The deadly consequences of domestic violence
In the early afternoon of Sunday, April 15, 2005, Jeff Fox says he returned to his Greenwood home after driving his 17-year-old son to Terre Haute. He found his wife Sherry asleep in an upstairs bedroom. He woke her to ask if she wanted anything to eat. She said no, and he went downstairs and let her continue sleeping.
Five hours later, when he checked on her again, Fox could not awaken her. Lying next to the bed was a lengthy suicide note and three empty pill bottles. He called 911, but when medics arrived they were unable to revive his 54-year-old wife. At approximately 7 p.m., Sherry Fox was taken to Community Hospital South where she was pronounced dead.
Initially, investigators had no reason to suspect anything other than a suicide. "When the police arrived, they saw a person lying in bed with a suicide note and a bunch of empty pill bottles on the table beside her," says Johnson County Prosecutor Lance Hamner. "But the next day the pathologist called us and said, 'Hey, there's some things you guys need to come and take a look at,' and that's when everything changed."
The autopsy revealed that Sherry Fox had been severely beaten, and that she had tried to fight back. She had scrapes on her face, bruising on her knuckles, palms, knees and around her temples, and bruises to her head bleeding internally.
And there was one more thing: a bruise in the middle of her back in the shape of a heel print. Sherry Fox had been kicked in the back with so much force that her lungs slowly filled with blood, eventually killing her.
"There was no blood anywhere at the scene, and her injuries were so internal that when the police first arrived, they didn't know she'd been beaten," according to Hamner. "They didn't realize that she was a victim of even a minor battery. But when the coroner opened her up, I hate to say this because it's horrible, but from the inside these were some pretty powerful blows."
On April 18, the initial autopsy report ruled Sherry Fox's death was caused by "blunt force trauma to the head and chest," and her husband Jeff was arrested, charged with murder and held without bond.
He has denied ever hitting his wife.
[Editor's Note: According to police records, Jeff Fox has denied any involvement in his wife's death. He has made no public statements about the case, and at press time, efforts by NUVO to reach Mr. Fox and/or his attorney remain unsuccessful.]
According to FBI estimates, a woman in the United States is a victim of domestic violence every 15 seconds. An estimated 3 to 4 million women are beaten by their partner each year, and more than 1,500 of these women die as a result.
Here in Indiana, women are murdered on the average of more than once a week from gunshots to the head and chest, strangulation, arson, starvation, stabbings, asphyxiation, decapitation or beatings at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends.
From July 2003 through June 2004, 60 women in the state died as a result of domestic violence homicide. For the same period ending in June 2005, the number is fast approaching 70.
Sherry Fox and her husband had been married for 15 years, but according to her friend and co-worker Tina Stewart, the marriage was strained. According to Stewart, Sherry had confided that she and her husband slept in separate bedrooms, and fought constantly about money. "They pretty much lived separately, it wasn't a good marriage, and he controlled all the money," Stewart alleges.
The Monday before her death, Stewart says Sherry told her that she had asked her husband for money - just enough to buy cigarettes - but he had refused. Later in the week, Sherry said he'd finally written her a check, but not until after a big fight.
The couple's financial problems and resulting arguments were much bigger than his controlling her pocket money. Sherry had been on disability for two years for her constant back pain. After she returned to work in 2005, she received a notice that she had been overpaid, through no fault of her own, and she had to pay back the disability overpayments.
"They were demanding all their financial records, tax returns, pay stubs, stuff like that," Stewart says, "but Jeff wouldn't give his to her. She was supposed to have it all turned in by April 15. They were going to set up a payment plan for her to repay the money, it was a couple thousand dollars I think, but Jeff said it was her problem, not his.
"She was really scared once the deadline passed. She owed the government money, and she felt this big threat that if she didn't turn in all the paperwork they wanted and start paying the money back, that she could go to jail or something. But he just kept yelling at her and saying it was her fault and her problem," according to Stewart.
Sherry's suicide note reflects her turmoil about paying back the disability funds. "It's very detailed," Hamner says. "She says, 'I'm sorry,' over and over again about the money.
"She probably thought, 'I've got a husband who doesn't love me, I've cost him all this money, I'm in constant pain, and this is it - I'm going to kill myself,'" Hamner speculates.
"My take on it is that he'd never beaten her this badly before," Hamner says. "He probably smacked her around, but this time it was obviously much worse. In her note she says she's sorry for this, she's sorry for that, she's apologizing to him over and over.
