a murder suicide situation; Steve had killed his wife and children and then turned the gun on himself. There was diesel fuel poured throughout the house and it is believed that Steve had planned to burn the house down. He had two guns, extra ammunition and a knife in his possession. 

I am deeply saddened and angered by this senseless incomprehensible tragedy brought about by a cowardly, selfish man. I cannot possibly fathom the depth of pain and sorrow the victim’s families are experiencing at this time. My deepest sympathies, condolences, and prayers go out to them. 

More Questions than Answers

The major newspapers here in Maine have covered the story all week. Hundreds of people have had discussions and left comments under the online editions of each article. Commenter’s questioned if there could have been any way to prevent this tragedy. Where did he get the guns? Were there red flags/warnings signs that something like this might happen? Given the gravity of the first domestic violence incident and the subsequent violations, why wasn’t Steve’s bail revoked so that he would be sitting in jail awaiting trial instead of having been free to commit this heinous act? 

Medical studies estimate that between 1,000 and 1,500 deaths each year in the US are murder suicides according to the Violence Policy Center. Studies show that the highest percentage of murderers in murder suicides are male and the most frequent weapon used is a firearm. 

We have been fine tuning our response to domestic violence for decades now and without a doubt the policies, protective measures and laws we have in place have saved many lives, however, there is always room for improvement. Without a crystal ball it’s hard to know what type of person will murder their family members and commit suicide but at times there a clues. The more details we have about certain types of crimes the more we can work to prevent them.

There is a common profile of men who commit familicide. Katherine Ramsland writes that, “Most men who kill their wives and children are white males in their 30’s or 40’s who react badly to stress and who view their families as extension of themselves….They are often depressed or intoxicated and are usually described as controlling and quite dependent on their families being what they envision, and believing they are the only ones that can fulfill the family’s needs.” They kill their families for a variety of reasons including but not limited to; loss of control over family circumstances; revenge against an estranged wife, or teaching her a lesson, and grief over losing the family in a divorce. 

Perhaps there were clues that Steve Lake had a horrible plan, however, people close to him would not necessarily know what to look out for. The people involved in domestic violence prevention and intervention, child protection and the court system would be most aware of the warning signs.

Here are some of the warning signs that an abuser might become extremely dangerous/life threatening (excerpted from the Family Refuse Center website):
  • · THREATS OF HOMICIDE OR SUICIDE - The batterer who has threatened to kill himself, his partner, the children or her relatives must be considered extremely dangerous.
  • FANTASIES OF HOMICIDE OR SUICIDE - The more the batterer has developed a fantasy about who, how, when, and/or where to kill, the more dangerous he may be. The batterer who has previously acted out part of a homicide or suicide fantasy may be invested in killing as a viable "solution" to his problems. As in suicide assessment, the more detailed the plan and the more available the method, the greater the risk.
  • · WEAPONS - Be aware of a batterer who possess weapons and has used/ threatened to use them during past violent episodes. [A batterer's having] access to weapons increases his potential for assault....If arson is threatened, fire should also be considered a weapon.
  • · "OWNERSHIP" OF THE BATTERED PARTNER - The batterer who say "death before divorce!" or "if I can't have you nobody can" may be stating his fundamental belief that the woman has no right to life separate from him. A batterer who believes he is absolutely entitled to his female partner, her services, her obedience and her loyalty no matter what, is likely to be life-endangering.
  • · CENTRALITY OF THE PARTNER - A man who idolizes his female partner or who depends heavily on her to organize and sustain his life, or who has isolated himself from all other community, may retaliate against a partner who decides to end the relationship. He rationalizes that her "betrayal" justifies his lethal actions.
  • · SEPARATION VIOLENCE - When a batterer believes that he is about to lose his partner if he can't envision life without her or if the separation causes him great despair or rage, he may choose to kill.
  • · DEPRESSION - When a batterer has been acutely depressed and sees little hope for moving beyond the depression, he may be a candidate for homicide and/or suicide. Research show that many men who are hospitalized for depression have homicidal fantasies directed at family members.
  • · REPEATED OUTREACH TO LAW ENFORCEMENT - Partner or spousal homicide almost always occurs in a context of historical violence. Prior calls to the police indicate elevated risk of life-threatening conduct. The more calls, the greater the potential danger.
  • · ESCALATION OF BATTERER RISK TAKING - A less obvious indicator of increasing danger may be the sharp escalation of personal risk undertaken by a batterer. When a batterer begins to act without regard to the legal or social consequences that previously constrained his violence, chances of lethal assault increase significantly.
  • · HOSTAGE TAKING - A hostage-taker is at high risk of inflicting homicide. Between 75% and 90% of ALL hostages in the U.S. are related to domestic violence situations.  

