To understand why Annie chopped off her own finger with a kitchen knife, you have to go back two decades. That’s when she and her husband-to-be moved in together, and the abuse started soon after.
The abuse slowly increased after the wedding, getting worse as the years went by. Annie endured unrelenting taunts, manipulations, beatings, rapes and strangulations. (Annie and other survivors of domestic violence are identified by first name only in this story to protect their privacy.) It was always over something he said displeased him: a dinner she cooked he didn’t like, a tone of her voice, an order she didn’t follow to his specifications.
At first, Annie fought back, but fighting only made things worse. She took the beatings with no words, no tears, no screams of pain. There had been so many attacks, Annie says she didn’t care anymore.
Like an addict who needs more and more of his drug to get high, Annie’s husband realized his assaults were no longer as effective as they once were. He told her he was going to “take” her body parts – an eye. An eardrum. A finger.
He said he would scar her face, possibly with a branding iron they had on their Carmel Valley ranch. Once, he held up the cold iron to her face to see if it would fit her cheek. “This is how I’m going to scar your face,” she remembers him saying. “It’s a little too big. I’ll have to think about it.”
The next day, she says, he gave her “a pass” and didn’t attack her because, in his mind, she had behaved appropriately that day. That was a Wednesday.
On Thursday, he held a pair of barbecue tongs over the flames of the kitchen stove until the ends were red hot and held them to her cheek.
“I could hear the sizzle,” she says.
She stood there and took it.
Annie says her coping mechanism was to drink, and drink she did, all evening. Her husband, meanwhile, sat across from her, admiring the fresh burn mark.
“That’s going to be such a beautiful scar. You’re going to look in the mirror and remember everything you did to me.”
“That’s going to be such a beautiful scar. You’re going to look in the mirror and remember everything you did to me,” he told her. He talked about taking one of her fingers.
After 20 years of abuse, something in Annie snapped that night, in 2007.
She got up off the couch and went to the kitchen. She grabbed the biggest kitchen knife she could find. She slapped her left hand down on the cutting board with a loud whack and lifted the knife over her hand.
She’d missed. Then she raised the knife again.
This time, the knife hit the mark.
She held up her hand to show her husband, her index finger dangling by a strand. “Here motherfucker! Here’s your finger, leave me alone!”
It would be another six weeks before she left, but Annie says, “That was the culminating moment.”
The phone rang at the home of Gael Strack, then a prosecutor in the San Diego City Attorney’s Office in March 1995. At the other end of the line was Sgt. Anne O’Dell, head of the San Diego Police Domestic Violence Unit. Strack remembers O’Dell cursing as she shared the news of the city’s first homicide of the year. The mother of a young child, 17-year-old Casondra Stewart, had been stabbed to death by her boyfriend, 21-year-old Alfonzo Terrell Merritt, in front of friends.
Strack wanted to know if there was a history of abuse. Two weeks earlier Stewart called the San Diego Police saying Merritt had strangled her, but when officers showed up, she recanted. Despite a follow-up by a domestic violence unit detective, Stewart refused to cooperate. The case was closed.
Two months later, O’Dell called Strack, cursing again. A second teen, 16-year-old Tamara Smith, was found dead, her body burned and left in a field. An autopsy showed she had been strangled. The day she was found dead was the same day her 18-year-old boyfriend, Mario Andre Rushing, was supposed to appear in court on a domestic violence charge stemming from an earlier attack on Smith.
Strack’s questions about what could have been done to prevent the girls’ deaths intensified. “Because I felt I was in charge of the unit and it was under my watch, it was my responsibility to figure it out,” says Strack, who today is the CEO and co-founder of Alliance for Hope International, which includes the Training Institute for Strangulation Prevention, based in San Diego.
One link between the two cases was the use of strangulation. (Annie remembers being strangled at least twice early in her marriage.)
As Strack spoke with law enforcement officials and medical professionals, she discovered there was little published literature on strangulation in domestic violence cases.
“What I learned early on was that people thought that if you were strangled, you die, and if you didn’t die, you were fine,” Strack says. But they weren’t fine. As coroners who perform autopsies already knew, strangulation victims can show no outward signs of injury, but internally, the disruption in the flow of oxygen can cause serious injury to the brain, which can lead to memory loss, among other injuries. (See below)
Some Signs of Strangulation
- Tiny red dots called petechiae in eyeballs or around the face, ears
- Memory loss
- Difficulty speaking, raspy or
- Ringing in ears
- Swelling or bruising around
- Trouble swallowing
- Difficulty breathing
- Droopy face or eyes
- Swollen tongue or lips
Death can occur days or weeks after the attack due to complications and the possibility of blood clots traveling to the brain. Long-term psychological injuries include PTSD, depression, suicidal thoughts, memory issues, anxiety, amnesia and psychosis.
Strack’s team in the San Diego DA’s Office did its own study of 300 police reports in 2001. The results: Domestic violence victims regularly reported being strangled, but with almost no visible signs of outward injury; virtually all perpetrators are men; most abusers don’t strangle to kill, but to show they can kill; and victims of prior attempted strangulation are seven times more likely to become homicide victims. Strack also found that because there was little physical evidence of strangulation cases, the criminal justice system was treating them as minor incidents.
Strack and other domestic violence experts call strangulation one of the ultimate forms of control over a partner. It’s something Monterey County Deputy District Attorney Elaine McCleaf has seen many times in her own work prosecuting domestic violence cases.
“The whole dynamic is power and control,” McCleaf says. “When a batterer has his hands around a victim’s neck – and he is convincing her he is going to end her life – he has complete control at that point, and then releases her and lets her live. What more ultimate control over another human being can there be?”
