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Trapped in the cycle: Domestic violence in SLO County

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The stage in the small theater went dark. 

Through the blackness, the audience could hear the sound of a violent struggle. Heavy thumps and ugly, blunt, meaty slaps. A woman’s panicked voice rose above it.

“Stop it! It hurts!”

The sounds don’t stop. The audience is dead silent.

“God forgive him!” the woman yelled out. “He doesn’t know what he is doing.”

The moment is just one of many disturbing scenes from “But I Love Him,” a one-woman show written and acted by Michelle Jewsbury. In it, Jewsbury, who says she is a survivor of domestic violence, plays both the victim and batterer trapped in a violent cycle of abuse. The play has been staged multiple times in Los Angeles, and each time Jewsbury’s performance essentially means she has to re-live the experience of her own victimization, she told New Times.

“It’s very difficult, because it draws me back in every time, and it leaves me very vulnerable and exposed,” Jewsbury said. “Each time I’m performing it, I’m going deeper and deeper into it.”

If you follow the news in San Luis Obispo, you’ve likely heard Jewsbury’s name. Just a few hours north of where she performed her gripping shows, Jewsbury is one of a cast of individuals entangled in a very real drama swirling around a once-prominent developer now facing felony charges for domestic violence.

His name is Ryan Petetit. Once a partner in a real estate and development company spearheading million-dollar projects in the SLO area, Petetit’s public fall from grace includes multiple civil lawsuits relating to his business dealings and felony criminal charges in connection to a November 2015 incident in which police said he attacked his girlfriend, injuring her badly enough to require her to seek treatment at a hospital. Petetit pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the criminal case remains open, according to court records.

It is a side of Petetit that Jewsbury claims she knows all two well. Soon after his arrest went public, Jewsbury filed a civil lawsuit in SLO County Superior Court, accusing Petetit of verbally, sexually, and physically abusing her on multiple occasions between 2012 and 2014 while they were in a relationship. While Jewsbury will neither confirm nor deny that her play is based on that specific relationship, the incidents of alleged abuse detailed in the lawsuit are chillingly similar to the violent confrontations she acts out as the two main characters, named Jen and Paul in the play.  

Jewsbury said she eventually left Petetit for good and moved back to Los Angeles. She said she filed the lawsuit after she heard about his November 2015 arrest, which involved another woman.

“I wasn’t planning on doing this until I heard he hurt another victim,” she said. “When I found out he hurt someone else, I was literally thinking ‘Oh my God; I could have helped.’ I wasn’t at fault, but it’s sort of true.”

Petetit’s criminal attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

While the allegations against Petetit made headlines, the criminal case and lawsuit are just a single glimpse at a sprawling and complex issue. Beyond the sensational attention paid to one specific domestic violence case, hundreds more are working their way through the county’s criminal justice system with far less notice or fanfare.

In the courts

Last year alone, SLO County law enforcement responded to 642 domestic violence-related calls for service, according to data from the Office of the California Attorney General. The SLO County District Attorney’s Office alone handled more than 800 domestic violence-related cases that same year. Few, if any, made headlines.

In many instances of domestic violence, victims file a request for a restraining order while their case makes its way through the justice system. A search of the court records reveals hundreds of such requests. In the first six months of 2016, more than 100 were filed in SLO County. In those documents, victims describe—in their own words—abuse at the hands of intimate partners, spouses, and ex-lovers.

SLO COUNTY SUPERIOR COURT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CASES 2010–2015: - GRAPHIC BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • GRAPHIC BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • SLO COUNTY SUPERIOR COURT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CASES 2010–2015:

Some detail physical abuse and threats as disturbing as anything portrayed in Jewsbury’s play.

“Before that he smacked me in the face, resulting in me breaking my nose and bruising my face all over,” one restraining order request read. “He also choked me until I was unconscious.”

“He has come after me with a knife. … He has also broken at least five bones in my legs and knocked me unconscious,” another victim wrote of a former boyfriend.

Others detail the aftermath, verbal abuse and the threats to prevent them from reporting the violence to law enforcement.

“Again he told me not to tell anyone or else he will have me deported, because my green card is still on [sic] process,” another request read.

In yet one more, filed by a married woman against her husband, the victim is blunt in her assessment of her situation.

“I am very afraid that [my husband] will hurt me or maybe kill me,” she writes.

