I was thirty-five, divorced and not really looking for a man when Rear Admiral John Perry, twenty years my senior, swooshed into my life and swept me off my feet. He moved in almost immediately and for the next nine years we alternated between a normal life and periods of financial stress that almost drove me crazy.
Then John tried to kill me by ether asphyxiation. Every detail is burned in memory. His right arm flung around my shoulders and pushed me into his chest. My eyes widened. An ether-soaked washrag propelled toward my nose and mouth. I was scared. Adrenaline surged through my body, and my survival instinct kicked into full gear as I jerked my head back and forth. My thoughts raced. Make a moving target. Ether can kill. Think fast. Don't open mouth. Don't let rag stay on face. Don't breathe or you won't leave this room alive.
I wiggled and twisted, struggling to get out of his grip, but I couldn't. Think, Barbara, think. Handicap bar on bathtub wall. Grab it! I held on to the bar with both hands and created enough leverage to partially extricate myself from his bear hug.
My left shoe came off. Fingers tightened around my left wrist.
I thrashed about as the rag neared my face once more.
Must get out. Get to door. Desperate, I grabbed at the doorjamb with my free hand and pulled myself into the dressing area, right along with John.
Keep mouth shut. Move head back and forth, up and down. Don't stop. Oh my god, I'm gong to die in a hotel room in Virginia. My right ankle twisted, and that shoe came off. My free hand poked at his eyes but couldn't quite make contact.
Somehow, I survived. . . . Only to be thrown unwillingly into the world of the criminal justice system. By the time I was battered about by the courts . . . the prison system . . . and the parole board . . . I realized that the name was aptly given. The criminal gets the justice and the victim is regarded as some minor part of the whole charade . . . and definitely an inconvenience once the trial is over. All focus is on the criminal. Even the victim’s assistance program failed me.
The one saving grace during this period was the homicide detective whom I credit
Five months after the attack—and a month after John’s conviction for first-degree attempted murder—I pondered why this had happened to me. Why would I, a seemingly intelligent woman, become trapped in a web of deceit that almost killed me? Then it dawned on me: I was to write a book to help others.
What I didn’t know at the time was that my story would not be finished for another four years. As a victim of California’s no-fault divorce law (which was forcing me to pay alimony to the very man who was in jail for attempting to murder me), I would take on the Sacramento lawmakers and become a champion for victim’s rights. I wanted to change the law. And I did.
As I began my writing journey I used my organizational skills to record events and dates on separate index cards. I scoured old calendars, date books, photograph albums, and letters. I rummaged through the cardboard file boxes that contained the miscellaneous paperwork that I had accumulated from John’s home office when I had acted as the west coast investigator for the homicide detective in Arlington, Virginia. Fortunately, I had filed them chronologically.
More than once I would pause and shake my head in disgust. Bile would rise, along with my blood pressure.
Why would the police send out a patrol car on a domestic violence dispute when the hotel clerk called the police to report my husband has just tried to murder me?
Why would John get booked into family court and cause me panic when his bail was lowered to $2,500?
Why was it I who found out the FBI was investigating John for impersonating an admiral when the police couldn’t confirm his identity with fingerprints? That discovery at least got the bail raised back to $25,000 . . . but for attempted murder that still didn’t seem high enough.
Why would the judge give John a five-year sentence that allowed him to make parole in less than a year when he had been convicted of first-degree attempted murder? Why did I have to follow a round-about lead to confirm his parole?
Why did the victim’s advocate at the prison act like I was an inconvenience when I asked why I had not been notified?
Why was I not told when John exited the system? Oh wait . . . it’s because it’s the criminal justice system. I was just the victim. He had more rights than I.
Mind you, I’m not wallowing in victim’s pity. I pulled myself together not long after the murder attempt–I had to in order to have strength to testify against John. Then I moved forward and eventually beyond myself to help others. I wrote my book A DANCE WITH THE DEVIL: A TRUE STORY OF MARRIAGE TO A PSYCHOPATH and I now have the last laugh on my perpetrator. But my efforts dredged up old memories of how the criminal justice system had failed me. Fortunately, some laws have changed but the scales of justice still tip to the criminal’s side. It made me mad then. It makes me mad now.
Barbara Bentley is a victims' advocate in California, where she was directly responsible for the passage of Assembly Bill 16, which changed California divorce law. A member of STAND! Against Domestic Violence, she addresses women’s and victim’s rights organizations, and her story was featured on Lifetime’s "Final Justice." Visit Women in Crime Ink over the weekend for an exclusive peek at A DANCE WITH THE DEVIL. Chapter 1 will be posted here (in two parts, the first on Saturday). Find out more about Barbara and her book at http://www.adancewiththedevil.com/