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Standing up to domestic violence

CLEARWATER

Melissa Dohme felt the first stab in her shoulder. Another in her neck.

But it wasn't until the switchblade sliced into the skin and bone near her right ear that she realized this was real.

The "sweetest guy I ever met," her high school sweetheart who'd once treated her like a queen, her first love — he wanted her to die. Police say Dohme's ex-boyfriend, Robert Lee Burton Jr., stabbed her 32 times in the Jan. 24 attack.

But nine months later, the 20-year-old Clearwater woman is thriving despite flat-lining four times and suffering a stroke so severe that doctors thought she'd never walk without a cane.

She told about 500 attendees at the Faces of Domestic Violence luncheon Thursday at Clearwater's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church that she's thankful to be alive and to help others prevent a similar fate — or worse.

"I'm speaking for them as they are now silent witnesses," Dohme said, pointing around the room at cardboard silhouettes representing this year's domestic violence homicide victims.

"God spared my voice and I'm going to make sure I use it and put an end to violence."

Hosted by the Haven at RCS, the luncheon was the Clearwater shelter's 11th annual one highlighting Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Given the wealth of available resources, organizers say, it's senseless that one in four women should experience domestic violence.

"It's something that's 100 percent preventable," said RCS chief executive officer Caitlin Higgins Joy. "Survivors need to know help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

This year's luncheon came on the heels of information that Pinellas County law enforcement this year has documented a record-breaking number of domestic violence homicides — 11 so far compared with six last year.

In 69 percent of the 103 homicide cases the Pinellas County Domestic Violence Task Force has examined over the years, loved ones knew about violence within the relationship before the killing, but remained silent.

About 50 people attended a free "Be a Better Bystander" training sponsored Tuesday by the task force to teach the public to recognize signs that their loved ones are victims of domestic abuse and to equip them with tools to intervene.

Advocates at both events also took aim at common misconceptions about domestic abuse. For example, experts say, the phenomenon crosses socioeconomic lines, educational background and gender.

Dohme, Thursday's keynote speaker, said her story is a perfect example that stereotypes don't apply.

A rapt audience of church and business leaders, police officials, civic organization representatives and domestic violence survivors sat silent as Dohme, a Clearwater High graduate, described how her relationship with Burton was "perfect" until she began experiencing college life without him.

She said Burton's lying, name-calling and baseless accusations about flirting with other men — "I just thought he was acting like a jerk" — eventually gave way to physical violence and threats to kill her, her mother and himself if she didn't comply.

"He said he had nothing to live for except me," Dohme said. "I learned to act happy and pretend so I would live."

Burton was eventually arrested on charges of assaulting her. By last January, the couple had broken up and seemingly moved on — Burton had a new girlfriend — when Dohme's ex came to her house at 2:30 in the morning and begged to talk. When she relented and went outside, police say she was stabbed. A teenage couple passing by interrupted the attack and called 911.

Burton is charged with first-degree attempted murder.

Until her attack, Dohme said she didn't realize domestic violence was so prevalent. In September, the Haven volunteer became a certified advocate through the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

"People think domestic violence happens to poor, uneducated women. And I'm here 20 years old, a college student and I am the face of domestic violence," said Dohme, a pre-nursing student at St. Petersburg College.

Two Clearwater paramedics who responded to the 911 call about Dohme's stabbing, Cameron Hill and Hieu Tran, surprised Dohme at Thursday's luncheon.

"It's amazing. She's the true hero here, shedding light on domestic violence. We're just a small fraction," Tran said. "When we got there, we knew she was a fighter."

Dohme's speech inspired Pinellas sheriff's Sgt. Phoebe Schlager, whose mother, niece and great niece were killed in a Virginia domestic violence incident in April.

Media reports say Travis Williams killed his wife, their 14-month-old daughter and his wife's grandmother before setting the home ablaze and dying in a gunfight with police.

Schlager says she and other relatives had advised her niece, a college-educated teacher, on ways to leave. But they never imagined her husband was capable of such violence. Schlager's family is pushing for legislation in Virginia that would require people who are under domestic violence injunctions to wear an ankle monitor.

"It was very emotional for me watching the speakers today," Schlager said. "Just giving (Dohme) a hug made it all worthwhile to see that people do survive."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or ksummers@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Standing up to domestic violence 10/25/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 25, 2012 9:15pm]

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