Lowry was holding a kitchen knife, one they had bought at the Del Mar Fair. “I was trying to get through to him, make him pay attention. I poked him."
What were you thinking when you shot him? “I wasn’t thinking. I panicked. It’s nothing like I staged it.”
In each of the last three years, there were roughly 17,000 murders in the United States. Of these, about 11 percent were committed by women. In most cases women kill to defend themselves during a confrontation: It’s her life or his. Women seldom murder other women and almost never kill strangers. That’s what men do. When a woman kills her husband, boyfriend, or lover, the crime is called “intimate murder”; because the victim is known, and because a confrontation is usually the source of her rage (almost all female killings are unplanned), the charge is usually manslaughter. Once a woman enters the criminal justice system, her fate may be eased by chivalrous public defenders, judges, and juries, who sometimes buy into gender stereotypes of women as nonviolent and passive, relational victims who deserve to be punished but not severely. At trial, a woman may generate sympathy via honest or well-played emotional displays. Is crazy-in-love a special requisite for intimate female murder? Or is there something more to the story than ruined innocence? To illustrate, here are three local cases, a consideration of contestable intentions that led to the violent end of a woman’s love.
I Loved My Husband, and I Didn’t Do It on Purpose.
Marion Scott Lowry’s early life was traumatic. As a teenager, she and her mother moved to Ocean Beach, where the mother sold marijuana for the Hell’s Angels. A stepfather stole money from Lowry’s mother and frequently abused her. The mother, unable to care for her daughter, was forced to give up Marion, and at 13, Marion was placed in a foster home. Lowry, who told her story to a psychiatrist and a psychologist, transcripts of which are on file with the San Diego Superior Court, said that in 1969 her mother owed the Hell’s Angels $500 in drug proceeds, a sum she could not pay. According to Lowry, the motorcycle gang had her mother killed. The court-ordered psychologist wrote, “Her mother was placed on the freeway in the fast lane, while on heroin, by the Hell’s Angels and run over.” In the police report, the cause of death was ruled an accident.
A lost teen, Lowry ran away from her foster family but was later found and returned to school. She failed 11th grade and again ran away, this time to San Francisco, where she used drugs. She took LSD, then “graduated” to the hallucinogen STP, a much stronger psychotropic drug. As a result, Lowry was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and given antipsychotic medication to come down. Typically, when Lowry was prescribed such drugs, she “flushed them down the toilet.” At 18, she overdosed on a prescribed drug — 100 tablets of 100 mg Mellaril. Her stomach was pumped and she was saved. (Two other suicide attempts occurred: she sliced her wrists at 28, and she cut her neck at 38.)
Lowry, who is now 54, told the psychologist that she had been raped five times, but despite years of drugs and physical abuse, she continued to work. Her résumé includes stints as a cashier, fast-food worker, department-store clerk, maid, and a horse trainer in Arizona, her favorite job: eight years off drugs, tending animals. Along the way, Lowry married twice. With her first husband, she had a son; with her second, the union ended when she committed adultery in order to — as she claimed — get away from the man.
The man she cheated with was John Raymond Tramposh. The pair married in 1983 and lived for many years at Diamond Jack’s RV Park in Jamul. Lowry recalls that the pair drank heavily; both broke into cars to steal things, even when either she or Tramposh was on parole. Still, Lowry remembers the marriage as “excellent — no matter what, my husband was always there for me. No matter how much of a failure [I was], no matter how much I struggled,” he was, she said, good to her, and she to him. “I’d pick him up, and he’d pick me up, when I was down. When I’d run from him, he’d give me chicken soup. We had verbal fighting.” Her neighbors said, “We were either fucking or fighting.” Apparently, the fighting included times when, according to Tramposh, Lowry would strike him “on the legs with pots and pans.”
In 1991, Lowry was hospitalized with a “nervous breakdown.” In the psychologist’s report, she described herself “drinking beer, raising hell, falling asleep, cracking my teeth, and yelling at my husband,” Tramposh. While under a psychiatrist’s care, she was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given Klonopin, along with other antidepressants and mood stabilizers. Another psychiatrist diagnosed her as having “manic depression, schizophrenic residuals, and suicidal tendencies.” In 1999 and 2000, she was hospitalized at County Mental Health hospital for “psychological disorders.”
By 2006, Lowry had an extensive criminal record: 10 misdemeanor convictions and 11 felony convictions, along with 8 “criminal failures to appear.” The charges and convictions include selling heroin, forgery, receiving stolen property, defrauding businesses, petty theft, escaping jail, disorderly conduct, vehicle theft, burglary, begging, child stealing, transporting narcotics, battery, prostitution, assault with a deadly weapon not a firearm, and DUI. Lowry confessed to the psychiatrist, “I’m a high-end bitch. I steal the nice things so I can have money in my pocket. My problem was I’d see it and take it because it was pretty.” Of late, Lowry has supported herself with Social Security disability payments.