"It appears she took the pills and wrote the note some time after the beating. Obviously, she didn't know she was dying. As is typical of an abuse victim, she blamed herself for having caused the beating. In her note she's apologizing to him."
Greenwood Police Lt. Bob Dine, one of the officers who investigated Sherry's death, agrees. "She probably just couldn't take it anymore. She was suffering from real depression, and more than likely his abuse was a big part of that."
Intent to kill
Despite the evidence of a brutal and deadly beating, Johnson County Prosecutor Lance Hamner dropped the murder charges against Jeff Fox on April 20, recharged him with involuntary manslaughter and released him on $8,000 bond the same day.
Hamner reduced the charges after the final autopsy report listed Sherry Fox's cause of death as both "blunt force trauma and an overdose of prescription drugs," with the manner of her death listed as undetermined. Toxicology reports concluded that she had ingested more than 50 times her prescribed level of medication. There is no evidence she was forced to swallow the pills.
Sherry Fox was murdered and committed suicide - a problem according to the prosecutor, because it is unclear which killed her first.
"Contrary to what you see on television, it's not always possible for us to determine exactly when she was beaten - at least not yet. We're hoping to find someone with that type of experience and expertise. Someone who can say that with this type of explosion in the capillaries, this is when the injuries occurred," Hamner says.
"Clearly, what she did [by taking the pills] would have resulted in her death independent of the beating," Hamner believes. "But, if she hadn't taken the pills - she would have died anyway. Obviously, she didn't know she had been mortally wounded, that her lungs were slowly filling with blood, and she was slowly dying.
"This is probably the most puzzling case we've seen in our office," the Johnson County prosecutor says. "I've been a prosecutor for 15 years, and I've never seen anything like this. And the deputy prosecutor, who's more directly involved in the investigation than I am and has 30 years experience, he's never seen anything like this either."
Hamner also points out that Indiana state law requires a person to intend to kill their victim in order to be charged with murder. If Jeff Fox beat his wife to death without intending to kill her, he can only be charged with reckless homicide or involuntary manslaughter, according to the prosecutor.
It's a rationale and reduction in charges that not everyone agrees with.
"Yeah, it's really frustrating," says Lt. Dine. "Our investigators did a terrific job. But the prosecutor backed off. That's my opinion, and the opinion of a lot of officers around here.
"[The charges] went from murder to involuntary manslaughter, and most likely they will be reduced to some kind of battery. In the end, he'll probably get a couple of years of probation for beating his wife to death."
And it's this potential outcome that has domestic violence advocates outraged.
"Whether or not his beating her is listed as the cause of death or one of two causes of death, it shouldn't matter," says Kerry Hyatt Blomquist, legal counsel for the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "He killed her and he should be held accountable for that."
"Murder is an A felony. Involuntary manslaughter is a C felony. And he'll most likely get a plea deal. So, if they start with a C felony and plead it down, he could end up with a misdemeanor charge," Blomquist believes.
Blaming the woman
Domestic violence occurs among all types of families, regardless of income, profession, religion, ethnicity, educational level or race. It is a pattern of coercion and control that includes the use of a number of tactics, including intimidation, threats, economic deprivation, isolation and psychological and sexual abuse.
While men can be the victims of domestic violence, more than 95 percent of victims are women. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44, and the most common cause of death for pregnant women in the United States.
Battered women often make repeated attempts to leave violent relationships, but are prevented from doing so by increased violence and control tactics on the part of their abuser. It has been estimated that the danger to a victim increases by 70 percent when she attempts to leave, as the abuser escalates his use of violence when he begins to lose his control over her.
For many people, statistics rarely provide the full impact, but the death of Sherry Fox and other recent events in Central Indiana should illustrate just how frequent, brutal and deadly domestic violence can be - especially when an abused woman is trying to escape the violent relationship.
This past Mother's Day, 22-year-old Angelica Estrada was attacked in her Lawrence home by her estranged boyfriend Alexander Martinez. Though she survived the attack, Estrada was critically wounded after being struck several times in the head with a 2-by-4 and slashed with a knife before she managed to flee.
After she left, Martinez stabbed the couple's 3-year-old son to death with a kitchen knife. An autopsy report revealed that the child had been stabbed seven times, three times in the back, three times in the chest and once in the neck. Martinez then committed suicide by plunging the knife into his own abdomen and chest.
