On Oct. 20, Tyler County Victim Services Coordinator Toni Vancamp and Prosecuting Attorney D. Luke Furbee hosted a candlelight vigil to honor victims of domestic violence and raise community awareness.
"We are here to raise community awareness about a crime that poses a serious threat to women, children and men," Vancamp said. "Domestic violence endangers us all, in our homes, in our workplaces, our state, our nation and our world. Domestic Violence crosses all boundaries of age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status. Domestic Violence is a pattern of coercive behavior used by one person in order to maintain power and control in a relationship. Batterers repeatedly subject their victims to physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and financial tactics of control in order to force them to do something batterers want them to do without regard to the victims' rights or well being."
Rev. Bill Dawson, pastor of the Sistersville First United Methodist Church, addressed the need for community awareness by sharing details of a tragic murder-suicide in Lewis County, W.Va., where he was pastoring a church in 2002. "Gale and Libby Sams appeared to have the perfect family," he said. "But their story ended in tragedy."
The soft glow of candlelight frames the face of Raegan Richardson during a vigil held in honor of the victims of domestic violence in Tyler County.
Marcia Boyles, a victim's advocate from Lewis County, handled the Sams' case. "Libby Sams was on her second marriage," she explained. "She was a stay-at-home mother and foster parent. And, she and her husband Gale took the children to church regularly."
Libby had a 17-year old son from her first marriage. He was a good looking boy with high hopes for his future. In fact, he had already signed a contract with a popular fashion company and planned to be a model after graduation. His sister was a freshman. The Sams also had two four-year-old daughters - one they had together, and the other they adopted. And, Gale was building his family a dream home.
By all appearances, the family was the perfect picture of the all-American family. However, looks were deceiving. "The community wasn't aware of the years of emotional abuse the family had endured at the hands of Gale," Boyles commented.
Gale wasn't living at the house, but the family planned to move into the new house together. On Super Bowl Sunday in 2002 the Sams family attended church services. The Sams children sang in the choir. Gale had been praying and fasting. From the outside looking in, nothing was wrong - but Libby was scared.
After church, Gale asked to take the two smaller children to get ice cream. Libby agreed. He later brought the children back to the house, and before he left he played a game of duck-duck-goose with the girls. But while Libby was bathing the children and putting them to bed, her estranged husband was purchasing duct tape and rope to tie her up.
"Gale returned to the house and kicked the door in," Boyles stated. "Then he grabbed Libby and tied her up." He told his wife he was going to make her watch as he killed their children, and then he was going to kill her.
Gale went into his son's room and shot the teenager. His daughter heard the gunshots and ran from her room. She found her mother, untied her and they ran outside, barefooted.
Libby told her daughter to run to the neighbor's house to get help. She knocked on the neighbor's door. No one answered. So she ran half a mile to the next house.
Libby ran the opposite direction, thinking Gale would follow her. "She shouted to him a couple of times so Gale would know where she was," Boyles said. "She never thought Gale would kill the little girls."
But he did.
"One of the girls heard the noise and woke up. He shot her on the steps, crossed her arms over her chest and went into the bedroom where the other girl was sleeping. He shot her in her bed," Boyles recalled.
By the time law enforcement arrived on the scene, it was over. At daybreak they found the family's dream home in ashes and Gale dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The community was devastated.
"I'd like to think there were some clues," Boyles said. "But most of the time the only person who is aware of the abuse is the victim. My advice is to be proactive. Talk about domestic violence at church and in schools."
Boyles added, "Over one-third of homicides are domestic in nature. We aren't murdering strangers. We are killing people we love. This scares me. Do we really know what love is?"
Furbee spoke on the subject, as well. He said, "It has been said that West Virginians don't commit crimes against those we don't know, but only against the ones we love. Obviously, that isn't entirely accurate. Some West Virginians commit crimes against strangers. But it probably isn't much of an exaggeration to say that a good many more crimes are committed by West Virginians against those we know, and sadly, those we love."
"Because of the insidious nature of domestic violence and the demonstrated frequency of its progression to severe criminal conduct, West Virginia has specialized laws to deal with those who abuse their domestic partners and family members. From the loss of certain civil rights to incarceration and economic coercion, the law seeks to step into the fray and hold abusers accountable. But it oftentimes must be used to simply save victims from themselves - for those of us who deal with domestic violence daily know that victims often feel powerless to leave abusive situations or to even call for help," Furbee added. "So while we take this opportunity to recognize victims of domestic violence and their struggle, I want to say we are here to help. The Victim Assistance Division of my office is available to help victims of domestic violence, whether or not criminal charges are ever filed. Please let us help."
In 2010, a total of 66 domestic violence protection orders were filed in Tyler County. "This may be a silent crime, typically contained within the four walls of someone's home, but with these statistics no one could deny that it is occurring. It takes everyone, working together, to make a difference. Making the community more aware of what is occurring makes this crime less acceptable," Vancamp stated.
Tyler County's Victim Assistance Program provides services to victims of domestic violence. "We are available to assist with the filing of domestic violence protective orders, safety planning, emotional support, transportation to the shelter, referrals to other service providers and providing information regarding the West Virginia Crime Victims' Compensation Fund," Vancamp explained.
Some possible indicators of domestic violence include visible physical injury, chronic illnesses, marital or family problems, mental health problems, alcohol or drug abuse, problems with employment and seclusion from friends and family. But Vancamp noted the only way to be sure domestic violence is occurring is to ask. "People are sometimes hesitant to approach a person about their concern for safety because they feel it is none of their business. Directly asking a person in private, without judgment, without pressure and without any expectations of her disclosing any abuse, relieves his or her of the burden of coming forward on their own."
She added, "If you ask a person about their possible victimization, you need to be prepared to respond supportively. Become knowledgeable about the subject. Always initiate the conversation in private. Let go of any expectations you may have that there is a quick fix to domestic violence. Challenge and change any inaccurate expectations that you may have about battered men and women. Provide supportive and empowering help."
"Most importantly - believe the victim. Listen to what they tell you, and build on their strengths. Validate their feelings. Do not cast blame on the victim. Take his or her fears seriously and offer help. Be active in his or her safety planning effort and support their decisions," Vancamp said. "And, keep all information confidential."