In rural Tennessee, lack of resources lead to dismal situation for domestic violence victims

By: - October 7, 2020 5:36 am
Elizabeth Jones with her nephew, Isaiah. Jones is raising Isaiah after his mother was killed by her domestic partner in a murder-suicide in Paris, Tenn. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Elizabeth Jones with her nephew, Isaiah. Jones is raising Isaiah after his mother was killed by her domestic partner in a murder-suicide in Paris, Tenn. (Photo: John Partipilo)

If you come to Paris from Clarksville — arguably the closest “big” town —  you’ll drive through a stunning display of scenery as you cross the Tennessee River Bridge. As you transition from Stewart County to Henry County, vibrant emerald-colored trees, some still blooming with pink flowers despite spring being long gone, line the sides of Highway 79, and the water goes as far as you can see. Less than 20 miles further, the town of Paris begins. A long row of both old and new businesses and homes border the highway until you arrive in the downtown area, which is streaked with railroad tracks.

It was between the bridge and downtown, on that stretch of Highway 79, that Robert “Bobby” Mercer entered his business, shot and killed his estranged wife and an employee, and then took his own life.

Three weeks earlier, on May 12, the Paris Police Department responded to a domestic violence call at the apartment complex where Amanda Mercer lived. 

Amanda, 45, and Bobby, 48, were separated and going through a divorce.

Bobby and Amanda Mercer photographed at their wedding. (Photo: Jessica Herndon)
Bobby and Amanda Mercer photographed at their wedding. (Photo: Jessica Herndon)

According to police reports, Bobby had showed up at her apartment, and when Amanda opened the door, he put his hands around her neck and threw her to the ground. She ran to a neighbor’s apartment, and he left the scene. A Henry County Sheriff’s officer arrested Bobby and charged him with domestic assault. Bobby was released on a $5,000 bond, which included conditions like staying away from the victim and being prohibited from possessing a firearm. 

But on June 1, the Henry County Sheriff’s Office received two 911 calls from employees at Indoor Comfort Heating & Cooling, which Bobby owned and where Amanda worked. Bobby had shot Amanda multiple times and then barricaded himself inside the business. He had also shot and killed Cindy Townsend, an employee who had made the first 911 call.

Officers fired canisters of tear gas inside, then a tactical team tore down the wall leading into Bobby’s office. He was discovered with a gunshot wound to the head.

Amanda had worked at Indoor Comfort since they opened it in 2004. She put “literally her blood, sweat, and tears into that business,” her daughter Jessica Herndon says. She was a mother of three and a grandmother of three, and Herndon believes her mother’s love for her family was the main reason she stayed with Bobby for as long as she did.

“There were a lot of red flags for many years,” Herndon says. “This wasn’t something that just one night my dad decided to wake up and go kill my mom and another employee. This is not something that just happened overnight. There was abuse for a long time, and she kept on because she loves him, right, and he’s our dad. When you think of your grandkids, Grandma and Grandpa’s house, she didn’t want to break that up. And we feel a lot of guilt because she did stay for us for a long time.”

There just aren’t a lot of resources in Paris for people like her mother, Herndon says. She says that after Bobby first attacked Amanda, the Henry County Sheriff’s Office told Amanda she could get an order of protection against him. However, Herndon says, her mother never even made it to court to get the order because the coronavirus continually pushed the court date back. And if she had continued to call the sheriff’s office, “they would have done the same thing that they were doing, going out and talking to him and not doing anything” because there was no order of protection, Herndon says.

Amanda Mercer. (Photo: Jessica Herndon)
Amanda Mercer. (Photo: Jessica Herndon)

And perhaps her father’s status in the community played a role, too. Herndon says she wants people to know that it doesn’t matter if someone is a business owner or in a position of authority; she believes you should never question a woman who says she’s being abused by her husband just because they have nice things.  

“A lot of situations are like that,” she says. “People don’t believe the woman because everybody else in the town sees a man that’s doing really good for himself.

