Just before news of the Ray Rice domestic-violence scandal broke nationally, Memphis saw its own share of domestic violence-related deaths.
In the span of a week earlier this month, three women in Memphis were killed by partners or former partners with a history of domestic abuse.
On the tail-end of those seven days, Rice of the Baltimore Ravens was indefinitely suspended by the NFL after a video acquired by gossip website TMZ showed Rice punching his then-fiancée (who's now his wife) in the face, knocking her unconscious. What transpired afterward is a nationwide discussion about domestic violence.
Here in Memphis, Tasha Thomas was shot to death in the parking lot of a daycare center on September 2nd by her estranged husband Charles. He had been arrested for his most recent threats toward her at a baby shower and was released on bond. His long history of domestic violence toward Tasha ended in two deaths when Charles shot himself after killing her. She was in the process of divorcing him at the time of her death.
On September 5th, Alejandra Leos was shot in the back, just steps away from her front door in North Memphis, by her live-in boyfriend Marshall Pegues. According to police, Pegues and Leos were arguing before he killed her, shooting her three times as she tried to flee on a bicycle after the argument. Pegues was arrested for first-degree murder.
On September 8th, Torhonda Cathey, a former Shelby County Schools employee, was shot by her ex-boyfriend in the parking lot of Target on Colonial Road. Ronald Ellis, a Memphis firefighter, confronted Cathey outside of her car, shooting her multiple times as she tried to run away. She later died from her injuries. Ellis was found in Georgia and arrested.
According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), 288 murders or negligent homicides stemming from domestic violence occurred in Tennessee during a three-year study from 2011 to 2013.
Barbara King, the executive director of the Exchange Club Family Center, works with victims of domestic violence, both adults and children. The children learn how to cope after surviving domestic violence, and the center also offers counseling for parent-victims and even offenders.
"It's amazing that, even sitting through talking to a teacher or a counselor for a long period of time, it becomes intrinsic, and they can change their parenting behavior," King said. "We are definitely hearing more about [violence against women]. I think it's a lot more common to see them speaking up, but the numbers, particularly in Shelby County, are just phenomenal. There are so many cases but only about one-fifth ever gets reported. These couples may appear perfectly fine in public, even the nicer guys. I think people would just rather think it doesn't exist. And then there's the ever-present, 'Why didn't you just leave?'"
That very question prompted two Twitter hashtags last week — #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft — which victims used to explain what kept them in abusive relationships and how they finally escaped.
More than 247,000 cases, or individual incidents of domestic violence, were reported in the entire state during the three-year study by the TBI. King mentioned that some victims might not report abuse to police due to fear of safety or lack of financial security, especially when children are involved. Some also may think that the offender will change.
"It's not very easy for these women to leave," she said. "She's lost all self-esteem. She's lost all sense of self-worth. It's extremely scary to try and get out."
King also said the center was working with Tasha Thomas before her death: "We tried to help her all that we could. It's an incredible tragedy, and her story is not that uncommon."
Leaving is the crisis point for victims of abuse, according to King.
"When the woman really says she's leaving, and he's going to lose power and control, that is the worst and most dangerous time for her," she said. "He'll do a lot of things to prevent that from happening. 'If I can't have you, nobody can.'"