Why George Bell III stopped bludgeoning Heather Spencer on that June night is anyone's guess. Perhaps his hammer slipped out of his hand as Spencer's blood made it slick. Perhaps he came to his senses. Perhaps Spencer was able to escape.
We may never know why Bell allegedly attacked Spencer that night as she slept, or even whether this was the first time he attacked her.
We do know that Spencer survived that attack. We do know that she went to the University Medical Center in Jackson, where doctors closed her head wound with 57 staples.
"Anytime abuse is suspected, the first contact is with social work, which is available (at UMC) 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Depending on whether the person is hurt or not, law enforcement is also involved," said Sue Ann Meng, a social worker at UMC. Meng could not comment specifically on the Spencer case.
"You're required by law if a person has a knife or gunshot wound to notify the law," Meng said. "But abuse victims, you're not actually required by law to report to law enforcement. (Victims) have some leeway in that. If (victims) don't choose to tell you what happened, they don't have to, (and) we can't force them to."
Meng also said that hospital personnel must report rapes, "obvious" cases of abuse, cases where another deadly weapon is used—such as a hammer—and will call police if they consider the victim vulnerable—mentally disabled or suffering with dementia, for example.
We do know that there is a police report about the incident, although the Jackson Free Press was not able to obtain a copy. Jackson Police Department Cmdr. Tyrone Lewis declined to provide a copy of the section of the JPD General Orders regarding domestic violence, saying the JFP would need to file an open-records request, which the city will likely wait two weeks to fill.
Sgt. Holly Haywood of the JPD special victims unit also declined to comment, and JPD spokesman Cmdr. Lee Vance did not return calls. Sources close to JPD fear that detectives now assigned to such cases may not be familiar with the policy—if one exists.
"Law enforcement would rather look the other way a lot of times, just because it's such a complicated issue," Meng said. "There's no clear-cut answer."
We also know that two months later, on Aug. 8, Spencer submitted an affidavit saying she wanted to drop the charges against Bell. "He was out of his mind," she wrote, "and did not know what he was doing."
We do know that police never arrested Bell for that June attack.
On Monday night, Sept. 10, Bell allegedly beat Spencer to death with a flashlight after brutally raping her. He left Spencer's body the next morning in his mother's house—where the fatal attack had occurred the night before—and held off police for hours, pointing a gun at his own head, his mother at his side refusing to leave him. On Thursday, Bell pleaded not guilty to capitol murder and domestic violence assault charges apparently reinstated from the June attack.
Jackson is rife with questions and runaway rumors: Bell went to Mexico to avoid arrest; Spencer asked a judge to drop the charges; Bell was addicted to cocaine and steroids and was in rehab between the first and second attack. Most of the rumors are unsubstantiated.
Here's the most vicious rumor of all: Spencer is to blame for her own death because she dropped the charges for the June attack. But in cases of domestic violence, contrary to popular belief, police don't need the victim's complaint to make an arrest.
"If they find probable cause that a crime has been committed within 24 hours, they are mandated to make an arrest with or without a victim," said Heather Wagner, assistant attorney general in charge of Mississippi's Domestic Violence Prevention Division. When the victim can't or won't sign a complaint, police become the complainants. It's the same as a homicide case at that point, where the victim can't possibly testify.
It's a common—and often deadly—occurrence for victims not to follow through in cases against domestic abusers.
"Often times (the victim) appears in court wanting to have the charges dropped, (saying) 'I don't want to move forward with this case; I don't want to press charges,'" Wagner said. Sometimes the victim even testifies in defense of the offender.
"It makes no sense to people who haven't lived in that kind of situation," Meng said. For those in abusive relationships, though, it seems normal because that's all they know.
The reasons can be complex—the victim loves the abuser, or the abuser is the breadwinner and the victim feels unable to make it alone. Victims tell themselves, as Spencer did, that the abuser didn't really mean to hurt them and that they won't do it again—it was a fluke.
Victims believe the abuser's lies, thinking it's their own fault. If only I could change, goes the justification, he wouldn't have to go on hurting me.
"Victims do have to get to a point where they realize that once the abuse starts, unless the person gets either the proper psychological or intervention assistance, or has some consequences for that behavior, they're not going to change," Wagner said. Victims also need to understand what abuse really is; it's not always physical, she said. Abuse can be verbal, emotional, threatening, sexual, isolating and economic. There are also recognizable patterns for abusers, who are often incredibly remorseful immediately after an attack.