More Details Emerge 

According to what Steve Lake’s father George, his sister Tylene Fowler and girlfriend Veronica Fortier told the Bangor Daily News (printed June 15th) Steve was broken down and he had lost hope. Veronica reported that she thought he was going to commit suicide. George said that Steve cried day after day and kept saying he couldn’t live without his children. None of them had noticed anything unusual about Steve the night before the crime but they said reflecting back they do believe there were clues that he had a horrible plan. 

Steve’s uncle, Mylon Lake, told the newspapers that Steve was angry over the child custody dispute. He recently lost the right to see his children and he was particularly upset that he couldn’t attend his son’s graduation ceremony. Mylon is quoted as saying, “You push buttons enough and everything’s going to come to a head.” In a brief blurb on TNews247 about the murder suicide they write, “…many felt that he was a ticking time bomb.”

In an interview for WLBZ last week Veronica Fortier mentions how Steven was funny, he loved his dogs, his children and family life and how difficult it was for him to only see his children three times over the last year. She said that if they were driving down the road going out to get steaks for dinner or something, one minute he would be talking and laughing and then he would see the car go by with his kids in it and he would stop, pull over to collect his thoughts and emotions. 

David Vautier who is next door neighbor to Amy’s parents, Ralph and Linda Bagley, told the Bangor Daily News that, “Everyone knew that Steve was going to flip out…Everyone knew something bad was going to happen.” 

In a Portland Press Herald (PPH) story they report that court records show Amy told the District Attorney’s office that along with holding the family at gunpoint in a bedroom and threatening to kill her, the children and himself in June 2010, Steve had also threatened to take a knife to her and do things “you wouldn’t want done to farm animals.” She also told them that he had made threats before. When the police asked Amy if he owned a gun she told them yes but that it wasn’t in his possession at present. She also mentioned to them that
In November 2010 Steve violated the protection order and his bail conditions by entering a local store Amy was in (her car was parked quite visibly outside the store) and driving by her home. It is alleged that his purpose was to talk to Amy about retrieving some possessions left in the home. Consequently Steve’s mother relayed a message to Amy that he wanted his meat grinder, the gun, the safe and weight bench from their Wellington home.

Steve was charged with violating the protection order and his bail conditions after these incidents. The charges were to be combined with the original charges filed against him for the June 2010 incident and his criminal trial was set for February 2011. His criminal trial was continued twice so the date for the hearing changed to July 5, 2011. 

The Maine Bail Manual (Revised 12/10) states that violating bail conditions for the felony of this nature is a Class C crime punishable by not more than 5 years jail time and a fine of $5,000. The manual also states that the prosecution or the court can revoke bail and order the defendant to be jailed pending trial. 

The PPH reported that records show Steve had gone to 18 of 21 anger management classes. It’s not clear if anger management was part of Steve’s bail conditions or if he went on his own. A judge can require a person who is charged with a domestic violence crime to attend a batterer’s intervention program as part of their bail conditions. As discussed in my previous blog domestic violence advocates frown upon abusers attending anger management in lieu of batterer’s intervention programs because they feel that anger management is too soft on abusers and that it sends the wrong message to them about the reasons they use intimate partner violence. Steve seemed to be just the type of abuser that BIP’s were developed for; however, I am hard pressed to see how attending a batterer’s intervention program would have made any difference or anything better in this situation. 

According to Steve’s facebook page a Guardian ad Litem was involved in the divorce and custody matter at least since last fall. Guardians ad litem are evaluators who interview the children, parents, extended family and others to determine visitation and/or who should have custody of the children in a divorce. Most Guardians ad litem are educated on domestic violence issues. 

Amy had been with Steve for at least 16 years so she had a good idea the type of man he was. It was mentioned in one of the news reports that Amy wanted Steve to stay on his medications and continue counseling. Amy was so fearful of Steve that she asked the local police patrol her home. Sources have reported to me that Steve made death threats against a list of people including anyone that was taking Amy’s side in the divorce and that he also told a judge at one of his court hearings, “If I can’t have her no one will.”
Steve and Coty’s facebook pages were open to public view. It’s very likely that Steve read everything that went up on his son’s page. I reviewed both of their facebook pages and below are some of the status line notes and other messages taken from the pages that seem relevant to the separation and visitation situation. 

Coty’s Facebook

Most of Coty’s status messages were about typical adolescent stuff, games he played, links to quotes and pages he “liked”, daily notes about being tired, hating “skewl” and loving snow days. However, back on June 15, 2010 Coty wrote, “my life frigen (sic) sucks.” In July one of his status line read, “bored…miss dad.” Gail, Steve’s mother and Coty’s grandmother, wrote to let him Coty know that she and gampa missed him and his sister and wanted to have him come visit. In September Gail wrote to him about a visit they had with him and that she hoped that he could come back very soon to visit again. She asked if he might come over next weekend. Coty replied that he might have plans and Gail replied that’s she didn’t know if his mom would let him. 