Lowry’s day is given over to a pack of cigarettes, three or four drinks, and four to six cups of coffee. She takes methadone and Xanax. Long-term drug use has taken its toll. The psychologist describes Lowry as plump, poorly groomed, tangential in her thinking, labile (prone to swings of emotions), and “inappropriately angry.” Her speech can be “poorly logical.” Her judgment and her insight is “poor.” She is “in the average range of cognitive ability.” The Michigan Alcohol Screening Test classed her a “problem drinker.” The test suggests that “individuals with this profile are suspicious, mistrustful, easily threatened, and likely to overrespond to minor environmental stresses with belligerent behavior and emotional outbursts.” The personality disorder Lowry has is severe: it is marked by loneliness and feeling misunderstood and by a tendency to be highly manipulative and self-indulgent. The psychologist found no evidence that Lowry is a psychopath.
By 2006, Lowry’s husband Tramposh had his own worries, due to years of alcohol and drug abuse. He was sick with cirrhosis, had type 2 diabetes, and suffered from low testosterone, a side-effect of the methadone he was taking. Tramposh had poor eating habits, and periodically, Lowry would cook him a meal to replace his frequent use of the microwave. In a police report, Tramposh identified himself as having “bipolar disorder.” He noted that he “slept a lot.”
Though the marriage may have brought some stability to Lowry’s life, whatever she did enjoy was worm-eaten by drug-taking and hospitalizations. In addition, the pair often fought over attempts to recover Tramposh’s share of a family inheritance, which, Lowry alleged, was being kept from him by his sister, Erica Winchell. Lowry said that the sister was not paying her brother the money for estate items that had been sold on eBay. According to a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Winchell disputed this, calling Lowry “poison.” Lowry, she said, had been “nagging Tramposh to demand his share” of money that was “tied up in probate court.”
On September 21, 2006, Lowry said she and her husband had gone to Costco “for food and water. We had been drinking. Mudslides, in the truck in the driveway [at Costco]. When we got home, we sat in the parking lot [and] drank.” A bit past 8:00 p.m., while Lowry prepared dinner, Tramposh talked about death, “about not wanting to live; he was talking about being a failure. He got a little bit mental.” That’s when the inheritance came up again. They argued over who should call the sister. Tramposh said, “You call her back.” A police report states that Lowry had been arguing with Winchell on the phone. She pleaded with her husband to phone Winchell again “on her behalf. He refused to do so.”
It seems that one of the pair ordered the other to bed. Then, Tramposh changed his mind and moved toward the phone. Lowry said that Tramposh was “angry at his sister, not taking it out on me. But he want[ed] to talk to her again.” His wife was in the way, and he went to push her aside.
Lowry, who’d been cooking dinner, was holding a kitchen knife, one they had bought at the Del Mar Fair. “It was a sharp knife,” Lowry said. “I was trying to get through to him, make him pay attention. I poked him. ‘Stop it. Just quit it. Let’s leave this whole fucking mess alone.’ ” Lowry said the knife didn’t go in deep, though he “did bleed a lot.” Clutching his stomach, Tramposh stumbled out of the trailer.
Lowry called 911. The operator told her to stay in the house. That’s when Lowry began spinning the first of many stories about what had happened. When the operator asked for details, Lowry said that Tramposh had fallen on something in the house. She knew she was drunk; she knew there’d be police. So “I made up bullshit.” But, she continued, “I didn’t think he was hurt. I didn’t know how deep it was. I just thought he would need stitches.”
Scared, she ran outside and found Tramposh in a nearby phone booth on his knees. He’d called an ambulance, “as he knew he was seriously hurt.” Tramposh told the operator his wife had stabbed him. Medical technicians and the police arrived to find him “barely breathing” with a “weak pulse.” He “appeared to be unconscious.” Tramposh then whispered to the police officer that his wife had stabbed him. The ambulance rushed him to Sharp Memorial Hospital, where he had difficulty breathing and a terrific pain in his chest. A laparotomy, or incision in his abdominal wall, found “two liters of clotted and unclotted blood.” The knife had gone in three and one-half inches. After puncturing the liver, the knife struck an artery on the underside of the liver. Tramposh was moved to intensive care, where he lingered, in and out of consciousness.
When the police had arrived on the scene, both Lowry and her husband were in the phone booth. The police had to separate Lowry from Tramposh’s body. According to the report, she was drunk and uncooperative. Initially, she maintained that he had fallen on something in the yard, but when they questioned this story, she said that she “thought someone in the park must have attacked him” while he was outside. When Lowry heard what the hospital was doing to save her husband, she complained that they weren’t doing enough for him.
Finally, she told the officers, “It was a poke, it wasn’t a stab.” A poke to end an argument. The story squared with the facts — the knife, the wound, the phone calls, all of which were verified. The truth, however, was not enough to save Tramposh. He lingered for ten days, until his liver and kidneys failed. He died on October 1, 2006.
In his final days Tramposh made a point of not blaming his wife. Evidence of this comes from his dying statement, which the attending nurses corroborated. “ ‘Tell Marion I love her. You need to tell the detective that she didn’t do it on purpose.’ ” Lowry testified to the psychologist that “the doctors and nurses said he never said anything bad about me.” After her husband’s death, Lowry was remorseful. “He taught me how to be happy with the smallest things, taught me how to slow down. He taught me how to use my mind, how to think, how to relearn new things.” The psychologist and psychiatrist concluded that Lowry was sane at the time of the murder, in part because she had several times consciously misrepresented what had happened.
