Twenty-eight years ago, today, on October 5, 1990, I sat behind my big wooden desk engulfed in a burgundy leather wingback chair in my office at the law firm of Cobb Cole & Bell in Daytona Beach, Florida. It was a sunny morning and I hadn’t been at work long but I was rather proud of myself for having already reached a settlement in a case. As I looked up from my desk my husband, John, suddenly stood in my doorway with a tear-stained face. His appearance in my office at that time of the day was so out of the ordinary I felt as though I must be hallucinating him. Then I just knew.
“He killed her, didn’t he,” I screamed and jumped up with such force that my usually awkward and heavy chair crashed into my credenza behind me. I jockeyed around my desk and jumped into John’s arms screaming, “He killed her, oh my god he killed her!” John could only nod and hold me tight.
Finally, he mustered, “Yes, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so, so sorry.”
Sheryl, my oldest sister, was in the middle of a nasty divorce from her husband, Greg. They had been married for almost seven years and had three boys. While my sisters and I didn’t like how Greg treated Sheryl over the years, we didn’t say anything to her and she never said a word to us.
Out of the blue, just after the 4th of July in 1990, Sheryl called and asked, “do you know any good divorce attorneys in Champaign, Illinois?”
I responded casually, “not right off hand, but I’m sure I can find one. Who needs a divorce attorney,” I asked?
After a slight pause and in a more tentative and softer voice, Sheryl replied, “me”.
I immediately told her, “you can’t get divorced, you’re Catholic, you have three kids. You have to try and work it out for the kids’ sake.” Then I demanded to know, “have you tried counseling”. Without even giving her a chance to answer, I told her, “I’ll find a counselor for you.”
Sheryl timidly admitted, “I’ve been to a counselor but I guess we can try and go together.”
In the beginning of August, Greg gave up on counseling and filed for divorce. I immediately helped Sheryl find a good divorce attorney and sent her the money to retain him. Up to this point, the only thing Sheryl said about her and Greg’s relationship was, “he’s not nice to me.” The divorce exposed the past violence and prompted more frequent and escalated episodes of abuse.
By the end of August, I knew Greg was going to kill Sheryl before the divorce was over. We all knew it. I didn’t know what to do to keep this from happening so I called Sheryl’s lawyer, Art.
“Greg is going to kill Sheryl before this is all over. You have to do something”, I demanded. Art was silent so I continued, “I know you think I’m just saying this because I’m her sister, but he is going to kill her. “
Art did not tell me I was wrong or provide any assurance that it wouldn’t happen. I hung up frustrated and desperate to do something to stop Greg from killing Sheryl. I kept telling people, hoping someone would tell me that it wouldn’t happen or tell me how to keep it from happening. I told my secretary just that week that I feared my sister’s husband was going to kill her before their divorce ended. My mom, my two other sisters and I had all expressed to each other in numerous conversations our fear that Greg was going to kill Sheryl. We knew it was going to happen and yet we were all so helpless. There was nothing we could do to stop Greg from killing sweet Sheryl once she finally found the courage to leave him. She was determined to protect her young boys from his abuse. He knew that their children were the only thing left that she really cared about. He threatened her, “You’ll be sorry if you don’t come back to me. I will fight you to the end and I will win.”
Greg had begun to spin lies about her—that she abused drugs, abused her children and was crazy and depressed. She defended against these accusations but he wasn’t done with her yet. When it looked like Sheryl really might succeed at leaving him for good, he physically attacked her and tried to restrain her with a rope. “If I can’t have you, no one will,” she said he told her with a look in his eye that scared her. She escaped the rope and his hands that night and made it to the neighbors. “I was so scared. I thought I was going to die,” she told her neighbors in hysterics.
Sheryl filed for a restraining order against Greg after the incident with the rope. At the hearing on the restraining order she told in more detail than ever before about the abuse she endured over the years. Greg was verbally abusive when they dated. During the marriage, the verbal abuse escalated to physical abuse and became more frequent. When I asked her why she had three children she sadly replied, “he was nice to me when I was pregnant.” I cringed when she talked about the sexual abuse. When I asked her specifically about that after the hearing she said, “I can handle the sex stuff, Renee, he’s done much worse to me. It’s the rope that really freaked me out this time.”
The final divorce hearing took place just weeks later and the judge awarded Sheryl sole custody of their three young boys. Greg was granted supervised visitation. She called me after this hearing and we celebrated over the phone. It was finally over. She obtained custody of her children – she won.
There was no mystery as to who entered the marital home without a forced entry, strangled Sheryl with his hands, drug her across the carpet out into the garage and hung her from a pipe between the rafters that he used to hang and dress deer. He staged a ladder nearby to make it look like a suicide. Their three young boys were left alone in the home. The oldest was just five.