These are the stories that come across the desk of SLO County Deputy District Attorney Kelly Manderino. Manderino has been a prosecutor in SLO County for the last 10 years, and she estimated she’s worked hundreds of domestic violence cases in that time. The SLO County DA vertically prosecutes felony and misdemeanor domestic violence cases, which means that a prosecutor like Manderino works the case from its initial referral to the department all the way through to its resolution. Vertical prosecution enables Manderino to work her cases from beginning to end. She can forge an intimate knowledge of the details about what happened and a personal relationship with the victims, which can be critical to domestic violence cases.

“I really enjoy having a case load that allows me to spend the time necessary with the victims,” Manderino told New Times. “That’s the biggest challenge: getting in there quickly and establishing a rapport.”

That rapport can be critical in overcoming one of the more difficult aspects of successfully prosecuting domestic violence cases. It’s common for victims to recant the testimony they initially gave to police or prosecutors. Recanting can happen for a number of reasons: Sometimes the victims are afraid to testify with their abuser present in court. Others might be worried about the financial or other consequences of their abuser going to jail. Sometimes, simply the passage of time can push a victim to recant.  

“Victims are much more cooperative after the explosive incident,” said Jennifer Adams, executive director for the domestic violence and sexual assault nonprofit RISE SLO. “The further away it gets, the less willing they are to participate.”

It’s an issue Manderino knows all too well. But despite recanting, and sometimes even open hostility, from victims, it doesn’t stop the work she does on their behalf. Speaking with New Times, Manderino brought up an incident from her time as a city attorney in Los Angeles, where she prosecuted misdemeanor domestic violence cases. In once such case, she said the victim recanted her statement and angrily confronted her before the court proceedings.

“As she’s recanting her story from the stand, there’s a break in the proceeding,” Manderino said. “The defendant wasn’t there, or wasn’t looking, and she mouthed the words ‘thank you’ to me.”

It’s that kind of story that pushes Manderino to take on such cases and to advocate for improving in the way the SLO DA’s office handles domestic violence cases. Manderino said domestic violence cases and sexual assault cases were initially handled under a combined unit, but she asked that they be separated. More recently, the DA’s office instituted yet another change. 

On July 25, the DA’s office rolled out a four-person team led by Manderino that will focus exclusively on domestic violence cases. The team will review cases submitted by law enforcement and follow them from beginning to end. 

For Manderino, it’s one step closer to what she referred to as her dream: the creation of a Domestic Violence Court. The concept would work in a similar fashion to the SLO County Veterans Treatment Court, with all domestic violence offenders reporting to a single judge who can follow their progress.

“It’s this notion of being responsible to one person,” she said. “When you have this accountability, there’s a lot less recidivism.” 

Adams, whose organization works closely with the DA’s office as part of a county domestic violence coalition, also touted the benefits of a dedicated domestic violence court program.

“If you can get [abusers] in front of the same judge, … it would be a helpful process,” she said.

But even with passionate prosecutors like Manderino working to bring batterers to justice, tackling the root of violence between intimate partners and halting the vicious cycle that perpetuates it is far more complex than simply punishing those who break the law. In many cases, Adams said, even after suffering horrific physical or emotional abuse at the hands of a loved one, victims are not necessarily pushing for punishment.

“Honestly, what victims usually want is for the abuser to stop doing it,” she said. “They want them to stop. Very rarely do they want them to be punished. They want them to be sorry and to not do it anymore.”

Taking responsibility

Since 1994, California law has required individuals who are convicted or granted probation for domestic violence to participate in a batterers intervention program. Currently, the court requires them to complete a 52-week program that includes facilitated group therapy aimed at educating batterers and giving them skills in areas like anger management, healthy communication, and others, with the ultimate goal to stop them from offending ever again. 

“I know the program works for the majority of people,” Kathy Osgood said.

Osgood is a licensed therapist working as a facilitator for one of SLO County’s batterers intervention programs, Solutions Unlimited. A former drug and alcohol counselor who worked with inmates at the SLO County Jail, Osgood has facilitated the batterers intervention program for nearly 20 years.

Failure to complete the program can mean jail time or revocation of probation. Osgood said that it was important for participants to really dedicate themselves to the process and accept responsibility for their actions. That can take time for many of the men and woman who are required to participate in the program.

“Generally they don’t want to be there at all. They are very angry,” she said. “They come in and try to minimize what they’ve done; there’s a lot of denial.”

But Osgood said that through participating in the program, and talking with other participants, some batterers are able to change and even end up helping newer members of the group.

“They tell me ‘I didn’t think I needed to be here, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me,’” she said.

