A victim of domestic violence wept, begged and pleaded on behalf of her abuser, who after a furious argument chased her and bumped her car as she fled down the Beeline Highway with her children.
Across the courtroom from Sarah, past a row of lawyers and domestic violence advocates, sat Charles DeBurger in an orange jail jumpsuit. He cowered in a chair, his head hung low.
The Roundup does not normally identify victims of domestic violence, so we’re using a made-up name for this story.
DeBurger recently pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and endangerment, his sixth and seventh felony convictions after admitting to following Sarah from the Tonto Basin area and ramming her Honda with his Volkswagen several times after she left with their 16- and 1-year-old children following an argument.
Facing a fourth term in prison, DeBurger also begged Judge Gary Scales to show leniency, but didn’t try to push the blame onto Sarah.
“Even though I didn’t physically hurt anybody, I wasn’t tying to hurt anybody, my actions caused fear, trauma, hardship and grief to my family,” he said.
Sarah, however, refused to let DeBurger take the blame.
Standing before Scales twice during the 30-minute hearing, Sarah cried hysterically while recounting the events of Sept. 22.
“You know everything that happened that night, it wasn’t, (crying) I am sorry, I get really emotional talking about it,” she said. “That night wasn’t all Charles DeBurger’s, it wasn’t his fault, that whole night, it wasn’t, it was mine too. I decided to do what I did knowing that he was going to do what he did.”
Sarah said she knew DeBurger would follow after her if she left with their children and knew he would get in trouble if they called for help, but did it anyway to “torture him.”
She said she thought he would go to jail for the night and cool down, but never thought he would face years in prison.
Under the terms of the plea, DeBurger faced five to 7.5 years partly because of his prior convictions.
Turning from Scales to DeBurger, Sarah cried out that she was sorry.
“It is not just your punishment, it is mine too. I should have thought before I did what I did,” she said.
The courtroom sat in silent disbelief as Sarah cried. Scales reminded her that she was not to blame.
“I feel compelled just to tell you first of all that you are here as a victim. You have nothing to apologize for,” he said.
“Yea, but he is my victim,” she said.
“It is not about you, it is about what happened here,” Scales said.
“Yea, and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gotten into the car ... I torture myself every day ... I made everything progress. I blew it out of proportion. I did. I did!”
Scales asked Sarah what she wanted.
She asked for the shortest possible sentence.
When it was his turn, Gila County Chief Deputy Attorney Shawn Fuller played the 911 tape of DeBurger’s 16-year-old daughter calling for help as DeBurger rammed their vehicle.
Throughout the tape, Sarah screams hysterically in the background, so much so, dispatchers cannot make out what the teenage girl is saying.
The girl tells a DPS dispatcher they are trying to get away from her dad, who is trying to hurt them even though they have a baby in the vehicle.
“He will hurt her, I know he will,” she says speaking of her mother.
Fuller said the only thing Sarah did wrong that day was to get into an argument with DeBurger. She left to protect her family and he didn’t like that. He was so upset that he had lost control, that he did everything in his power to stop her, even stopping his vehicle in front of theirs so she would have to pull over.
“This is not a situation where she had any part in, she is a victim in the case,” Fuller said. “I think that it is unfortunate that the defendant and those like him, domestic violence abusers, put the victims in a situation where it is a circle of violence where the victims are blaming themselves, apologizing for their conduct.
“She did nothing wrong. The defendant needs to be punished. He is a violent person.”
Three phases of abuse
The cycle of violence theory includes three phases, according to a police officer training manual on handling domestic violence situations.
First, in the tension-building phase, arguing, drinking and other factors lead to name-calling, hostility and friction. In this case, DeBurger said he had been drinking that day and the couple had argued throughout the day.
During this first phase, the abuser fears the woman will leave and the woman often pulls away to avoid inadvertently setting him off.
In this case, Sarah decided to leave for Payson with their children after a day of arguing. This, however, seemed to confirm DeBurger’s fear she would leave.
In the second phase, acute battering, an explosion occurs and the abuser loses control physically and emotionally.
DeBurger lost control when Sarah left. He jumped into his vehicle, charged after her down the highway and rammed her car.
During the explosion, many abusers say they do not want to hurt anyone, just teach her a lesson. DeBurger said he only wanted to stop Sarah and bring his family home.
Finally, the last stage is the honeymoon phase. During this time, the man is genuinely sorry for what he has done. Because his worst fear is that she will leave, he tries to make up for his behavior.
“He really believes he can control himself and will never again hurt the woman he loves,” according to the training manual. “He lets her know that he would fall apart without her. She feels responsible for her own conduct that led to the beating and also responsible for his well-being.”
In court Friday, DeBurger told Scales he had learned his lesson and was committed to real change and becoming a better man.
“You will never see me in this courtroom again,” he said.
DeBurger’s prior convictions include three aggravated assaults, a robbery, two burglaries and two unlawful flights with three prison sentences.
Ronald DeBrigida, DeBurger’s lawyer, said the court could not overlook his client’s past, but urged Scales to give weight to Sarah’s request for a shorter sentence.
He said DeBurger actually hurt no one that night.
Fuller, however, pointed out that the terror in the women’s voices was real.
Sarah, who spoke again after Fuller, said DeBurger only tapped her bumper and she had done more damage when she accidentally hit a vehicle once.
Sarah denied she is a victim of domestic violence now. She said she was in an abusive relationship previously — and DeBurger is not like her previous partner.
Tragically, domestic violence victims often blame themselves for their abuse. Typically, they try to please their abuser in hopes that keeping him happy will keep them safe, according to one study. However, abuser’s actions are usually self-driven and depend little on a victim’s actions or words.
DeBurger blamed a childhood of abuse for his destructive habits.
He said he never dealt with the abuse and is only now examining all that he went through.
“I am scared and weak,” he said. “It is all my fault. I made the decision to do what I did. I should have got help years ago.”
Weighing all this, Scales said the 911 call leaves little doubt he had terrorized the woman and her children. What started as an argument spiraled out of control. Today, “we have a victim hysterical and apologizing for things the court does not think she should apologize for,” he said.
Scales sentenced DeBurger to six years and nine months in prison with three years probation.