Marlina Medrano had a protection order against her boyfriend, Thomas Hartless, but it didn’t save her when he opened fire at the Kirkersville nursing home where she worked.
A similar order didn’t spare 10-year-old Samantha Carpenter, who was shot to death in 2014 in her New Paris driveway by her mother’s boyfriend, Brian Harleman, who also wounded the mother before killing himself. The attack came just days after the mother was granted a protection order against Harleman.
That same year a Springfield woman was attacked just hours after her boyfriend was served with a protection order. Robert Walden went to her home and slit her throat before attempting to kill himself. Both lived, and he is serving an 11-year prison sentence for attempted murder.
Ohioans regularly seek protection from individuals who they feel pose a grave threat to them. In Montgomery County, 2,203 requests for domestic violence or stalking orders were filed in 2016 alone, according to the Montgomery County Clerk of Courts office.
But although officials say the orders serve their purpose in the vast majority of cases, they urge those being threatened to take other safety precautions.
“It’s not going to stop a bullet,” said Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Magistrate Kristi McCartney. “I tell people they need to have a safety plan. They can’t walk out of court thinking they have some kind of shield around them.”
When orders are first granted, domestic violence victims may be at their most vulnerable, said Jane Keiffer, executive director of Artemis Center in Dayton, which provides services to victims of domestic violence and their children.
“For some abusers when they learn about this piece of paper it really keeps them at bay,” she said. “But for some, they don’t really care. It kind of escalates them: ‘If I can’t have you, no one will.’”
The Kirkersville shooting provides a textbook case of what can go wrong.
Two months ago Medrano told court officials that Hartless, her live-in boyfriend, had beaten her again, tried to run her over with his truck and threatened to kill her and himself at the same time.
On May 12 he did just that, shooting Medrano, her coworker Cindy Krantz, and Kirkersville Police Chief Steven Eric DiSario at the Pine Kirk Care Center in Kirkersville.
At the time Hartless was fresh off serving 20 days in jail for domestic violence against Medrano. A civil protection order prohibited him from having any contact with her.
But Medrano had a complicated relationship with Hartless. She withdrew similar orders twice before, and had written a letter to the judge on his behalf asking for leniency in his criminal case. The letter may have been a factor in his early release from his 90-day sentence.
“I never intended Tom to be jailed for his actions, rather it was a cry for help,” Medrano wrote in the letter dated March 23, the day he was sentenced. “I continue to love and support him.”
The slayings were the culmination of months of back-and-forth between the couple, court documents reveal. Those who work with domestic violence cases say the dance of violence, fear and forgiveness is all too common.
“It takes an average of six to eight times to leave a domestic violence relationship,” Keiffer said.
‘It makes it really challenging’
Victims of domestic violence may love their batterer and believe his promises to change, said Keiffer. Some even become convinced they brought the violence upon themselves.
“There’s a lot of fear for when they come out of a relationship that involves domestic violence,” said Jennifer Hall, case manager for the YWCA domestic violence shelter in Preble County. “The typical abuser jargon is, ‘I’ll never do it again. You don’t want to destroy our family. I love you.’”
“At that moment they are very adept at telling the woman what they want to hear.”
The dynamics of domestic violence cases are different than other types of criminal cases, said Tom Hagel, professor emeritus at University of Dayton School of Law and a part-time municipal judge.
“How many other criminal cases do you have with the victim commonly advocating for the perpetrator?” he said.
Getting the batterer out of the house is sometimes not enough, said Keiffer.
“We know there’s stalking. There’s harassment. Just like in this case (in Kirkersville), this batterer came to her place of employment,” she said.
Domestic violence resources are available across the state, and victims — who are predominantly female — can be hidden away with their children in shelters. Some may even choose to quit their jobs, uproot their families and leave the area.
“She can go and move far far away,” Keiffer said. “But if he’s hell-bent on finding her it makes it really challenging to keep her safe.”
No contact permitted
Civil protection orders come in a variety of forms, including ones for stalking cases and those involving rape or other sexually oriented offenses.
The most common type, however, are issued by domestic relations judges in county common pleas courts. They are used when there is a family or intimate relationship between the accused and the person petitioning for the order.
The orders, which can last up to five years, bar contact with the petitioner, including through email, phone calls or social media. Relatives of the accused also cannot make contact or threats.
With few exceptions, those under the order are not allowed to buy or possess firearms, which must be surrendered to police, said Domestic Relations Judge Timothy D. Wood of Montgomery County Common Pleas Court.
Violations can result in criminal charges — a misdemeanor for the first and second offense and a felony for subsequent ones or any violation that involve the commission of a felony. Also, the standard of proof for the alleged offense is lower than in a criminal case.
“In most criminal cases you would like to have lots of eye witnesses and forensic evidence,” Wood said. “But in these cases it often comes down to what the petitioner says verses what the respondent says.”
He said it is becoming increasingly common for couples to each file a protection order request against the other.