Last summer, Lowry pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter. She cried to the judge, “I loved my husband, and I didn’t do it on purpose. I was trying to get his attention, and I loved him, and I still do, and I always will. It wasn’t meant to be this way.” Had the case gone to trial and Lowry found guilty by a jury, she might have received 15 years. Instead, the judge, who reviewed the psychological and psychiatric reports, listened to her woes and gave her 7.
The Emotionally Battered Wife Defense
Patricia Joellen Morris fell for Peter Johnson, a well-to-do executive in Del Mar, in a big way — but it was really no different from the way she’d always fallen for men, giving up her independence for the marriage, to accommodate the man’s career. Joellen, who is called by her middle name, was a 19-year-old college student when she met and married Craig Castle. She finished her degree and spent the next 21 years with Craig and their two children. Castle took engineering jobs all over the country — Alabama, Connecticut, Houston (where they lived for 10 years and he worked for NASA), New Jersey, back to Connecticut, and Florida. While Craig traveled for work — and drank — Joellen raised the kids and started running. Eventually she ran the New York Marathon twice in under four hours. Through many moves, Joellen worked as a low-paid secretary in the medical field.
Craig’s constant absence and Joellen’s affair with another man led to the couple’s divorce. Joellen then picked up with and married Stan Blythe, a lieutenant in the Navy, stationed in Florida. This was 1985. As Mrs. Blythe, she followed her husband around — as she had Castle — to Rhode Island and San Diego. In Poway they bought a condo, and Joellen worked at Scripps Hospital. But the marriage soured. According to Joellen, Blythe was physically and verbally abusive. For his part, he remembered Joellen as jealous, possessive, angry, mean, and hateful. Joellen and Blythe separated in July 1988. (Their “regard” for each other didn’t stop them from meeting at a motel for the occasional assignation.) After he moved out, Blythe claims he once came to the condo to retrieve some belongings and that Joellen pulled a .32 revolver on him, saying that if he came any closer she would shoot. He left.
In 1989, Joellen, afraid of being alone, placed a personal ad in a newspaper. Peter Johnson, ten years her senior, called, and they began dating. The following January, when the Blythes were finally divorced and the condo sold, Joellen moved in with Peter. They shared his Del Mar digs on Carmel Valley Road. Joellen had a savings account from the condo sale and a good job at Scripps. Doctors and co-workers described her as a “very intelligent,” “professional,” and “levelheaded,” person who “never displayed any violent or aggressive behavior.” But Joellen was jealous and suspicious of Peter; she found strange numbers on their phone bill. In October she hired a private detective, and together they unraveled Peter’s deceit, a discovery that sent Joellen packing, to be near her college-age children and old friends in Florida.
Peter Johnson was a womanizer. As a senior vice-president of a medical supply company, his $100,000 annual salary helped him bankroll several liaisons at once. He’d maintained a 12-year affair with a married woman in Chicago, the wife of an Eastern Airlines pilot. (When Joellen found out about this woman, Peter, pledging he’d changed, grabbed Joellen’s leg and wrote on it, “I will not see that woman again.” She made him take a photo of the writing on her leg, so she could keep it in her wallet.) While Peter was dating Joellen, he’d attended what she called “group sex parties in L.A.,” and she was worried that he would contract a disease. Peter was also dating a professional tennis player, whose earnings funded a home in Rancho Santa Fe and nationwide travel. The pair often went skiing in Utah, where Peter owned a condo.
According to Joellen, Peter became engaged to the tennis pro at the same time he was living with her. When that engagement fell through, Peter got the $6000 ring returned and flew to Florida to woo Joellen back, giving her the ring. Joellen wore it for several months but took it off once she learned where it had been. She insisted that Peter buy it back from her for $4000.
After Joellen called the tennis pro and heard that the affair was over, she married Peter in April 1990. They negotiated a prenuptial agreement, regarding “their mutual understanding [of] income and property and expenditures.” In general, Peter was not inclined to divide any assets, including his sailboat, with his new wife. He required they “share recreational expenses.” Records also state that he wanted to amend the prenuptial, even after they’d tied the knot.
In Florida, Peter was unsuccessful in his job hunt. So the couple returned to San Diego, where he became vice president of operations at Block Medical Group in Carlsbad. Joellen worked again at her old secretarial position, still making $10 an hour. The Johnsons rented a condo on Sea Turf Circle in Solana Beach. By now, Joellen was so angry about Peter’s affairs (she was in group therapy and taking an antidepressant) that she insisted they see a marriage counselor.
The couple saw John Fleck, an Encinitas psychologist. Court documents state that Fleck diagnosed Joellen as “depressed and beaten down emotionally, while Peter Johnson appeared angry for being there and treated his wife badly during the sessions.” Peter stopped going; Joellen continued. Fleck diagnosed her as “being under chronic depression with a sense of hopelessness and poor self-esteem.” She couldn’t make decisions, and she was frightened of being alone. Because Joellen was so close to a “complete emotional collapse,” Fleck said he took the rare step of urging her to leave Peter.
