During the week leading up to her death in October 2018, Torie Parrow tried to do everything she could to protect herself from her husband.
After Melvin Parrow assaulted her and went to jail, he was released with an ankle monitor and a promise to stay away from Torie, her eight-year-old son and the house they shared on West Elm Street in Springfield.
Torie filed a protection order, but Melvin kept texting and calling her: “You just make sure you tell everybody you love them,” he said to her over the phone, according to a recording of their conversation given to Springfield police.
The day she died, Torie went to the local prosecutor’s office to ask that more be done. The abuse she’d suffered at Melvin’s hands was documented going back three years.
But just hours later, on a cold and rainy Halloween afternoon, Torie was packing up the last of her and her son’s things and looking for a new place to live. She realized she’d left his Halloween costume at the Elm Street house.
So she drove over, left her son in the car and ran inside to grab the costume.
But she never came back out.
Police arrived at the house after Torie’s son called 911 and found Torie and Melvin shot dead in an apparent murder-suicide, a gun layed in Melvin’s hand and a child’s jester costume sat in the corner of the room.
Torie Parrow was one of nine women shot and killed in domestic violence incidents in Springfield from 2014 to 2018, the last year for which data was available.
In Springfield, domestic violence plays an outsized role in the fatal shootings of women, accounting for 80 percent of them for that period. Across Missouri, domestic violence was responsible for just a third of the nearly 400 women shot and killed during the same five years, according to Missouri State Highway Patrol data.
With nearly 2,800 crimes of domestic violence reported in 2018, the city consistently has the highest rate in the state. And nationally, Missouri is second only to Alaska for its per-capita rate of men killing women, according to the Violence Policy Center.
Springfield is home to 168,000 people, making it Missouri’s third-largest city, but it recently ranked the 11th most violent in the nation.
To understand why, The Star partnered with the Springfield News-Leader to spend three months interviewing more than a dozen residents, officials and experts. Reporters reviewed police investigations, court documents and medical records, and analyzed data and studies on domestic violence.
This effort was undertaken as part of the Missouri Gun Violence Project, a two-year, statewide journalism collaboration investigating the causes and possible solutions to gun violence. It is supported by the nonprofits Report for America and Missouri Foundation for Health.
Firearm homicides and suicides increased dramatically across the state during the last decade, according to the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. From 2008 to 2017, gun homicides rose 57%, while suicides increased 59%.
Springfield, the proud birthplace of Bass Pro and Route 66, stretches out along the edge of the Ozarks in the southwest corner of the state — a web of strip malls and sprawling neighborhoods extend out from downtown Springfield and Missouri State’s campus.
Survivors, advocates and law enforcement here say guns are a major driver of domestic violence, and also that domestic abuse is behind much of the city’s violent crime.
The reasons are many: a 25% poverty rate, rigid gender roles and easy access to firearms. And it’s a place where those suffering abuse find it hard to escape because of weak public transit and a lack of affordable housing.
“It’s not just one factor. It’s a generational issue. We’re the buckle of the Bible Belt, which means there’s a continued embrace of traditional family and gender norms and dynamics,” said Jamie Willis, project coordinator at the Greene County Family Justice Center.
“We’ve got high rates of poverty, Missouri’s rate is higher than the U.S., Greene County higher than Missouri and Springfield is higher than Greene County.”
Domestic violence survivors in Springfield told The Star how guns make abuse more deadly, how abusers terrorize even without pulling the trigger, how the implied threat and control traumatizes even when the weapon is out of sight.
They recounted how police often didn’t believe them. A painter and mother of two recalled how an officer from Springfield Police Department handed a gun back to her abusive husband and sympathized with him for having a “crazy” wife.
In the Greene County courts, they said, judges were inclined to consider a man’s guns more important than a victim’s safety. Missouri laws allow domestic abusers to keep their firearms and tie the hands of law enforcement who might take them away, even temporarily.