Wood can grant an immediate order after hearing from the petitioner, but then sets a hearing to consider both sides. Of the 1,462 domestic civil protection requests filed in 2016, about 850 resulted in issuance of an order, Wood said. In 539 cases, the petitioner voluntarily dismissed the request or didn’t follow the case through to the end, he said.
“They range from being baseless to being very legitimate, where folks have a serious concern for their well-being,” said Lawrence Hawkins III, a Cincinnati attorney who practices in Butler County. “The biggest issue you get is the people who are chronically involved in tumultuous relationships.”
All 50 states have some type of civil protection order system and federal law requires that a protection order issued in one jurisdiction be fully enforced in all other jurisdictions. The orders are listed in a national registry.
Domestic protection orders are effective in reducing intimate partner violence, according to a 2011 study by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.
“Between 30 percent and 77 percent of protective orders issued for partner violence were not violated,” according to the study. “Victims report less fear after obtaining the protective order, and the vast majority believe the protective order was effective.”
But authorities’ hands are tied if the victim refuses to press charges or participate in prosecution of a domestic violence case, withdraws protective order requests or continues seeking contact with the accused, said Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser. He said he pushes back when victims want him to drop charges.
“When they see horrible examples that pop up every now and then they have to understand why,” Gmoser said. “It’s not just because I don’t want to be on Fox News as the whack job from Butler County who let some killer out to murder somebody.”
‘I knew someone was going to die’
After the Kirkersville killing, Licking County Municipal Judge Michael Higgins told WBNS-TV that “mistakes were made” in the handling of the Hartless case. He ordered that the handling of the case be reviewed and on Thursday released a report saying multiple issues were found and new procedures would be put in place.
Hartless, 43, had a history of violence when he and Medrano began dating last year. He’d been convicted of assault in the early 1990s, then sent to prison in 2009 for abducting his then-girlfriend and an assault incident involving someone else.
The woman he abducted described him becoming enraged because a male friend said hello to her. He drove her to a wooded area, beat her, taped her up and held her in his car until the next morning, according to court documents. He served eight months of a two-year sentence.
Court records don’t show when the abuse started for Medrano, but she first filed charges in December 2016, reporting that Hartless had knocked her down the stairs and punched her in the face. In that police report, she recounted past incidents of abuse, including the time he drove her out into the country, beat her and showed her a hole he’d dug to bury her in if she didn’t stay with him.
Before that criminal case could go to court, Medrano was hospitalized from another attack in January and he was charged again with domestic violence.
That time Hartless became irate when she wouldn’t accept his marriage proposal with a ring he’d bought at a bar. He headbutted her and punched her, causing a laceration to her face and a concussion, according to court records.
She sought and obtained a protection order but later dropped it.
In March, already facing two pending misdemeanor charges for domestic violence, Hartless attacked her again.
Connie Long lives on the same street as Hartless’s father in Utica and witnessed the March attack.
Hartless kicked and punched Medrano before she could break free and run to Long’s house for help, Long said. While Medrano ran, Hartless attempted to hit her with his truck.
As she sat bloodied in Long’s home that day, Medrano said she dropped the protection order she obtained in January because Hartless warned her that if she didn’t he would kill her or members of her family.
Long and her daughter were called to testify when Medrano requested a second protection order against Hartless in March.
But that order was also dropped by Medrano two days before Hartless turned himself in and pleaded guilty to all three counts of domestic violence, plus one count of criminal damaging for driving on Long’s lawn.
He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, which shocked Long.
“How can you look at this man’s history and give him less than minimal sentencing? I don’t understand this,” she said.
She was even more shocked — and scared — when she saw him standing in his driveway less than three weeks later.
“It was like someone had punched me in the gut,” she said. “I knew someone was going to die.”
The cycle continued after Hartless was released from jail.
Hartless allegedly choked Medrano on May 1 and again on May 4 as she was trying to leave for her night shift at the nursing home, according to court records.
She once again sought and was granted an emergency protection order. As of May 5 — exactly one week before her death — Hartless was barred from going to Medrano’s home or workplace; from being within 500 feet of her or having any contact with her; and he was ordered turn over all deadly weapons to law enforcement.
It’s not clear if he turned over any weapons, but his prior felony convictions would have barred him from purchasing or owning a gun.
Hartless carried a shotgun and a handgun when he took hostages behind Medrano’s workplace the morning of May 12, shot DiSario as he exited his vehicle, blasted his way into the nursing home and killed Medrano and Krantz before turning the gun on himself.
Medrano died of multiple gunshot wounds from both guns.
Later that day, police raided Hartless’s father’s home — where Hartless had lived off and on — and seized 64 firearms.
After two decades of working with victims of domestic violence, Keiffer said the contours of the violent relationship Medrano had with Hartless sound all too familiar.
“I wouldn’t say he’s beating the crap out of her because it’s love. He’s beating the crap out of her because she disobeyed him,” Keiffer said. “Because he believes that she needs to be in this relationship with him. So how dare she tell somebody — the courts — to get a protection order? How dare she leave?”