In January 1991, Joellen suffered what one psychiatrist characterized as a panic attack. She secured a job and an apartment in Clearwater, Florida, then resigned her job at Scripps — all without Peter’s knowledge. She packed her car with furniture, a TV, clothes, and a .32 revolver she’d carried from her days in Houston, where, she said, “Everyone owns a gun.” She started the drive to Florida but stopped in El Paso and called Peter, hoping to reconcile. His unfaithfulness and his stinginess were her two biggest headaches. She couldn’t understand why, with his making “ten times” what she did, he couldn’t pay more of their everyday expenses. The pair agreed to meet in Utah. Joellen left her car in El Paso and flew to Salt Lake City, where she and Peter skied for a few days and argued about finances. At one point, she hurt her knee on the slopes and asked Peter for some Tylenol. He insisted she pay for it before he gave it to her.
According to court records, “Peter pleaded with Joellen not to come back to live with him in California unless she was sure that she could trust him and promise to stop abusing him with her constant attacks of jealousy and interrogation regarding his whereabouts.” Which Joellen had done, she said, because his serial affairs had earned her mistrust. She discovered he had four phones and four answering machines at four locations and concluded he hadn’t changed.
Joellen flew to Florida, signed a lease for a new apartment, started work, and then, within a week, was overcome by regret. Fueling her guilt was a quick visit from Peter, who with renewed promises urged her to come back. She agreed and returned with him to Solana Beach. But before leaving, she bought a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, in part because she’d left her .32 in the car in El Paso. In the next week she would pay $950 out of her $10,000 savings to have her car shipped, with the gun and her belongings, from El Paso to San Diego.
Once in Solana Beach, Peter — a fanatical record-keeper of expenditures — told Joellen she owed him for half the Utah trip’s expenses. He handed her the bill: $1076. Though she contested it, she paid. But Peter’s latest “budgetary analysis” enraged her. She consulted an attorney, trying to secure the legal wherewithal to be an equal partner in the marriage.
On February 25, 1991, two days before she would begin a new job, Peter got home around 7:00 p.m. Joellen was still upset over the $1076. The two started drinking wine and arguing. Suddenly he placed a bill for $3000 before her and said he’d decided that from now on she’d have to pay her own living expenses. Joellen was dumbstruck. She told him about having seen an attorney. Peter shot back, that wouldn’t do. She was jeopardizing his latest coup. He was, he told her, up to become president of IMED, a local medical device company. That would mean $350,000 a year! Going to an attorney now would ruin his appointment.
The night wore on, the hour grew late. In bed, both were exhausted. According to Joellen, Peter “playfully” gave Joellen a “rough kiss” goodnight, slamming his lips against hers. Joellen got mad and said she was calling the police. (A later examination of Joellen’s lips revealed “no indicia of any injuries.” Nor was there any injury to Peter’s lips.) Peter said, “Go ahead and call 911.” Using the bedroom phone, she did, at 11:49 p.m. The sheriff’s communications center logged the call “from a woman who was then cut off by a man’s voice — followed by a disconnect.”
Peter was livid that she had actually called. The marriage was over, he declared. He never wanted to see her again. She should get in her car, as she had a month earlier, and drive back to Florida. He was filing for divorce. He got out of bed and began to get dressed; he intended to leave before anyone arrived.
The kitchen phone rang. Peter answered and told the 911 operator that nothing was wrong, no need for anyone to come. The operator asked for the female in the house. Joellen plugged the bedroom phone in, and she also said that nothing was wrong, help wasn’t necessary. The operator told them that officers had already been dispatched. The time was 11:52 p.m.
At 11:53 p.m., Deputies Linas Yurkus and Joseph Spina entered the parking lot of the condo complex and saw Joellen coming out her front door, wearing a short pink nightgown. When she saw the two cops, she ran back inside. Twenty seconds later, she emerged again, holding a gun in her left hand. The deputies said she rocked back and forth, her eyes fixed in a “wide-eyed gaze.” Yurkus drew his gun and told her seven, maybe eight times, to drop hers. Finally, she put it down. Yurkus ran up the stairs, and Joellen announced: “He’s on the bed. I shot him because he’s an asshole. He deserved it.”
In a minute or two, between the operator saying the police were on their way and Joellen’s coming outside with a gun, she had retrieved the .38 from a bedside table. Peter, who was putting on his sweatshirt, had his back to her. She leaned across the bed and shot him. The bullet went through his body and came out his stomach. He turned and held his arm over his heart in a “defensive position.” Joellen walked around the bed and shot again, the bullet hitting and passing through his arm. With Peter screaming, she shut the bedroom door and went out the front door. (At trial, one brief described her gunning Peter down as an act with a “degree of viciousness, callousness and cruelty that is hard to imagine.”)
Inside the condo, the deputies heard a man moaning behind a closed door. They found Peter on the bed, on his back, a phone receiver in his hand. Blood had pooled around his torso. He kept saying he was going to die and he couldn’t breathe while he writhed and screamed in pain.
