Rolando had just fled the scene. I watched him speed away, weaving recklessly through heavy commuter traffic on Interstate 5. Cynthia said he was likely headed for Mexico — a mad man, consumed with rage, oblivious to everything around him. She was sitting in the backseat of my car, crying softly. My heart was racing. I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed and I couldn’t believe I was the only person who was willing to stop and help Cynthia. It was 6:51 am. I called 911.
I explained to the 911 dispatcher what had happened. I had just seen a man assault a woman on the shoulder of the freeway. I told the dispatcher that the woman was now in my car and that her boyfriend had fled the scene in a red pickup truck. “No, I didn’t get the license plate number.” I told the dispatcher that I was driving to work when I noticed the traffic slowing down. At first I thought it was an accident involving the red pickup truck that was pulled over on the inside shoulder of I-5 near Poinsettia Avenue. But then I saw a man struggling with a woman. He had both of his hands on her and was trying to pull her toward the truck. He was angry and yelling at her. She looked scared and was clearly trying hard to get away from him. I immediately pulled in behind the truck and laid hard on my horn. I must have honked my horn 10 times before he even noticed me. Not good. He was so enraged he didn’t care who saw him. Eventually he looked up. When he did, Cynthia broke free and ran towards my car. I opened my door and told her to get in. She did and I quickly locked my doors and looked up. At that point Rolando was running toward his car, and not us – Whew! He jumped into the truck, floored the accelerator and disappeared into the morning commute. That’s when I thought “coward.”
The dispatcher asked me a few more questions. She told me to pull off the freeway and wait for Highway Patrol. They arrived within five minutes or so. As we waited, Cynthia started to share her story. She was crying, upset and embarrassed. She said she had had an argument with her boyfriend, Rolando. She had been planning to leave him. “He treats me and my son so very ugly. This has been going on for many years.” She thought today was her chance to escape but he wouldn’t let her leave the house without him. He insisted that she go with him to San Diego and spend the day with him. They argued all the way from Los Angeles. When she told him she wanted to leave, he became very angry. He started punching her in the stomach, pulling her hair, threatening to take her to Mexico and kill her. He said: “No one will find you. No one will help you. Your son will never see his mother again.” She panicked and tried to open the door. He began to drive erratically and said he didn’t care if they both died. She tried to call 911 but he grabbed the phone away from her. When he finally pulled over to the side of the freeway, Cynthia grabbed her purse and jumped out of the car. She said she tried to jump over the freeway median divider to get to the other side but couldn’t find a way through the bushes that separate the southbound and northbound lanes of I-5, so she ran along the freeway, heading north. He jumped out of the truck and started chasing her. He caught her and was trying to drag her back to the truck. “That’s when you stopped to help me. Thank you.”
The first CHP officer who arrived took my statement, then Cynthia’s. He was young. It appeared it was one of his first domestic violence calls. He was attentive, caring and asking all the right questions. He offered to take Cynthia to the Orange County border and wait for any relatives or friends that might want to pick her up. I smiled. But then he was instructed by his sergeant to return to duty and another CHP officer would complete the call. I frowned.
A second officer pulled up and the two officers spoke privately. The second officer introduced himself to me and Cynthia. I told him who I was and that I was willing to take Cynthia to the San Diego Family Justice Center for services. He advised me we would need to wait for the Carlsbad Police Department to arrive as they are more experienced in handling domestic violence cases than the Highway Patrol. I was surprised; as a former prosecutor I knew too well how often domestic violence spills onto freeways and streets. I couldn’t believe he rarely responded to domestic violence calls. A familiar disappointment set in: People don’t report domestic violence. As was apparent on this morning, they won’t stop to help a victim, even in the immediate presence of hundreds of fellow commuters. They might stop for a traffic accident, a disabled car, a wandering pet or even debris, but rarely to help a victim of domestic violence. I found myself getting upset at all the cars that must have seen Rolando’s erratic driving, must have seen him strike Cynthia in the car, must have seen her crying, must have seen her grab her phone to call 911 and certainly must have seen him chasing and grabbing her on the freeway. I estimated at least 100 cars had gone by during the assault. Why didn’t anyone stop?
The Carlsbad Police Department arrived and offered to help. He asked Cynthia if she wanted to prosecute. I cringed. Our county-wide law enforcement protocol for handling domestic violence cases — which has been in place since 1988 — is explicit in its rejection of a victim’s willingness to prosecute as the basis for pursuing an investigation. Since 1988, the San Diego Domestic Violence Council has been trying to get law enforcement to stop asking victims if they want to prosecute their abuser. But here I was, and the officer was asking that all too familiar question: “Do you want to prosecute?” I let it ago and gave him the benefit of the doubt; I knew he was trying to be helpful. Fortunately, Cynthia said yes.