From an angry abuser in denial to a productive citizen trying to help others, few are as familiar with this transformation as Marc Sardella. Sardella served 17 years in prison on a charge of second-degree murder after a domestic violence incident with his pregnant wife caused her to lose the baby. 

Sardella said he began working on getting an education in prison, taking therapy, and working with groups. That’s where he met Osgood. When he got out of prison, he had to attend the batterers intervention program. After three months, he became a co-facilitator, helping Osgood with her work. He’s been working at Solutions Unlimited for the last two years. 

“I’ve been through it, and it changed me,” he said. “I wanted to give back to the community.” 

When Sardella talks about his experience, you can tell it’s a story he’s told many times before. That experience is part of why he believes he can connect with and reach out to the batterers he now works with. He knows about their anger and their denial and said he often plays the “bad cop” to Osgood’s “good cop”, calling participants to account.

“By sharing my own story, … I have a lot of credibility. I’ve been where they’re at,” he said. “They look at their lives and want to blame others for their actions.”

Despite the sometimes slow and frustrating process of getting batterers to move from denial to acceptance, Sardella said it’s rewarding to see the ones who chose to do the hard work to turn things around.

“You see, these guys fight it and fight it, and then the light bulb goes on,” Sardella said. “I get a lot of satisfaction after 52 weeks when you see a guy walk out of class a changed person.”

In addition to his work with the groups, Sardella also gives presentations at the county’s women’s shelters, telling his story to trainees and volunteers. In spite of all he has been through, seen, and heard, Sardella said he still believes that there is good in everyone and that’s what keeps him telling his story to anyone who might learn something from it.

“If I could help just one family save itself, … then, at least it makes what I did count for something,” he said. “I just can’t brush it under the rug and walk away from it.”

A complex issue

The problem of domestic violence is a Gordian knot: a tangle of intertwining issues and layers of complexities that aren’t easily unraveled. It’s a crime that occurs mostly behind closed doors, in the most intimate, private, and personal space of an individual’s life. 

At the intersection of all the fraught and complex factors tied up in domestic violence, there are those fighting to stop it. Police officers and prosecutors try to protect the victims and bring the perpetrators to justice. Organizations like RISE and others reach out to victims, providing, support, shelter, and a path out of abusive relationships. Individuals like Osgood and Sardella try to help the abusers change. 

That safety net catches some, but not everyone. For every case that is handled by police, there is one or more that is never reported by a victim. For every batterer that sees the error of his or her ways, there are others who refuse to accept the truth. For every victim that is able to find the resources to break away from an abusive relationship, there is another that remains trapped, afraid, and in danger. 

The abusive relationship portrayed in Jewsbury’s play shows the audience both sides of that struggle. Its final act presents two scenarios. In one, the main character Jen is killed, choked to death in a shower. In the other, she finally breaks the cycle, leaves her abusive partner, and starts a new life. In the real world, both situations are equally possible for those trapped in violent relationships.

“Be cautious with your hearts and who you give them to,” Jewsbury tells the audience in one of the play’s final lines. “Because once you get trapped in the cycle. It’s very hard to get out.” 

Domestic Violence Resources

RISE 

• (805) 226-5400

• 855-886-RISE(7473)

riseslo.org

Women’s Shelter:

• (805) 781-6401/ 1-800-549-8989 

womensshelterslo.org

SLO County District Attorney: 

• (805) 781-5800

slocounty.ca.gov/DA.htm

SLO County Victim/Witness: 

• (805) 781-5821 / (866) 781-5821

slocounty.ca.gov/DA/Victim_Witness.htm

California Rural Legal Assistance: 

• (805) 544-7994

Center for Alternatives to Domestic Violence: 

• (805) 473-6507

Central Coast Violence Intervention Program (Women): 

• (805) 544-2273 / (805) 466-4681

Community Counseling Center: 

• (805) 543-7969

Counseling Services for Victim of Domestic Violence: 

• (805) 489-1005

County Domestic Violence Task Force: 

• (805) 781-5821

Elder Abuse Services Department of Social Services: 

• (805) 781-1790

Men Helping Men: 

• (805) 543-7100

Senior Legal Services Program: 

• (805) 543- 5140

Solution Unlimited–Spanish Group: 

• (805) 748-6455

Solution Unlimited: 

• (805) 549-4849 / (805) 467-9535

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

• 1-800-799-safe

ncadv.org

Move End DV

movetoenddv.org

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.

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