The Plague Strikes Home

UPDATED 08/29/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/29/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

DEC. 5, 1993, WAS HIS DAY off, but when Lt. Martin Hoxie heard the urgent rescue call over the police radio in his car, he thought he recognized the address as that of Stephen and Kathy Jean Robbins. Hoxie remembered Kathy, 25, who worked at the local A&P, as a forlorn young woman he'd encountered a while back when her husband Stephen, 30, who worked for an exterminator, was found to be poisoning birds in the neighborhood. And he knew too that Stephen had been charged with assaulting her several months earlier. By the time Hoxie, 55, reached the modest Cape Cod-style Hyannis home that the Robbinses rented, the radio call had been updated to a homicide, and inside, Kathy lay dead on the living-room sofa, stabbed in the neck and her head bashed in with a baseball bat. "It just didn't surprise me," says Hoxie, a 35-year veteran of the Barnstable, Mass., police force. "We're always holding our breath."

With good reason. While the O.J. Simpson case has focused America's attention on domestic violence, Hoxie and his colleagues have been bearing grim witness to such violence for years. Kathy Robbins was the third Barnstable woman allegedly murdered by a mate in less than six months, and since Aug. 4, 1993, there have been a total of five domestic violence fatalities in this Cape Cod town of 42,000. Although local authorities are loath to use the word epidemic, the cluster of murders is surely dumbfounding. Barnstable, 75 miles south of Boston, has had no other homicides during the same time period, and none of the other 14 towns on Cape Cod has had any domestic violence fatalities since 1992.

According to Lieutenant Hoxie, who is in charge of domestic violence enforcement for Barnstable, the number of homicides is only part of the story. Every weekend, Barnstable police officers, like their counterparts in other Massachusetts towns of comparable size, receive six to nine domestic violence calls, and the department serves about six court-issued restraining orders in that same time period. "When we get these calls, you hear fear, screaming," Hoxie says. "Heads are being slammed against the wall. People are being thrown over chairs. It's just luck there haven't been more [deaths]."

No one seems to know just why Barnstable's recent track record is so dismal. "The number is inexplicable," says Joan Stiles, public policy coordinator for the Massachusetts Coalition of Battered Women's Service Groups. "For some reason—or maybe no reason at all—there's been an explosion of the cancer of domestic violence that often lies just below the surface." Though Barnstable County sheriff John DeMello, who has been working with a local women's group to open a much-needed shelter for battered women, believes the five fatalities may simply be an odd statistical blip, it is one that must be acknowledged. "We should all be getting together," DeMello says. "I think the Cape is in denial about this issue."

Perhaps, in part, that's because the town of Barnstable—which encompasses the villages of Hyannis, Centerville, Cotuit, Osterville, Marstons Mills, West Barnstable and Barnstable—is not one cohesive community. Along with quaint beach enclaves and posh summer resorts (such as the famous Kennedy haven of Hyannis Port) are blue-and white-collar neighborhoods and strip malls. During the summer, Barnstable's population nearly triples as thousands of tourists come to the Cape in search of sun, fun and white sand beaches.

During the winter, though, the town's face changes. Unemployment rates top the national average, and alcoholism is common. "Unemployment triggers anger and aggression," says Wendy Pearson, a Hyannis psychotherapist. "[Batterers] need someone to take it out on." But Hoxie cautions against such facile stereotyping. "Hey, there are batterers in this police department," he says. "You've got them in every profession and economic group."

Certainly the five Barnstable victims in the past year had little in common. Mary Ellen Rhodes-Rice, 49, and her husband, Milton, 48, both schoolteachers, were planning to divorce but were still living together in their spacious three-story gray clapboard home in West Barnstable last summer. On Aug. 3, the couple marked their 18th wedding anniversary by going out to dinner at the trendy Black Cat restaurant in Hyannis, then watching television at home. According to Assistant District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, the couple, who had no known history of violence, began to argue about their pending divorce and who would get the house and custody of their 11-year-old son, Daniel. Milton wanted his girlfriend to move into the house with him and decided that Mary Ellen "was going to be leaving one way or the other," says O'Keefe, who successfully tried the case. Shortly after his wife went up to her bedroom to sleep, Milton followed her and beat her to death with a piece of lumber. He then carried her corpse downstairs, put it in her Nissan 300ZX and rolled the car over a deserted embankment a mile away. That same morning, after police inspected the blood-spattered bedroom and decided Mary Ellen's death was not accidental, Milton Rice confessed. In June he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Unlike the Rices, Elena Parker, 46, and David St. Peter, 45, had always had a tempestuous relationship. Both, says O'Keefe, had grown up in Barnstable and were frequently unemployed alcoholics who fought virtually every day of their six-year relationship. Their final argument began on the afternoon of Aug. 23 while they were in the hold of the Capt. Bob, a recreational fishing boat owned by St. Peter's brother. While unsuspecting tourists on the deck above caught porgies a few miles offshore, Parker died of a hemorrhage resulting from blows to her head. St. Peter was eventually charged with manslaughter in her death and now awaits trial.