According to Laura Berry-Berman, executive director of the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, "Suicide is a very common threat an abuser will make in a domestic violence situation. When a person has a suicide ideology, they are far more likely to commit a homicide in the context of a domestic violence situation because they feel like they don't have anything to live for. It is a way of controlling or placing guilt on the woman."
Another woman, Malissa Lewis, had already filed a protective order, but when her estranged husband Brian Lewis violated that court order and entered her home near Plainfield early in the morning on June 1, she was unable to escape with her life.
After a 911 call from her 10-year-old daughter, police discovered 30-year-old Malissa dead in her bedroom. Then they found Malissa's 7-year-old daughter Alauna in another bedroom "covered with bloody blankets."
Brian Lewis was found walking near Malissa's home two hours later. He has admitted to police that he choked his wife to death, then he beat his 7-year-old stepdaughter with a crowbar until she too was dead.
These cases are typical according to Blomquist. "The most dangerous time for a woman to break the abuse cycle is when she decides to leave. Because once she decides to take control of her life, odds are his controlling behavior will increase dramatically - and he won't let her have that control over herself and her children."
A matter of time
One out of every four women in this country will suffer some kind of violence at the hands of her husband or boyfriend during her lifetime. Very few will tell anyone - not a friend, a relative, a neighbor, or the police. Victims of domestic violence come from all walks of life - all cultures, all income groups, all ages, all religions. They share feelings of helplessness, isolation, guilt, fear and shame. All hope it won't happen again, but often it does.
While domestic violence remains one of the most under-reported crimes in America, more and more women are utilizing the personal and legal resources available to help them leave abusive relationships.
In Central Indiana, there are a number of resources available to women trying to leave abusive relationships, but advocates believe there is still a long way to go before the lives of victims like Sherry Fox, Angelica Estrada and Malissa Lewis can be saved.
"We need more advocates on the front lines," Blomquist says. "Advocates that can not only help these victims initially, but also help them through the legal process. Otherwise, they may talk to a police officer at the time of the initial attack, and maybe a clerk when they file a protective order, but then they are left on their own."
In order to save lives and help women before they turn to domestic violence advocates, Blomquist offers practical and life-saving advice to all women, "If he's exhibiting controlling behavior, if he's manipulating you, if he doesn't let you see your friends and family, if he's ridiculously paranoid that you're sleeping around, even if it hasn't escalated to physical violence yet - most likely it will. It's only a matter of time before he starts hitting you. Get out of the relationship now! And for God's sake, don't have a baby with him!"
Indianapolis Colts & domestic violence
While domestic violence affects couples of all incomes and professions, members of the Indianapolis Colts have an ongoing criminal record of domestic abuse and battery. The following are only a few examples.
Mustafah (Steve) Muhammad was arrested for domestic battery just days before his wife Nicole died as a result of injuries suffered in a traffic accident on Nov. 4, 1999. The following day it became publicly known that Steve Muhammad had been arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery on his wife on Oct. 28 - 10 days before her death. Nicole was five months pregnant.
Fred Lane was fatally shot by his wife in July 2000 during an argument at their Charlotte, N.C., home, just months after being traded to the Colts. Deirdre Lane plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Authorities said she ambushed her 24-year-old husband at their Charlotte home in July 2000, hoping to cash a $5 million life insurance policy. Lane and her attorney had said she was a battered wife who shot her husband in self-defense. Police records indicate Lane had been arrested for domestic battery against his wife prior to his death. The couple had a 5-year-old and a 7-day-old child at the time of the shooting.
Dominc Rhodes was arrested on charges of domestic abuse in 2002, after he was accused of hitting and shoving his wife Latrina. Rhodes avoided prosecution by agreeing to mental health counseling and not to commit any crimes for two years. The couple is currently separated, and last month local news stations printed photos of spray paint on the door of Latrina's home saying, "Bring it on Bitch!" Police were recently called to an Indianapolis restaurant to break up a domestic dispute between the couple, initiated by Mrs. Rhodes according to the authorities.
Montae Reagor is currently on trial in Colorado for misdemeanor domestic abuse and harassment charges. Reagor is accused of abuse directed at the mother of his 2-year-old son. The charges include making threatening phone calls in an attempt to persuade the woman to drop her case against him for more than $60,000 in back child support.
Nick Harper was arrested in early June on domestic battery charges in Hamilton County. According to the Hamilton County sheriff, Harper's wife suffered an abrasion near her eye as a result of being struck by her husband. The couple's three children were home at the time of the incident. Harper has since made a public apology.