Missouri is behind many states, including neighbors Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois, in mirroring federal laws that limit domestic abusers’ access to guns. Across the U.S., 32 states and Washington, D.C. prohibit individuals with misdemeanor convictions from buying or possessing guns. Forty-two and D.C. make the same prohibition for those bound by restraining orders.
Women in Springfield told of a community where neighbors, family and friends didn’t understand them, where church leaders told a young wife she was to blame for her husband’s abuse.
When Christina Ford moved her domestic violence awareness foundation from Nashville to Springfield, she didn’t know if her work would be needed. She assumed domestic violence wouldn’t be as big a problem as it was back in Nashville.
“I quickly realized that it is such an issue here in Greene County and that the numbers are high,” Ford said. “So I realized, ‘Wow, our services of what we want to offer could really help out the community here.’”
Springfield also is a potential success story. Two years ago Police Chief Paul Williams brought from his former post in Tulsa an idea for a one-stop shop for domestic violence survivors, and local leaders lined up behind the effort.
The Greene County Family Justice Center is a one-of-a-kind collaboration in the state, bringing together shelter services, counseling and public safety under one roof.
But Springfield still faces steady increases in shootings, homicides and domestic violence, and local authorities agree they have a long way to go.
‘A HUGE RED FLAG’
When Janice Thompson’s ex-husband, Greg Marvin, was sent to prison, it wasn’t for the times he strangled her. Or for when he threw her so hard against a wall that her body left a dent in the sheetrock.
And not because of the countless threats he made against her and their sons, usually with a gun pointed at them.
Thompson grew tired and frustrated when calls to Springfield police didn’t make a difference. She got a protection order and Marvin violated it twice in the span of two days. When Thompson reported the violations, police made it clear they would not protect her.
“I had a police officer who said, ‘Ma’am, until there’s a chalk outline around your body, we aren’t going to do anything,’” she said.
Marvin was a ticking time bomb and he was known for carrying a gun. Thompson gave up on calling the police and eventually divorced him.
But a Greene County judge decided they should split custody of their sons.
“Whenever he had the boys, I was on pins and needles,” Thompson said. “Any time there was a report of a shooting in Springfield, because I just knew, I just knew what he planned.
“He told me he was going to do it. He had been saying it for years: ‘I will take you out, I will take your children out. I will take everything that means anything to you away from you.’”
Thompson’s fears about Marvin were confirmed when, late one night in 2016, he repeatedly beat his ex-girlfriend and shot her boyfriend six times in the Springfield Bass Pro Shop’s parking lot. Marvin was convicted and sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Only then did he lose custody of the sons he shared with Thompson.
Marvin’s ex-girlfriend had to undergo facial reconstruction surgeries. The boyfriend now uses a wheelchair.
An abuser’s unchecked violence is proven to be increasingly dangerous, and made far more lethal with a gun in his hands, research shows. A woman is five times more likely to be killed by her abusive partner if a gun is in reach. This private violence is also not without serious public consequences — over half of mass shooters in the U.S. are also domestic violence perpetrators.
“A gun in an abusive relationship is always a huge red flag and a huge concern. The presence of one bumps up the lethality of the situation,” Chief Williams said.
In Springfield, police expect to find a gun at most domestic violence calls.
In 2016, Williams opposed a law passed by the Missouri state legislature that tossed out the concealed carry permitting requirement. Now most anyone can get a gun, Williams said, and they’re everywhere.
“We had something that worked really well, and responsible gun owners know the value and danger of a firearm,” he said. “We should do safety training and background checks. We don’t just give people driver’s licenses.”
In Thompson’s case, Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott said deputies took three reports from her for Marvin’s protection order violations. Arnott said he referred at least two of the violations to the prosecutor’s office.
Chief Williams said he sympathized with women in Thompson’s position who want to feel protected and expect police to do more. He acknowledged that in some cases women are being shot and killed, but he said there’s a limit to what law enforcement can do.