In the hall Joellen stood listening; Yurkus took her to another room. She said, “I hope he dies, the asshole. He deserves it. I just want to get dressed. I’m sorry.” She then ordered the deputies, “Close the door. I don’t want to hear him whining about dying.”
At Scripps Hospital, doctors opened Peter’s chest and found both the liver “decimated” by the bullet and the “adrenal gland, which caused tremendous internal bleeding.” He died about two hours after he was shot.
At the Encinitas sheriff’s department, at 4:20 a.m., Joellen was advised of her Miranda rights by Detective David Weir. She talked freely for an hour about the marriage. She confessed that there was “no physical abuse in the relationship.” It was “extreme psychological abuse. He had me crazy. He’s a pathological liar.” What galled her was Peter’s never responding to her queries: why was he late for dinner, why were there scratches on his back, why was a pair of women’s underwear on the floor of his car, why did he come home one night with his hair matted and his brow sweaty? Instead of answering, Peter wrote down her complaints and insinuations on scraps of paper and later entered them into a “behavior chart” on his computer.
During the interrogation, Joellen said that she finally saw her condition described in a book: Robin Norwood’s Women Who Love Too Much: When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He’ll Change. Joellen tried to get in touch with Norwood but to no avail. She said she never wanted to kill her husband: “I was really in love with him. I was more miserable without him in Florida.”
At the hour’s end, she asked after Peter’s condition. Weir had known he was dead but kept it from her; he was afraid it would upset her even more. He told her that the bullet had severed a major artery and that Peter had bled to death. “Are you sure he’s dead?” Joellen asked. Weir said that this was the first time she became “a little bit emotional,” shedding “a few tears.” Later, though, in a holding cell, she tried to strangle herself with an electrical cord.
Returning to the condo, the police found Joellen’s other gun, the .32 revolver, in her dresser. It was “loaded with lead round bullets, which are designed to punch a hole in a target as opposed to bullets that are designed to expand upon impact and cause maximum damage.” The .38 she shot Peter with “was loaded with hollow-point or hydro-shock bullets that are designed to break up and cause death when they hit a body.”
In the end, Patricia Joellen Johnson would have two trials. Both times she testified that she shot her husband but “did not want to hurt or kill him.” At the first trial in 1991, her lawyer retained several experts who would have testified to her husband’s emotional abuse — including evidence from Peter’s first wife, to whom he was similarly abusive — but the judge disallowed it. Joellen was convicted of first-degree murder. With an enhancement for using a weapon, she received 29 years to life.
It would seem that a murder committed within the minute or two that this one did could not be premeditated. But the jury believed her act was not rash and impulsive but cold and calculated. On appeal, the appellate court upheld their verdict. The court wrote that premeditation “can occur in a brief period of time. The true test is not the duration of time as much as it is the extent of the reflection. Thoughts may follow each other with great rapidity, and cold, calculated judgment may be arrived at quickly. To constitute a deliberate and premeditated killing, the slayer must weigh and consider the question of killing and the reasons for and against such a choice and, having in mind the consequences, she decides to and does kill.” Joellen’s statements to the police — as well as her prior anger, jealousy, and rage — seemed to doom her. Nor did her choice to use the more deadly of the two weapons at hand, the .38, help her situation.
In 1992, a law was passed allowing a woman to use “battered women’s syndrome” as a defense in a murder trial — that is, a history of physical and emotional abuse. Due to challenges to that law, it wasn’t until 1996 that California courts began allowing women with prior murder convictions to request a new trial or a reduced sentence. While serving her time at the California Institute for Women in Corona, Joellen kept abreast of these changes. On her own, she drafted legal documents and appealed her conviction on the grounds that the judge in her case refused what we now call battered spouse syndrome or the intimate partner battering defense. Finally, in 2005, a judge set aside Joellen’s 1991 conviction and called for a new trial. There her attorney could present expert witnesses who would testify that Peter Johnson had emotionally abused her during their three-year on-again, off-again relationship.
At the second trial, in 2006, the jury heard more about Peter’s “behavior chart.” He would force Joellen to sign statements designed to define and regulate her behavior, mostly to stop her from questioning him and his fidelity. Whenever she broke a pact, he would mark it on his chart. One such contract, which apparently Joellen signed, required her to pay Peter $10,000 if she falsely accused him of cheating on her. Another contract allowed him to take off his wedding ring for 30 days and date other women if she asked him any question about his past.
Based on Joellen’s description, one psychologist diagnosed Peter as having “psychopathic personality disorder” and “narcissistic tendencies.” A domestic violence expert said that Peter’s behavior was “extreme. Clearly not physically, but in terms of the psychological, emotional, and intentional aspects of power and control, he was on the extreme end of the spectrum.” Still another psychologist said that Peter “gained psychological control” over Joellen “by creating chaos in her life.” She also said that Joellen “was a victim of the most sadistic forms of psychological abuse.”