A victim's reason for not pressing charges can also be horribly simple: The abuser threatens the victim with more violence, even death, if the victim won't recant. Nationwide, only about a quarter of the rapes and sexual assaults committed by intimates of the victim is ever reported. It's much more common for women to report assaults by strangers, but even then, estimates are that fewer than half are brought to the police. The implication is that simple domestic assaults are rarely, if ever, reported.
Wagner said her office recommends jurisdictions put a mechanism in place so someone—perhaps a panel consisting of judges, law enforcement and prosecutors—reviews domestic abuse victims' requests to drop charges against their abusers, implying that it's incumbent on the people who understand the law to make sure that victims are safe.
"The judge is not under any obligation to issue an order dismissing charges," Wagner said, later adding, that "the courts really need to take a hard look when a victim … of domestic violence wants to dismiss the charges. The courts aren't required to dismiss the charges."
The question becomes, then, whether the Mississippi law enforcement community is aware of what the laws mandate. Do police, prosecutors and judges know what procedures to follow to guarantee the safety of the victims? Do hospital personnel know when to call police regardless of the victim's protestations?
"We can notify police," Meng said, when victims won't accuse their abusers, "but there's nothing police can do. There's no charge to be made if (victim) will not cooperate."
But that's not what the law says. Again, police don't need the victim's complaint to make an arrest.
Information is not always easy to come by for those making decisions about domesic violence offenders. Wagner's office is building a database of protective orders so that judges, police and prosecutors can easily find information on an abuser in other jurisdictions. Today, there's no easy way to find such information in Mississippi, where a coordinated community response is required to make an impact on the problem.
And prosecuting domestic abusers without a victim statement, even though it is possible, becomes problematic. Resources can only go so far, and police, it seems, don't bring cases to the D.A.'s office when there's no complaining victim. If a case looks unwinnable, it's a natural tendency to delay it or to let it go in favor of cases that can be easily won.
"The majority of cases get dropped before I ever know about them," said Jackie Purnell, Hinds County assistant district attorney, who has two or three aggravated domestic assault cases on her desk at any one time.
"The victim pretty much has to testify," Purnell said. "Let's face it, the jury wants to hear from the victim. A lot of times they think, 'Well, if the victim doesn't care enough to be here, why should we?'"
It's a typical response from those that don't understand domestic violence. That's where a panel of the type Wagner's office recommends would come in, reviewing an abuse victim's request to have charges dropped. Also, victim advocates become key to taking domestic offenders off the streets before abuse escalates to homicide, helping victims understand what they're really dealing with and getting them the help they need.
In Mississippi, district attorneys' offices are required to have victim advocates for felony cases. For Spencer, because there was no arrest in the June attack, the case never made it to the D.A.'s office. So for victims like her, and for the many victims of misdemeanor assaults, resources are nearly impossible to find.
"We have victim's advocates in the shelter programs," Wagner said, "but we've got 82 counties, 298 municipalities and 11 domestic violence shelters (in the state). So their resources are stretched pretty thin."
In cash-strapped Mississippi, it's easy for victims of domestic abuse to slip through our systems' gaping cracks, where the emphasis is on triage—dealing with the worst, emergency cases as they come up—instead of prevention. Reallocating resources from felony to misdemeanor abuse offenses may be an effective strategy, according to Wagner.
Educating the community, potential victims and law enforcement about abuse is probably most effective, according to experts like the Women's Rural Advocacy Program. But that takes funding. According to the WRAP Web site, as many as a quarter to a third of all intimate relationships include abuse, and Mississippi ranks No. 2 in the nation for domestic violence.
What we know is that one-third of all women homicide victims are killed by people they love. In Mississippi, that statistic is closer to 100 percent. In the U.S. three woman are killed by their husbands or boyfriends every day. Abuse doesn't discriminate between races, economic standing, age, gender or sexual inclination, but overwhelmingly the victims are women, often pregnant women, abused by men. We know that half the men who abuse their wives also abuse their children.
