‘Absolute complete control’
Domestic violence is a cycle that’s hard to get out of, say those who work with its victims. Those who do get out often still live in fear. Others pay with their lives.
Such appears to have been the case with Tammy Benge Cassels, 38, whose body was discovered April 5 wrapped in a comforter, dead of blunt force trauma to the head. Her boyfriend, Michael Whisnant, 36, was arrested that night, and he was indicted April 15 on a charge of felony murder.
Many of those reading last Sunday the accounts of friends and family of Cassels' past three years with Whisnant and their descriptions of her seemingly endless string of serious injuries asked the same question: Why didn't she leave? That's a common reaction, Julie Owens of the N.C. Council for Women said, but it's misplaced.
“This is a hostage situation in every sense of the word,” Owens said. "She was traumatically bound to him. She was like a prisoner of war. She traded escape skills for coping skills.
“This does not mean she didn’t want out, just that everywhere she turned there was no way out.”
Kit Gruelle of the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, herself a former victim of domestic violence, says Whisnant's actions are typical of male abusers.
"Abusive men want absolute complete control and allegiance," she said.
Financial dependency, intimidation, low self-esteem, fear of being alone or having nowhere to live are also reasons women stay, Sharon Poarch, executive director of the Shelter Home of Caldwell County, said. Cassels previously had been a client of the Shelter Home, but Poarch would not address the details of her case, citing her agency's confidentiality rules.
“There is no excuse, none,” Poarch said. “She (Cassels) was just a bird of a woman, she was very sweet and child-like. Her death is one too many lost to domestic violence.”
At the time of the killing, Whisnant was under house arrest for violating a condition of his release from jail while awaiting trial on charges from a 2011 incident in which Cassels' jaw was broken with a hammer. When a cab driver who knew Cassels asked her shortly before she died why she was going back to Whisnant’s residence, she reportedly replied that she loved Whisnant.
Gruelle also lays significant blame on current state law regarding domestic abuse. Regardless of what the facts about Cassels' death ultimately prove to be, Whisnant remained out of jail despite several violent incidents over the years, not just the 2011 case.
In 2006, Whisnant was charged with assault on a female, a misdemeanor. That same year, he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury, a felony, after stabbing him in the neck. Both cases were dismissed. (Whisnant's father, Richard Whisnant, refused to cooperate in the latter case.)
“If there had been a more rigorous prosecution earlier in this process, this wouldn’t have happened," Gruelle said. "Domestic violence is the only preventable homicides we’ve got. It follows a trajectory that’s as reliable as the sun coming up.”
Poarch says abusers target vulnerable people. It can happen regardless of race, income or social status.
A common thread running through the tapestry of Whisnant's relationships with women is drugs and alcohol. Cassels’ family said Whisnant would use drugs to control her. Whisnant told his son, Michael Jr., on the night of the murder he was drunk when he killed her, according to court records.
“I do believe domestic violence situations often result from drug and/or alcohol abuse,” said Lenoir Police Chief Scott Brown. “I think most cops would agree that, based on their experiences, drugs and alcohol often contribute to acts of violence.
"We would all love to live in a society where no domestic violence exists."
“Trauma survivors often turn to drugs and alcohol to mask the pain,” said Julie Owens, regional director for the N.C. Council for Women.
Owens, like Gruelle, is a domestic violence survivor. Owens was once kidnapped, beaten and stabbed by her husband after she left him.
“This is the story of so many women,” Owens said. “She fought to stay alive.”
In 2012, Lenoir police responded to 740 domestic dispute calls, an average of more than two per day. Of those, about a third turned out to involve some sort of domestic violence, Brown said. About 1 percent of the total number of calls involve violence. Brown said his department puts a high priority on domestic violence cases and operates under a mandatory arrest policy. In other words, if there is probable cause to believe that a domestic assault has occurred, an arrest is made.
According to an N.C. Department of Justice report, 122 people in North Carolina died in 2012 as a result of domestic violence. Of those, most (78) were female. Only seven of the 122 victims had received protective orders from a court, and in three instances the protective order was current at the time of the homicide. Of those accused in the killings, 104 were males.
None of the offenders were on pre-trial release for a domestic violence incident when the homicides were committed. The shelter home provided a temporary safe haven for Cassels, but she kept coming back to Whisnant.
“The shelter home is wonderful, they did everything right,” Owens said. “But at the end of the day, the victim has to determine what they are going to do. Most go back to their abuser.
“Nobody gets out of a cab and purposefully walks to their death. A person does become numb after awhile. Victims who have been this abused, treated so heinously are just beaten down where all you could do is bottle her up and take her to another place.”