Joellen’s public defender argued for a “heat of passion” verdict, voluntary manslaughter. The jury found her guilty of second-degree murder. At sentencing, the judge noted that while there was psychological abuse, “She didn’t just snap.” He gave her 18 years to life. The 65-year-old Joellen has already served 17 years. She is eligible for parole, and her conviction is still under appeal.
If I Can’t Have You, Nobody Can.
Geraldine Meyers was an aerobics instructor when she moved to La Mesa in 2003 with her boyfriend, Demetrius Warren, a bodybuilder who hoped to become a cop. They had met in Virginia in 1998; he was 22, she was 37 and raising three adolescents. Meyers and Warren cohabited for a time in Chicago. In La Mesa, the pair shared a place on Saranac Street in the South Ridge apartments. But after a couple of years, things between them fizzled. Both began dating others, even though they continued to share a bed at the apartment. Meyers surfed blackpeoplemeet.com and found Auteria Winzer, an Atlantan whom she visited once and slept with. The assignation had no legs, in part because Winzer broke it off shortly thereafter, though Meyers instant-messaged him constantly. Meyers began chatting online with others as well. Warren, who believed he was finished with Meyers, had been dating Ja’Net Green since July. The two were engaged and seeing each other at least every weekend in her Spring Valley home. Neither Warren nor Meyers knew what the other was up to — though each suspected that something was amiss.
Central to their past was a festering secret: Warren was an abuser. According to Meyers, he’d doled out the rough treatment for years. She never told a cop or a therapist, though she did tell her three children, mostly her daughter Janetra, and she’d once complained to Warren’s mother. Meyers said that Warren would beat and choke her. Afterward, she said, “You could see the handprints on my neck.” She donned a turtleneck to cover up the bruises. He would “poke” her on the forehead; he would grab her arms; he would grab her head and force her back with a jolt. He slapped her. Once he knocked her down, “hawked up, and spit in my face.” When enraged, he would come at her “real fast.” Warren was “much bigger than” Meyers, who “couldn’t defend myself against him. He always raises up at me like I got no rights to say what I got to say, even though I’m very calm about it.” She never reported him, she said, because he told her, “ ‘I’ll kill you if you ever call the police.’ ”
The battering included some 15–20 incidents, and it continued, despite Meyers’s insistence that she loved Warren, hoped he would stop, and trusted he would be honest with her about his girlfriends, all through their on-again, off-again relationship. Finally, on November 20, 2006, it ended when Meyers confronted Warren about his having taken up with another woman.
Meyers, who was 46 in 2006, told her story in five interviews with detectives over a two-day period that followed the showdown with Warren. (Detectives included Angela Dessaro, Shawn Wray, and Greg Runge of the La Mesa Police Department. Apparently, the first officer on the scene read Meyers her Miranda rights, but she talked voluntarily.) She spoke at length about the abuse, which began in Chicago. One time, Warren attacked Jada, Meyers’s oldest daughter, who was living with them. Warren had also been arrested for illegal gun possession. A neighbor once called the cops about their obscenity-laced fights, but when the police showed up Meyers told them that “everything was okay.”
In La Mesa, the pair had a peculiar pact. A tow-truck driver, Warren paid the Saranac rent ($900 a month) and the utilities; the lease, however, was in Meyers’s name. The arrangement was that Warren would buy food, and she could expect it to be in the fridge when she needed it. They also agreed to share Meyers’s car, while Warren would keep the tank full. The two were committed to this pattern: Meyers said that no fight or disagreement ever altered the setup.
In September 2006, Meyers said that Warren became more secretive and more abusive than usual. He was gone almost every weekend and wouldn’t say where. He and Meyers continued to sleep together and have sex on Thursday and Monday nights. Monday afternoons the pair worked out together (“I spotted him”) at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Meyers taught kickboxing there and at San Diego Fitness; she’d bring Warren with her as a guest.
Meyers did not tell her daughter Janetra about the most recent violence because she was ashamed: “She told me I should not be with him, that I should have left.” There were never any witnesses to Warren’s abuse. Once, in early 2006, Meyers phoned Warren’s mother and said: “Your son needs to stop putting his hands on me. If he puts his hands on me, I’ll kill him.”
Late summer 2006, Meyers took a room in a home on Paducah Drive in Clairemont. She said she paid the rent ($600 a month) so she could have a place where she might “relax…I hadn’t been eating a lot. I couldn’t sleep. My blood pressure was 190 over 129.” Still, every Monday, she would drive to the Saranac apartment in La Mesa and get something to eat, before attending massage classes at Concord Career College on Imperial Avenue. Four hours of classes and she’d be back at Saranac, where Warren would be waiting for her. He would by then have returned from his weekend away, and he’d be lying on the floor, his PlayStation on the TV, the controller in his hand.