Coty wrote about the problems the adults around him were having. In September 2010 his status read, “what makes him think I will want to move back when he’s got a g/f [girlfriend]…well I can tell you what it’s me or her” to which his grandmother Gail replied, “someone is lying to you he doesn’t have a g/f” and Coty replied, “read his profile mammy.” Then someone else wrote, “Coty the truth will come out …stay strong…you’re old enough to decide where and with whom you would like to live…listen to your heart.” Amy addressed this topic by replying that she would never lie to him and that she wanted to protect him and not let him read what was posted but felt he needed to read it for himself and not hear it from someone else. She continued saying that she was forewarning him to the fact that he was going to read something on his dad’s fb page that was going to upset him….She further explained to him that everyone deserves to be happy and that his dad still and always will love him… and then a relative of Amy’s that I will call Aunt C. wrote under Amy’s response that his mom did the right thing in forewarning him, she would not lie to him and that she (Aunt C.) heard that his dad had an ad for a g/f on eharmony.com. 

In October 2010 Coty wrote that either he is an amazing actress or no one sees that he is ripping apart inside and it’s getting harder to deal with. The next day he wrote that he guessed it was time to put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine and dandy. Another status line read, “only if I could say it but I can’t cause bad stuff would happen I wanna so bad!!” Coty was asked if he got the jacket he wanted…did Dad give him the money. Coty replied, no wouldn’t give him money he’s going on vacation. 

In November 2010 Coty wrote, “ugh screwed up day yesterday because of some liar but I still love my gampa…,” “what anyone heard is a big lie my gampa is loving and some people have to be big jerks,” to which Amy responded, “my children know the truth and that was verified yesterday…I am proud of them both.” On another day Coty wrote, “dad had the nerve to say that mom trashed the place…we went back and most of the wood was takin (sic) and my mom’s $100 worth of oil and smashed my fan in my room so only 1 blade was left and basically took everything worth over $10…stove, fridge everything” To which his mother responded that it was $269 worth of oil 100 gallon’s and not $100 and then went on to explain how she had arranged to have the oil transferred to the new apartment in Dexter so she and Coty went to shovel a path to the fill pipe…when she got there the oil tank was drained. 

In December 2010 Coty wrote, “don’t u hate it when u have a animal then you get split up and the person that has it has a gf then her kids think of it as theirs cause I do and THEY will pay.” Another day he wrote how this time last year …he was home with mom, dad, Monica and they decided to take the 4 wheelers out…fun good times…miss them. 

In January and March 2011 Coty put a quote up in his status line that read, “If your Dad is hardworking and your hero, just the best Dad ever paste this to your status let everyone know how proud you are of your Dad. You can replace a lot of people in your life but you only have one Dad.” Another time in Mach he wrote that he was angry about not getting his four wheeler and said it was because his dad wouldn’t give it to him.

Steve’s Facebook 

In his status lines August 2010 Steve wrote that he went to anger management. In September 2010 he wrote that things started turning bad, no visits with the kids since June…his missed the kids and can’t wait to see them. He frequently mentioned missing the kids in his daily status lines. His spoke about not being able to see his son on his birthday and having a party for him some day and maybe they could go to Disney World. He wrote that hoped he would have the kids soon to take them clothes shopping. He wrote too bad it has to be this way. He mentioned that things were taking too long and that he might need to hire a new lawyer. He wrote of his hope that the guardian ad litem on the case would help resolve the visitation/child custody issues soon. His mother, Gail, wrote on his page that she wasn’t being allowed to see the children either. 

In November 2010 he wrote briefly about what appeared to be an incident between his father and Amy’s father. He wrote “child molester” and “nice around my kids” in reference to that incident. He wrote that he had finally hit a point, he was crying from missing the kids and that he realized how much pain he’s in by not being able to even see them. That same day he wrote that he should have done a lot different but that he does believe in carma (sic). 

In his most recent postings Steve talked about God. Steve’s facebook page was shut down to the public the Tuesday or Wednesday after the murder suicide. 


There were glaring signs that this situation could turn deadly. Steve exhibited many of the warning signs posted above. He had made threats previously to kill Amy, the children and himself, he had talked about killing others, he owned weapons and he allegedly told a judge, “If I can’t have her no one can.” His family mentions that he was extremely despondent, crying and obsessing about not being able to see his children, he obviously knew where they lived, he had access to some or all of their facebook pages, he had been arrested for violent threats to kill before, he violated the protection order and his bail conditions, and he had previously taken the family hostage. 

Amy did all the right things to protect her and the children; she reported Steve’s actions, got a protection order and told others about her fears and concerns and went as far as asking the police to patrol her home on a regular basis. She evidently had an idea of what he was capable of and reported what she knew to the authorities. 

