When domestic violence turns lethal: Threats, assaults going up
By Nathan Hardin
Franklin Davis peered out the front window of his home at 205 Spencer St. in East Spencer like he did every morning to see if the newspaper was there. But something was different that day.
It was a Friday morning in late January. His neighbor’s lights weren’t on in the house and her kids weren’t outside waiting for the bus. Both of those things were out of place, he said.
Davis, a wheelchair-bound veteran, knew Joan Lark from the Salisbury Veterans Administration hospital, where she worked as a front-desk assistant. He also knew she was up early every morning working to get her grandkids ready for school.
Minutes later, Lark’s grandchildren were banging on his door, asking for help.
At 6:42 a.m., the first call came into the 911 center.
“Hello. I need to report a possible homicide,” the caller said.
Joan Lark’s death was one of several domestic violence-related killings in Rowan County within the last few years. It was one of eight across North Carolina in January.
The county’s domestic abuse victim advocates say they’ve seen increases in numbers from year to year. They also said threats and assaults typically escalate over time.
Since 2001, the number of filed domestic violence protection orders in the county has doubled, according to statistics provided by the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office.
The number of men charged in Rowan County for assaulting women has more than doubled, from 93 in 2001 to 231 last year.
The 911 caller was another of Joan Lark’s neighbors. A few seconds later a 14-year-old, Lark’s oldest granddaughter, got on the phone.
“She wouldn’t … move at all,” she said. “Please help. I’m really scared.”
A 911 operator stayed on the phone with the teenager, working to keep her and her five siblings calm.
Lark was the caretaker for six of her daughter’s children.
At one point, the girl told the operator she and her sister had awakened during the night to loud noises.
“It was like banging noises, like constantly,” the crying girl said. “Constantly banging over again, and then it stopped for a little bit, and then it kept going.”
Detectives said Lark was beaten to death with a baseball bat. Lark’s boyfriend, Kerry Wooden, told the Post that Lark kept a bat beside her bed for protection.
Deputies caught up with the 49-year-old’s ex-boyfriend, Gary Cureton, in an Old Concord Lake Road home in Kannapolis later on the day of the murder.
Investigators said he was wearing her jacket and was covered in blood. His pockets, they said, were stuffed with Lark’s jewelry.
Cureton was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, robbery with a firearm or other dangerous weapon and first-degree burglary.
Started with threats
In 2008, North Carolina had the fourth highest number of domestic violence cases in the nation where a man killed a woman, according to the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Last year, 73 domestic violence homicides occurred in North Carolina, including a September murder in which Por Ye Lor of Salisbury shot and killed his wife Zoua Xiong at her job in Concord before taking his own life.
Despite a 30 percent drop in domestic violence over the last 30 years, nearly 700 others died in domestic violence incidents between 2002 and 2010, according to a comprehensive homicide report from the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Like other domestic abuse situations, Lark’s started with threats.
She ended her relationship with Cureton last February, relatives said, but allowed him to stay at the house because she felt sorry for him as he recovered from a serious illness and several surgeries.
Wooden, Lark’s boyfriend and co-worker at the VA hospital, said Lark didn’t take Cureton’s threats seriously at first, but later began recording threatening conversations.
At the time of her death, she had 33 such recordings. But she hadn’t sought a restraining order against Cureton.
“She wasn’t sure if she had enough evidence,” Wooden said in an interview just after Cureton’s arrest. “She said she wanted it to build up to have a good case.”
Lark’s relatives declined to comment on the matter recently, saying they had been advised not to by the Rowan County District Attorney’s Office.
Trina Baldwin, court advocate for the Family Crisis Council of Rowan County, said she didn’t want to comment on Lark’s specific case, but she said some threats of any kind need to be taken seriously.
“It’s rare that the threats and the abuse doesn’t escalate,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin said sometimes abuse victims don’t understand the effectiveness of domestic violence protection orders, also called 50-B orders for the N.C. General Statute that defines them.
“I would recommend them because of the preventive nature and the violation of the 50-B is not taken lightly.”
In 2011, 580 50-Bs were filed in Rowan County. Out of those, 19 protective orders were violated.
Increase in abuse
Baldwin said she has seen an increase in the number of abuse victims. Some of that, she said, is because the abused can’t afford to leave.
“I’ve seen more staying with the abusers because of the economy,” she said. “It affects their safety and the children that may be living in that environment.”
A victim now staying at the battered women’s shelter said controlling finances was one way her abuser kept control of her.
“He kept all the credit cards, all the money. If I wanted anything I had to go to him,” she said. “It was scary. Am I going to be able to pay bills? I’ve always been dependent on a man.”
After moving to Salisbury, the mother of five — who asked that her name not be used — had no friends and felt isolated, she said. Now she’s at the shelter for the second time.
She went back to her husband after a confrontation in the fall.
“I wanted to make my marriage work,” she said.
She left again in January after he assaulted one of her children.
Before seeking help, she said, she made up excuses to her children and herself about what was happening.
“I blamed it on him being drunk,” she said. “It wasn’t like he beat me or hit me every single day.”
Executive Director Lucretia Trent said many victims at the shelter have made excuses for abusers.
“Sometimes it’s very hard for someone to say this person I married is this way.” she said. “It’s hard to hear him say, ‘Well, if you loved me then you would do all these things right and then I wouldn’t have to do this.’ ”
Facing their excuses, the mother of five said, is one of the psychological aspects that victims are helped with at the battered women’s shelter.
“Something they taught us here is alcohol does not turn people into an abusive person,” she said.
Afraid to reach out
Trent, who has led the Family Crisis Council for two years, said a constant environment of condescension and manipulation is “almost like mind control.”
“There can be threats to children, to pets, to family members,” she said, “it makes them afraid to reach out.”
She said abuse victims often have to move, which makes the process even more difficult.
“I’m not sure if people realize how totally devastating this can be,” she said, “because many clients have to relocate out of the state, out of the region, in order to be safe.”
Salisbury Police Capt. Shelia Lingle said officers typically see the same couples fighting repeatedly.
As a young officer, she said, she was called out to a domestic dispute on Old Wilkesboro Road almost every weekend for about six months.
But the situation changed one night when the woman stabbed her boyfriend.
“It was an older couple, a boyfriend and girlfriend. They drank, and when they drank, they fought like crazy,” Lingle said. “She would beat on him. He would beat on her.”
Lingle said all the officers were aware of the couple, but the resources weren’t available to help the situation.
“It got to where she stabbed him one time and put him in the hospital,” she said. “That’s not your typical situation, but that’s just one that I, as a young officer, got called out to all the time.”
Now, Lingle said, domestic violence agencies are available to help officers assist abuse victims.
The department also documents domestic situations more aggressively to help victims that may return to their abuser.
“We make sure we document where the injuries are. We take photographs because sometimes if they go back to him …” she said. “We’ve gotten better as a police department at doing what we can to help.”
Baldwin said victims who are being threatened need to seek help immediately.
According to Baldwin, when a victim attempts to leave her abuser, “the risk of lethality goes up 75 percent.”
“He has lost control over her,” she said. “He’s going to try to gain control back.”
The Family Crisis Council of Rowan County provides services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. All services are free and confidential. Contact the organization or 24-hour crisis line at 704-636-4718.
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.
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