Thomas Easley vowed to kill his ex-wife. He even named the time frame — before Dec. 7, 2012.
No one believed it could be true.
Friends said he was acting differently, according to police reports.
They knew it was bad. The couple argued. People noticed splintered furniture. Still, they remained silent — until it was too late.
In hindsight, many people told police they saw the warning signs, but didn’t know what to do.
“They are afraid they are going to get their family in trouble or they are blowing smoke. They don’t believe it’s that bad until something like this happens and then they say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this happened,’” said Edna Welshiemer, executive director of the Time Out Domestic Violence Shelter in Payson. “If someone is making a threat, they should take them seriously.”
On Dec. 5, 2012, Thomas drove to the house where his estranged wife Marjeane lived on Phoenix Street in Payson. She had started the divorce process after years of fear and anger and abuse. He shot Marjeane in the head, then turned the gun on himself.
In Arizona, the rate by which women are murdered by men is 1.92 per 100,000, the seventh highest rate in the country, according to a new Violence Policy Center (VPC) study.
For many women, the only place to turn for help in Gila County is the Time Out Shelter. As part of October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, shelter organizers have organized a walk and program to discuss domestic violence.
“Our walk is on Oct. 9 and our fundraiser is the first weekend in October the 4th and 5th,” said Welshiemer.
When it comes to domestic violence, national statistics show leaving creates the greatest risk of murder. And it’s not rare: Some 1,500 women die each year at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The murder of Marjeane as she sought to escape an abusive relationship, underscores the attitudes that sustain domestic violence in the culture.
“They often blame the victim instead of holding the abuser accountable. It all points to the victim as if you did something to deserve this,” said Welshiemer.
Marjeane sought to cope with his violence for years, while mostly keeping it hidden from the family, according to police reports that reconstructed the tragedy. She sometimes fought back in anger. But when she finally left, she faced his final obsession and self-destructive rage.
Afterward, the people closest to her realized they’d seen all the warning signs.
Yet some blamed her for the anger and defiance they saw in the relationship.
Thomas’ friend Gary Behrends, observed that Thomas (also called Donald) changed dramatically when Marjeane started divorce proceedings.
“Once the divorce proceedings had started and Marjeane moved out, Donald changed dramatically. His thought process and behavior toward Marjeane were very obsessive,” said Behrends to Payson Police investigating the murder-suicide.
Behrends said Thomas fixated on Marjeane. He moved away and came back. “He would make statements that he was going to shoot her in the head.”
But Behrends “felt that the threats were not real and that Donald was just angry and venting because the threats would come after some type of interaction between him and Marjeane.”
The dance between domestic violence partners stems from co-dependence, power struggles and a need for control, researchers say. The abuse often escalates when the rules change in an abuser’s life, such as loss of a job, investments or friends. Abusers often take out their fear and frustration on the people around them, say numerous state and national studies.
Sometimes, they decide they can’t live with their problems and resolve to take their family down with them, which researchers call anomic suicides.
University of Pennsylvania researcher Richard Gelles introduced the concept of “over enmeshment” as a reason for domestic violence murder-suicides. Abusers view “their family members as possessions that they control or (they) don’t see any boundaries between their identity, their wife and their children. And so these are suicides of the entire family, where the anomic, over enmeshed individual can’t bear to leave the pain behind and so takes his wife and children with him,” said Gelles.
A New York Times investigation published recently found that most of the mass shooters in recent incidents had domestic violence in their background.
As mass shootings around the country have increased, several state legislatures have adopted “red flag” laws that make it possible for police to take weapons from people deemed a danger to themselves or others — sometimes pending a court hearing, sometimes only with the permission of a judge. Some states bar people with domestic violence convictions or orders of protection from having a gun.
Such a law might have saved Marjeane, provided someone was willing to report Thomas’ increasingly erratic and obsessive behavior and overt threats.