So what went wrong? DA R. Christopher Almy stated to the PPH that people want to find someone else to blame for this tragedy but ultimately the blame should fall squarely on the man that pulled the trigger. I agree in principal, however, there were people who work in the legal system involved with this family who were undoubtedly trained to assess lethality in domestic violence situations and were paid to protect domestic violence victims. Two of them had the power to revoke Steve’s bail and place him in jail pending his criminal trial. Had Steve been jailed pending trial would Amy and the children still be safe and alive today?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Batterers Intervention Programs for Men vs. Women – Apples and Oranges

In Barbara Kay’s column in the National Post, “The other side of the domestic abuse story,”   she asserts that while there are court mandated anger management programs for men who commit intimate partner violence (IPV) to her knowledge there are no court mandated anger management programs for women who perpetrate the same.  This assertion prompted Jonathan Kulman, a co-ordinator at one of the anger management programs in Ontario, to write a letter to the editor of the National Post. 
In his letter Mr. Kulman claims that there most certainly are court mandated anger management programs for women and that he works with both male and female perpetrators of IPV.  This letter prompted Ms. Kay to write, “When women get angry, it’s not their fault.”  

Ms. Kay wrote that when it comes to court mandated anger management for male abusers vs. female abusers in a nutshell we’re talking apples and oranges.  She states that while the court mandated programs for men in Canada, “assume that male anger springs spontaneously from the innate, or socially constructed urge to control women (and children), [the programs for women assume that] …women’s anger, [is] always reactive, [and] arises from their helplessness in coping with frustrations beyond their control.”  In other words, men abuse women because our patriarchal society entitles them to do so while women abuse men because they are frustrated and can’t help themselves.  

What Ms. Kay maintains about the differences in anger management programs (a.k.a. Batterers Intervention Program’s (BIP’s) in the US from what Ms. Kay describes above) for men and women is not only true in Canada but also here in the US.   As of 2008 45 US states had adopted standards for BIP’s for men to adhere to in order for them to be approved to receive referrals from courts. There are thousands of BIP’s for men in the country and over 100,000 men have been sentenced to complete these intervention programs.  However, to my knowledge, there are no requirements or standards and only a handful of programs available for women who are arrested for IPV.      

The reason for this is history.  Our system of IPV prevention and intervention took root via multi women’s movements back in the 1970’s and they were built on the principle that men commit IPV against women out of a need to oppress, control and dominate them.  This philosophy on IPV has steadfastly held for over 30 years and has left no room for alternative theories.  Given that premise how can women be held responsible for their violence?    

Prior to BIP’s being firmly established men who were arrested and/or convicted for IPV were often compelled to attend anger management programs. Anger management programs are on average eight to 15 weeks long, insurance may cover the cost of attendance, and the classes are focused on learning techniques for reducing stress and controlling anger impulses.  

BIP’s were created, with the input and approval of battered women’s advocates, because those who worked with battered women vehemently opposed the use of anger management programs for men who were charged with IPV.  Women’s advocates felt that men’s use of violence in the home was a choice and could not be excused by being stressed or out of control.  

BIP’s are 26 to 48 weeks in length and insurance companies won’t cover the cost so the participant must pay a weekly fee for attendance.  Fees are generally $20 a week and up depending on the income of the participant.  If the participant misses classes and/or refuses to take responsibility for the abuse in the relationship (even his partner’s abusiveness and/or controlling tactics) then he may be removed from the program.  The consequences for removal from the program may be jail time. 

This excerpt out of, “Safety for Women: Monitoring Batterer’s Programs,” by Barbara Hart reflects the way the earlier battered women’s advocates viewed men and IPV: 

All men benefit from the violence of batterers. There is no man who has not enjoyed the male privilege resulting from male domination reinforced by the use of physical violence . . . All women suffer as a consequence of men's violence. Battering by individual men keeps all women in line. While not every woman has experienced violence, there is no woman in this society who has not feared it, restricting her activities and her freedom to avoid it. Women are always watchful knowing that they may be the arbitrary victims of male violence. Only the elimination of sexism, the end of cultural supports for violence, and the adoption of a system of beliefs and values embracing equality and mutuality in intimate relationships will end men's violence against women.
Domestic violence is about power and control. A feminist analysis of woman battering rejects theories that attribute the causes of violence to family dysfunction, inadequate communications skills, women's provocation, stress, chemical dependency, lack of spiritual relationship to a deity, economic hardship, class practices, racial/ethnic tolerance, or other factors. These issues may be associated with battering of women, but they do not cause it. Removing these factors will not end men's violence against women.
Batterers behave abusively to control their partner's behavior, thereby achieving and maintaining power over their partners and getting their own needs and desires met quickly and completely. There are also many secondary benefits of violence to the batterer. A batterer may choose to be violent because he finds it fun to terrorize his partner, because there is a release of tension in the act of assault, because it demonstrates manhood, or because violence is erotic for him. Violence is a learned behavior and batterers choose to use violence. The victim is not part of the problem. The victim may accept responsibility for causing the batterer to lose their temper, but the truth is, the abuser must be held accountable for his behavior…. 

