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Wednesday, May 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane domestic violence survivor credits vigilant friends, co-workers for helping her escape abuse

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 30, 2019

Even now, Desiree Lancaster hesitates before describing details of a 2009 beating.

Even now, the domestic violence survivor slowly unravels descriptions of an ex-husband’s years of verbal abuse, convincing her she was ugly and incompetent despite her steady work as a Spokane County professional.

Even now, Lancaster is grateful for coworkers noticing enough changes in her to suspect domestic violence and help. But her concerns still linger about what four daughters witnessed prior to a permanent protection order and finalized divorce in 2010.

“I married pretty much my first boyfriend in high school,” said Lancaster, 35. “Women in my family married young, so for me it was a norm. I didn’t realize my ex-husband had an anger issue.”

She didn’t fit the background of some abuse victims, Lancaster said, growing up in a Spokane home with parents, two sisters and grandparents who loved her. “I was daddy’s girl,” she said. She couldn’t date until age 16, got proposed to at 17 and married March 2002.

Lancaster wanted to be a military officer. Instead, she finished at Ferris High School by December of her senior year, then walked for graduation as a married, pregnant 18-year-old.

In their first apartment, she saw an initial flash of danger. She said he had a 1-year-old son from a prior relationship. Staying with them for a visit, the baby needed his diaper changed, and she froze.

“I was very much pregnant and freaked out because I’d never changed a diaper,” Lancaster recalled. “He got angry and threw one of those rocking chairs at the wall, almost hitting me. I saw that anger.”

In recent years, she’s spoken publicly about those abusive years. She married again, to Bret Lancaster, in 2011. She participated in the Mrs. Washington Pageant and Mrs. Spokane County pageant with a platform speaking about domestic violence. She was named Mrs. Mead.

This month, domestic violence is getting more communitywide attention, with data showing Spokane County has the highest rate of domestic violence in Washington. At 7 p.m. Monday, a new, locally produced documentary, “End the Violence,” is scheduled to air on most local TV stations.

Lancaster isn’t in the documentary but offered to her story through the Spokane Regional Domestic Violence Coalition.

Verbal abuse

In the early years with her ex-husband, there was only verbal abuse, she said. Life went on, and their first daughter was born by fall 2002. Lancaster always had a full-time job, and by 2005, she was working for the county assessor’s office. But her home life was unstable.

“My husband at the time was never fully employed,” she said. “He’d do odd jobs; he played a lot of billiards for competition, gambling. He’d go to the casino. I know this is naive, and people say, ‘I don’t know how you wouldn’t notice,’ but he’d gamble our rent away.”

She’d write checks toward bills without knowing he’d taken money from the account. Between multiple addresses, the three couch-surfed. She continued to work as her daughter stayed with grandparents.

At one point, they lived in a rundown motel room in Deer Park. By 2006, before realizing she was pregnant with their second child, she’d asked for a divorce outside a restaurant.

“He cried and said he’d change. I believed him, because I was raised that you work through things, and at that point, he’d never been physically abusive. He’d be demeaning, use harsh words, and tell me how ugly I was, that no man would have me.

“I used to walk around literally looking down. He’d beat me down so much.”

He only gave her credit for being a good mom, she said, with cycles of “honeymoon” better days. But doubts and insecurities crept in. If she arrived home late, she’d be accused of lying. He’d check her phone messages, she said.

Working, shuffling girls to and from grandparents and making dinner, she recalls often getting up at 1:30 a.m. with the kids to drive from Deer Park to Spokane Valley to pick up her ex-husband after pool tournaments.

“After our youngest was born in August of ’08, that’s when it started getting bad. I slacked on chores, not having dinner on the table, all while pregnant with this little joy. He just got angrier, yelled more. You try to forget stuff. Even to this day, yelling affects me really bad.”

Lancaster said he wasn’t there for her youngest child’s birth until after the bar closed, and then the baby remained in intensive care because her blood sugar was down. The night mom and baby returned home, Lancaster said she heard a noise in the bathroom: “He’d taken a bunch of pills.”

As emergency responders arrived, law enforcement asked her what had happened, but “I was clueless.”

By the next morning, she said he’d recovered and told her he’s moving in with a girlfriend. “I was relieved. Fast-forward, and I moved to town and got my own duplex thinking we’re getting a divorce.

“Then, he’d break up with his girlfriend and come back, and it was always my fault. People ask, ‘Why did you let him stay?’ ”

Reflecting back, she thinks it was partly that they were still married. “I was brainwashed that I still have these wifely duties,” she said.

Between girlfriends, he wanted to date, but then he’d drink and return to verbal abuses, she said. Lancaster filed for divorce in April 2009. That’s when the physical attacks began, she said.

“One night, he crushed my phone as he yelled at me. I don’t even remember the reason. Then he would cover my head with a pillow and try to suffocate me. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t scream. I can’t call anyone. I don’t have a phone.’ ”

She said he once held her against a door while stabbing a knife next to her head.