Williams said when police arrest alleged abusers, they must either release them after 24 hours or present enough evidence to the prosecutor to charge them. If the accused is able to post bail, like Melvin Parrow, they’re entitled to be released until their trial.
Greene County Prosecutor Dan Patterson said to hold someone in custody the state must show convincing evidence the person is a threat to the alleged victim and the community.
Since January, cash bail reforms in Missouri have encouraged authorities to hold defendants without bond based on the person’s history and past offenses rather than the usual practice of only setting a high bail amount.
MISSOURI GUN LAW
To this day, Molly is afraid her ex-husband will kill her.
She’s feared that since he first threatened her with a gun, though he didn’t pull the trigger. Even after the divorce, even after he was charged with assault and a felony weapons charge, she still worries he’ll come and shoot her.
Because, she suspects, he still has his guns.
Molly, who did not want her real name used because she fears for her safety, said the day she decided to call a divorce attorney was the first time her husband pointed a gun at her.
They’d been married hardly a year. But the nasty fights and harsh words had become too much.
So one morning, standing in her kitchen, Molly mustered up the courage to make her escape. But her husband heard her call an attorney from another room and came storming in with a gun pointed to his head, screaming at her that he’d kill himself if she left him. Molly sobbed and begged him to put the gun down. Instead he turned it on her.
“And I pray to God, he never shoots me. I am scared that he will someday, I just pray he doesn’t kill me,” Molly said. “To be quite honest, I don’t doubt that he will. It’s just a matter of when.”
When Molly sought a protection order, her attorneys asked the judge to request her ex-husband’s guns be relinquished while the case is ongoing.
But her ex-husband said he would give his guns to his family for safe keeping.
“The judge said, ‘Oh, that’s fine. Just don’t go get them,’” Molly recalled.
“Of course, no one verifies that, so even if it was true, who’s to say he wouldn’t go get them. There’s no telling if he has his guns or not,” she said.
Missouri makes it easy for abusers to keep their guns, because the state has not mirrored stronger federal laws.
For example, Missouri does not prohibit people convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault from owning guns. Federal law does. Without a state law in effect, local authorities are less likely to take action.
Federal law also prevents people who have protection orders against them from purchasing and possessing firearms.
Missouri also doesn’t explicitly allow or require officers to remove guns at the scenes of domestic abuse incidents. Fourteen states, including Nebraska and Illinois, require officers to take away firearms and six more authorize them to do so.
“If guns aren’t removed, that sends a message that it’s more important for him to have his guns than for that woman to be safe,” said Susan Sorenson, the director of the Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse at the University of Pennsylvania.
“That is a horrifying message to give anyone.”
In Missouri, unless a judge calls for removing a gun, the alleged abuser can keep it. In Springfield, advocates say, judges are seldom inclined to do so.
When Missouri had a concealed carry permit requirement, it could be used to prevent people with domestic violence protection orders against them from getting a permit.
The state also doesn’t have lifetime protection orders, and a victim can only renew an order twice, for up to one year. The abuser has to assault them again before they can get another order.
Molly continues her fight in court to hold her ex-husband accountable. She attends every hearing and takes the stand willingly to tell her story again and again.
Molly said the Greene County prosecutors have told her they should lower the charges to speed along the process. They said it would be for her own good. They said going to the press would jeopardize the case.
She countered with her own legal research. She sent them a Department of Justice study that recommends swift and severe consequences for first-time domestic violence offenders.
“You have someone here that wants to testify, that wants to be heard, that wants to go forward,” she said. “Why aren’t you using this as an opportunity to set an example and make a difference? Let’s do something about it. Don’t brush it under the rug like you do everyone else.”
Montana Bright, an advocate at the Greene County Justice Center, said she’s heard all kinds of stories from survivors who learned first-hand how the threatening presence of a firearm can be a form of gun violence.
Pulling the gun out to clean it after a fight. Wordlessly placing it on the coffee table.