Society (in the US at least) has changed a great deal since this was first published 22 years ago.  Today a woman can work in just about any profession she wants, men can be stay at home dads, do the dishes and the grocery shopping without reproach, and for a number of years more women than men have been attending colleges and getting degrees.  

Given the changes in society we would be hard pressed to find a significant number of Generation Y and Z men who believe they have more privilege than women.  However, battered women’s organizations continue to promulgate this single theory of IPV and to fight for new laws, federal funding and educate the masses about violence against women only.  

Ours is a more egalitarian society today than it was 30 years ago, much to the credit of women’s rights activists, yet our services for the prevention and intervention of IPV are still stuck in the 1980’s. The Duluth model, created 31 years ago and considered the gold standard for batterer’s treatment programs, and its offshoots the Emerge and AMEND models are the most widely used programs by the courts for referrals.  These models are based on this feminist or pro feminist theory that IPV mirrors the patriarchal organization of society.  BIP’s must have the input and approval of battered women’s advocates.  It’s no wonder that services for male victims and standards for intervention programs for female abusers are still an afterthought.

Some abusive men may benefit from the psycho-educational, skill building curriculum of these models but surely not all abusive men. Researchers and others have long questioned the effectiveness and exclusiveness of this “one size fits all” approach to treating abusers.  Studies found that BIP’s have had little or no effect on subsequent IPV and that the programs did not change batterer’s attitudes toward women and battering.
Studies have been conducted and alternative theories have been developed as to why IPV may occur in some intimate relationships.  One theory, the family systems model, regards the problem behaviors of individuals are a manifestation of a dysfunctional family, with each family member contributing to the problem i.e. mutually combative relationships where neither partner has control and power over the other partner.  Another, the psychotherapeutic model of IPV, focuses on the individual and holds that personality disorders or early traumatic life experiences predispose some people to violence.  

Our prevention and treatment models for IPV must be brought up to date.  We are doing a grave disservice to male and female victims and abusers as well as their children by not integrating these theories into our prevention and intervention programs.     


Thursday, June 2, 2011

Barking Mad or Clever as a Fox? The Vladek Filler Re-trial

I try to keep my writing devoid of my sarcastic wit; however, at times it’s difficult to hold back especially when dealing with stressful events that make you feel like you are in the Twilight Zone.  Last week I attended the State v. Filler criminal re-trial in Ellsworth, Maine to lend my support to Vladek Filler and his family.  I rarely if ever get involved or lend my support in criminal matters for the accused; however, after meeting Vladek, his mother and his sister a few years ago and reading about the case against Vladek extensively I was convinced that an egregious wrong had been perpetrated.  I wanted to do what I could to help.  

The newspaper accounts of this trial do not do it justice, after all reporters can only give their readers a glimpse of what went on in that court room during the trial.  A reporter is only allowed so much space to write his article and has deadlines to meet.  Having sat in that court room for three of the four trial days, watching the proceedings and listening to each person’s testimony, as well as spending time with the Filler family outside the court room I definitely came away with a much more comprehensive understanding than if I had just read the newspaper accounts.     

Watching Asst. DA Paul Cavanaugh present the State’s side of the case was like viewing a made for TV “B” movie.  You know the kind of movie I mean, one of those low budget films with some the cheesiest acting and dialogue you have ever seen.   Sadly, this proceeding was anything but a made for TV movie.  It was a real life drama with a man’s life, freedom and his children’s future on the line.  For more background information on this case please read my blog entries dated of 4-12 and 4-14-2011.  

State v. Filler May 25th 2011 - Day Two

Nicole (who is a volunteer advocate with DAHMW) and I drove to Ellsworth early to be at the courthouse for the 8:30am start time for the day’s court proceedings.  We met up with Vladek, his two sisters, his mother and his oldest son. First stop was a room in the courthouse reserved for the Filler family during the trial and then onto the court room for the hearing.   

Let me just take a moment here to tell you about the collective Filler family.  The Fillers are the type of people who would give you the shirt off their backs and the last dollar in their pocket if they knew you needed it.  I have never in my life met a more close knit, warm and loving family.  After sitting down and talking with Vladek, his son and his extended family for just a few hours it felt like we had all been great friends for many years.  Here they were at one of the most intense, grueling times in their lives (I say “their” because it’s so evident that if one of them is suffering they are all suffering…they are that close) having lived under a dark ominous cloud for more than four years and yet they took the time to make sure you feel welcomed, appreciated and included.   

Asst. DA Paul Cavanaugh was into his second day of presenting the State’s case against Vladek Filler when we arrived. The States star witness was Vladek’s ex wife, Ligia, who was first up on the witness stand that morning.  That morning the star witness was cross examined by Vladek’s defense lawyer Stephen Smith.  

