Matthew Mills and Natalie Thompson had a short, stormy marriage rooted in Florida sun, beachside bars and tough love. Facebook photos show the couple by the ocean, embracing tightly. But the good times were clouded by frequent arguments played out behind closed doors.
Too often, their fighting turned physical, according to police agencies here, in Sevierville, Tenn., and Volusia County, Fla.
Less than one month after Mills and Thompson were married in Lake Tahoe on Nov. 30, 2013, Thompson obtained an order of protection against Mills after his arrest on domestic abuse charges.
Earlier this year Mills, 46, and Thompson, 45, surprised their friends when they abruptly packed up and moved from Ormond Beach, Fla., to Buffalo, where Mills once lived.
Months after their arrival here the couple’s strife reached the boiling point following an argument that friends believe was sparked by Thompson’s plan to return to Florida.
On Oct. 21, Mills shot and killed Thompson as she ran for her life down a rain-swept street in the heart of Allentown. Mills then turned the high-powered rifle on himself, according to police, who found his body draped over hers.
Orders of protection can be a critical tool in deterring the violence that many times accompanies domestic abuse, said attorney Jessica M. Fitzpatrick of the Family Justice Center.
“Can they be effective? Absolutely. But if you rely just on the order of protection, no,” said Fitzpatrick. “If you are dealing with someone who is extremely fearful of calling the police, who does not have a strong support system around her, those are the individuals you hear about where orders of protection did not protect them.”
Remedies that may be granted on the protective order include the prohibition of physical, electronic and telephone contact and the surrender of firearms. But sometimes orders of protection are flawed, Fitzpatrick maintained.
“They have to turn in their firearms so you are trusting that they did,” Fitzpatrick said. “That is a flawed system. There are no resources for police to scan the house for firearms. Even so, you are assuming there are no weapons elsewhere. These are savvy individuals who know what to do to circumvent the system.”
Police view protective orders as another tool to stop incidents of domestic abuse.
“It shows the suspect the victim is not going to put up with their behavior,” said Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph Gerace. “It gives us an added charge. If there is enough to violate the order of protection, the contempt charge becomes a misdemeanor, and it does not have to be witnessed. It could also be a felony if physical injury is caused.”
The back story
On the night before she died, Thompson called police and said an argument with Mills put her in fear for her safety. Police who responded to their College Street apartment found Mills had fled, said Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel J. Derenda.
Friends close to the couple believe the argument was over Thompson’s decision to return to Ormond Beach, Fla., a beach town north of Daytona Beach on the east coast of Florida.
“When we heard she was moving to Buffalo, we said we’d give it to October – as soon as it turned 40 degrees – and she would be home,” said Samara Kramer, who lived in the same Ormond Beach development as Thompson. “It was very sudden. One day friends told me she moved. She didn’t even say goodbye.”
Thompson, born in Natchez, Miss., was divorced and the mother of two teenage sons. At the time of her death, the boys were living with their father near Ormond Beach, Kramer said. Friends described her as a good mother who loved to cook. On Thanksgiving, Thompson and her sons delivered home-cooked turkey dinners to the poor and homeless, Kramer recalled.
“That’s how she would spend her Thanksgiving, not just once but every year,” Kramer said. “That’s the kind of person she was. She was the person you wanted to see when you were sad.”
Kramer introduced Thompson and Mills at an Ormond Beach bar a couple of years ago.
Friends who knew him well described the demons that could fuel rage in Mills, a former paratrooper, who said he was in combat with the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division.
Zach Mahaney, 33, a firefighter in Flagler County, Fla., called the Britain-born Mills his band mate.
“Everybody loved Matthew,” Mahaney said. “We bonded deeply. He would get up in the morning and go to this little bar where the veterans hung out. Then he would come out in the afternoon and play congas in the band with us and drink more. He rented an efficiency apartment on the beach. But when he started to bring Natalie around, he changed. He was dressing nicer. All of a sudden he was on Facebook with her.”
Mills had been married briefly but was divorced when he met Thompson.
At their wedding, Thompson wore cowboy boots under her traditional white gown, Facebook photos showed.