Along with experiencing more severe outcomes of domestic violence, research shows that victims in rural areas are less likely to seek help. Dr. Nicole Knickmeyer, a licensed psychologist and chair of the psychological science and counseling department at Austin Peay State University, attributes that to the isolation, but also to how tight-knit some communities are, where everyone knows everyone else.

“They may know the law enforcement officers in their communities,” Knickmeyer points out. “If they want to seek health care for injuries, they may know the people who work in the hospitals and doctors’ offices and may not feel comfortable disclosing for fear that information will get back to the abuser. … or they may feel embarrassed or ashamed for their community to know what’s happening.”

People don't believe the woman because everybody else in the town sees a man that's doing really good for himself.

– Jessica Herndon, daughter of Amanda and Bobby Mercer

Wo/Men’s Resource and Rape Assistance Program (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.

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. 

At WRAP, White and Notes stress that every service they provide is completely confidential. For instance, despite their deaths, WRAP still will not say whether or not Jessica or Amanda received services with them. But that privacy needs to extend outside of WRAP, too, Knickmeyer says. Victims need to feel like they can go to a doctor’s office or a church or the police and know for sure that whatever they say will stay confidential. In order for victims to feel that it is safe to seek help, it has to be a community-based effort.

“It’s up to counties and local communities to come up with the resources; they just have to decide it’s a priority,” Knickmeyer says. “I don’t know how many murder-suicides it takes to make that a priority.”

Henry County Mayor Brent Greer did not respond to multiple requests for comment about domestic violence in his county. Paris Mayor Carlton Gerrell said in an email that community officials “all regularly participate in awareness opportunities and support fully the efforts of any organization that seeks to eliminate the abuse of women and children.” But he directed the Tennessee Lookout to contact local law enforcement leaders regarding domestic violence and resources for survivors in Paris. “I am only a part-time mayor only working a few hours a month,” Gerrell said.

It’s not easy to find out what resources are offered to domestic violence victims in Henry County, though there are some. Survivors may not know about advocacy organizations like WRAP or about legal services that are available to them. And among law enforcement, confusion and misinformation is easier to find.

White says WRAP has a program with the sheriff’s office called the Lethality Assessment Program. If a sheriff’s officer responds to a domestic violence call, they fill out a questionnaire that will help them understand if it’s a high danger situation. If the answers to the questionnaire signal that it’s high risk, or if the victim refuses to answer, it immediately triggers a phone call to WRAP, connecting the victim to an advocate while officers are still on the scene. WRAP can then offer resources like safe housing or transportation, and then they follow up with the victim later. Law enforcement officers also send referrals to WRAP, so advocates can touch base with anyone they think might need it.

The Paris Police Department does not have an agreement with WRAP to use the lethality assessment questionnaire, though White says she does hope to get that implemented eventually. 

According to Capt. Adam Jenkins of the Henry County Sheriff’s Office, they also have school resource officers in county schools that speak to children and can refer a potential domestic violence case to the sheriff. They also have a patrol unit that has a phone number to the Tennessee statewide mental health crisis hotline stickered on the outside of the car.

Henry County Sheriff's Department vehicle. (Photo: Henry County Sheriff's Department)
Henry County Sheriff’s Department vehicle with crisis hotline number visible. (Photo: Henry County Sheriff’s Department)

There’s also training. Jenkins says officers do 40 hours of in-service training every year, including domestic violence training, with Virtual Academy. Sgt. Jamie James, the domestic violence instructor for the Paris Police Department, says the department does training with the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy

When law enforcement responds to a domestic call, there’s a general process in place that both the sheriff’s office and police department follow. It is treated as an emergency call; officers arrive and try to determine who the “primary aggressor” is. If a primary aggressor is identified, they are arrested and charged and held for a mandatory 12-hour cooling off period. James says that within that time, the aggressor will have a bond hearing with a judicial commissioner, who will go over bond conditions, like the ones placed on Robert Mercer. The arrested person must sign off on the bond conditions in order to be released. 