We also know that access to guns increases the risk of intimate partner homicide more than five times. On Monday, Sept. 17, Jackson police were called to the home of Doris Shavers, 40, where they allegedly searched her former boyfriend, Henry Phillips, and removed two guns from his possession. Then they gave Phillips his guns back, according to Shavers' brother, and left without making an arrest. Phillips reportedly walked back into Shavers' home, where she was sitting with her 12-year-old daughter, and shot her in the head. Shavers died that night.
What we know is that victims are not to blame for their deaths.
"Everybody always thinks 'It's not going to happen to me,'" Purnell said, "and it does; it does. It happens to all walks of life."
If you need help, call the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Jackson at 601-981-9196. If you need shelter, call the Catholic Charities at 601-966-0222 or the Center for Violence Prevention at 601-932-4198. Nationwide, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-733-SAFE.
Bump. Ronni's follow-up to the Spencer and Shavers murders, from a law enforcement perspective.
It amazes me that people... friends, brothers, sisters, dads... will stand by and let this happen to someone they know and love. I honestly cannot fathom this.
I would not stand idly by while my sister, or a female friend, were beaten.
"We also know that access to guns increases the risk of intimate partner homicide more than five times."
Yeah, and we used to know the Earth was flat. If not a gun, then a knife, or a hammer, or a flashlight.
LawClerk, it is not so hard for me to believe that she did not leave him after this first obvious violent behavior. Being a survivor of domestic violence, enhanced by steroids and cocaine, I so vividly remember the horrific fear I had, and will have until he leaves this earth, of this man. I called the law for immediate help, and they would make him leave. After I calmed down and realized what had happened, I would be even more terrified at the thought of what he would do if I tried to leave him. These men are easily prevoked when they feel they are loosing control of their woman. Whether it be that she didn't answer her cell because she left it in the car while shopping at Wal-Mart or that she spent more time at Wal-Mart than what he had estimated she should have based on what she went there to purchase. They are easily angered by things that most people would not think twice about. Imagine if he got mad enough to rough her up a little just because she stopped by a girl friends house for 30 minutes on the way home from the grocery store and didn't let him know until after the fact. What would he do if she finally found the courage to leave him and he lost all control of her! No restraining order or alarm system could protect this woman from this man when he decided to end her life. Often the mentality is "if I can't have her, no one will". Most of us, feeling helpless, surrender to them, and because of their aggressiveness and strength, relinquish control and power to them. Sadly, most women in this situation accept that they will live the rest of their lives this way, allowing and tolerating the mental and physical abuse of these monsters. We do not tell our family or friends what we are living, because we are afraid of what he would do if he found out. We also know that those who care for us may force us to leave, not understanding the danger we would face if we left. Which leads me to agreeing with you on your comment "I would not stand idly by while my sister, or a female friend, were beaten." It does bother me that Heather's friends and family knew about this seemingly attempted murder and all they did was beg her to leave him. This is where the general public needs to be educated on what rights they may have,if any, as a concerned friend or family member. We can attempt to have a loved one committed if they have a drug problem or mental health concern that may put themselves or others in danger. When we recognize that our loved one my be a victim of domestic violence, why shouldn't we have the ability to force this person to take action? My best friend leaked my situation to my mother, who pretty much kidnapped me and my children to put me in a safe place. She took control of my life for a few days, leading me to take the proper steps to best protect me from my husband. I thank her every day for what she did. She rescued me from a life of misery. It feels so good to come home each day to a peaceful home. I had been conditioned to live a life of abuse, making the most of each moment I could sneak a little privacy and relaxation. I pray that these women could remember how life was prior to this abuse that they have been conditioned to and once again experience walking thru life not having to balance on pins, needles, and egg shells. Maybe Heather's story will motivate some of these women, or their friends and family, to stand up for their freedom and happiness.
Heather wasn't a typical domestic violence victim. She didn't live in fear of George whatsoever. She didn't hide the few incidences from her friends and family, either. She chose to stay with him because she loved him and wanted to help him. Her friends and family did urge her to leave him, but she was 28 years old and completely independant. She was strong willed, big hearted, and made her own decisions. She and George had a great relationship that many people were jealous of, and these incidences came out of nowhere. It's incorrect to imply that her family and friends stood idly by while she was being abused because that wasn't the case. It is sad that someone who doesn't know the family would say that. Do you realize that they will probably read your comments? After the first attack, everyone pleaded with her to leave him and gave her numerous options to get out of the relationship. But like I said, she believed in him- not feared him- and wanted to try to make it work because she wanted to- not because she had to.
