Investigators say victim safety is top priority
In Suzie Pressley’s 11 years on the job, she’s seen the agony people face trying to leave an abusive relationship and the freedom they feel when it happens.
For the last 11 years, Pressley has been Haywood County’s domestic violence advocate, a job that puts her in a position to get people the help they need while also aiding in building cases against abusers.
Pressley, a civilian employee of the Haywood County Sheriff’s Offices, spends many of her days between her office and the courthouse doing everything she can to navigate the process to find relief and safety for those who need it most. Along with offering a sympathetic ear and immediate advice, she can help survivors get a 50B order, which is basically a restraining order that ends in jail time if violated.
“Some people just have no clue the protective order exists,” Pressley said.
When deputies respond to domestic violence calls, they give Pressley’s information to survivors. When Pressley speaks with those people, she leaves no stone unturned in determining the appropriate course of action, directing some to the 30th Judicial District Alliance (See 30th Alliance, page 11) or REACH of Haywood County for additional resources.
In an email, Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher said domestic violence can’t be tolerated and that he encouraged people to report unacceptable behavior to law enforcement right away. When addressing the seriousness with which his office treats those cases, he gave Pressley immense credit for handling much of the workload.
“Suzie Pressley does a fantastic job for citizens of Haywood County,” Christopher said. “She assists victims daily and is the vital link to getting cases into court for prosecution.”
Capt. Tony Cope, Lt. Matt Shell and Sgt. Heath Justice comprise HCSO’s criminal investigations division’s upper chain of command. Cope, who has been in CID for 23 years, said a main consideration when handling domestic abuse cases is whether children live in the household.
“We not only protect the survivor, but it’s also important that we protect those children … It’s traumatizing for a child to live in that environment day in and day out. Sometimes, the only time they ever escape is when they go to school,” Cope said, adding that the sheriff’s office — including Pressley — also guide kids toward resources such as counseling.
Justice said a key element of bettering deputies’ response to domestic violence cases is training offered through the North Carolina Justice Academy, which receives funding authorized in the Violence Against Women Act (see VAWA, pg. 10). In fact, the enhanced training, done in collaboration with the NC Coalition Against Sexual Assault, was put into practice as a result of considerations made at the state level during the reauthorization of the 2017-2020 Violence Against Women Act.
But there are still ubiquitous challenges. For example, survivors find it consistently difficult leaving their abuser, and it’s even tougher to follow through with prosecution since that requires interviews and even court testimony. Justice said in most cases the way law enforcement is made aware of abuse is a 911 call and not someone filing a report.
“It takes a survivor an average of seven times to leave their abuser,” he said.
Pressley echoed that sentiment.
“They cannot walk out that door,” she said. “They don’t go through with anything because of the fear.”
Pressley has no shortage of stories where survivors have had trepidations, afraid of being cut off from family or finances or even concerns of greater harm. She recalled one incident when Shell was still in the patrol division and responded to a call from a woman alleging her partner had slapped her. What Shell didn’t know was, prior to his arrival, she concealed bruises and scrapes on her arms and legs suffered when she was dragged by her hair.
Pressley took note of those injuries during her follow-up interview and told investigators. More charges were secured.
“The guy ended up going to prison,” she said. “She didn’t go back with him either.”
While many detectives handle domestic violence investigators, they also have other areas of focus. However, Cagle’s main assignment is to ensure those cases stay on track. She said she goes back and knocks on the door of a household where abuse occurred, sometimes noting evidence of injuries not visible during deputies’ initial response. She frequently takes pictures of injuries during follow-up visits.
Cagle then gives survivors Pressley’s information and turns evidence over to the district attorney’s office with the aim of prosecution. That evidence is also used by Pressley when determining whether a protective order should be sought.
Shell talked about the importance of Cagle’s role when following up with survivors.
“We felt like we were missing some things in domestic violence and that there was more that we could do to make sure there’s a felony charge,” he said. “We felt like we were missing those pieces, so that’s why it’s really important to have a detective solely in charge of following those cases from beginning to end.”
One time, Shell explained, Cagle’s follow-up resulted in saving a woman from an actively abusive situation. When she pulled up to the home where a man had previously been arrested on a domestic violence charge, she heard screaming.
“A girl came running out, and [Cagle] had to engage the guy with her duty weapon and take him back into custody for violating the order,” Shell said.
But arrests and charges aren’t always Pressley’s end game, although successful prosecution is a goal in many cases. On some occasions, getting a person out of an abusive relationship is best done out of court. She likes to tell one story in particular to illustrate that point.
A woman she worked with wanted out of a desperate situation but didn’t want to do it in a way that would lead to charges, since she was afraid her partner may hurt or even kill her if he got out on bond. They came up with a plan. While Pressley didn’t offer specific details, she said it took about three months to execute it, and she didn’t even find out it was until she received a surprise phone call.
“She said, ‘I’m gone,’” Pressley recalled. “I said, ‘Just don’t even tell me where you are.’”
Pressley said the woman moved around for a while before settling down and that her abuser never found her.
While deputies focus on charging offenders, each one interviewed for this story also pointed out that their main goal is to be survivor-centered in their approach.
“We want to hold the offender accountable if there are criminal charges that need to be filed, but we are victim-oriented,” Shell said. “It’s important to make sure the victim — male, female, child — is safe. Criminal charges, those will come in time if we even need to, but our main goal is to make sure the victim is safe and in a good place.”
While the detectives and Pressley said long periods of isolation endured by most during the pandemic have led to more domestic violence, another issue with lockdowns is that the office hasn’t hosted its semi-annual awareness events. They urged anyone who thinks they may be in an abusive situation to reach out to the sheriff’s office, no matter the circumstances.
“It’s about getting out and getting safe,” Pressley said. “If they don’t want to do that through the legal system, I don’t care.”