Both friends and family blamed Marjeane for saying “things that would purposefully ‘crank up’ Donald,” the police reports state.
Experts say this echoes the social assumption that holds women responsible for the violence directed against them. This “blame the victim” mentality helps sustain domestic violence, with one in three women affected by domestic violence. Even after abuse ends, some will continue to blame the victim rather than the abuser.
Behrends claimed Thomas/Donald “said that Marjeane would get him extremely upset.”
Thomas’ son Kerry lived with the couple shortly before Marjeane filed for divorce.
Kerry claimed, “that (Marjeane) would purposefully ‘push (Thomas’) buttons’ to get him cranked up and get him angry and he said that she did this during the marriage and during the separation period.”
But Marjeane’s daughter, Raejean, only heard about the abuse after Marjeane filed for divorce.
“There was a family reunion and Marjeane had disclosed to Raejean and other family members that Donald was abusive toward her, striking her, throwing furniture around the house, and pushing her down,” said the police report.
After that conversation, Raejean “reflected back many years and there would be broken furniture in their house that was unexplained that would be outside,” she told police.
Everyone just watches
By Dec. 5, 2012 at 3 p.m., Thomas and Marjeane Easley both lay dead.
No one believed Thomas was crazy enough to kill Marjeane, despite him owning numerous guns, threatening to shoot her in the head by a specific date and acting out of character for the week leading up to the incident.
Welshiemer understands why.
“They don’t want to believe it’s happening to their family or friends. They really don’t believe and they turn a blind eye,” she said. “They’re afraid they will get their family member in trouble or won’t be believed.”
Marjeane’s daughter “thought the divorce was progressing amicably,” according to police reports.
Thomas’ son thought, “they had a normal relationship.”
Behrends thought, “they seemed like a very nice couple,” but admitted, “from the very first day that Marjeane notified him that she was going to divorce him that he started making those types of threats to shoot her.”
Of course, studies of domestic violence show that couples often try hard to present a normal face to the world. Looking back, family members saw signs of the violence and abuse going back years. The divorce merely revealed the pathology that may have existed for years.
Still, no one did anything.
On the day of the murder, Thomas visited with Behrends.
As a group of friends sat in the living room talking, Thomas acted oddly.
“(Behrends) said that Donald ... sat there and started looking ‘through’ them, sometimes looking out the window,” stated the police report.
Suddenly, Thomas stood up and went into Behrends’ bedroom where Thomas had stored all of his guns.
“When he came out he told everyone that he was leaving. He gave them all hugs, which he never did, and said he had to go handle a thing with Marjeane,” Behrends told police.
That was sometime around 2:40 p.m.
The owner of the house on Phoenix Street told police Thomas arrived and asked to speak to Marjeane — something the two had done quite often during the months she had lived there.
“After Marjeane came out of her bedroom to the living room area, Marjeane and Donald went out the laundry room into the garage area. After a short time, the male subject inside the residence heard gunshots and, when he went outside, he saw that both subjects were down on the ground.”
A neighbor around the corner told police she, “heard what she thought was a female screaming along with some arguing. She said she heard two loud pops. She said that a few moments went by and she then heard another loud pop.”
Police report they arrived at the scene by 3 p.m. to find Marjeane dead and Thomas still barely alive, both with gunshot wounds to the head.
Thomas later died at a hospital in the Valley.
So what are the lessons of this tragedy?
• If you notice warning signs, report them to police.
• Support victims when they leave and transition into a new life.
Would it have made any difference if Marjeane’s family and friends had reported Thomas’ odd behavior — or even his death threats? Currently, Arizona has no structure to take away the guns to remove the immediate threat, much less provide the kind of counseling that might have deflected Thomas from his terrible path.
“Don’t be silent in the first place, that’s not going to help a dead person,” said Welshiemer. “Speak up. They need you to speak out on those things ... My first choice would be the police department. If there is a suspicion of harm. They need to trust the police will take them seriously and help.”
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