No Safe Place

In danger at home, let down by the law, a woman fleeing brutality loses her life

Sun Special Report

December 14, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,melissa.harris@baltsun.com

On her way to get a protective order against her husband, Veronica Williams drove by the home where their marriage had fallen apart - where he had attacked her with scissors and cut off her hair.

The District Court was just five blocks from their North Avenue rowhouse. She believed her husband had abandoned it to elude arrest for domestic violence.

She had decided to end her nine-year marriage, but on this day, a final series of coincidences and missed opportunities would lead to her death.

She spotted his SUV first. And then - on a cloudy Monday afternoon in November - she saw him walk down their front steps, carrying some belongings.

She drove on, hoping he had not seen her. A few minutes later, her cell phone vibrated and rang. She opened the text message.

"Where are you?" her assistant, Teruko Taft, asked.

"Entering the courthouse," she replied.

Taft typed back: "He saw you."

The 28-year-old woman standing before Baltimore Judge Jeannie J. Hong had a flawless face. Her words, as soothing as her beauty, were delivered like a doctor calmly giving bad news to a stranger in a waiting room.

Veronica gave her name, raised her hand and swore to tell the truth. She told the judge she had been married for about 10 years and had three children - ages 8, 7 and 5.

With the routine questions out of the way, the judge gently asked her why she was there. Veronica began to recount what happened at the three-story brick rowhouse at 2 a.m. Oct. 19, after she told her husband she was leaving him for the second time.

The judge interrupted, incredulous. "He cut all your hair off?"

"Yes. I screamed as loud as I could. No one responded but the children. They came downstairs."

The judge cringed.

"And they watched?"

"They didn't see anything because when he saw them he did stop. He sent them back upstairs, and then he kicked me out of the house."

Hong specializes in handling domestic violence cases. When she has reason to believe a victim might be in imminent danger, she knows what to do. She sends a security guard to escort the victim to her car. She ensures that the victim gets legal assistance, emergency shelter and other services.

But Veronica gave no hint that her husband had attacked her before. She never said how terrified she was. She never indicated that he might be lurking outside.

Before Hong granted the protective order, she asked Veronica if she wanted to tell her anything else.

"No," Veronica replied.

Veronica Graves met Cleaven Williams in 1998 at Hagerstown Junior College. Her cousin and best friend, Carlin Robinson, 38, didn't like him from the beginning - he showed up too often at the McDonald's where Veronica worked and always seemed to be monitoring her.

They married in 1999. Veronica was 19; Cleaven, 23. They built a barbershop business on the edge of downtown, where Cleaven cut hair and Veronica styled dreadlocks. They had three children, whom Veronica home-schooled and carted everywhere, from church to soccer, ballet, judo, tap, Chinese, music and art.

Veronica described their marriage as "picture-perfect" - until a Friday night in January 2005.

He slapped her and choked her in their upstairs bedroom. He pushed her into a dresser, pinned her against her vanity and then began kicking her in the chest. She pleaded with him to stop; she reminded him of their children. He told her that his mother could raise them.

Then he pistol-whipped her and fired a .45-caliber handgun at her feet.

The bullet went through the bedroom carpet, lodging itself in the kitchen floor about 10 feet from where Veronica's handicapped mother sat downstairs, physically unable to come to her daughter's rescue.

When Cleaven went to the bathroom, she ran out of the house, all the while fearing he would shoot her in the back. She went to Hagerstown police but gave them a false name and story. She had been robbed, she said, but didn't want to make a report. She just wanted "to be safe" and be taken to a hospital. Scratches and a bump were visible on her face.

Early the next morning, a Saturday, the Williamses' business - the 7th Degree Barbershop - burned to the ground. Fire marshals ruled it arson but were never able to gather enough evidence to charge anyone.

That afternoon, Cleaven fled to Johnstown, Pa., a two-hour drive from Hagerstown, to the home of a woman he knew. Cleaven told the woman he had hurt his wife with a gun and would be going to jail. The woman then told Western Hills Regional Police that Cleaven punched holes in the walls, threw pictures around and attempted to rape her in the hallway - but she refused to press charges.

While Cleaven was in Johnstown, Veronica's aunt coaxed her back to the police station, where she gave a full report and taped statement.

Her family encouraged her to leave town. She visited relatives in Texas, New Orleans and Florida, where Cleaven tracked her down. He promised that things would change, and they drove back to Maryland together.

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