In early November, Warren got incensed at Meyers one day when she couldn’t find a CD with photos of him posing for a modeling job. She was standing in front of an interior door when he ran at her. She ducked and his fist went through the door. He then pushed her between a table and the wall, on which the police later found “scuff marks.” Warren didn’t care if Meyers stopped coming to the apartment, but he didn’t want her to take her name off the lease. He believed it would mean that he’d have to move out. He had applied to police departments in La Mesa, San Diego, and Los Angeles, and he felt he needed to show stability. He was especially worried that if Meyers called the cops on him, his chances would be dashed. She said that he also told her that day, “ ‘I’ll kill you if you call the cops on me. Nobody gonna ruin me. I’m trying to be a cop.’ ”
More than ever, Meyers felt she needed to protect herself. She went to Wholesale Guns in Santee and paid $300 for a .22 caliber revolver. She passed the gun-safety test, cleared the ten-day waiting period for a background check, and picked up the gun and bullets on November 15, 2006. (Meyers said she fired the gun a couple of times to try it out.) After loading the revolver with five bullets, she put it and a can of pepper spray she already owned (which she claimed to have used on Warren before) in her purse.
On Sunday, November 19, Meyers spent the evening with her sister, Joyce Moore, in Lemon Grove. They cooked dinner, talked, laughed, watched Desperate Housewives and a movie. Meyers did not then — or ever — tell her sister what she was going through with Warren. She left, went to her room on Paducah Drive, and stayed up until 3:00 a.m. chatting with men online. That night she slept fitfully, got up at 7:00 a.m., and drove to Saranac, hoping to snag a piece of fruit. There was nothing to eat, however, and Warren was not in the apartment. Meyers was angry. Later, at class, her massage instructor claimed that Meyers was “agitated and anxious.” She made several calls to her daughter. She went in and out of the classroom, “slamming the door fiercely.” She left school early, shaking and crying.
At 11:45 a.m., she returned to the apartment, having decided she would confront Warren about a number of things, among them, his having broken his pledge to keep her supplied with food. But more was bothering her. A lot more.
She believed Warren had taken up with another woman. Not only was he gone every weekend, but in recent weeks she’d had “burning sensations” in her genitals. She was convinced that Warren had infected her with an STD. And yet she handled this misgiving just as she handled the abuse: she kept it to herself and didn’t consult a doctor. She was “embarrassed and ashamed,” she said. (Previously, Meyers had once contracted an STD; she’d seen a doctor and got it cleared up.) She thought it was time she and Warren separated for good. She hoped to move out in two months. Approaching the apartment, she knew she had to tell him “how I was feeling. That’s my personality. I’ve always stood to tell him.”
Walking in, Meyers could hear from the back bedroom that by the sound of his PlayStation he was present. She sat on the couch and took the loaded gun and the pepper spray out of her purse and put them in the waistband of her pants; she pulled her long, loose-fitting shirt over the weapons. Warren, Meyers said, didn’t know she was armed. Once he heard her, they immediately started exchanging words.
Meyers yelled. “ ‘Why is there no food in the fridge? Why you treating me so badly?’ ” He replied, “ ‘You say that again and I’m a-show you what treating bad is all about.’ ” Meyers said that as Warren’s voice rose, she became “more frightened.” The yelling escalated. She reminded him of their agreement: while she was in school he would keep the fridge stocked. Meyers came to the doorway of the bedroom. Warren was on the floor in his sweats, his cell phone next to him. “He looked at me like he was going to charge. He called me a ‘fucking bitch’…whenever he say that, he get up and charge at me…My heart was racing.”
Warren did get up. He came at her. But she stopped him, demanding the truth: Was he sleeping with someone? Why was she having these “burning sensations”? Warren said it was none of her business. Then he said he’d been hanging out with the guys. The whole weekend? They were driving him around? She had suspected his unfaithfulness, even telling some of her fitness clients. A week before, she had asked Warren if “we should use protection.” He just “played dumb.” Finally he flung it in her face. “Basically, he said to me, ‘I do what the fuck I want to do.’ ” Then he confirmed it. “ ‘Yup,’ he said. ‘It’s casual.’ ” Next came “the look, the stare,” and, at last, the final straw: “He said she was better in bed than me.”
Warren got back down on his stomach, picked up the controller, and went back to his video game. Meyers said something else, and again he said, “ ‘You fucking bitch.’ ” Then he called her a “ ‘skank.’ All kinds of names. I knew,” she said, “he was gonna get up and charge at me. Like he always do.” That was when Meyers lost it.
Transcripts of the police interviews reveal a lot. In them, it sounds as if Meyers is agreeing with the detectives at least partly because of their persistent questioning (“You loved him, didn’t you?” “Yes, I loved him”). She was made to tell the story repeatedly, and the detectives accused her of hiding something. (Even Meyers wonders if, under the barrage of queries, she has “changed” her story — wonders if, in fact, it was their intent to entrap her.)
Meyers said she pulled the pepper spray out and sprayed it in Warren’s direction; she was terrified he would get up again. She claimed that Warren said, “ ‘What the fuck are you doing, you fucking bitch.’ ” This enraged her, and she took the gun out and shot him. “I shot; I panicked.” He was on the floor, and the bullet went into the back of his head. She then recocked the gun (it’s not an automatic), stepped closer, and shot him again in the same place. The wounds were within an inch of each other. The estimate is that Meyers was three to four feet away for the first shot, while the second was fired at “close range.” Neither was a contact wound, though powder was found on Warren’s head. In the moment, Meyers didn’t seem to know she had killed him. Afraid he’d get up, she pepper-sprayed the room, the walls, and covered his back and the back of his head. There was no spray on his face.
