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To live in fear

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in an ongoing series looking at domestic violence in Knox County. See the fourth and final part in next weekend’s edition of the Sun-Commercial.

This is Bridget’s story.

Settled in a conference room at Hope’s Voice, Bridget fidgets with her long, beaded necklace and takes a deep breath, preparing to find the right words for her story of survival.

“I’m sorry, I have trauma brain this morning,” she said, “so I’m not thinking as clearly.”

The trauma her brain has endured is a result of living through decades of domestic abuse.

For more than 30 years, Bridget lived in fear of the person who vowed to love and protect her.

Though she has since escaped the abuser, there is still lingering fear.

For that reason, the name “Bridget” — one meaning strength and power — is used in this story to protect her identity.

• • •

Like so many other survivors of domestic violence, Bridget was just a teenager when she met a charming young man who said all the right things.

“Thinking back, he was a little too charming,” she said.

That man filled a void in Bridget that had been created by a difficult childhood.

Raised in a family with an abusive father and uncle, Bridget desperately craved the positive attention her new boyfriend gave her.

“I just soaked it up,” she said. “He told me I was the most beautiful girl in the world.”

However, not long into the relationship, his behavior took a drastic turn.

Struggling to relive the details of her first assault at his hands, Bridget stops for a moment to collect herself yet again.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she says, leaning against the table, her head in her hands — remembering.

The first time she was abused was in her own new car.

“We were just driving down the road, and I said something he didn’t like,” she said.

Before she could react, the man struck her face with the back of his hand and broke her nose.

He didn’t stop there.

“He tried to drag me out of the car, but I managed to get my door shut,” she said.

The person who once seemed to provide such a safe space was on top of her car, kicking her windshield while hurling degrading, misogynistic insults.

Eventually, he managed to pull her out.

“He beat the tar out of me right there in the middle of the street,” she said.

As with most abusers, the violent outburst was quickly followed by an apology, begging Bridget for forgiveness.

“And I did. I forgave him,” she said.

Not long afterward though, Bridget realized she was pregnant.

“Back then if you got pregnant, the thing to do was to get married,” she said. “He asked, so I married him.”

With deep reservations, she walked down the aisle in her white wedding dress and married the man who would go on to brutalize her mind, body and spirit for decades to come.

“Everybody said I looked like I was going to my own funeral when I walked down that aisle,” she said.

Some of the most emotionally difficult moments for Bridget, though, came after the birth of her son.

Her former husband rarely had a job, so she says they struggled to make ends meet and often had very little food in the home. And once, she says, he cooked the last bit of food for himself, sharing none with either her or her son.

“My son was crying for a bite. I was begging him to feed my son, but he wouldn’t,” she said.

“To see your child begging for food from his own father and not be fed — that was one of the worst things.”

For nearly an hour, Bridget described 30 years of violent outbursts and the long-lasting impact of her abuser’s actions.

She was shoved, choked, dragged by her hair, stabbed and held at gunpoint.

She sustained a dislocated knee, two serious neck injuries — resulting in two surgeries — and she suffered mini-strokes, which were mostly likely stress-induced.

Like nearly all those living in abusive relationships, her tormentor also isolated her from family and friends.

“To me, the emotional abuse was even worse than the physical. Physical injuries heal, but the emotional abuse really sticks,” Bridget said.

Because domestic abuse is a crime that revolves around power and control, most abusers try to keep that control over their partners by insulting their intelligence, integrity and self-worth.

And Bridget can clearly recall all those moments.

Treating her as though she were incompetent, she says her abuser would often say things like, “Do you need me to draw you a picture?”

Other times — often while resting to recover from the very injuries he inflicted — he would call her lazy.

She’s also faced the question so many survivors of domestic violence have to endure.

“ ‘If it’s so bad, why don’t you just leave?’ — I’ve heard that all my life,” she said.

It’s an overly-simplified question that neither addresses the root of the problem nor does it point the finger of blame at the person inflicting the violence.

For Bridget, “the question should be ‘why does he abuse?’ ”

Men and women living in an abusive home have any number of reasons for staying, ranging from fear to a lack of resources and even religious convictions.

“I was afraid he would kill me, which is why I stayed so long,” she said. “The few times I did leave and go to a women’s shelter, he always found me.”

But Bridget did finally escape, as a result of her own strength and a coordinated effort of three different agencies: Hope’s Voice, the Knox County Sheriff’s Dept. and a local in-home healthcare service.

As a result of her injuries and illnesses brought on by the abuse she suffered, Bridget, too, had access to help from a healthcare aide.