Ccotten that had to have been horrible, and try as I might, I just can't picture what makes the guys want to do this. One thing that does bother me in all this, is if you charge guys without a witness, it does lend a possibility of abuse in that the accused has a right to question the accuser. Manufactured charges aren't unheard of unfortunately, and while we have to respect and protect victims of violence, the accused also have rights that need protection as well.
BB, I certainly was not trying to imply that Heather's family did nothing to try and protect her. I completely understand why she stayed and appologize to anyone who I may have offended. I got caught up in my own experiences and the message I was trying to get across got lost. I believe that George and Heather had some great times together and that he is a great and charming guy. No one ever knows what goes on behind closed doors, and I only hope that Heather's very unfortunate, horrific exit from this cruel earth to her palace in Heaven will open the eyes of other women who are facing similar situations. Some of us have it in our heart to see only the positive in people. We attract these lost and dying souls who are desparatly seeking someone to accept them, love them, and make them happy. We are blind to the negative. Sometimes this works to our advantage, as we get to know some wonderful people that others may have avoided. On the other hand, I strongly believe that we have to proceed with caution once we have been harmed by one that we have trusted. I can't say that I would have done anything different than Heather. No one can say that they would have, until they have walked in her shoes. I just pray that Heather's experiece will motivate those that have experienced and know the potential violence of their partner to only continue the relationship with caution. Again, I appologize for anyone I may have offended, as I cry for Heather and pray for her family every day. It breaks my heart that anyone, especially someone like Heather, would have to go thru anything like this. Heather's spirit is alive in not only those who knew her, but in the many lives she has influenced since she entered the doors of Heaven.
ccotten, thank you for your kind words! I am very sorry to hear about the horrific experience you went through and I am so glad that you were able to rise above it. I was just trying to clear up any misunderstanding about the Spencer case in particular, but my example doesn't apply to most domestic violence cases. Lawclerk is the person who posted the comment about "idly standing by" and I don't know if it was implying that her family did that or not, but it sounds that way. Anyway, I am sorry ccotten that you thought I was talking about you!
BB, you justify the Spencer case by saying that she was very independent and "Heather wasn't a typical domestic violence victim. She didn't live in fear of George, whatsoever." You went on to say, "She chose to stay wtih him because she loved him and wanted to help him."
I hope you will take this in the spirit it is given. I know how it feels to love a friend and lose that person and how we try to deal with why things happened. This case is a TYPICAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE case. What makes it typical is the fact that even after he demonstrated to her through a sever act of violence that cvould have led to her death even sooner than later, she was willing to stay because "SHE LOVED HIME AND WANTED TO HELP HIM."
The problem here is for whatever reason, these women do not love themselves. Who needed the help was Heather. If you know of others in this situation, please let them know just how typical their situation is and suggest help for the person who thinks that she can weather the storm. These situations, more often than not, end in debilitation or death.
The mental message is usually, "I can take it or I deserve it." These victims need help!
Justjess, I agree that this is a domestic violence case where the victim stayed with the offender after a malicious attack. My point was only that Heather didn't have the same symptoms of fear, dependence, self blame... just denial that he meant to hurt her. As a friend of Heather, I wanted to clear up the fact that she didn't feel trapped in the situation. She felt free to leave if she so chose. That doesn't mean I think she should have stayed, I was one of the people urging her to leave. I don't know what you mean by saying I'm trying to "justify" the situation... I am not justifying anything anyone did. I just want her portrayed in the right way, and the fact is that she was a very strong person.
BB, I don't know if you've read the cover story this week, but you may see things a little differently when you do. Honestly, it doesn't have anything to do with being "strong." Some of the strongest women I know have been abuse victims. Some of them just can't believe it's actually happening to them.
As to what Heather felt, none of us can know that for certain. She worked in Robbie Bell's (GBIII mother) house daily. GBIII's lawyer submitted her request to have the charges dropped, an action that she never discussed with her own mother. Could she have been coerced? If, as you say, Heather was "strong," couldn't she just as easily covered up her fears with her friends, and/or not told them the whole story?
I'm not saying I know the answers, but it's worth asking the questions.