“They don’t have to acknowledge the gun for it to be threatening,” Bright said. “Or they’ll explicitly say, ‘I’ll shoot you and the people you love. Or I won’t shoot you but I will shoot each of your family members.’”
Sorenson, of the Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse, has found that the use of a gun in an abusive relationship is a form of coercive control — the sinister ways people manipulate and intimidate their intimate partners.
Sorenson’s research has shown when women are under constant threat of a gun in an abusive relationship, the wear and tear that does to her body leads to negative health outcomes, including serious cardiovascular risks.
“There are not going to be visible marks, but it is going to do major damage to that person, to that family and to that entire atmosphere and climate in that household,” Sorenson said.
Molly wants the justice system to start taking violence against women more seriously, starting with listening to women when they say their partner is likely to severely hurt or kill them.
“You’re the best judge of if they are going to shoot you, if they’re going to kill you, and studies show that they don’t listen to us,” Molly said. “They underestimate how dangerous the abuser is. If someone says that their abuser is going to try to kill them, there’s a really good likelihood that that’s going to happen.”
SOLUTIONS IN SPRINGFIELD
Heading into 2012, Springfield experienced spikes in gun violence driven by domestic abuse and the city formed a task force in response.
Chief Williams suggested starting a family justice center, a concept started in San Diego and now expanded to dozens of U.S. cities. The model has proven to make victims feel safer, improve prosecution outcomes and reduce homicides.
Six years later, the Greene County Family Justice Center opened. It’s the only such organization in the state.
Willis, at the center, said it’s a game changer. Before, victims had to navigate multiple agencies across the sprawling city to get help, whether for legal support, housing, counseling or child services.
Now partnerships among 10 public and private agencies provide a wide array of services for survivors of intimate partner and family violence, child and elder abuse, sexual assault and human trafficking — all in one safe place.
“Domestic violence is not going to be stopped overnight, we’ve got a lot of work to do. But the justice center is a great start,” Willis said. “We can reduce the obstacles the best we can and help survivors feel supported and heard.”
The county has not seen a drop in domestic abuse or gun violence. But Patterson, the Greene County prosecutor, said as word spreads about the center, he hopes victims are empowered to get out of dangerous relationships and cooperate with prosecutions.
In 2014, Springfield police made one stride in how officers respond to domestic violence calls by implementing lethality assessments, which measure how likely a victim is to be killed by their abuser.
“These assessments give a victim the chance to understand how much more dangerous her situation is than she might realize,” Williams said. “This helps us connect people with services sooner and gives something for prosecutors to use when bringing up charges.”
Kristen Snell, case manager coordinator at Harmony House, the county’s only domestic violence shelter, said she would go one step further and help train officers to better understand trauma.
“There are signs a patrol officer with only three months of academy training might not pick up on, like body language,” Snell said. “When questioning a victim, a police officer should understand that a brain in trauma cannot recount events linearly. Officers are trained to look for visual signs of abuse, which misses so many other potential abusive tactics — pointing but not firing a gun at their family, for example.”
Other solutions could come in the form of help for those living in poverty, more affordable housing and better public transportation to help victims escape and access services across the city, advocates say.
The lack of those resources strengthens the hand of abusers who isolate their victims and control them financially.
At Harmony House, director Lisa Farmer has seen positive change. The shelter recently moved into a new building where it can serve more residents. It’s now the largest in the state.
All the efforts of Springfield institutions — the family justice center, the police, area service providers — has made a difference, Farmer said.
“The community is more engaged and committed to supporting survivors in ways it hasn’t in the past.”
A COMMUNITY’S RESPONSIBILITY
Shannon Joy and her ex-husband seemed the perfect Christian couple.
Active leaders at James River, a prominent Springfield megachurch, they each had college degrees and they lived in a beautiful Victorian home with their young children.
But in private, Joy was terrorized. In time, verbal abuse escalated to physical violence. When the husband pointed a gun on Joy and the police came, officers didn’t write a report. They assumed the husband was in the right and gave him the gun back.