At this point I injected myself into the conversation, offering to testify even if Cynthia later recanted. I explained I was very concerned for her safety given the history of domestic violence, especially in light of his threat to take her Mexico and kill her. I highlighted his violent public behavior, erratic driving, and consciousness of guilt (evidenced by his fleeing the scene). I told the officer Cynthia clearly believed he would carry out his threat and, given all the facts, so did I. The officer offered to help with an emergency protective order, which was quickly obtained from Superior Court Judge Allan Preckle. The officer also offered to take Cynthia to the police station where she could wait for friends or relatives to pick her up. I immediately thought about the San Diego Family Justice Center and offered to take Cynthia there. I knew the Center was a better option for Cynthia. I explained the goal of the Center and the professionals who were there to help to Cynthia. Cynthia smiled and said she wanted to go.
I immediately called Casey Gwinn at the National Family Justice Center Alliance and told him I was going to be late and that I was bringing a guest. By the time we arrived at the office, breakfast was waiting for Cynthia. Our small but mighty team was ready to help. By 9 am, Jena, our newest staff member, had walked Cynthia over to the San Diego Family Justice Center where she was checked in by Eric, the receptionist. Katie, the Client Services Coordinator, handled the screening, conducted a risk assessment, developed a service plan, walked her through a safety plan and gave her an emergency Verizon Wireless phone with 3,000 free minutes. At 9:30, Cynthia was seen by Dr. Diane Lass, one of the FJC psychologists. By 11 am, she had met with the FJC Legal Network for a legal screening. At noon, Jena walked Cynthia back to our office, and Casey had already authorized Lori Gillam, our Director of Finance, to purchase a train ticket for Cynthia to return to LA. I was surprised to see the difference in Cynthia’s demeanor. She looked relaxed and hopeful. She gave me Rolando’s business card and asked me to keep it, just in case anything happened to her. She promised to call and let me know how she and her son were doing. We hugged and said goodbye. It was then that I realized that Cynthia had many “first responders” that day. While I may have been first in time, there were many more: the 911 dispatcher, the police officers at the scene, the Alliance team at the office, and the professionals at the San Diego Family Justice Center.
I’m very proud of all the people who responded to help Cynthia. I’m not proud of the people who simply drove by, saw what was happening, and did nothing. Each and every day friends, relatives, coworkers, dispatchers, police officers and even strangers have a chance to be a first responder and make a difference. Many chose not to respond but those that did made all the difference in the world for Cynthia.
If you are concerned for your own safety, call 911 or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-Safe for information. Help is available. If you know a friend, relative or a worker who may be in an abusive situation, the National Domestic Violence Hotline recommends the following:
Don’t be afraid to let him or her know that you are concerned for their safety. Help your friend or family member recognize the abuse. Tell him or her you see what is going on and that you want to help. Help them recognize that what is happening is not “normal” and that they deserve a healthy, non-violent relationship.
Acknowledge that he or she is in a very difficult and scary situation. Let your friend or family member know that the abuse is not their fault. Reassure him or her that they are not alone and that there is help and support out there.
Be supportive. Listen to your friend or family member. Remember that it may be difficult for him or her to talk about the abuse. Let him or her know that you are available to help whenever they may need it. What they need most is someone who will believe and listen to them.
Be non-judgmental. Respect your friend or family member’s decisions. There are many reasons why victims stay in abusive relationships. He or she may leave and return to the relationship many times. Do not criticize his or her decisions or try to guilt them. He or she will need your support even more during those times.
Encourage him or her to participate in activities outside of the relationship with friends and family.
If he or she ends the relationship, continue to be supportive of them. Even though the relationship was abusive, your friend or family member may still feel sad and lonely once it is over. He or she will need time to mourn the loss of the relationship and will especially need your support at that time.
Help him or her to develop a safety plan.
Encourage him or her to talk to people who can provide help and guidance. Find a local domestic violence agency that provides counseling or support groups. Offer to go with him or her to talk to family and friends. If he or she has to go to the police, court or a lawyer, offer to go along for moral support.
Remember that you cannot “rescue” him or her. Although it is difficult to see someone you care about get hurt, ultimately the person getting hurt has to be the one to decide that they want to do something about it. It’s important for you to support him or her and help them find a way to safety and peace.