Intervention

“I was very blessed, because when the physical abuse started happening, my friends at work started noticing the change,” she said.

“When you start to be physically abused or have that fear of physical abuse, and you experience such anger that morphs into pure hatred, your body goes into stress mode. You start to get shaky, forgetful, and maybe get anxious in environments you weren’t before.

“I was calling in late. They noticed my throat would be scratchy on some days, or I wasn’t myself.”

A friend who worked in the same building stopped her one day and said, “Something’s going on.” Then the county auditor, Vicky Dalton, approached her about talking to someone who could help.

“I told her ‘I can’t.’ I didn’t know who I could trust.” But friends at work still scheduled her to see a domestic violence advocate supervisor, “to just give me tools if something happened.”

“My coworkers didn’t poke, didn’t push and didn’t say those questions like, ‘Why aren’t you leaving?’ Those comments don’t help when you’re in the situation.”

The advocate gave her tools: Keep a packed bag hidden for escape. Ask a friend to call regularly knowing a code word if help is needed. Get a coworker’s escort to her car.

A former teacher offered her home as a safe refuge, she said. A sheriff’s deputy running security at work, Daniel Middlebos, gave her tips.

His advice later clicked, when she needed it most.

Violence escalated

When Lancaster pushed for a divorce, she said he wouldn’t respond to official proceedings. And she didn’t feel comfortable moving to a shelter with four kids and her work.

“So I met him at a public place, a restaurant, to tell him we’re moving forward. He silently told me if I divorced him, he’d kill me. He whispered it.”

A couple weeks passed when she learned he would be leaving for work in Walla Walla, she said. Later, “He just showed up and said, ‘We need to talk.’ It was, like, 5 in the morning.”

“I thought OK, I hadn’t heard from him in a while; I let him in so we could talk. He was very quiet and said he knew I’d been doing stuff behind his back, and that no one else was going to have me.”

Lancaster held her ground about the divorce. “He freaked out. He started jerking me around and hitting me, throwing stuff. He had me down on the couch and was just choking me. I’d black out a few times, and I just remember the girls crying in the background.”

He punched her in the stomach and chest area, she said. “I couldn’t breathe. It was like he was beating me to death. He ripped off all my clothes, literally, because he was asserting his possession or something. It continued, and I looked over and saw my two oldest girls standing there, ‘Mommy, what is daddy doing to you?’ ”

“At that moment I remembered what Deputy Middlebos told me – that if things got bad, I was safe to leave. Statistically, he’s not going to hurt the kids if he’s never hurt them before. I’m standing there next to the front door, and he stands up and tells the girls to go back in the room.”

In that instant, she opened the front door and ran.

“He chased after me, and I fought him tooth and nail as he drug me back. It was such a fight that I had dirt in areas women don’t want dirt. It was someone driving by who called 911.”

Back inside, Lancaster said her ex-husband told her, “Look what you’ve done. Now the cops are going to show up,’ ” before fleeing.

She threw on a robe and officers arrived with guns drawn, she said. Lancaster recalled that she couldn’t look at them, told them everything was OK and warned them about the children as they headed farther into the home.

The officers found her ex-husband in a coat closet, she said, and took him outside to talk. He was arrested but later released, Lancaster added. The officers also talked to her that morning.

“I couldn’t even communicate. I was so worried about the babies. I didn’t give much of a statement … I think for me, specifically, it was ingrained that I couldn’t talk to men, or God forbid, if he’d heard anything I said.

“Men, as law enforcement officers, are wonderful when it comes to feeling protected and that strength. But for women who are abused, having someone there who is more gentle and talks in a softer tone, I think that would help.”

She also didn’t seek medical care. “I wish they’d told me to,” she said. And she wishes neighbors who heard noises had called 911.

After the incident, she got a temporary restraining order and took a couple of days off. Back at work, she said a deputy took one look at her and walked her over to resources, connecting her to the YWCA.

A female prosecuting attorney worked more than a year to press the domestic violence case, she said. She regrets not speaking up more then. It was reassigned to a male prosecutor, Lancaster said. She later learned her ex-husband had reached a deal in which the case would be dropped if he went a year without new charges.

She was angry, she said, and felt like the system had failed her. “Me and my four little girls don’t get to be good for a year and forget,” she said.

But in divorce proceedings, someone in Gonzaga University’s legal assistance program offered to help secure a permanent protection order for her and the children. She keeps it with her at all times.

After her second marriage, Lancaster left her job to be with her daughters. She now works for SNAP.

Today, Lancaster doesn’t hesitate to intervene with an offer to call police if she sees couples arguing.

“People need to ask the questions and make sure someone has a safe place. If the person isn’t ready, let them know you are there, really. Here’s my house. Here’s my phone number. Any time.

“I’m truly blessed I have so many people who helped me, and each of them didn’t let me back down.”

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