Meyers ran to her car. She wanted, she said, to put his phone in her bag. She thought that once the police arrived and questioned her, she’d be let go. She assumed they’d believe that the shooting was self-defense. She said she took his phone so she could call Warren’s mother in Tampa. Why? the detectives asked. “I was going to apologize to her because we got in an argument and [to] say, ‘I shot your son.’ ”
Next, Meyers ran to the office manager. She told the woman to call 911; she had shot Demetrius. Another woman was there, and both said Meyers ran out, was gone for a time, then returned, screaming that she had to shoot him because he was going to beat her again. She gave the gun to the manager. In contrast, Meyers said she never left but sat and waited. The police theorized that Meyers went to the bedroom to doctor the scene.
In the bedroom, police found Warren dead of two gunshots to the back of his head. The PlayStation controller was a few feet away from him, close to the TV; his hands were in front of his head, and his elbows were splayed out to the sides, as if, police reasoned, he had been playing the game when he was shot. Meyers denied moving the controller.
The detectives asked why she wanted him dead. Meyers said, “I didn’t want him dead.” What were you thinking when you shot him? “I wasn’t thinking,” she said. “I panicked. It’s nothing like I staged it.” They asked Meyers why she hadn’t left before, especially that afternoon: Go to your sister’s, go to a shelter. Why shoot him? Meyers feared she’d be hunted down and killed. “Until you’re abused like me, you don’t know how it feels.” Did you go home intending to shoot him? “No.” One detective countered, “I think you knew it was going to get ugly.”
At the onset of the eight-day trial in January 2008, there wasn’t any doubt that Meyers had killed Warren. In El Cajon Superior Court, Ja’Net Green, his fiancée, testified that she’d taken a test for a sexually transmitted disease after his death, and the test came back negative. There was no evidence that Meyers had an STD. Deputy district attorney Kurt Mechals said she admitted in jail that she had listed no disease on the intake form.
The main body of the evidence presented to the jury came from transcripts of the five detective-led interviews with Meyers. “We used her own statements against her because she couldn’t keep her story straight,” Mechals said. Detectives and neighbors from the Saranac apartment took the stand; Warren’s friends and relatives took the stand; Meyers’s friends and relatives, including two of her children, took the stand. Meyers herself testified for nearly two of the eight days.
Mechals said that her children contradicted their mother’s story that she had told them she was a victim of Warren’s abuse. “They only mentioned a couple of incidents,” Mechals said, “not in the detail she was claiming.” A licensed clinical social worker who examined Meyers said that she “was a victim of ongoing domestic violence.” But Mechals didn’t buy it. There was no trail of Meyers’s confessing that fact to friends and relatives. Nor was it true that Warren had put his fist through the door three weeks before she shot him. Meyers’s brother testified that the hole had been there a year, and they’d covered it up with a towel. That was another lie. Spraying Warren’s back and spraying the walls was another way, Mechals said, that Meyers tried to make it seem like a “big melee.”
The jury was instructed to look at charges of first- or second-degree murder, as well as voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. A day and a half later, the jury found Meyers guilty of second-degree murder and the personal discharge of a firearm. This meant that Meyers had murdered Warren with some premeditation, by buying the gun and having it on her when she confronted him. She did not lie in wait for him, which would be first degree. Public defender Thomas Carenssale believes the jury was wrong. He’s appealing the case and feels that the finding should have been voluntary manslaughter.
During sentencing, one sister wrote that Geraldine had never done drugs, never been violent, and had no criminal record. She “cared about women’s health issues, so she sponsored an aerobic class for women at her church.” Warren’s mother, Sheridine Warren, said that Meyers had “assassinated” her son twice: by killing him, and then by disparaging his character in the courtroom. “There is no relief,” she said, “of the pain I feel daily for losing my son.” Demetrius’s ten-year-old son Jaylen (from a previous relationship) wrote in a note to his father and the court: “I forgive you for the bad thing you’ve done. But you have to understand if you kill anyone it will hurt a lot of people inside.”
The judge gave Meyers 40 years to life in prison.
The case has gone to the Fourth District Court of Appeals. Meyers, Carenssale wrote, “was motivated by a desire to avoid another brutal attack by Demetrius Warren.” Moreover, she was “suffering from a profound depression at the time of the shooting. It is not unreasonable to assume that these tremendous stressors in her life contributed to her conduct in this case.” In her defense, he said, it was important to remember that she had admitted immediately that she had shot him.
Mechals disputed that. He said that Meyers’s version to the police when she was arrested and on the stand during the trial was mostly fiction. “She wasn’t a battered woman,” he told me. “She wore the pants in that relationship. Warren had moved on, and she was definitely dating. [Look at] all the instant messages she had left for the guy in Atlanta because he wasn’t returning her calls. She fell in love with him. She was becoming a massage therapist and planning on moving to Atlanta.” When both Winzer and Warren rejected Meyers, it put her over the edge. Mechals said it was a case of “If I can’t have you, then nobody can.”