NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Barbara Sheehan wanted to leave her husband Raymond many times before the day she ended his life by shooting him with one of the guns she says he often pointed at her. She now faces murder charges in Queens, N.Y., for the slaying of her husband, a retired New York City police officer.
Outside a courtroom, she recalled the years when he was still on the force and her awareness that, as a law enforcement officer, her spouse was a member of what she believed was an extremely tight-knit community whose members would protect their own.
The domestic hotlines she was in contact with told her to leave and disappear. "But where do you go?" she asked. "He had a means to find me if I left."
Her husband had frequently threatened that there was no place Barbara Sheehan could go where he couldn’t find her and that if she ever attempted to leave him, he would kill her family and the couple’s children.
Barbara Sheehan–who is charged with second-degree murder and faces 15 years to life in prison–says she felt trapped and believed the police wouldn’t help her over one of their own.
"I couldn’t call 911, he was 911 . . . I knew they would never have arrested him," she said. "And then what would happen when they left?"
This sense of entrapment is common for abused women married to police officers, says Diane Wetendorf, an author and consultant on police-perpetrated domestic violence. Battered women often view the possibility of safely escaping a police spouse as impossible, she says.
"There aren’t the options that many people think there are," said Wetendorf, who is not affiliated with Barbara Sheehan’s case.
Many abused spouses of police officers are afraid to call 911 for fear that responding officers will not believe them or side with their abuser, says Wetendorf. Those successful in reporting abuse often face harsh retaliation, she says.
Shelters Fall Short
Raymond Sheehan once caught his wife calling the police, she says. He grabbed the phone and began beating her on the head with it, yelling that he was a sergeant and that the cops would never believe her.
Attempts to escape to battered-women’s shelters are also fraught with hazards. Police officers usually know the locations of women’s shelters and often work closely with them, which can eliminate them as a safe haven from an abusive law-enforcement spouse.
Also, says Wetendorf, some shelters for a variety of reasons, turn away spouses of police officers.
"Many women have reported to me that they have called shelter after shelter after shelter and been turned away when they hear the abuser is in law enforcement," said Wetendorf.
Barbara Sheehan says her husband’s repeated abuse got progressively worse over the course of their marriage, but that there was a definite turning point that escalated her fear.
In a hotel room in Jamaica in the summer of 2007, her husband began to get agitated over the issue of what time they were to be at dinner. Barbara Sheehan says he grabbed her and began bashing her head against the cinderblock wall. She ended up in the hospital with stitches in her head and two black eyes. The couple told the hotel staff she had fallen in the bathtub.
It was after that trip that she began talking to friends about the abuse. With one friend–a coworker familiar with Raymond Sheehan’s frequent screaming calls to his wife at work–she worked out a code so the friend could be alerted if something were ever life-threateningly wrong.
When the issue of another trip together came up in February 2008–this time to Florida–she feared for her life and refused to go. "I was afraid to go to Florida," she said. "I thought he would kill me in Florida."
Fighting Over Florida
The night before the trip, the two drove to Connecticut to visit their son, says Barbara Sheehan. Her husband was angry during the drive there and had hit her several times in the car. On the way home, he yelled at her about not going to Florida. When she still refused to go, he punched her in the face, causing her nose to splatter blood. He then began yelling about the blood she was getting in his car.
At one point on the drive, he tried to push her out of the car. She says she held onto the door to remain inside, certain that he would run her over if she got out of the car.
Back at their Howard Beach home, she saw her nose and knew she needed medical attention. Afraid to ask him to take her, she left the house on foot to walk to the hospital. He eventually drove up and took her to the emergency room, but refused to leave the car. He warned her not to tell anyone, threatening to kill her family and "go down in glory" if police arrived, she says.
While she was inside, he called her repeatedly with threats and eventually demanded that she return to the car. She told the hospital staff that she had banged her face on a door and left without being treated.
The Next Day
That night, she slept in a separate room. When Raymond Sheehan woke her the next morning and she still refused to go with him, he locked her out of the house. After a while, she gave in, and he let her back inside. When he got in the shower, she went to her friend’s nearby home–the one with whom she had worked out the code–but was fearful he would discover her missing and returned.
When she came back in the house and climbed the stairs to the second floor, she says she saw her husband open the bathroom door and point a gun at her, threatening her life. She ran into the adjoining bedroom and grabbed his second gun and ran toward the stairs for safety.
But, as she passed him again, she says, he came at her with his gun pointed directly at her and she fired the gun in her hand five times. He slipped down to a sitting position and dropped his gun next to him, but still continued to scream that he was going to kill her. When he reached for his gun, she grabbed it before he did and fired six more times.
"It was definitely self defense," she said. "There was no doubt in my mind he was going to kill me."
The friend with whom the code had been worked out called her three times without any answer and finally called 911, telling them that she thought Raymond Sheehan had killed his wife.
Barbara Sheehan’s murder trial will likely be set later this summer. A central question still remains over whether expert testimony on battering and its effects will be allowed.
Susan V. Stromberg is an attorney and freelance writer.
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