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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It’s just endless suffering’: One woman fears for her life as her ex-husband’s trial is delayed for COVID-19

Brandy Teilborg believes her ex-husband will kill her, and she is terrified. Thanks to an emergency custody agreement while he awaits trial, she is forced to interact with her ex-husband daily, and she says he threatens to kill her with frequency.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Brandy Teilborg believes her ex-husband will try to kill her, but she doesn’t have proof.

She said she lives in Browne’s Addition, where Mary Schaffer was found shot dead in a rental car last month after driving from Oregon to get her children from her ex-husband. Police suspect Schaffer’s ex-husband of killing her.

Teilborg, a Spokane day-care teacher, said her ex-husband, who she said regularly beat her during their marriage, has threatened to kill her many times in recent weeks.

He makes many of the escalating threats, she said, during their court-mandated phone calls, which are the product of a temporary emergency parenting plan as he awaits trial – a trial that has been delayed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in courtrooms.

There has “flat out, unequivocally” been a surge of suspected domestic violence perpetrators out on lowered bail or their own recognizance due to efforts to keep COVID-19 out of the county jail, said Sgt. Jordan Ferguson, head of the Spokane Police Department’s domestic violence unit.

Five years ago, Ferguson might have questioned Teilborg’s fears. After four years heading the unit, he said he knows better.

“If you think somebody’s going to kill you, they’re probably going to kill you,” Ferguson said. “In four years, the biggest lesson was realizing how many times in my career I let women down by not believing them.”

Doug Phelps, the attorney representing Teil- borg’s ex-husband in his recent case, said he couldn’t comment on the unrelated domestic violence claims, but he hadn’t heard of any recent death threats.

The allegations of death threats are “absolutely untrue,” Phelps said.

“There’s been no official reports,” Phelps said. “There’s all kinds of avenues to report this kind of thing, and apparently none of that has gone on.”

During Teilborg’s brief marriage, she said she experienced physical and psychological abuse. Court records show her ex-husband has been charged with domestic violence twice, once in 2013 and again in 2015, but he’s never been convicted.

The 2015 case involved a different woman, Teil- borg said. In the 2013 case, records show the victim required the state to drop the case. Teilborg said she was that victim.

The charges, she said, stemmed from him aiming a gun at her head and her daughter’s head.

But, while following through with a divorce in 2013, she said she dropped the charges in an effort to make peace with her ex. She said she hoped the violence would end with their separation:

“It was probably the dumbest thing I ever did in my whole life,”

Teilborg thought her custody battles might end when her ex-husband was charged in March with felony assault, reckless endangerment and driving under the influence.

Witnesses told police he swerved on the road, nearly hit a woman’s car, then pulled up next to that woman’s car at a red light and aimed a pistol at her, according to court documents.

But instead of finding security in her ex’s incarceration, Teilborg said she’s been through a new kind of hell. His trial is one of many delayed to prevent COVID-19 spreading in courtrooms, and he’s out on bail.

“It’s just endless suffering,” Teilborg said.

While she waits for his trial, she said their emergency custody agreement has forced her to disclose her address to him after four years of successfully hiding it from him.

She must also answer his daily calls, she said, or be found in contempt of court. She’s facing a $2,500 bill for missing eight of his 96 calls so far. And her lawyer told her recordings of his phoned threats to kill her won’t be admissible in court unless she asks for his consent to record first, Teilborg said.

Local attorney Bevan Maxey represented Teil- borg’s ex-husband on family law matters as the couple battled for custody of their daughter.

“It has been a long time, but we do not recall any serious allegations of domestic violence in the family law case,” said Lexie McCully, paralegal to Maxey. “There is, however, evidence of the ex-wife’s mental health problems.”

In Teilborg’s case, she said her ex-husband’s legal team sought to paint her as mentally ill. Once when her ex-husband arrived to get their daughter, Teilborg said she was in a rush and answered the door in a towel. Lawyers described the behavior as promiscuous, and promiscuity as a symptom of bipolar affective disorder.

Now Teilborg regrets dropping her case against him more than six years ago. But most victims want charges dropped, even if the prosecutor presses forward, said Amy Porter, manager of the legal advocate team at YWCA Spokane.

Some victims don’t want to go to court because they hope the father of their children will be a good dad, even if he is a terrible partner. Sometimes they’re financially dependent on a partner. And it can be painful and fruitless to rehash traumatizing events while under scrutiny, only to end up in a “he said, she said,” stalemate, Porter said.

Teilborg said she now feels hopeless and stuck in a situation she doesn’t have hard enough evidence to prove in court.

Often domestic violence doesn’t leave evidence behind, and police or courts are skeptical of women’s accounts, Ferguson said:

“Imagine if we went to a bank robbery and the bank teller says, ‘I’ve been robbed,’ and we say, ‘I don’t think so,’ ”

As a young police officer, he would’ve considered a story that veered out of chronological order untruthful, calling that knee-jerk suspicion “Interrogation 101.” Now he knows trauma changes how people remember events, so victims often struggle to tell a story in order, or certain moments are blacked out.

Some violence doesn’t leave marks. Though the domestic violence unit considers choking the most dangerous form of abuse most likely to lead to homicide, it doesn’t leave bruises in two-thirds of incidences, Ferguson said. Now he looks for other signs, including changes in vision, a sore throat or hoarse voice.

Porter described how perpetrators often point out defensive wounds, like scratch marks from their victim, while choking marks don’t show. Then, they flip the script and paint themselves as the victim.

Threats to kill can be especially hard to prove, Ferguson said. He said “so many” calls reporting death threats come in, but men can easily say, “She misunderstood me.”

Other threatening behavior can be even harder to pin down to a crime, Ferguson said.

“She gets home and he’s sitting at the kitchen table cleaning his gun even though he hasn’t shot it in a month or so, or he starts carrying it in his pocket,” Ferguson said. “Advocates consider that domestic violence, while we are kind of stuck with the legal definition of a crime.”

As barriers to safety multiply during the pandemic, the YWCA has seen more women worried about perpetrators roaming free, she said.

In a case like Teilborg’s, Porter would recommend reporting death threats to police, even if she can’t prove their existence in court. The paper trail alone could be helpful, and the state will probably offer her a no-contact order, which she can follow up by petitioning for a civil protection order.

Ferguson recommends women in Teilborg’s situation go to the YWCA right away. The YWCA offers a confidential safe house, Porter said. Family law attorneys can support people like Teilborg with free representation, while other attorneys and legal advocates can guide women through addressing domestic violence in court.

YWCA family law attorneys could assist her for free in custody battles. They also represent women seeking divorce. Through the YWCA, victims can also get counseling, financial assistance and clothing. Porter once had a client who fled violence barefoot, and the YWCA got her shoes.

While Teilborg says she’s desperate for any help she can get, she doesn’t have much hope that her ex-husband will be convicted. She went to the YWCA in 2016, she said, but found she often fell through the cracks as other women needed immediate shelter, and she always had a home.

Though she’d like to trust police, she said she’s talked with police until she is “blue in the face,” but the justice system has failed her.

“I just need a little light shown on me because I have a story to tell. And I know if I had just one leg up, I would turn around and help anyone I could,” Teilborg said. “I just also understand the very real threat and statistical probability that I won’t make it long enough to help anyone.”