Also during that time, officers will talk to victims about what options are available to them. The Paris Police Department gives a victims rights form to domestic violence victims after an arrest is made or a warrant is filed. Along with information about the initial court date for the aggressor, the form, which the Tennessee Lookout reviewed, has phone numbers and resources for victims on where they can go or who they can contact to receive help. The form does not include numbers for White, Noles, or any WRAP services. It does include a phone number for a shelter called Damascus Road House. 

At the end of that phone line is Marian Paschall, who says she is the executive director of Damascus Road, an agency that ended its domestic violence services . According to Paschall, Damascus Road closed the domestic violence part of its program over four years ago and now serves only people with disabilities.

“That is gone, history, past, beyond,” a frustrated Paschall says. “We no longer do domestic violence shelter nor do we have resources in our program for domestic violence.”

Paschall says she did not know her number was listed on the police department’s form and that no one ever calls her. “I don’t know where it’s listed and why it’s listed and who to see about taking it off,” she adds. “That’s not my problem, OK?”

The form also lists two other numbers described as domestic crisis line numbers for assistance. One of the numbers leads to a domestic violence hotline for victims in the state of Georgia. The other leads to a place called Haven House, which is also based in Georgia. The woman who answered says they’ll serve any victims of domestic abuse, but that they are based in McDonough, Georgia, which is south of Atlanta, more than 6 hours away from Paris. 

Asked about these discrepancies, James said he believed Damascus Road was still operating, but at an undisclosed location, and Assistant Chief Rick Watson said as far as he knew, it was still open. It’s easy to see how law enforcement might be confused about Damascus Road. Although Paschall says it hasn’t offered a domestic violence program for four years, recent tax documents for the non-profit filed in the summer of 2019 describe its mission not only as help for those with disabilities but also “to provide a temporary, non-discriminating, drug-free haven for domestic violence victims and others who have no one elsewhere.”

Phone numbers given to domestic violence victims in Henry County lead to programs in Georgia, six hours away.

As for the Georgia numbers, both officers were surprised to hear that they led to an out-of-state hotline.

Another area of confusion is when it comes to protection orders after a domestic violence call. Capt. Jenkins said he believed that when a person is arrested for domestic violence, a 15-day ex-parte order of protection is automatically granted statewide. 

But Jenkins is wrong. According to Randy Hampton, the VOCA (Victims of Crime Act) managing attorney for West Tennessee Legal Services, while bond conditions for an arrested aggressor to get out of jail often include a no contact order, that does not mean an ex-parte order of protection is automatically given.

“These things are quite often mixed up by victims and law enforcement,” Hampton says. “They have a little bit of a misconception.” 

Victims can go to the courthouse and apply for an ex-parte, or temporary, order of protection.  A judge or sometimes a clerk must find that the order is warranted and approve it. While that temporary order is in effect, a victim can apply for a full order of protection, which has “a lot more teeth in it,” Hampton says.

West Tennessee Legal Services has attorneys across western Tennessee, with each one serving several counties. The Huntingdon office serves the counties of Henry, Weakley, Carroll, and Benton, though Hampton says the majority of cases are in Henry County. The organization offers free legal services to domestic violence victims, whether that’s helping them obtain an order of protection, get a divorce from their abuser, or just navigating the overwhelming court system.

It’s all a lot to process. But White says that even where there’s confusion, there’s still a community that cares very deeply about the safety of its residents. If a victim needs to leave the area immediately, WRAP has people in the community they can call to help offer a ride, or maybe another agency can help them get a hotel room for the night. WRAP partners with churches for assistance and receives donations of food, clothing, and hygiene items from people in the area.

“It is a lot of ground to cover, that’s for sure,” White says. “But the community, it really is a great community. Although we’re the only agency that specifically works with domestic violence victims, [Noles] and I both rely a lot of the time on resources in the community to assist.”


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Celia Darrough
Celia Darrough

Celia Darrough is a freelance journalist based in Clarksville. She is the former senior news editor for Bustle and has also written for Mic, Refinery29, and Thrillist. Celia has lived and reported all across the country, from Alaska and Oregon to New York City and now Tennessee. You can follow her on Twitter at @celiadarrough.