Before I discuss the cross examination of the prosecutor’s star witness let me just say for the record that I am an assiduous and fervent advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.  I volunteered at our local rape crisis center for over a year and have been the victim of date rape myself as a teenager so I fully and completely empathize with victims of these crimes.  I feel that those who commit sexual and domestic assault against women, men and children should get the harshest punishment allowable by law.  So you know that if I believed for one second that Vladek Filler had committed the crimes that he was accused of I would have been sitting in the front row behind the prosecutor and not the defendant at this trial.  However, I have no respect, empathy or use for someone who would use the legal system, victim’s services and the taxpayer’s money to exact revenge against their former intimate partner.  

As I watched and listened to the prosecution’s star witness on that Wednesday I thought to myself, “This lady is in the wrong profession, she should have gone into dramatic acting.”  Please understand that it is not my intent to belittle or make light of this most serious situation, it’s just that I found the alleged victim to be disingenuous.  I was totally unmoved by her overly dramatic testimony.  

She sat on the witness stand looking forlorn holding her hand to her chest and taking slow deep audible breaths in and out, in and out, with every response she gave as she was cross examined by the defense attorney.  When she wasn’t taking slow deep audible breaths she spent a great deal of time having sips of water and pausing to use a tissue to wipe her eyes.  She responded to most of the questions asked with, “I don’t understand the question…could you repeat the question…I don’t remember….I can’t recall…I can’t remember…I don’t recall…I don’t know….”   Again, her testimony struck me as melodramatic and insincere.

She appeared to have a difficult time remembering key facts such as whether the alleged sexual assault took place on the top surface of the washer, the dryer, or with her head inside the laundry basket that was on top of one of these appliances.  With regards to the alleged assault that she said happened in 2005 she couldn’t remember which came first, her slapping Vladek or him throwing water (from what she said enough to soak her face, hair and/or clothing) from a glass at her two times.  

Nathan, 14 year old son of the star witness and Vladek testified that he had been awoken by the sound of his parents arguing and that he witness what happened.  Nathan testified that he saw his mother punch his father in the nose knocking the glasses off his face and that his father did not throw water at his mother.  He also testified that his mother’s clothes and hair were dry and not wet as they would have been had she just had water thrown at her.  

The star witness was asked by the defense to describe the alleged sexual assault.  She testified that Vladek had held her two hands behind her back with one of his hands and held her head down on the dryer/washer with his other hand and while she struggled he pulled her corduroy pants down (she couldn’t remember if they were button fly or had a button with a zipper) to around her ankles, pulled his own pants down and then sodomized her. If I remember correctly she said he didn’t use any lubrication.  She further testified that after he was done she felt his semen run down her leg.  

She testified that after filing a complaint with the police about the alleged sexual and domestic assaults she was advised to go to the hospital to have a rape kit done (to preserve evidence of the alleged sexual assault for trial) by both of the police officers she spoke with.  I don’t doubt that her friend who’s house she was at when she met with the first officer also told her to get a rape exam.  Her fairly new friend was instructor of the CNA classes that the star witness attended as well as a nurse.  None the less she ignored everyone’s advice and chose not to have a rape exam done. No doubt, there can be good reasons for choosing not to have a rape exam; it can be an uncomfortable and humiliating experience to have such a procedure done.  However, it could also be that in this case the accuser knew there wouldn’t be any evidence of sexual assault because the assault never happened.   

Reflecting further on the star witnesses bizarre behavior (IMHO) and evasiveness to the questions asked of her I suppose it’s possible that she has some sort of medical or mental health condition that would cause her to respond in this manner when under stress.  However, since the prosecution refused to answer to repeated requests from the defense to produce her medical and mental health records no one will ever know. It does seem odd though that she appeared much less forgetful when the Asst. DA posed questions to her after the defense finished his cross examination.  I am reminded at this time of a quote from Mark Twain, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.”  

After the star witnesses cross examination there were a number of other witnesses for the prosecution that testified on Wednesday and Thursday.  Some of those witnesses were unremarkable and not worth a mention while others were quite memorable.  The three prosecution witnesses that most stand out in my memory are Lt. Travis Willey, the former Police Chief of Gouldsboro PD and Officer Harry Larrabee who is currently with Gouldsboro PD.  I don’t recollect the former chief’s name so I will just call him Chief Wiggum. 

Lt. Willey was the officer who answered the call to pick up the star witness as she did her mad dash down the street and through the blueberry fields in bare feet wearing nothing but a bra and black pants.  Shockingly she was also carrying her toddler son on her hip at the time.  According to Lt. Willey and the audio of the event it took about an hour and a half to get to their final destination where she could be psychologically evaluated.  He spent a good deal of that time chasing after her, convincing her to turn the toddler over to him, putting her in restraints and driving to the hospital.  Part of the audio of this can be heard by clicking here. 

