Five local domestic violence deaths highlight need for help

Family members of Jessica Osborne said she was in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend, Vashon Londell Walker. She also learned of violent episodes with his previous girlfriend and wanted to call it quits.

"She wasn't telling exactly what was happening, but she was giving signs," her brother, Christopher Morton, said from his home in Meridian, Miss. "I guess she kind of had a feeling if she tried to leave him, he was going to try to kill her. So she knew what she had gotten herself into and was getting ready to get out and then this right here happened."

Osborne, a 28-year-old mother of three, was shot to death June 17 at the couple's newly purchased home at 4304 Forrest Road. Walker, 23, was arrested and charged with murder after he emerged from the home covered in blood. The family had just moved into the home on June 9. Osborne posted a video on her Facebook page, giving a virtual tour of the house and gushing about her new beginning.

The case shocked many in the community, but it is only the latest domestic violence incident that has resulted in death this year. Of the 11 homicides committed in Columbus during the first six months of 2014, five have been attributed to domestic violence. Two of the victims were women, two were men and one was a baby.

In the other four cases:

Tyree Jevontae Burtin, 38, was stabbed to death on Feb. 15, during a domestic dispute at a Cusseta Road apartment. His girlfriend, Niketa Garnette Brooks, 39, has been charged with murder and possession of a knife during the commission of a crime.

Tonya Moses Charles, 44, of Phenix City, died of multiple gunshot wounds on Feb. 21, after being gunned down in the back parking lot of the Muscogee County DCFS Office. Authorities said she was killed by her estranged husband, Lyle Charles, who was later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Ki Ja Basset, 23 months old, was shaken and beaten to death on March 24. Ki Ja mother's boyfriend, Damian Belle, 19, was charged with first-degree murder, cruelty to children and battery with physical visible harm.

Anthony Tirrell Murray, 30, was stabbed to death on May 18. His girlfriend, Priscilla Y. Morgan, has been charged with murder.

Spreading awareness

Last week, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson highlighted the issue on Twitter and Facebook, urging people in the community to become part of a national "No More" domestic violence campaign. She also provided tips and local resources to help victims and other individuals address the issue. She said Osborne's case was particularly disturbing.

"With such a dramatic situation where this woman thought her life was on a new, hopeful path, and to see the videotape hours before she was shot to death by somebody in her own home," she said, "brings it home in such a dramatic way that there are too many people in every community, but certainly in Columbus, that are living with violence inside their homes.

"People stand ready in the community to participate and to help," the mayor said. "I see that all the time. They're frustrated by not knowing what to do, or how to help. But here we have something where 50 percent of our murder rate could be prevented by -- not just our law enforcement officers and our crime-prevention department -- but by engaged citizens who have relationships with people in need of resources that can help remove them from life-threatening violence."

Police Chief Ricky Boren said he hasn't done a year-to-year comparison of domestic violence deaths, but he considers the number so far this year significant.

"This stuff varies from year to year depending on the circumstances of the death," he said. "I can't say that every year it would be 50 percent, but 50 percent is on the high end of the scale."

Yet, the numbers still don't reflect the untold hundreds who are living in domestic violence situations every day, a local advocate said. Cassandra Smith is executive director of the Columbus Alliance for Battered Women, an agency doing business as Hope Harbour. The organization helps abused victims recover in a location that is undisclosed by court mandate and under 24-hour surveillance, and stays full daily.

Smith said last year the agency received 1,083 crisis calls from domestic violence victims. Of that number, 399 women and children were placed in emergency shelters. About half of the 399 people were children, and the majority of those were children under the age of 12.

"Those are the ones that are seeing it, and if they're not seeing it, they're hearing it," she said. "Those are the ones that grow up to be abusers or the abused."

Smith said one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime, and one in four boys who witness domestic violence will be perpetrators. But though 94 percent to 96 percent of the abusers are male, they can also be victims, she said.

That's why Smith said it's important for people to look for red flags.

"Quick to anger is one of them," she said. "Someone who wants to control where you go, how long you stay, what you wear. It's a controlling mechanism and highly indicative of an abuser.

"Often times when they're ending the relationship that's the highest level of lethality," she said. "More victims are killed when leaving in a domestic violence relationship, which is why we exist -- to increase the awareness of the dynamics of domestic violence."

Smith said it's difficult for people on the outside looking in to make judgments and fault a victim for not leaving. But the problem is very complex.

"They stay because they love them. They stay because of children. They stay because of finances," she said. "They stay because they've been isolated from their family possibly -- and where are they going to go?"

She said people have to be patient with victims even though they keep going back to the abuser.

"As family and friends, continually be there to say, 'You don't deserve this.' 'I will be here for you.' 'Here is someone you can contact' -- whether it's one-on-one counseling, whether it's going to a facility."