As for Kathy Robbins, found dead on her couch, the decision finally to leave her abusive husband may well have triggered her murder, as is often the case. She had endured five years with Stephen before pressing charges against him after he allegedly tried to choke her. She left him a week before she was killed, moving to Rhode Island, where she planned to start over with a high school sweetheart, with whom she had renewed a relationship during her marriage and who was the father of her 3-year-old daughter Amanda Jane. (Together, Kathy and Stephen had another daughter, Bethanie Marie, 6.)

Though Stephen had been threatening to kill her and her family if she left him, according to friends and coworkers, Kathy, as she had promised, brought the girls to visit him that December weekend. "Batterers are not all unremitting monsters," says Stiles, theorizing about why a woman might return to her abuser. "Their promises to change can be very believable." And at first the visit was a pleasant one. The family spent Saturday afternoon Christmas shopping at the Cape Cod Mall, then returned to Stephen's house to eat pizza and watch television. Sometime that night, as the girls and Kathy's brother, who rented the house with the Robbinses, lay sleeping elsewhere in the house, Kathy was murdered. Before dawn, Stephen, still wearing his bloody trousers, took the children to play for the morning in the nearby town of Wellfleet before turning himself in to the police. He is now in the Barnstable County jail, awaiting trial.

It would be hard to convince Kathy's grieving parents, Bob and Nancy Golliff, that everything possible was done to protect their daughter. Bob, a grocery clerk, worked at the A&P with his daughter, whose picture he still keeps in a heart-shaped frame on his automobile dashboard. "She was always there for me," he says, blinking back tears. Nancy adds quietly that she does not know what to say when her motherless granddaughter Amanda Jane asks, "Can you be my mommy?" The Golliffs, who currently share custody of the little girls with Stephen's parents, believe that if the courts had just moved faster on the earlier assault charge, their daughter would be alive today. "The police don't back up anything," says Bob, "and neither does the court."

Unfortunately, Hoxie responds, "a lot of women can't break the cycle because they know if they do they're signing their own death sentence." Nor can the police monitor every victim's daily actions. Richard and Lisa Whelden, for example, who met in 1992 in a Hyannis homeless shelter and had an infant son, were well known to local police. Last Jan. 8, Richard, 29, was found dead of a stab wound outside the Hyannis condominium he shared with his family. The previous November he had already spent a month in jail for beating Lisa, 27, but was released after she pleaded with the judge to let him go. Lisa, who was arrested and charged with murder, was referred to a state mental institution for a psychiatric evaluation. She has been found incompetent to stand trial, and her attorney claims she killed her husband in self-defense. But Richard's brothers say she was more violent than Richard and that he had once gone to the hospital after she hit him on the head with a hammer.

The fifth fatality does not fit the traditional model of domestic abuse. Last April 1, Erika Epperson, a 20-year-old aspiring artist, was shot in her Hyannis apartment by her unemployed boyfriend, Justin Ward, 24. The couple had no known history of violence, but police say Ward, who was drunk at the time of the shooting, had been seen earlier that day brandishing a .32 pistol in people's faces and saying, "Do you trust me?" Ward was charged with murder and is being held on $50,000 bail.

As the body count has risen, local people have only gradually become aware that something terrible is happening. "I don't think it has hit home for the majority of residents," says Richard Bigos, director of the Community Action Committee of Cape Cod and the Islands, a nonprofit advocacy group for the poor which has held workshops on domestic violence. "I'm right in the middle of it, and I didn't realize there were five deaths." Pamela Brad, coordinator of the Youth Violence Prevention Program for the Cape Cod Center for Women, believes that despite mounting national publicity, "it's the kind of problem that a lot of people still feel should be behind closed doors."

Lieutenant Hoxie agrees. Domestic violence used to be called "family trouble," he says. "That was so stupid when you think about it. We blamed the woman. We would always ask, 'Why does she put up with it?' What we should have been saying is, 'Why does he beat her?' " Now, says Hoxie, Barnstable police have made domestic violence a priority, deploying six officers out of 89 to the problem—one full-time and five part-time—and working closely with Independence House, a 14-year-old local advocacy organization for battered women, to follow up on known victims. Barnstable police officers, thanks to a 1990 state law amendment, are now permitted to arrest a suspected batterer even if they do not witness an assault. "If the woman says, 'Don't take him,' we arrest anyway," Hoxie explains. "Now the onus is off her."

As national awareness of the issue grows, greater numbers of women seem willing to resist being punching bags. Since the murder of Nicole Simpson, therapists in the Barnstable area say they have been receiving a greater number of calls than usual about domestic violence. Hyannis clinical social worker Karen D'Alessandro says two of her 20 clients have left their partners since the Simpson killing. "They're wondering, 'Am I the next victim?' " says D'Alessandro, who has counseled couples on the Cape for more than a decade.

The publicity sparked by Nicole Simpson's death may also give the final impetus for a long-awaited shelter for battered women, which is expected to open in Hyannis this fall. "It takes a whole community to solve this," says Brady, who lectures high school students about violence. "I hope these women haven't died in vain."

At this point, hope is all some people have to live on. Lieutenant Hoxie keeps a running list in his head of women most likely to die at the hands of a husband or lover—women caught in an unbreakable web of fear, love, violence and obsession that keeps the men who abuse them beyond the reach of the law. "I'm afraid there are too many walking that fine line," says Hoxie. "I cannot honestly say that five deaths next year would shock me."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
S. AVERY BROWN and JENNIFER LONGLEY in Barnstable

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