Domestic violence unit work praised Compassion: Caring action by the county staff encourages woman who filed complaint.

January 04, 1998|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

Choosing between friendship and moral duty after witnessing a brutal domestic assault, a Westminster woman alerted authorities -- and her friend was arrested.

Now she is encouraging others to come forward against domestic violence and praising the quick response to her report by the domestic violence unit of the Carroll County state's attorney's office.

Christina Leatherman, 21, said she knew she had to act before something even more horrible happened than what she saw that September morning when -- according to her account and police reports -- Beth Hoffman was assaulted and she and her 4-week-old son were threatened with a kitchen knife.

The tip of Hoffman's nose was bitten off after she was choked and thrown against a wall, according to the accounts.

About three hours after Leatherman filed the complaint, her longtime friend, J. Scott Hoffman, 25, of Westminster was arrested.

Accused of two counts of assault and six related charges, he is being held at the Carroll County Detention Center in lieu of $150,000 bail. He also faces charges of violating a court protective order that he have no contact with Beth Hoffman, his estranged wife.

Leatherman, the baby's godmother, said she sought help from the domestic violence unit and was amazed at how quickly authorities there acted. She said she wants other victims to know how responsive they were.

"You see in movies why abused women don't leave," Leatherman said, but noted that the domestic violence unit makes it easier.

"They know that a woman trapped in that situation is walking on eggshells. It's not just the physical abuse, but the mental abuse that makes her incapable of making a decision to leave," Leatherman said, noting that she'd felt helpless as a witness.

For instance, Leatherman said, neither she nor Beth Hoffman filed charges in an earlier incident -- and, as a friend of the accused man since childhood, she wrestled with guilt before turning to authorities on Sept. 20.

She said she filed the complaint after meeting three "real-life guardian angels with kind eyes," members of the unit formed in July by State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes to deal with the rapidly rising number of domestic violence cases. According to data provided by the Circuit Court, 67 domestic violence cases were filed in 1993. Last year, the number was 308.

With the unit encouraging victims to stop the cycle of violence and press charges, the number of cases may continue to rise.

That would not surprise Leatherman.

"I looked into their eyes and just knew they love what they do," she said, referring to unit members Latisha "Tish" Mayne, Gary Cofflin and Melissa Ottey Hockensmith.

Mayne is the unit's case coordinator, Cofflin its investigator, and Assistant State's Attorney Hockensmith specializes in prosecuting domestic violence offenders.

"As each spoke with me, I knew they really cared about me, Beth, and the baby," Leatherman said.

Within 40 minutes, she said, an arrest warrant had been signed charging the estranged husband with violating the protective order. Before serving the warrant, authorities met with Beth Hoffman at work to make sure she would be safe.

Once J. Scott Hoffman was in jail, the work for Mayne, Cofflin and Hockensmith had just begun. None could speak about FTC specifics of the case because it has not gone to trial.

However, Cofflin spoke in general terms of how the domestic violence unit operates.

Once a police report comes to the state's attorney's office, the alleged victim is sent a letter advising her of her rights and the services that are available, Cofflin said.

Routinely, a temporary protective order is obtained until both parties can appear before a judge, who will decide whether the order should be extended for up to one year. Cofflin becomes involved in investigating the charges.

"I'll usually visit the woman, give her my pager number and make it clear that she can call anytime, day or night, if she is worried, or becomes fearful," he said.

Often, Cofflin said, domestic violence occurs between two people and there are no witnesses. About 99 percent of cases involve a woman being abused by her husband or boyfriend

"Police do a good job, relying on their experience to decide if someone should be arrested," he said.

Cofflin reviews the police investigation, making sure that any weapons involved are confiscated.

He also makes certain that Hockensmith has whatever information she needs to prepare to prosecute the case.

Mayne, once a victim of domestic violence, concentrates on reassuring the victim, letting her know how the case is progressing and what to expect when called upon to testify.

If an alleged abuser is released on bond, Cofflin regularly contacts the victim to determine if she has any suspicions that the protective order is being violated. If necessary, an alarm system may be installed in the victim's home.

"We try to eliminate a victim's fear, as much as we can," Cofflin said.

To victims of abuse, or friends and family of those abused, Leatherman says: Get help or get involved.

"Domestic violence won't go away by itself," she said.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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