The first time Annie was strangled, she recalls being on the ground, her husband on top of her with his hands around her neck. She could hear her preschool-age daughter screaming for her. “Then everything went black,” Annie says. When she came to, she wasn’t sure how long she’d been out, and didn’t know what happened while she was. The feeling, she says, was disturbing. “It was also disturbing knowing he had that kind of power. And that power is very real.”
Veronica didn’t consider her second husband Michael to be abusive. She says there was no violence or abuse during the year or so they dated before the first attack in April 2010 while they were vacationing in Hawaii. Michael had been drinking, and he beat her with such force the retina in her left eye detached, leaving her blind in that eye. When they returned to California he apologized and told her it would never happen again. She believed him. They got married four months later.
Michael stopped drinking, at least in Veronica’s presence, and she says there were no other incidents for another 20 months. On Nov. 7, 2011, he had been drinking while she was at work. As a teacher, she’d been in meetings and didn’t take her cell phone in with her. Michael had called her repeatedly and she didn’t answer. When she returned to their Marina home late, Michael was enraged.
They argued, then he grabbed her and threw her on the couch. He straddled her and locked his hands around her throat.
“I didn’t know what was happening. I was trying to figure out what was happening and looking at him, slowly losing recognition of who he was.”
“I didn’t know what was happening. I was trying to figure out what was happening and looking at him, slowly losing recognition of who he was,” Veronica says. She blacked out. She thinks he hit her to wake her up, but it’s fuzzy. She fought back. He strangled her again until she blacked out. When she woke up she apologized for everything. She should have called, she told him. It was all her fault. She spent her weekend trying to figure out how not to upset him.
Secretly, Veronica contacted her best friend and told her what happened. “Of course, she’s in her right mind and tells me, ‘He could have killed you,’” Veronica says. But she was conflicted: They loved each other. The friend gave an ultimatum: Call the police by Monday, or she would.
Veronica warily made the call Monday morning after her husband went to work, telling herself the police will talk to him, tell him to never do it again, and everything would be OK.
Instead, police arrested Michael for attempted murder. Veronica still remembers her instant reaction: regret. “It’s not as bad as you think it is,” she told a Marina police officer. She was afraid she might be in trouble with the law herself. Surely, she thought, they’ll conclude that he really didn’t try to kill her, and she’d be arrested for reporting the incident.
McCleaf, who prosecuted cases in the DA’s domestic violence unit for 18 years, says things shifted after OJ Simpson’s 1995 murder trial, bringing more attention to the prevalence of domestic violence – though it still goes underreported and is notoriously difficult to prosecute, because of the unique dynamics of a household. “Victims report, if at all, during the episode, in fear of more violence or of being killed,” McCleaf says. “They want help with the violence to stop. But once the batterer is arrested, some feel he’s worth saving, and don’t want to cooperate with keeping him in jail or putting him in prison.” She’s gone to trial without victim testimony, relying on 911 calls and police reports made during those episodes.
Last year, the Monterey County DA’s office prosecuted 1,031 domestic violence cases, up from 989 in 2015.
In 2014, Veronica’s husband Michael Fortner was convicted of assault and corporal injury to a spouse as well as false imprisonment and other charges, but found not guilty of attempted murder and torture. He was sentenced to nine years in prison. At the sentencing he glared at her across the courtroom and said something she couldn’t hear. A deputy later testified he heard Fortner say, “I’m going to fuck you up.” Fortner was convicted several months later of one count of making criminal threats and sentenced to eight additional months.
Yet, Veronica still sometimes wonders if she did the right thing.
“It’s still hard to this day to think someone I loved or trusted was going to kill me.”
“It’s still hard to this day to think someone I loved or trusted was going to kill me,” she says. “I don’t know if his intent was to kill me, but he could have. I know that sounds really ignorant, but there’s a part of me that says he didn’t want to kill me.”
Their relationship began as a “whirlwind”… (click to read more)
After Strack started her quest to learn more about the connection between strangulation and domestic violence, she founded and served as director of the San Diego Family Justice Center. The program gained recognition from Oprah and the White House in 2003. Now overseeing Alliance for Hope and the Institute for Strangulation Prevention, she travels the world training law enforcement and medical professionals on what to look for when evaluating domestic violence victims.
She just completed back-to-back trips to New Orleans and Japan, and on Oct. 13 she brings her message to Monterey County. The Domestic Violence Coordinating Council is hosting its annual conference during Domestic Violence Awareness Month in Seaside.
Joining her will be Veronica, who will share her story for the first time with an audience. She now works for a homeless services agency in another county and says many of the homeless people she encounters are domestic violence survivors, so she spends a lot of time counseling them.
“I come at it with a lot more empathy,” she says. “I know what they’re thinking. I know that conversation they’re having in their head.”
Fortner is eligible for parole in 2020. Veronica remains convinced he will find her and try to hurt her. For now, she tries to not think about it – she says she’ll deal with his release when the time comes.
Annie says she finally found freedom after escaping from her husband in 2007. In March 2009, Aniano Olea was convicted of torture, mayhem, spousal beating, criminal threats, stalking, dissuading a witness and illegal possession of firearms and ammunition. He was sentenced to four consecutive life terms in prison. At the sentencing, Monterey County Superior Court Judge Robert Moody said Olea was the most violent person he had ever sentenced, according to a press release from the DA’s office.
Annie has since graduated from UC Berkeley. She now works for an agency helping people find jobs.
She won’t be at the workshop on Oct. 13, but she does speak often to groups of women to share her story and stand before them as someone who survived and now thrives.
Her main message: “[Domestic violence victims] really need to come to terms with the situation they’re in, that they are not alone. Although being out and free is not easy, ultimately that can save their lives and they can succeed.”