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Mom hopes Ashley Atherley's story will warn others of domestic abuse

BRANDON — For five years, Lucia Robles sensed it coming.

She heard it in her daughter Ashley's voice, the quiet shame behind assurances her marriage was fine and the kids were okay.

She saw it in the actions of her son-in-law, Edly Atherley — the way he kept Ashley away from the family, his angry outbursts.

She saw it in the picture Ashley texted last February, shoulders hunched, lips downcast, eyelids puffy, her head covered in liquid laundry detergent he dumped on her. Her offense: talking on a video chat to her little brother.

Mom, I'm an idiot, wrote Ashley, 28. I need to come home.

She never did. The relationship continued until Thanksgiving weekend. That's when Edly Atherley, 29, according to authorities, stabbed her to death.

Now, he sits in Hillsborough County jail, surrendering Saturday after more than a month as one of the FBI's most wanted.

Robles hopes Ashley's story might give others courage to leave their abusers behind.

• • •

For Robles, little things spark strong memories.

An old greeting card bearing the words, "Baby's First Valentine." Inside, a message scrawled in Robles' handwriting, telling her newborn daughter how much she loved her.

A Georgia pie, the family recipe, that Robles found in Ashley's refrigerator with a single slice cut. It was one of the last things her daughter ate.

In high school, Ashley petitioned to start Best Buddies, a club promoting friendships with developmentally disabled students. She made sure the members got to attend the Bloomingdale High School prom and that each got a chance to dance with somebody.

Her parents divorced when she was a baby. But her mother's remarriage, for Ashley, simply made it a bigger family. Never were her relatives "step" or "half." Always, they were hers.

Still, when she started her own family, she was determined to make it one that stayed together.

"She wanted something lifelong," Robles said. "She didn't want that break."

• • •

Edly Atherley came into their lives almost as suddenly as Ashley eventually left it, Robles said.

One night in 2006, Ashley, then 21, went to a dance club with friends but didn't return. A day later, she phoned her worried family from Port Charlotte. She was with her new boyfriend, she told them, whom she met through her job in the mortgage department at Bank of America.

What the family learned about Atherley came reluctantly. There was a lot they learned too late.

They didn't know he was arrested in 2005 on a battery charge, accused of beating his younger sister when she refused to clean her room. The charges were later dropped.

They didn't know he had been married before, that his ex-wife pursued divorce to escape a man she called "not a nice person."

When he married Ashley in 2008, Robles said, the family tried to embrace their new son-in-law. They wanted to make him a part of their family, especially after the births of the couple's two daughters, Abrielle, 5, and Adelina, 2. But Atherley didn't seem to want their family, Robles said.

A sign of trouble came soon after their wedding. A friend of Ashley's phoned her late one night and could hear Atherley yelling in the background. The friend called deputies.

She and her husband had been arguing, Ashley told deputies. He ripped her shirt, then threw her to the ground. Atherley admitted to pushing her, deputies said. He was arrested on a battery charge, but the charge was dropped. Ashley didn't want to prosecute.

"She would say, 'I don't want to fail,' " Robles said. "She just couldn't understand that (divorce) wasn't failing."

• • •

As the marriage progressed, the family saw less of Ashley. Atherley became possessive, raging when she had any contact with anyone but him, Robles said.

In December 2012, Ashley was preparing to return to school. She had registered in the elementary education program at the University of South Florida.

But Atherley announced they were moving to San Bernardino, Calif. He said he got a job transfer that required him to move right away, Robles said.

It was a lie. He had no job, Robles said. They lived with Atherley's relatives for months.

Much of what happened to Ashley during her abusive marriage, Robles said, never got the attention of authorities.

In late June, Ashley came home to Florida. But four days later, she went back to California.

"We actually know the most dangerous time for a woman is when she is leaving or about to leave an abusive relationship," said Ráchael Powers, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida whose research has focused on domestic violence. "Studies have shown it takes a woman six or seven times before they leave for good."

In October, Robles said, Ashley suffered bruises on her neck. After that, she filed for divorce.

• • •

On Nov. 29, Ashley's co-workers in California said she answered a call on her cellphone. She became upset and walked to the parking lot, where she got into a waiting car. She never returned.

On Dec. 1, Robles called police.

When officers got inside Ashley's home, they found a bloody knife handle. Blood led to the bathroom, where they found Ashley.

Her eyes were beaten black. Her nose had been broken. Her fingers had been cut. A stab wound pierced her back. Her throat had been slashed.

"We had no other suspects at any time," said San Bernardino police Detective Al Tello, a lead investigator. "We were sure we knew who the suspect was."

A manhunt for Atherley ensued. The FBI declared him one of its "most wanted," noting his ties to Florida. Finally, on Saturday, a haggard-looking Atherley walked into the Tampa FBI office and gave up. He remains in jail awaiting extradition.

• • •

Robles hopes Ashley's story is a warning to those involved in abusive relationships.

"She always saw the good in everyone and everything," said Robles, who is caring for the couple's girls. "Sometimes that meant she didn't see the reality of things. She couldn't see the evil in him."

Information from the Press Enterprise (Riverside, Calif.) was used in this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386.

Mom hopes Ashley Atherley's story will warn others of domestic abuse 01/21/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 7:46am]
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