After some time working with Bridget inside the volatile home, the healthcare worker reached out to a supervisor for advice.

They, along with Hope’s Voice and the sheriff’s department, started to devise a plan -unbeknownst to Bridget — to help her.

And finally — ready to make that leap of faith and escape once and for all — Bridget one day silently held up a handwritten note to her aide that simply said, “I’m ready.”

“He told me, ‘today is your day to die,’ and I believed him,” she said. “So I stuck up my sign to tell her I was ready to leave.”

But, adds Bridget, the health aide immediately feigned an emergency phone call and left the house.

“I thought she was leaving me there to die,” she said.

Instead, as her husband began to choke her while she sat on the couch, Bridget could hear the sound of sirens in the distance.

Det. Mike Fisher came through Bridget’s door that day and was one of many who helped her begin a new life.

Hope’s Voice stepped in to assist with necessary steps like getting the locks changed and hiring an attorney.

Friends and family members her abuser said didn’t love her, too, stepped up.

Now, many months after leaving the abusive relationship, Bridget is experiencing a newfound freedom.

One of her greatest joys, she said, is simply driving alone in a car. She doesn’t care if she gets a little lost along the way, so long as she is in the driver’s seat — in control of her own life and destination.

She also has a job she enjoys and her health has drastically improved.

Thinking back on all she has survived and the new life she leads today, she offers one piece of advice for others who are being abused.

“Don’t ever give up,” she said. “There is always hope.”

Those in need can call Hope’s Voice at 812-886-4470 during regular business hours. Their crisis hotline, staffed 24 hours per day, can be reached at 812-899-4673.

April Wehrle, a student in Vincennes University’s nursing program, prepares to give a flu shot to a woman participating in a drive-thru clinic outside Good Samaritan Hospital this week. So far, more than 270 vaccines have been administered. The clinic continues today from 8 a.m. to noon underneath the green awning at the Sixth Street entrance. Additional drive-thru clinics will be held from 4:30-6:30 p.m. both Tuesday and Wednesday. The normal quadrivalent flu vaccine is $60; patients can opt to self-pay or present their insurance cards for billing. Masks are required.

Good Samaritan Hospital hosts drive-thru flu clinic

Downtown housing project moving forward

The city’s Redevelopment Commission is taking the first steps in officially transferring the Gimbel Corner to a trio of local families looking to redevelop the corner of Second and Main streets.

Business owner and downtown developer Leah Richter — along with her parents, Kevin and Nancy Emmons, and melon farmers Dennis and Cathy Mouzin and their sons, Brady and Blake — went before members of the RDC in August telling of their plans to purchase the 6-story Oliphant building at 214 Main St. and renovate it into condominiums.

RDC members, thrilled at the group’s plans, said they would be happy to transfer the Gimbel Corner, a green space, into their hands — just as soon as they closed on the purchase of the Oliphant building itself.

Richter went back before RDC members Thursday saying the deal was done on Sept. 18.

“So we just want to make sure we’re moving along with that,” she said of the transfer.

RDC members quickly made good on their promise and directed city attorney Dave Roellgen to begin the process, which starts by declaring the lot, which is owned by the city but legally held by the RDC, as surplus property.

It’s a process, he said, that will likely take more than a month to complete.

But everyone was on board with moving forward.

“(The year) 2020 hasn’t given us much to be happy about,” said RDC member and at-large councilman Marc McNeece. “But I could not be happier to hear about people making things very very bright here in the next couple of years.

“Thank you,” he said. “Our community needs this.”

RDC president Tim Smith, too, called these “exciting times.”

The RDC also on Thursday agreed to offer financial assistance to Sure Clean Inc. in its $2.5 million endeavor to build 13 homes on empty lots located just off Hart Street.

Operating under the name REM Development Group, the Richters, Emmons and Mouzins plan to renovate the Oliphant building into condominiums.

The bottom floor would remain a commercial space, but each floor above would be its own unit. They also want to use the Gimbel Corner to construct five garage spaces fronting Main Street; each structure would be two stories with the front side built to resemble individualized store fronts and above them, rooftop terraces.

Richter told the RDC Thursday that since word has spread of their downtown project, they’ve received much positive feedback, so much so that they are thinking of modifying the project somewhat in an effort to take better advantage of the entire space.

She didn’t elaborate on those changes, but she did ask to be placed on the RDC’s agenda next month to offer a more detailed update.

The RDC will next meet at 9 a.m. on Nov. 19 at City Hall, 201 Vigo St.

'A community dog'

Most dogs have but one family to call their own.

Sitka, it seems, has many.

