Fairfield cops learn: Answers to domestic violence problems start with right question
"It was hard every time, but it was like waking up and brushing your teeth every morning." "It" was the constant verbal and physical abuse heaped on Susan Still by her now ex-husband, Ulner Lee Still. The description came from her youngest son, who was 8 when Susan Still gathered her courage and her two youngest children and left her husband of 24 years.
Ulner Lee Still is serving a 32-year prison sentence, convicted in part because of a shocking video of him hitting, kicking and choking wife -- a video recorded by their middle son at his father's command.
The group of cops, prosecutors and victim's advocates quietly watched the video, and listened intently to Still's story.
The question that always arises, she said, is why a victim doesn't just leave their abuser. Wrong question. "It should be, why does a person abuse another human being?" Still said.
But Still added, after she had finally broken away from her abusive spouse she also had wondered how she ended up where she did. "I was not a person that grew up with low self-esteem," Still said. "I was fine with myself." Looking back, she now can see the clues.
"When we fall in love, we fall in love," Still said. "He was Prince Charming, not the man you see on the video. He made me feel loved in the guise of caring, and in the guise of caring, he took control." Slowly, insidiously. As a musician, Still's husband often worked or rehearsed at night. They lived in New York City at the time. "I would make plans to go do something, and he'd say, `I'm out on these streets, they're dangerous. I can't protect you, stay home." And she did, Still said, mistaking his gesture of control as one of romance.
The whole time she was married, Still didn't go out alone at night unless she was going to her mother's house.
"I let a precedent get set early in the relationship," she said.
For years, the abuse was verbal, but eventually turned physical. Though she never said anything to anyone, Still's boss began to mark down on her calendar the days Still showed up with bruises, or when she overheard Still on the phone with her husband, constantly calling him "master." Her boss took her aside, told her that she was there to help, but Still begged her not to tell anyone.
The day of June 22, 2003, was the turning point for Susan Still. That was the day of the videotaped beating, the day she left her husband and went to the police, taking her sons with her. Her oldest daughter, who was 21 at the time, stayed with her father, even testifying on his behalf. The daughter told police that she took care of her brothers, not her mother.
"He brainwashed my children," Still said, a statement comments from her children today back up. That, she said, is something police have to keep in mind when they respond to a domestic violence call.
"It's important you understand they may not view things as an outsider might think they should," Still said about members of a family who witness abuse. "For you, this is a horrible sight and you would think the children would think the same thing. That's not always going to be the case." And when the wife or girlfriend begs you, "Don't take my man!" Still said, they're doing damage control. "They know when you take him that he's going to be back," she said. "She's happy you're there, you've defused the situation, but she knows he's coming back." People who hear Still's story and see the video, Dalling said, never forget them. She hopes the account will help officers better handle domestic violence cases and help them understand the dynamics of an abusive relationship.
"I've seen it dozens of times and it's still hard to watch," Dalling said of Still's story. "She's an amazing person."