Joy sought counseling at the church, but the advice she received left her stunned and feeling betrayed.
A church counselor sat down with Joy and told her the abuse was her fault because she was not being a “godly wife.”
“They used that as the basis for all of my counseling, that I needed to investigate myself more fully and figure out what I was doing wrong to force him to act this way,” Joy said.
“The counselor looked at me and said all of that is my fault and the wife is the one responsible for leading her husband to Christ.”
Not long after that, Joy’s husband threw her down a flight of stairs and off a 14-foot balcony for not doing the dishes. She left him that day in the back of an ambulance.
“It is the policy of James River Church that our counsel always prioritizes the safety and security of those who are facing abuse,” Pastor David Lindell at James River Church said in an emailed statement in response to questions about Joy’s story. “Beyond that we have no further comment.”
Women arriving at Springfield’s domestic violence centers tell of the rigid gender roles imposed by some of the 300 churches that dot the city.
Rev. Phil Snider at Brentwood Christian Church in Springfield said churches should do their part to curb domestic violence by providing resources to victims.
He said, however, churches can contribute to the problem and promote misguided messages that Jesus would have wanted women to stay in dangerous and abusive relationships.
“It’s really easy for pastors and churches to take one or two Bible verses out of context and tell women that they have to stay with abusive husbands,” Snider said. “Jesus’ life and ministry was about liberating and healing and freeing those who are oppressed, and the church needs to be in the business of doing that as well.”
After Joy was taken away in the ambulance, it was another church that saved her, she said. North Point Church members found childcare for her two kids while she was in the hospital. They got her into Harmony House.
When her ex came to her new home and kicked the door down, the church repaired it and changed the locks.
“Mainly they were just there. They provided a community where I felt like I could still belong and that it wasn’t my fault,” Joy said. “I think that if churches could get involved like the way they did and help people and make that their focus, everything would be different, especially here in the Bible Belt.”
Treating domestic violence as a private problem only between two people is dangerous and only empowers the abuser, said Sorenson at the Ortner Center. People tend to think it won’t happen to them, but in reality everyone knows a victim and a perpetrator.
“It’s always, ‘Why didn’t she leave?’ We never ask, ‘Why does he think he can do this? Why does he think this is okay?’” She said. “We focus on the recipient of the violence for blame, and not the perpetrator of the violence.”
A trove of research has revealed that despite what they’ll tell you, an abuser isn’t violent because of outside circumstances. It’s not because they lost their job, they’re intoxicated or they just snapped, the research shows. It’s because they chose to do it.
“It is an active and conscious choice when they pick up that gun and hold it to your head. It is a clear-headed choice because they know what they’re doing,” Thompson said.
Since 2016, after the Bass Pro shooting, Thompson has been doing her part to improve the Springfield community’s understanding of domestic violence.
She started a Facebook page, Surviving Domestic Violence in Missouri, to share resources and amplify the stories of victims and survivors.
Years after surviving the abuse, Thompson still lives with the trauma.
If she gets a whiff of Pine-Sol, she’s immediately taken back to that time he poured the cleaning liquid on her face. She’s often startled when she sees her ex-husband in the features of her three grown sons, who are her pride and joy.
Thompson joins the ranks of survivors in Springfield and across the state, sharing their stories and encouraging others to do the same.
Some, like Molly, continue to fight for justice in the courts. Some, like Joy, live with permanent injuries and are afraid to sit with their back to a door.
Thompson sits in courtrooms with women facing their abusers, armed with a supply of tissues, granola bars and a notebook where she can write out frank explanations for the complicated legal language.
“We try to be vocal I think because we want people to know, hey, we look like you. Educated, gifted, intelligent, strong, powerful,” Thompson said. “We are all these things, and we look like you.”
If you or someone you know might be a victim of domestic violence, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or contact domestic violence service providers in your area.