The jury heard about 35 minutes of the 90 plus minute audio of this event during the trail.  They were advised that they could take the audio in with them when they deliberated if they felt the need.  One of the things she alleged in this recording was that her husband had sexual molested the children.  That accusation was investigated by DHHS and found unsubstantiated/to have no merit.  During her mad dash she threatened to kill the officer, her husband and pretty much anyone who stood in her way.  She suggested that a cousin of hers would help her kill her husband.  One minute she was raging and threatening to kill someone and the next she was laughing like a person possessed.  

Here are some examples of her recorded ramblings, “I will kill you mother f’er,”  “You messed with the wrong person…We going to cut you to pieces,” “He’s going to die because I’m going to f’ing kill him myself,” “You’re going straight to Hell and you know what? I am going straight to hell too but you know what?  I’m going to enjoy it…” and “I’m not crazy, I’m not crazy.”  At one point in the recording you could hear her kicking violently with her feet hitting some hard surface (perhaps the back of the front seat in the police car).  

You can hear Lt. Willey say in the audio that she is “right certifiable.”  Asst. DA Cavanaugh tried to convince the jury that the star witness acted this way because as an abused woman she was at the end of her rope because help couldn’t come fast enough for her to protect herself and her children from a controlling, abuser and rapist.  I don’t think the jury bought that theory though.   

SIDE BAR:  I understand that the audio also contains an accusation made by the star witness against Lt. Willey.  When they arrived at the hospital she accused Lt. Willey of hurting her and he denied it.  If the jury was to believe that the star witness was a victim at the end of her rope as Asst. DA Cavanaugh claimed then what about her falsely accusing her husband and Lt. Willey?  Should they also just ignore the fact that she falsely accused both of them?    

I wasn’t too surprised when I noticed one of the jury members wiping tears from her eyes when listening to this audio.  Others saw a few more jury members dabbing their eyes also.  It was a deeply disturbing audio of a woman over the edge, who wouldn’t have been touched and concerned by what they heard?  

State v Filler May 26, 2011

The next noteworthy witness for the prosecution was Officer Harry Larrabee.  Officer Larrabee was the first person that the star witness spoke with at the police department about the alleged assaults.  BTW, did you know that someone can just call the police, report that they were assaulted by their spouse a few weeks ago and without any face to face interview or written and sworn testimony from the accuser a person can be charged with domestic assault?  Maybe I am just na├»ve but I was shocked to hear that this could happen.  Officer Larrabee’s testified that he took the complaint over the phone and then went straight to the Filler house to charge Vladek with assault.  Pretty scary stuff.  

Officer Larrabee also testified that when he met with the star witness face to face on Sunday he asked her if she had any bruises from being grabbed by the arms and pushed down into a chair (from the 2007 assault).  Officer Larrabee reported that he asked the star witness to her pull up her short sleeves and he looked at the front, back and sides of her arms and found no indication of a bruise.  

Former Chief Wiggum took the witness stand after Officer Larrabee.  He testified that that he met with the star witness a day after Officer Larrabee had on Monday and that she showed him a bruise on her arm and he took a picture of it.  That picture of the bruise was enlarged to the size of a piece of 8 ½ by 11 piece of paper and submitted as evidence.  I don’t know about you but I find it telling that there was no sign of a bruise anywhere on her arms on Sunday but by Monday there was a bruise to be photographed.   

Chief Wiggum testified that he was one of the investigators who assisted with the collection of evidence of the alleged 2007 sexual assault crime scene.  He testified that he and another officer (whose name eludes me also so I will just call him Eddie ) went into the Filler home with an arrest and a search warrant.  The star witness told them to look for condoms and lubricant…these items were not found.  I was a little confused because I thought the star witness testified that he didn’t use lubricant. 

Chief Wiggum and Eddie dusted the dryer/washer for hand and face prints and took the two throw rugs that were on the floor in the bathroom to test for semen.  Chief Wiggum testified that they found no prints on the dryer/washer and no semen on the rugs.  The defense asked Chief Wiggum whether or not the clothing worn by the star witness and the accused during the alleged sexual assault was collected.  He testified that it was not.  

SIDE BAR:  Vladek took the witness stand on Thursday.  During his testimony he described the approximate size of the bathroom where the alleged assault occurred.  There were also pictures (regular size not 8 ½ by 11” like the bruise picture) of the bathroom submitted into evidence.  Vladek testified that the space between the dryer/washer and the wall opposite these appliances was literally not even wide enough for two people to occupy at the same time.  Someone once told me that the more absurd a scenario is the more believable it is….

So Chief Wiggum and Eddie took pictures, collected two throw rugs, dusted for finger/face prints and search for condoms and lubricant that the star witness said they would find but did not collect the clothing each person was wearing.  I would have thought collecting the clothing worn during the alleged assault important given that the star witness said that she felt sperm run down her leg after the sexual assault and that her pants were around her ankles.  Maybe I just watch too much NCIS.  