John and I left my law firm that morning, drove home to Titusville to get some clothes and then to Orlando to catch a flight to Illinois.
“Hurry up,” John said as I was packing my things. When I didn’t respond and he didn’t hear any movement, he walked in the closet, looked at me just standing there staring at my clothes and said, “what are you doing? Come on, grab some stuff and let’s go.”
I started to cry again and in defeat I said, “ I don’t know what I’m supposed to wear to my sister’s funeral.”
John hugged me and said, “it doesn’t matter, just grab something and let’s go”. I grabbed a new skirt with big flowers in muted Fall colors and a deep green blazer. I thought it would be appropriate in Illinois in October and I thought the outfit made me look professional and confident. That was important to me. I knew that once I arrived in Illinois I had business to conduct. I needed answers to millions of questions that kept going through my head. What exactly happened to Sheryl, who found her and had Greg been arrested?
When John and I finally got to my parents’ home it was filled with people. I didn’t want to see anyone. I grabbed my two sisters and led them upstairs, away from every one. I needed to know exactly what had happened to Sheryl that morning. My sisters filled in the details they knew and answered my questions to the best of their knowledge.
Greg, who was living with his parents at the time, had spent the night with his elderly grandparents. They lived just a few houses from his parents. That morning he left his grandparents and drove to his parents’ home where he took a shower. He returned to his grandparents’ house for breakfast and then left with his grandfather to wash vehicles at the fire station. He was a volunteer fireman there and one of the “perks” was being able to wash vehicles at the station. Upon Greg’s arrival at the station, he heard the call come in for a rescue squad at his and Sheryl’s home where she was staying with their boys. He jumped in a fire truck along with another fireman who responded to the call and they drove to the house. Greg was one of the first emergency responders on the scene. “What has Sheryl done now?” he asked as he exited the fire truck. His response raised red flags–he had no reason to know the emergency call pertained to Sheryl and he knew she had the boys, yet he never asked about them.
That morning at the hospital where Sheryl worked, a co-worker who knew just enough about her personal situation worried when she didn’t show up for her 7:00 a.m. shift so she called Sheryl’s house to check on her. A child she knew was Sheryl’s oldest son answered the phone. When the nurse asked him if she could speak to his mommy he said, “I don’t know where my mommy is.”
“Put down the phone, go find your mommy and tell her that someone at work needs to speak with her. If you can’t find your mommy,” the nurse continued calmly, “come back and tell me that.” After what seemed like an eternity, she said, Sheryl’s oldest came back to the phone and announced, “I found Mommy. She is asleep in the garage with a rope around her neck and I can’t wake her up.” The nurse assured the boy that someone would come help him. She then dialed 911 and emergency personnel were dispatched to Sheryl and Greg’s house.
Greg killed Sheryl. I knew it. My family knew it and everyone else knew it; yet Greg was not arrested. Two weeks after I followed Sheryl’s casket down the aisle of the catholic church we attended growing up, I returned to Florida, leaving unfinished business in Illinois. Greg had still not been arrested. I wasn’t in Illinois close to my parents and sisters to help them adjust to life after Sheryl’s murder. I felt guilty. I had to help, I had to do my share. So, I began to do what I was trained to do. I researched, I investigated, I questioned witnesses and I forwarded all the information I gathered to the States’ Attorney. Still nothing happened.
“There’s no statute of limitations on murder, Renee,” the State’s Attorney said to me every time I called for an update. “I just need someone to talk. Someone had to help him or knows something and they’ll break, eventually they’ll break.”
But nobody did.
In the beginning, I worked Sheryl’s case every night . I talked to Sheryl’s divorce attorney and the State’s Attorney every day. I did this for months. My work and calls gradually decreased to weekly, then monthly and eventually to just yearly.
Twenty-five years later a different State’s Attorney, Dana Rhoades, who remembered when Sheryl was murdered because she was a law student at the University of Illinois, and her Assistant State’s Attorney, Elizabeth Dobson, looked me and my family in the eyes and vowed to obtain justice for Sheryl. Just short of Sheryl’s 27-year death anniversary, a jury found Greg guilty of her murder. The evidence was the same; so why did it take 27 years to obtain justice for Sheryl in under three hours?
The year was 1990. The OJ Simpson case was not yet a case. The phrase domestic violence was seldom used and society and our justice system believed what happened in the home should stay in the home. All that may help explain why Greg wasn’t arrested immediately.
The year is now 2018 and the number of abused women is likely to be higher than the current statistics, which haven’t decreased. We know the abuse still occurs mostly behind closed doors, women are afraid to report it and embarrassed to talk about it. We have to stop trying to explain these statistics and change them. The only way I know how to do that is to talk about the problem – domestic abuse.
Sheryl may be gone but she still has a voice. Join me today in conversation about domestic abuse.