Less than six weeks later in Volusia County, Mills was arrested on a felony kidnapping charge. The arrest capped a day of drinking for the couple and some of their friends, who watched in horror as Mills dragged Thompson into his car on Ocean Shore Boulevard in Ormond Beach, according to an incident report filed by the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office.
Orders of protection
In 2012, Erie County had the second-highest number of domestic violence police calls in the state outside New York City, according to the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women. In 2012, police in Erie County wrote 12,716 incident reports related to domestic violence, according to Mary Murphy, executive director of the Family Justice Center. That number, Murphy said, does not include data from State Police.
That same year, 11,435 orders of protection – also known as restraining orders – were issued in family and criminal courts in Erie County, according to county reports.
There are two types of protective orders.
Stay-away protective orders prohibit contact – no phone calls, letters, texts, emails or visits, Fitzpatrick said. The perpetrator cannot ask someone to give the complainant a message. This also applies to children, who can be included on the order.
A non-offensive contact order of protection prohibits verbal abuse, threats, harassing phone calls or abusive communication. It allows the victim and perpetrator to continue to live together as long as there is no abusive conduct, Fitzpatrick said.
“That’s why they can live together without consequences,” explained Fitzpatrick. “In true domestic violence situations, it is not helpful. You are serving someone with control issues an order that says to act nicely. All it does usually is to rile up the perpetrator.
“Women think if they call the police, it will only make things worse,” said Fitzpatrick. “That’s when you ask them who their family and friends are, and make copies of the order for all. In that way, if he violates the order and you don’t want to file a complaint with police, maybe your family or friends can.”
Can anyone get a protective order? No, Murphy said. There must be a recent incident that presented an imminent threat of danger to your well-being.
The order obtained by Thompson stemmed from an argument at a Wyndham Resort in Tennessee, where Mills was charged with domestic assault after “he grabbed his wife in a violent manner and put her in fear for her safety,” reported Sevierville, Tenn., police on Dec. 23, 2013.
The stay-away order that Thompson originally received was later modified to non-offensive contact when Mills returned to court to answer the charge. Mills, who served 10 days in jail, also was given nine months’ probation and ordered to participate in a 45-week drug and alcohol treatment program. In addition, he was charged with contempt of court for violating probation for failing a drug-screening test, a deputy court clerk in Sevier County confirmed.
Modifying an order of protection is not uncommon, but district attorneys routinely question whether the complainant was coerced.
“Three, four, five weeks later, it’s right back where it was,” Murphy said. “Perpetrators are charming angels and control freaks. They have the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality.”
Assisting the victims
At the Family Justice Center’s offices on Main Street in downtown Buffalo, an ex parte order of protection allows a complainant in an emergency situation to obtain a temporary protective order via teleconference with an attorney referee. This helps traumatized petitioners who are reluctant to appear in court, Murphy said. The temporary order lasts a number of days. An extension requires a court appearance.
“They’re traumatized, so we are thinking for them,” Murphy said. “We have 25 women ranging in age from 18 to 86 who got out. They’ve moved on. They tell us the overwhelming emotion next to fear is shame.”
Sheila Schwanekamp, a Family Court attorney referee, uses a danger assessment questionnaire to elicit information from the petitioner. The standardized survey helps determine the risk factor to each petitioner because statistically, victims of domestic violence tend to underestimate their risk of lethality or reassault, Schwanekamp said.
In Family Court, the complainant must complete a Family Offense Petition and appear before a judge or attorney referee.
In criminal court, the plaintiff may automatically receive an order of protection by pressing charges – depending on the severity of the charges against the defendant.
Orders of protection throughout the United States are given full faith and credit no matter where you are. So when Thompson received her order of protection from Tennessee, it was enforceable in New York, Schwanekamp said.
Fitzpatrick offered this advice for women who fear they are in danger:
“Have a bag of all of your important belongings at a third-party location that is safe,” she said. “If violence escalates, you can get in your car and leave. You’re not running around looking for your medication or your children’s bottles.”
Laura Grube is executive director of Haven House, a facility operated by Child & Family Services for battered women and their children.
“I think (a protective order) is most effective when the offender has something to lose by getting arrested again, when the accountability is very strong,” she said.
“We don’t always know what’s going to keep a victim safe. We don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors.”