SIDE BAR: The court took a morning break during Chief Wiggum’s testimony. He was to return to the witness stand after the break for further cross examination. Only a few people stayed in the courtroom during the break.  The bailiffs stepped out for a few minutes.  I happened to walk back into the court room while attorney Smith was conferring with his client just outside the court room door.  I sat down and immediately noticed that Chief Wiggum was stretching his neck to read the notes left on the podium by the defense attorney.  I didn't think that attorney Smith would appreciate having his notes read by the prosecution's witness so I shot out of my seat and rushed to let attorney Smith know that Chief Wiggum was reading his notes on the podium.  Attorney Smith made a bee line into the court room.  

State v. Filler May 27, 2011 

The State and the defense presented their closing arguments on Friday morning.  Some of the highlights were:

Asst. DA Paul Cavanaugh, as I mentioned before, asked the jury to view the star witness’s “certifiable” moments with Lt. Willey as an abused woman’s cry for protection and help rather than as a mentally unstable woman’s need of hospitalization.  He also told the jury that in the real world evidence collection by police investigators at crime scenes are rarely as substantial or definitive as what you see on TV shows like NCIS.  He mentioned that NCIS crime scene investigators always seem to find the evidence they need to prove their case but in the real world that just doesn’t happen.  However, he criticized the police's handling of the investigation in this case quite a bit. 

Attorney Smith asked the jury, (and I am paraphrasing here) was the star witness was barking mad or was she clever as a fox? Vladek's main defense was that the star witness made up the assault allegations to get revenge for him wanting to divorce her and have custody of the children. He reminded them about Nathan’s testimony of witnessing the 2005 argument and that he saw his mother punch his father in the face knocking his glasses off and breaking them but never saw his father strike or throw water at his mother.

Closing arguments went on for about 90 minutes and then the jury received their instructions from the judge before then went into deliberation. One of the instructions was on the definition of circumstantial evidence.  The judge used an analogy about snow to explain what circumstantial evidence was and again I am paraphrasing here but basically he said if they look out at bedtime and see that there is no snow on the ground but when they wake up they see snow, they can reasonable assume that it snowed during the night.  They didn’t see it snow but they have circumstantial evidence that it did snow.  

The jury went to deliberate.  After about 75 minutes of deliberation the jury asked for a lunch break.  They came back from lunch at around 1:15pm and went back to deliberations.  Waiting for the verdict was agonizing, the minutes passed like hours, hours passed like days.  The jury was finally ready to render their verdict at 4pm.  We all rushed back into the court room.

Vladek had three criminal charges against him, two misdemeanor assaults, i.e. for allegedly throwing water at the victim in 2005 and for grabbing the star witness by the arms and pushing her down into a chair in 2007, and one felony charge of gross sexual assault.  If they found him guilty of the gross sexual assault Vladek could have been put away behind bars for many years.  

The jury’s verdict:  Not guilty of the 2005 assault, Not guilty of gross sexual assault, Guilty of the 2007 assault.  
A few observations:

When the forewoman read the verdict something strange happened to her voice.  She was completely audible when she read the not guilty for the 2005 assault but her voice was almost a whisper and she seemed to have a difficult time saying not guilty on the gross sexual assault charge.  The judge had to ask her to repeat the verdict.  I don’t know if this has any relevance but we heard that there was a lot of loud arguing going on in the jury’s deliberation room at times.  BTW:  She was one of the jurors that we saw wiping away tears as she listened to the disturbing audio.   

I would love ask the jury how they came to find Vladek was guilty on the 2007 assault charge.  I have a hunch that they remembered that big 8 ½” by 11”picture of the bruise on the star witnesses arm taken by Chief Wiggum three days after the alleged incident and forgot about the fact that there was no indication of a bruise when Officer Larrabee examined her arms the day before Chief Wiggum.     

We were all grateful that the jury reached the right conclusions and found Vladek not guilty of the alleged 2005 assault and 2007 gross sexual assault and disappointed that they found him guilty of the 2007 assault. He may appeal the conviction.  

No date has been set for sentencing on that charge at this time.  Since the charge is a misdemeanor Vladek may have to pay a fine, be mandated to some type of batterer’s intervention class and/or receive up to 364 days in jail.  It’s all up to Judge Murray.  If his sentence includes jail time the guardian ad litem i.e. the lawyer for the children, who testified at the trial the first day recommended that the children stay in the custody of their fraternal grandmother and aunts in Georgia and not be given to their mother.  

Some further observations:

The State got to present their case from Tuesday morning 8:30am until Thursday morning 11:30am while the defense only had about three hours on Thursday afternoon to present their case.  

After the State rested the prosecutor and defense attorney went into the judge’s chambers.  The defense attorney made a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the prosecutor lacked enough evidence for a conviction.  A newspaper reporter from the Bangor Daily News was allowed to go into the judge’s chambers with them during this procedure.  It seemed odd but perhaps it happens all the time…

If you think something like this can’t happen to you well so did Vladek at one time….

The opinions expressed here are those of Jan Brown and not necessarily that of the Filler family or the Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women.