“He’s a community dog,” said Angie Halloway-Stanley, an animal control officer at the Vincennes Animal Shelter, 1128 River Road. “Everybody wanted to take him in. Everybody wanted to love him.

“So he chose to have lots of families.”

Stanley and animal shelter director Leah Vantlin have been chasing Sitka, a more than 100-pound German Shepherd and Alaskan malamute mix dog, for more than a year.

He was first spotted last October running loose near Benjamin Franklin Elementary School. Neighbors would report seeing him over in the Heights neighborhood, and he would pay a visit to the nearby golf course from time to time, too.

Many of them became quite familiar with Sitka, even setting out food and treats to keep him full in the cold, winter months.

The sightings went on for months, and try as they might, animal control officers couldn’t catch him.

“He’d be running around neighborhoods. We’d chase him, try to catch him,” Vantlin said with a chuckle, seemingly almost pleased at being outwitted by a dog.

“He wasn’t at all aggressive,” she said. “Just skittish. He wouldn’t come to people. And it was awful, because he’s just the kind of dog you wanted to reach out and put your hands on — that big head. He’s just beautiful.”

When Vantlin and Stanley first posted pictures of Sitka to social media, a local family did come forward saying they’d gotten him as a puppy. He escaped from their garage when he was just six months old; they hadn’t seen him since.

The family didn’t necessarily want Sitka back, but animal shelter volunteers and employees weren’t at all ready to give up the chase, at one point even putting a sedative in his food — a sedative that barely slowed him down, they recalled with a smile.

For awhile, Sitka disappeared altogether, but he resurfaced a few months ago living in an area near Main Street and Ramsey Road.

As per usual, a handful of families in that area became accustomed to his daily visits; he would get breakfast here, lunch there before sleeping in a nearby woods.

But their attempts to lure him or catch him, again, proved fruitless.

“He was basically running between a couple of houses where they were feeding him,” Stanley said, adding, with a wink, that Sitka never looked like he’d missed a meal.

“Everybody just adopted him. He would come around, eat, even visit with other dogs. But the second you reached out for him, he would take off.

“He really watched his surroundings; he’s smart,” she said.

Some adoptive parents called him by his given name of Sitka. Others called him things like “Hobo,” due to his wandering ways and often unkempt appearance, or “Romeo,” which Stanley thought rather comical as he was the confirmed father of at least a couple litters of pups over the last 12 months.

He became well-known for taking off with entire bowls of food, leaving local families missing their once complete Tupperware sets.

Stanley, herself, would drive through McDonald’s some mornings and take a spin near where Sitka had last been spotted. If she found him, she’d toss the sandwich out the window, offer a “good-boy” or two and head off.

“We’d easily get a couple of calls a week about Sitka,” Vantlin said. “Some more than others.

“Sometimes he would lay right there on Main Street with his head hanging over the curb,” she said with a chuckle. “On those days, we’d get six calls.”

But on Tuesday, Vantlin and Stanley got the call they’d been dreading — Sitka was found on Ramsey Road by neighbors, hiding in some brush, injured after being hit by a car.

“He was just laying there,” Stanley said, the emotion clear in her voice. “I bet there were 20 people around, all people who loved this dog.”

So Sitka’s many families worked together once again, using a big blanket as a makeshift stretcher, and heaved his giant frame into the bed of a pickup truck, eventually making his way to Southgate Veterinary Hospital.

“He never growled, never tried to bite,” Stanley said. “We just carried him like a big burrito.”

But the news at Southgate wasn’t good.

Veterinarians found Sitka had sustained a fractured pelvis as well as other injuries. His collar — one he’d had on six he was just six months old — had become imbedded his neck.

He needed surgery, the kind of orthopedic repair not offered here, so Vantlin and Stanley looked to East Pines Animal Clinic in Warrick County for help.

Veterinarians there agreed to take him on, so he will be transported there next week for surgery, Vantlin said.

How they will pay for it, though, remains to be seen, Vantlin said, as the procedure is expected to cost upwards of $6,000.

There, too, is the bill at Southgate that will need to be paid for his supportive care in the days Vantlin and Stanley were attempting to find a doctor qualified to perform the procedure.

“The shelter cannot pay for that kind of surgery,” Vantlin said. “We’re in a kind of crisis situation.”

Several of the families who came to love and care for Sitka over the last year have come forward with donations, she said, but they don’t yet have near enough.

They’re hoping Sitka’s community of families becomes even larger in this, his time of need.

“We are trying hard to save our boy,” Vantlin said.

For more information or to donate to Sitka’s care, contact the Vincennes Animal Shelter at 812-882-8826.