April 25, 2013

‘We didn’t know where to turn’

Victim-Witness program helps many with tough situations

Rachel Brown

— Imagine sleeping in your clothes every night, ready to leave your home at any moment because you’re afraid your husband is going to lose it.

Then imagine one day he takes a shotgun, threatens your daughter and makes you sit there watching him loading and unloading the weapon, cursing at you and threatening to kill himself.

That was the scenario one local woman found herself in after she said her husband became a habitual drug user and went down a path that increasingly made her life hell. The woman’s name is withheld because her husband is now out of prison, and even though he has so far stayed away, she still fears for her safety.

“I’m scared,” the woman said. “I got my carry permit. I carry a pistol. I have an alarm system in my home ... I’m always looking back, checking the backseat of my car before I get in it.”

There are many such stories of individuals from all kinds of backgrounds and socioeconomic groups, said Brenda Hoffmeyer, director of the Victim-Witness Assistance Program through the District Attorney’s office that covers Whitfield and Murray counties. This week, offices like hers in communities across the nation are recognizing individuals like this woman as part of the National Center for Victims of Crime’s National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.

Kay Jackson and Gary Spurgeon, siblings of crime victim Audie Spurgeon, said they wished they had known about the Victim-Witness office when their brother was killed by his ex-wife almost four years ago. Rita Lynn Spurgeon pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Jackson said the family in trying to retrieve Spurgeon’s body and understand what their duties and rights were met with several public officials who were rude at worst and unhelpful at best. If only there had been someone on their side, she said, someone who understood how the system works and could have directed them, their paths might have been much easier. Finally, she said, the funeral home director who handled Audie’s arrangements suggested they contact Hoffmeyer’s office. Jackson only wishes they had known to do that sooner.

“We didn’t know what our rights were,” Jackson said, “and we were still in shock in dealing with this.”

Gary Spurgeon said that while those times were difficult and they feel wronged by several people, it’s time to move forward. He said he wants all law officers to be trained to direct family members to the Victim-Witness office from the start.

“We can’t go and change the past. We have to live for the future,” he said. “One of the things that would help us is families not having to experience what we did.”

Another local woman said if not for the office, pulling through the process of prosecuting her soon-to-be ex-husband for molesting her daughter over several years would have been much more difficult. The woman feared retribution for speaking publicly and asked for her identity to remain confidential.

“It’s been rough,” she said of her daughter.

Her advice to parents facing similar situations is to listen when their child says something is going on. The woman said her daughter didn’t come forward with her story until after she was separated from her perpetrator and she began fearing he would start molesting her sisters if she didn’t speak up.

“When your child says it, never doubt for one minute,” the woman said. “You’ve got to stay strong. You can’t break down.”

The Victim-Witness program offers victims and family members information on what to expect in the court and legal systems. It also has resources to direct those who need it toward counseling or other services. For more information, visit www.conasauga-da.org/vwap.htm.