There are also outreach services at Hope Harbour for financial assistance, housing, transportation, support groups and community awareness. Smith said everyone can get involved in preventing domestic violence.

"It's going out and holding those conversations, whether it's down at the mayor's office, the city council meeting, whether it's on Sunday morning at service or after service," she said. "Or, hey, let's even talk about going to a sporting event and bringing it out. It's that awareness of the issue and how we all can work together to -- maybe not to resolve it completely -- but greatly reduce it."

Dashed hopes

Since Osborne's death a few weeks ago, her family has been wearing purple ribbons and T-shirts to raise awareness about domestic violence -- and to bring justice.

Osborne's brother and father, William Morton, said she was in the process of a divorce from a man she had married in Meridian. She had also been in abusive relationships in the past, and wanted a fresh start. Her family said she moved to Columbus about a year ago and had been working for a correctional facility.

When Osborne and Walker purchased the new house, she posted on Facebook: "Never do I brag but I always THANK GOD for the good & bad!!!! I step out on FAITH & move to GA with nothing but my babies... Look where GOD has brought me... No renting but we just bought us a house... Loving my 3 wonderful babies with my future hubby Pooky Walker."

William Morton said Osborne went to Meridian the weekend before she was killed to pick up one of her children. She brought Walker with her, and everything seemed OK.

"From me talking with him, he seemed like he was a nice person," he said. "As far as I know, she was happy."

But her brother, Christopher, said it was his first time meeting Walker and something didn't seem right. He has since learned that Walker has a long criminal record, which includes auto theft, kidnapping and alleged abuse of his child's mother.

"I had a bad feeling about the guy," he said. "Normally when you meet someone they ain't that friendly until you get to know them -- that's just how I always think. And when I first met him he was just too friendly, just going with the flow. I told my fiancee, 'I have a bad feeling about this.' When I got a chance to talk to my sister, I was going to tell her, but never got a chance."

He said Osborne told their baby sister, Tasha Houston, who lives in Columbus, that she and Walker had been having problems. When contacted by the Ledger-Enquirer, Houston said an attorney had advised her not to talk to the media.

On June 18, the day after her sister's death, Houston posted on her Facebook page: "I don't care about our ups and downs that we had. I will always love u. I tried to beg u to leave him that first time but u wouldn't listen to me. U kept saying 'lil sis I'm so happy now' but truth be told I could see right through u, I knew u wasn't happy. We had so many talks about this but I never told anyone because I didn't think it would get this bad..."

Christopher said their mother died from cancer in 2006, and Osborne's death is another devastating blow. The family has taken in her three children and had a fish fry in Meridian last week to raise money for her funeral.

"Everybody deserves a second chance, but this man? There ain't no second chance," Christopher said. "You took a life from three innocent children. And right now, today, my nieces ask me, 'Why would he do such a thing?' And I feel their pain. I don't know how it feels to lose a mama to violence, but I do know how it feels to lose a mother. I've been there and had those hurt feelings."

Enduring the pain

Tonya Boyd, 50, of Topeka, Kan., said she understands what Osborne's family is experiencing. Her daughter, Tyesha McNair, was living in Columbus when she was killed in 2009 by the father of her two daughters, now ages 5 and 7.

McNair was scheduled to move back to Topeka the next day, but she was shot seven times in a double homicide that also resulted in the death of her friend, Terence Clark. Convicted of the two murders was James Brock, who is now serving life without parole. He has a hearing coming up Aug. 5 in an effort to get a new trial.

"Domestic violence plays a big part in my life to this day," said Boyd, who is now raising her two granddaughters. "We do the walks in Kansas every year. We wear a lot of purple, and domestic violence awareness is very important to me."

She said she has a subscription to the Ledger-Enquirer so she can keep up with what's going on with Brock's case. She said when she read about what happened to Osborne, she posted a message on her Web page expressing condolences.

Boyd said McNair is buried close to her home, and she and her granddaughters take flowers to her grave regularly.

She said it has been difficult raising two young children at her age. Once she lost her job because she had to leave work to get their immunization records. Her oldest granddaughter, who was 2 years old when her mother died, still has nightmares and talks about the murder as if she was there, even though she wasn't.

"She's in counseling and the counselor said the older she gets the more intensive it's going to be," Boyd said. "She still has a lot of separation issues from me and still sleeps in my bed."

She said Brock has been a nuisance to the family, even in jail.

"He has never admitted to (the murder) and has called my phone several times to harass me," she said. "He always wants to know how his daughters are, and wants to talk to them, and I never, never let it happen. As long as I've got breath in my body, he's never going to have anything to do with them until they're old enough to make that decision."

Smith said she called the prison and threatened to sue if he kept calling, and the phone calls stopped.

Her advice to Osborne's family: "I would tell them put their faith in God, that helped me a lot," she said. "Help get the message about domestic violence out there, and make sure to love those babies, make sure they're taken care of."