clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

'I don't want to die': Provo woman pleads with lawmakers to take domestic violence seriously

SALT LAKE CITY — She peeks out the windows of her Provo home, locates her car and assesses whether she can reach it safely.

When she gets to the car, she quickly locks herself inside, and the doors remain locked until she reaches her office. There, she parks as close as possible to the building, knowing her life is at risk every moment she's not behind those locked doors.

Anytime Heather Wolsey's ex-husband isn't behind bars, this is how she lives.

"I'm 45 years old," Wolsey told state lawmakers Friday. "I call my mom when I leave a place, and I call her when I show up. I love my mom and I appreciate that she protects me, but I'm a 45-year-old woman.

"It's like I'm a 12-year-old having to check in all the time."

Wolsey visited the state Capitol to voice her support for HB333, a bill that Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, says would show that Utah takes domestic violence seriously.

Specifically, the bill proposes to increase the penalty for domestic violence for a violation of a protective order from a class B misdemeanor to a class A misdemeanor, and on subsequent offenses, that penalty would go from a class A misdemeanor to a third-degree felony," Spendlove said.

"(And) it gives courts greater tools to be able to require that a perpetrator who violates a protective order must wear a GPS tracking system," he said.

For Wolsey, that would mean anytime her ex-husband leaves jail, both she and police would be alerted.

"I shouldn't have to live this way, nor should anybody else," she told the House Judiciary Committee. "Domestic violence needs to be taken seriously. We need to send a strong message to abusers that it's not OK to … abuse your significant other (and) continue to harass them and … control them because they're afraid to live a normal life."

The committee unanimously recommended the bill to the full House for further debate, despite concerns from prosecutors that lawmakers were not considering "unintended consequences" of the bill.

Will Carlson, Salt Lake County deputy district attorney, noted that changing the penalty for violating a protective order from a class B misdemeanor to a class A misdemeanor modifies the jurisdiction of such cases, moving them from the municipal justice courts to the state district courts.

District courts already are bogged down with felony cases, Carlson said, which means such cases could receive less attention than at the justice court level. Domestic violence cases often move through the legal process faster and with more personal attention from judges in justice court, he said.

The district attorney's office has not taken an official position on the bill, Carlson said, and instead is in a "hold pattern."

"(Domestic violence) is a serious offense, and it should be taken seriously," he said. "But when you turn this from class B misdemeanor assault into a class A misdemeanor assault, you change the jurisdiction of where it happens."

Steve Burton, with the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he doesn't believe HB333 "will solve the major issues involved in the criminal justice system dealing with domestic violence."

"We're enhancing a penalty (with the bill)," Burton said. "By enhancing a penalty, we're creating several other issues that we may not have contemplated."

The Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice and Utah Board of Juvenile Justice also have come out in opposition to the bill.

Spendlove noted that without the enhancements in his bill, abusing a domestic parter is treated the same under Utah law as "stealing a Snickers at the corner grocery store."

"If you beat up your wife, it's the same as letting your dog (run at large). We're not taking this seriously enough. We've got to increase these penalties. We've got to give victims the tools that they need," he said.

Darin Durfey, corrections chief deputy with the Utah County Sheriff's Office, called that classification of offense "unfortunate."

"We've seen the consequences of domestic violence which have ended in homicide. The biggest concern that I have is if we don't take domestic violence serious as a society that we will continue to clean up bodies. That is the result," he said.

Having domestic violence be on par with class B misdemeanors like public intoxication or reckless driving sends the wrong message, Durfey said. "I don't know what message we can send if we leave things the way we are."

Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, said it's clear that domestic violence is a problem in Utah that needs to be addressed.

"We talk about an opioid epidemic. Domestic violence isn't that far behind," Greene said.

Wolsey had with her a large envelope filled with police reports and court documents from her 20-year marriage. Included in those reports are allegations that she was choked, punched and threatened.

"I am both a victim and survivor of domestic violence," Wolsey told the committee. "My ex has tried to kill me before."

And today, she lives "with a very real fear that he intends to finish the deed."

"I call this a selfish bill," Wolsey said through tears, "because I don't want to die."

"But also, at the same time, my voice fighting for this bill speaks for so many that have lost their lives because they did choose to try and leave an abusive relationship," she said.

Spendlove shared the story of Memorez Rackley, 39, who was gunned down along with her 6-year-old son, Jase, in the middle of a quiet Sandy neighborhood on June 6, 2017. Rackley's 11-year-old son, Myles, and the 8-year-old daughter of a good Samaritan who tried to help the Rackley family were shot and injured.

The gunman, Jeremy Patterson, 32, then took his own life.

"This happened within a block of the woman's home, and blocks away from the elementary school where these children had just been released. It was the second-to-last day of the school year," Spendlove said.

As police investigated the "brutal murder," it was discovered that Rackley had been in contact with police just days earlier, he said.

"In a police report dated June 3, 2017, she told police that she was being followed, she was being harassed, and she said, 'I'm pretty scared for my safety and for my children's safety. I don't know what I need to do. He's threatened me, he's threatened the safety of my children, and I don't know what to do.'"

Spendlove says police "didn't have the tools" to protect Rackley and her children.

"In the police report, they said they could not find the perpetrator. They recommended that she go stay at a friend's house," he said.

"Then on June 3, 2017, Jeremy Patterson waited outside of the school where (Memorez) Rackley's children attended and ambushed them, followed them home, and brutally murdered them with dozens of children and parents literally feet away."

Spendlove says the tragic killing "exposed a fundamental flaw in our justice system in Utah. We are not taking the issue of domestic violence seriously enough, and we are exposing victims to continued abuse."

"If this system had been in place on June 3 of last year, it could have saved the lives of that mother and their young children," he said. "This is an important tool that police need. This is an important tool that victims need."

The technology for the GPS monitoring exists, Spendlove said. Such a system would notify both police and victims anytime "the perpetrator comes within a certain distance of the victim."

Andrea Hunziker shared with lawmakers the story of her sister, Sharee Nelson, who was killed in July 2002. Nelson's husband, Robert Steven Hatch, is serving two life terms in prison for the murder.

In 2004, 4th District Judge Fred Howard called the shotgun killing of Nelson "the unfortunate result of long and unabated domestic violence and the product of premeditation."

Hunziker told lawmakers how Hatch broke into Nelson's Spanish Fork home, kicked in her bedroom door and leveled a sawed-off shotgun at her, "while she cried and pleaded for her life."

"Her last words were, 'Please, don't shoot me,'" Hunziker said. "He shot her at close range in the chest. She fell to the floor. … She was dead. Then he stood over her lifeless body and shot her again at close range in the face."

HB333, she said, would have saved Nelson's life.

"It would have warned her he was close, and she could have got her and her kids out, and I would still have my best friend and sister here," Hunziker said.