Near the downtown area of Paris, Tennessee, a long set of concrete stairs, partially overgrown with crabgrass and weeds, leads up a hill to the maroon front door on Depot Street, a small pastel orange house surrounded by tall, skinny trees. On the night of May 22, 2018, Jessica Jones got off work from her factory job at the PML rubber plant, picked up her 3-year-old son, Isaiah, from his grandma’s house and took him home to the little orange house for dinner.
Jessica, 29, had an on and off relationship with Isaiah’s father, Demarrio Borum, 39, for around four years. Sometimes Demarrio lived with them at the little orange house, but that night he was staying at his mother’s house some 20 minutes away in McKenzie. They’d been arguing for two days, because Jessica had told him she had made a final decision and this time she was done. She was going to leave him, focus on Isaiah, and just be happy.
A short while later, Jessica was dead, the victim of multiple gunshots. The shooter: Demarrio, who was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot in the hallway near Jessica’s body.
The mother and son are among the victims of the deadly toll taken by domestic violence in Tennessee, a state with persistently high rates of domestic violence assaults and murders compared to the rest of the country. The violence, national research shows, trends higher in rural areas like Paris.
Over the past year, the Paris Police Department had been called to that Depot Street house several times. In May 2017, officers were dispatched for a domestic dispute. Jessica was charged with disorderly conduct after yelling, cursing, and throwing a child’s toy at Demarrio, who had just returned from taking Isaiah to Jessica’s mother’s house. In December 2017, officers were dispatched to the home again. Jessica and Demarrio had gotten into an argument. He claimed she was the aggressor and tried to cut him with a kitchen knife; she said he had grabbed her and tried to slam her against the wall and that she grabbed the knife to defend herself because she was afraid he would shoot her with a gun that was in his truck.
Jessica’s sister, Elizabeth Jones, says that both Jessica and Demarrio could get physical during arguments. Their families tried to help — encouraging them to walk away from arguments when it got too heated — but “it got to a point where they’re not listening to family,” Elizabeth says. They knew they were toxic for each other, but they couldn’t let their relationship go, she says. “Even though as much as we tried to help them, it was just not enough.”
On May 20, 2018, Jessica logged onto Instagram and posted a few photos: one of Demarrio and Isaiah, a series of Isaiah playing in a blue kiddie pool, and a selfie with the dog ears filter. She also posted a video of her vibing to “Beautiful” by Bazzi with the hashtag #SelfLove. They were having a family day together, playing and planning their upcoming trip to Florida. Later that night, they started arguing, and that’s when Jessica told Demarrio she had made her final decision.
Two days later, after she brought Isaiah home for dinner, three Paris Police officers were on Depot Street when they heard gunshots. They walked up the long concrete stairs, saw a man run inside the house, and then heard another shot. More officers arrived. They entered the little orange house and found a pool of blood. Around the corner, both Jessica and Demarrio were lying on the hallway floor. The officers took Isaiah, who was unhurt, out of the house, and began to investigate the scene. Jessica had been shot between five to eight times in her chest and face. Demarrio had a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. They were both declared deceased.
Tennessee: Higher than average domestic violence rates
Across the board, the state of Tennessee suffers from higher than average domestic violence rates. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 40% of Tennessee women experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. That’s higher than the national average, in which one in three women (33%) experience violence from an intimate partner, defined as a spouse, ex-spouse, girlfriend/boyfriend, or ex-girlfriend/ex-boyfriend. In terms of sheer numbers, data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) shows that there were more than 73,500 domestic-related offenses in the state in 2018. The majority of offenses were classified as simple assault, intimidation, or aggravated assault. Women accounted for 71.1% of victims.
- 40% of Tennessee women1 and 32.5% of Tennessee men2 experience intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner rape and/or intimate partner stalking in their lifetimes.
- 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner.
That violence is sometimes fatal. Data from the Violence Policy Center (VPC), a nonprofit organization researching violence in the United States, shows Tennessee has the fifth highest rate of women murdered by men. The nationwide average is 1.29 per 100,000 women; Tennessee’s rate was 2.01 per 100,000 women in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available.
The VPC calls murder-suicides “shockingly common,” estimating there are between 1,000 to 1,500 of these deaths across the country each year. In its 2020 report American Roulette: Murder-Suicide in the United States, the VPC reported that 65% of murder-suicides involve an intimate partner, and of those incidents, 95% of those who were killed by their partner were women. Almost all involved a gun.
In 2018, the year Jessica was killed, there were 98 domestic violence murder victims in Tennessee, according to the TBI.
