PROVO, Utah (ABC4 News) – Breann Cleverley has gone off the grid.
She is in hiding after her former husband was arrested for aggravated assault at their home in Lehi.
And now her worst fears are playing out in Utah’s judicial system.
Last year there were 36 fatalities tied to domestic violence. One-in-three women experience domestic or sexual violence. For men, it’s one-in-four that experience such violence. That’s much higher than the national average.
Advocates and prosecutors are pushing for reform to a system that doesn’t keep victims safe.
Another alarming statistic is the number of domestic violence-related 911-calls. Last year, 21,000 calls were made daily to hotlines throughout the state.
Cleverley made her call in 2017 after a violent episode in their Lehi home.
“He started accusing me of cheating on him,” Cleverley said. “I tried to tell him no I wasn’t. He got more angry.”
According to police and court documents, her husband, Thomas McEver then took out his gun. He loaded the chamber and aimed at his wife.
“He fired the gun and it was about two inches from the side of my head and three inches up and that’s where the bullet went through the interior wall,” recalled Cleverley.
The bullets landed in the bedroom wall and Cleverley said she fell to her knees unsure what was next.
“He threw me on our bed and continued to punch me in the side of the head and the side of the face,” she said.
McEver then placed a gun to her head and forced her to write a letter giving him custody of their children.
It wasn’t the first time she feared for her life.
“I got threatened by a gun several times,” she said. “He was going to shoot out my knee cap. He was going to shoot at my feet and watch me dance.”
Cleverley said he once told her that he was going to kill her during a violent episode in the home.
“(He said) he was going to beat me so bad and drag my lifeless body into a parking lot and maybe somebody would find me,” recalled Cleverley.
Following the 2017 episode involving gunfire, McEver was arrested and charged with aggravated assault in Utah County.
In Utah, violating a protective order starts as a Class A misdemeanor.
But repeatedly violating it becomes a third-degree felony, no matter how often it occurs.
“If the abuser took it a step further and choked their victim or held a gun to the victim’s head it would only still be a third-degree felony,” said deputy Utah County attorney Carl Hollan. “It seems like it would be an absurd result.”
Hollan prosecuted McEver after filing third-degree felonies which included aggravated assault, firing a weapon and domestic violence in the presence of his children. McEver fought the charges but a jury found him guilty of seven of the nine charges against him.
In May, he was sent to prison for up to five years.
“We wanted the sentences to run consecutive but the judge did not see it our way,” Hollan said.
As a result, McEver is already up for parole next month.
“I was real disappointed,” said Cleverley. “He got a five-year sentence with one and a half years time served.”
It was Darrell Graham who choked and beat his wife in front of his children last April. She happened to record the violent episode with her smartphone and it was played for the court at Graham’s sentencing.
Woman: “Don’t hit me. (inaudible) Don’t hit me.
Graham: “Hit me again.” (sounds of item falling to the floor)
While in jail, prosecutors were alerted to a conversation he had with a woman. It was recorded and played for the court as well.
Darrell Graham: “I have to go before the judge and I have to pretty much suck some (expletive).
Woman: “Yeah. Okay.”
Graham: “Because if I make a racket I could do the maximum.”
Under state law, Hollan could only charge him with a third-degree felony.
“These are the cases that are the most serious and these are the cases where sometimes the defendant is facing a presumptive sentence of maybe 60 days or 30 days in jail.”
At his sentencing, Graham who is a veteran blamed it on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and caught a break. The following is an exchange between the judge and Graham.
Judge Christine Johnson: “I will not send you to prison today. But that sentence is still there. As I told you, I will tolerate very little. As far as probations or violations are in this case. If you violate probation you will go to prison. Understood?”
A month later, Graham allegedly tried contacting his wife and is back in jail for violating probation. He is scheduled to be back in court Thursday on this latest violation.
Sonia Salari is a University of Utah professor and board member of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.
“In the case of strangulation, we’re very concerned about that,” Salari said. “That is a very big red flag, an indicator that a fatality could exist later. The use of a firearm is also a red flag.
She said there are 11 different indicators that could point towards a fatality in the future. She said strangulation is at the top of the list.
“I think we need to have a recognition that there are distinctions in family violence. There are also cases where somebody is more like an intimate terrorist and homicide is a potential outcome in those cases.”
The Utah County deputy attorney also agreed that these types of cases are more serious than a third-degree felony.
“It can be real frustrating both for a victim and for us when you see somebody that raises so many red flags and we feel are such a danger to the victim or to our community and it doesn’t appear those warning signs are taken seriously,” Hollan said. “We always worry that the victim in one of our cases is going to end up a victim in a new homicide case.”
Like the case involving Curtis Nichols and his wife Robie in 2017. Upon finding her body in their home, Nichols called 911.
Dispatcher: “OK, is she awake? Is she awake?”
Dispatcher: “Is she breathing?”
Nichols: “I don’t think so.”
It turned out Nichols strangled his wife and is now in prison.
“We knew it (pain) will never go away,” said Edwin Fifer, Robin’s father. “And it hasn’t. It’s a daily effort to learn to cope.”
Robie Nichols’ parents claimed they always had a bad feeling about her marriage. They live out of state and were unaware of many problems the couple went through, but they sensed trouble from the beginning. Their daughter wouldn’t leave him and told them he was her soulmate.
“It never gets better, never,” said her mother Robin Fifer. “It always is going to escalate. No one ever goes back.”
And while it’s too late for Robie, her parents hope it’s a lesson for others.
“So because of this hopefully someone will realize what’s happening to them,” Edwin Fifer said.
Breann Cleverley has gone into hiding, worried that Mcevers will soon be paroled.
“I was very upset,” she said. “I was very disappointed in the system and I really wish he would have gotten more time.”
Hollan wants lawmakers to fix this current problem with prosecutions.
“Domestic violence prosecution and domestic violence sentencing might be one of the most effective ways that we have to prevent homicides in the state of Utah because these are warning signs of people who are the highest risk to commit murder in the future,” he said. “It doesn’t appear those warning signs are taken seriously.”
He said the charge of aggravated assault involving domestic violence cannot be enhanced from a third-degree. Hollan said state law allows a charge to be upgraded to a second-degree felony if the person is a repeat offender.
“When we feel that someone is so dangerous we’re not able to, we don’t have the room to negotiate,” he said. “We have to take it to a trial and that can be very difficult for the victims in these cases.”
He said changing the law involving aggravated assault in a domestic violence case from a third to a second-degree felony would solve the problem.
Hollan also said animals appear to have more protection than children when they are caught up in a violent home.
Currently, animal abuse during a domestic violence episode is a third-degree felony. But Hollan said children caught up in a domestic violence situation results in a misdemeanor.
“(The legislature has) chosen to classify (animal abuse) as a domestic violence crime because they recognize that domestic violence is a crime of control,” he said.
But he said children are considered property.
“We see cases where a domestic abuser will harm the children in an effort to control the mother or the father and we can’t use that as a domestic violence crime,” Hollan said. Because it’s not it can only be prosecuted at that level which is a Class B misdemeanor and resulting in minimal penalties.”