Research, including a 2011 study in the Journal of Women’s Health, has shown that women in rural areas — like Paris — are more likely to report having experienced domestic violence; they also report more severe violent actions than women in urban areas. According to Census data as reported by the Tennessee Department of Health, 93% of Tennessee is rural.
This creates a dismal situation for victims of domestic violence in Tennessee. The Journal of Women’s Health study noted that women in rural areas have to travel three times as far as women in urban areas to receive domestic violence resources, and the programs that are available in rural areas are often serving more counties and have fewer shelter services.
Survivors of domestic and sexual violence in Henry County, which has a population of more than 32,000, are mainly supported by just two women. Katie Noles is the Henry County sexual assault coordinator for Wo/Men’s Resource and Rape Assistance Program (WRAP). Brancy White is its Henry County domestic violence response manager.
WRAP is headquartered in Jackson, Tennessee, about an hour and 15 minutes south of Paris. It serves 19 counties on the western side of the state. The organization has three safe homes in different cities in the region, but the one that’s closest to Paris is still almost an hour away.
Dr. Nicole Knickmeyer, a licensed psychologist and chair of the psychological science and counseling department at Austin Peay State University, says safety nets need to be in place for domestic violence victims. Organizations should provide domestic violence training to health care providers and law enforcement, offer transportation services for victims, and get local leaders like church officials involved.
White and Noles are doing all of that. WRAP is a community-based victim service provider, so while they often focus on direct services to victims, they also try to do as much community outreach as possible.
They partner with law enforcement so that if police respond to a domestic violence call, officers can be connected with an advocate while they are still on the scene.
They show up at schools and churches to raise awareness about their services.
WRAP has a 24-hour helpline, but they also give out their direct cell phone numbers to people in the community who might need them. If someone needs a safe place immediately, they coordinate with community members to help provide a ride to a shelter or find a closer place to stay for the night. They have a rapid rehousing program, counseling, and court accompaniment and advocacy.
“There’s so many different services that we offer,” White says, noting that all of them are completely free for everyone.
“We can’t just tell people to leave without giving them the tools they need to be able to exit that relationship, that situation if they want to,” Noles adds. “We provide dangerousness assessments with domestic violence victims, we can safety plan, we can help them figure out and explore what their options are, what they feel the pros and cons to those options are, so hopefully we can help them understand their level of danger and use that information to make the best choice for themselves.”
But serving an entire county, where a lot of the communities are spread out, is a lot of work for just two people, Knickmeyer says.
“This is not just a problem of Henry County, this is a problem all across the country,” Knickmeyer says. “In Tennessee, because of our problem with access to health care in general, mental health especially, those safety nets are very frayed.”
Outside of Paris and Henry County, the priority for Jessica’s sister, Elizabeth, is Isaiah. Jessica’s son is now 5; Elizabeth, who lives in Murfreesboro, is his legal guardian, and she’s working on adopting him. Sometimes he calls her aunt, sometimes mom, “whatever he feels at that moment,” she says.
Isaiah was in the home the night his parents died. He remembers everything, and can tell you “detail by detail” what happened. Elizabeth, a 30-year-old graphic design and marketing manager, says the incident set him back in terms of his speech and his security; he was afraid to use the restroom and cried while watching Toy Story 3 when Andy goes to college.
“Anything that sets up something that’s going away and not coming back, he starts crying because that’s kind of what happened,” Elizabeth says. “One minute he had his parents, the next minute they’re gone.”
Isaiah is working with his teachers and does well in school, Elizabeth says. She has him in counseling, which has helped him express himself and relearn some of the things he forgot.
Elizabeth didn’t know her sister was in an abusive relationship until she revealed to Jessica that she herself was experiencing domestic violence. Married for six years, Elizabeth told Jessica about what was going on with her, and Jessica opened up about her experience with Demarrio. That was in 2017. Jessica was killed in 2018, and Elizabeth finalized her divorce in January 2019.
Elizabeth says that it’s her goal to help her hometown. She runs a Facebook page called ilove, whose mission is to “create healthy relationships in the community” and “provide support and awareness” to people who have experienced domestic violence.
She says she watched her mother experience domestic violence, too, while she was growing up in Paris, which may have influenced her and Jessica and made them believe it’s OK. Domestic violence is often a cycle, and she wanted to get Isaiah out of Henry County so he didn’t have to be reminded of what happened to his mom and dad.
“He made me a parent,” she says. “There’s some good days and bad days, things we have to overcome. I have to make sure he’s getting the best life that he’s getting so he knows he’s secure and doesn’t have to go through that mess again.”